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FIFA threatens Vancouver soccer equality campaign with trademark lawsuit

The world's soccer governing body has threatened a Vancouver campaign for equality in soccer with a trademark violation lawsuit.

"Why The Women's World Cup Matters" founder Carrie Serwetnyk, the first woman in the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame, received a Nov. 15 letter from FIFA's legal team alleging the use of "World Cup" could "generate the impression" that her non-profit's sponsors are associated with the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015.

The 24-nation tournament begins June 6, 2015 in Edmonton and ends July 5, 2015 in Vancouver at B.C. Place Stadium. It will be the biggest single-sport women's tournament in history.

"The Why The Women's World Cup Matters initiative is presented as a commercial sponsorship property with its own sponsors that are direct competitors of FIFA's commercial affiliates in the Canadian marketplace," the FIFA letter said. "This initiative has the potential to damage the integrity and identity of the FIFA Women's World Cup brand."

FIFA gave Serwetnyk five business days to respond. In a Nov. 20 letter she denied promoting the non-profit as an affiliate of the tournament, but agreed to make some changes. The World Cup Student Program will now be known as the Legacy School Program, she told The Tyee. The campaign's name, however, will stay the same. Serwetnyk said she refuses to be censored.

"I will work to synthesize most of my wording to not include World Cup as part of our projects, but I will of course include the fact that the World Cup is hosted by Canada and it is our mandate to create equity laws using the event as a catalyst of social change," wrote Serwetnyk, a member of Canada's original 1986 national team and Free Kick magazine publisher.

Serwetnyk hopes to raise $250,000 for a First Nations girls soccer program, school outreach and a documentary about how soccer can change the lives of girls and women. She ultimately wants more opportunities for women to make a living in the game in Canada and for girls teams to have equal access to field time.

There are 72 filings to trademark variations of World Cup. "FIFA World Cup" and "FIFA Women's World Cup" were registered in 2006 and 2008, respectively. "FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015" was filed this year.

However, FIFA does not actually hold the trademark in Canada for "World Cup" or "Women's World Cup."

Swiss-based ISL Properties Ltd. applied for "World Cup" in 1995 and "Women's World Cup" in 1997. Registrations were abandoned in 1999 and 2000, respectively. ISL collapsed in 2001 with debts of $300 million and was later found to have been involved in bribing high-ranking FIFA officials.

"World Cup" was registered in 1986 in the United States by tobacco giant Liggett Group Inc. of North Carolina and was transferred to its Miami sister company Eve Holdings Inc.

Ontario Lottery Corporation filed for "World Cup Fever" in 1994 and Manitoba Lotteries filed to trademark "World Cup Soccer" in 1995.

FIFA's legal threat recalls similar incidents in the lead-up to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, whose organizers benefitted from a controversial federal law protecting various trademarks through the Games. In perhaps the most famous case, VANOC attempted to force Olympia Pizza on Denman Street to remove its torch and Olympic rings logo. VANOC eventually relented.

Serwetnyk's reply to FIFA, however, said there are bigger issues at play.

The FIFA letter said it understood the Canadian Soccer Association had been in contact with Serwetnyk to express concern.

"If the CSA is not happy with the messaging we have, then they should work harder to give equal funding, coaching and employment opportunities to girls and women in Canada rather than trying to harm or muzzle me," Serwetnyk wrote.

Serwetnyk also told FIFA that she is opposed to synthetic turf fields being used in all Canada 2015 tournament venues, instead of the traditional natural grass.

"The federal government has given an exceptional amount of money to upgrade stadiums that women will barely play in before or after the World Cup. Given the predicted tickets sales, merchandise and television profits, it seems fair that some of those resources would go to playing the most revered sporting event in the world on natural grass."

The tournament's budget is more than $70 million and includes $15 million from the federal government, plus $12 million shared by the six host provinces and $1.5 million shared by the six host cities. Ticket sales, merchandise, broadcast and sponsorship fees are the other revenue sources.

Vancouver journalist Bob Mackin is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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