The whistle blows and the National Football League's legal team, led by associate counsel Dolores DiBella, takes the field. Today it is defending against an onslaught of rogue websites selling counterfeit NFL jerseys and other products.
DiBella, joined by Nancy Wygand, senior trademark and digital rights manager for the NFL, and Ryan Tucker, a manager at MarkMonitor Inc., offered a webinar recently explaining how they are tackling the problem as counterfeiters grow ever more sophisticated.
"Anti-counterfeiting strategy requires a multieffort approach," DiBella said. She explained how the NFL coordinates with in-house attorneys from the 32 member franchises; brand protection services like MarkMonitor; investigators like Kroll Inc.; outside counsel Proskauer Rose; and various local and federal law enforcement officials, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, its Immigration and Customs Enforcement division, and the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center.
She described Operation Red Zone — "We like to use football terms," she said.(The "red zone" refers to the area inside the 20-yard line for the offense on a football field.) The operation involved seizing more than $100,000 worth of counterfeit Super Bowl tickets, plus some 200,000 items ranging from cloned player jerseys to foam "No. 1" hands.
The more insidious counterfeit assaults, however, come from websites set up to look like legitimate NFL sites. They are created by perpetrators who often disappear when discovered.
It is no small problem. Counterfeiting and piracy are estimated to cost some $125 billion a year worldwide — a number that is growing, according to a study by Frontier Economics. And it has cost those countries some 2.5 million jobs.
So the NFL developed a plan to fight back. Once collaboration among groups has been established, DiBella said, the team begins monitoring digital channels and taking action.
Resources at this level are dedicated to delisting offenders from search engines, hitting them with cease-and-desist notices and otherwise interfering with their ability to do business.
Sites like eBay, Craigslist and any Internet service providers are made aware of the counterfeiters, she said.
For the worse or repeat offenders, the NFL files civil suits and seeks criminal remedies.
Wygand said a key problem is that a new level of web sophistication, deceptive tactics and the sheer scale of efforts are changing the counterfeiters' game.
"To the consumer, the rogue sites look like real sites," she said. "Trademark and product photos are taken from real sites; the NFL logo is there, as are icons for legitimate payment sites like PayPal."
MarkMonitor's Tucker added, "They can pop up hundreds of new rogue sites overnight."
But automated web searching is leveling the playing field, Tucker said. It allows his team to crawl through millions of sites to detect the counterfeit ones by looking for what he calls "fingerprints." His company monitors the web for about 800 different brands, he said.
Once a football team has located a "cluster counterfeiter" — who may have launched thousands of sites — an investigator like Kroll joins the action and makes test buys.
Then, DiBella said, the investigators seek to identify the counterfeiter so the NFL can bring legal action. That lets the league freeze a counterfeiter's assets and conduct discovery that can lead to hundreds or thousands of more sites.
She said that, since 2010, the league has disrupted about 6,000 websites through litigation and tens of thousands more through ongoing work that includes simply removing the sites from search listings or blocking them entirely.
"Our strategy is disruption and deterrence," she said, calling their efforts successful. In one recent counterfeiting case in a U.S. district court in New York City, the court awarded the NFL $273 million in damages — the maximum allowed under cybersquatting and counterfeiting statutes.
But there's a hitch: No defendant showed up for court, and the NFL could not find the perpetrator.
"Obviously," DiBella said, "we are not able to collect. But it showed the recognition from the court of how serious the behavior is."
Sue Reisinger reports for NLJ affiliate Corporate Counsel. She can be contacted at email@example.com.