The right image is so lucrative for soccer
A month ago, the football economy was paralysed. Player valuations tumbled as clubs found cash hard to come by. Players were laid off to trim wage bills. But the purchase of Chelsea FC by Roman Abramovich has wrested football temporarily from its freefall.
A month ago the £17.5m transfer fee paid by Real Madrid for David Beckham was viewed with a mixture of suspicion and incredulity, though just 18 months before his valuation had been £45m. How could such a valuation be justified, asked the football Press. Where would Beckham fit in?
Beckham departed Manchester United on terms that were perhaps less than friendly. But the imaginative construction of his contract there showed a real appreciation on the part of United for the power of the Beckham brand. Quite apart from earnings for playing football, Beckham earned £20,000 a week just for providing United with an exclusive licence of his image rights.
These days all clubs are determined to control to some extend the commercial activities of their players.
Emmanuel Petit's refusal to hand over image rights after signing from Arsenal led then president of FC Barcelona, Joan Gaspart, to declare that "from today no player will be signed without ceding their image and internet rights."
Beckham's negotiations with Real Madrid were carried on in an environment where image rights were readily accepted as part of the benefit a `galactica' brings to a club.
Even if Beckham spends most of the season warming the substitute's bench, his transfer will be regarded as a massive commercial success.
Adidas has found problems in satisfying the demand for replica shirts. Real, whilst a household name in Europe, has had until now only a limited presence in Asia, and has recognised the large part Beckham's image played in the establishment of Manchester United as the world's biggest club.
Apart from his talent and looks, Beckham's work ethic and devotion to his family is highly regarded in the far east.
"Image rights" is a concept that causes in lawyers much head scratching in an effort to provide a definition. There is no such species of intellectual property recognised in England. So how is it that such value is placed on image rights?
In considering the transfers of David Platt and Dennis Bergkamp to Arsenal, the Inland Revenue Special Commissioners recognised the commercial value of image rights.
Various legal principles have been used to protect those image rights, most notably passing off, used by Eddie Irvine in his successful legal action against Talksport following the radio station's pseudo-endorsement.
But the flexibility of the law in dealing with the commercial reality of image rights is limited. It is only a matter of time before an abuse falls between the cracks of existing protection.
Image rights are valuable because businesses realise that the value of celebrity endorsement is not limited by the law's shortcomings.
* Matthew Rippon is senior solicitor specialising in intellectual property and information technology at Watson Burton in Newcastle