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Protecting the Pack: NC State cracks down on counterfeits amid Final Four Frenzy


BRAYDEN MARSH

Carolina Journal


“It’s been a great story, it’s been a great run, a lot of success,” said Gregg Zarnstorff, director of Trademarks and Brand Protection at NC State University. “You know what happens with success is everybody wants to try to profit from it. Sometimes legally and sometimes not.”

The NC State University Trademark Licensing office is working hard to protect its intellectual property in the run-up to the Final Four, and flagging fans to be wary of counterfeit merchandise. 


“What a great run by the Wolfpack to the 2024 ACC men’s basketball championship with five wins in five days against some really good teams,” their statement posted on X read. “We respectfully ask that you don’t cheapen our team’s effort or your pride in NC State by buying unauthorized apparel, drinkware, decals, or other goods from counterfeiters who want to scam you by taking your money and this opportunity from our deserving players.” 

The Trademark Office is cracking down on counterfeits because all profits from merchandise go towards student scholarships at NC State and Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) deals allow for athletes to make money from their image. 


Following the NC State basketball program’s historic March through the ACC championship and the NCAA tournament, the women’s basketball team tips off Final Four play on Friday evening and the men’s team on April 6. One of the NC State Men’s Basketball team players, DJ Burns Jr, has gained more than 100,000 followers on Instagram since the beginning of the tournament. His sudden popularity triggered an increase in merchandise sales and advertisements surrounding individual players and the team overall. 


IDENTIFYING A FAKE

As fans flock to get their goods, Zarnstorff warns that misspelled words are a telltale sign of a product being counterfeit.


“We saw a recent online infringing shirt that had a picture of Kevin Keatts and Wes Moore holding up T-shirts, but the Wes Moore holding up the T-shirts was the Wes Moore who is the Governor of Maryland, not Wes Moore the coach. Someone in China, India, or even the US put those together and don’t realize who Wes Moore is.”


There are some obvious and not-so-obvious ways to identify a counterfeit item, according to Zarnstorff.


 “There’s an online channel where you don’t see the quality of the product or if it has officially licensed tags on it,” he said. “Then you have the storefront where you can walk into a store and there will be hang tags on it that would have a holographic label on it with a serial number that we can track back to the manufacturer. If it doesn’t have a holographic label, it’s 99 percent likely to be counterfeit.”


The NC State Trademark and Licensing Office also warns consumers their credit card information may be at risk when purchasing counterfeit goods.


 “If you do get what you order, it may be poor quality or produced at the lowest possible cost, perhaps in a factory beyond the oversight of the Fair Labor Association,” they warn.


FINDING THE FRAUDS GOES HIGH-TECH

Holographic labels are on the price tags of shirts, under the brim of ballcaps, the bottom of drinkware, and the back of decals. NC State works with a Dallas, Texas agency called CounterFind to combat fraud.


“We have given CounterFind a bunch of different logos of ours and word marks. We have also put in phrases like ‘Why not us?’ ‘Keatts,’ and ‘DJ Burns and DJ Horne.’ They use algorithms to search a lot of different websites on the internet to pull up these products and then we put those into a system that we review every day, and sometimes two or three times a day, to make sure they’re counterfeit. Then the agency works with companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Etsy to take those offending products down. At the same time it is creating an evidence trail so that should they continue it is something we can act on later on.”


NC State currently has 319 licensees, most of which are non-apparel. About 45 to 50 of those are licensed with the ACC and NCAA to make championship and tournament merchandise. 


A $450 NC STATE WATCH

“We have approved several companies that are fairly unique. We had a high-end watch company wanting to do a champion watch should we win. That would be a $450 watch.” said Zarnstorff, “We’re working on a lot of fashion jerseys. That seems to be what a lot of people are looking for. The Adidas jerseys have sold out so we’re looking to replace those with fashion jerseys. Adidas can’t replace them fast enough.”


According to Broadcast Law Blog, The NCAA currently holds the rights to “March Madness, the Big Dance, Final Four, Women’s Final Four, Elite Eight,” and “The Road to the Final Four.” They currently do not own the rights to “Sweet Sixteen,” but they do own the rights to “NCAA Sweet Sixteen” and “NCAA Sweet 16.”


They also own the rights to lesser known titles such as “March is On, March Mayhem, Midnight Madness, Selection Sunday, And Then There Were Four, and NCAA Fast Break.” They have pending applications for “And Then There Were Eight, And Then There Were 8,” and “Four It All.”


WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO?

“It’s important that we address this because the trademark royalties that we generate all go to student scholarships,” said Zarnstorff. “The second thing that is important is that all of our licensees abide by a code of conduct. Which means they aren’t sourcing their product from shops in China that are using slave labor or unfair labor practices. We are a part of the Fair Labor Association, which helps us monitor those. Third, a lot of the designs that are unlicensed we wouldn’t be able to do because they are mashups of others’ intellectual property.”


Alongside licensing deals, athletes are allowed to make their own Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) deals that allow them to gain royalties from merchandise that involves their image. However, due to NCAA rules, the universities are unable to help athletes defend themselves from intellectual property theft. 


“If he wants to do a DJ Burns shirt and sell that and make money off that he can,” said Zarnstorff. “Companies work with DJ’s agents and he gets royalties from that. Each athlete negotiates that themselves. As the university, we can’t work on their behalf. It’s against NCAA rules. We can’t be the dealmaker for DJ. Unfortunately, the same goes true if somebody takes DJ’s image and makes a T-shirt and tries to profit off of that. He or his agent would have to address the infringement.”


NC State University can only be involved if its branding images are used on the merchandise. In this case, the athlete still receives royalties, but the school also receives part of the profit. 

Zarnstorff said that NC State has had 765 designs submitted since March 5 for the basketball tournament. The 765 designs include products like license plates, t-shirts, drinkware, ballcaps, and decals. 


However, in the past 30 days NC State has taken down 353 advertisements and products from various media and marketplace sites. Most of the takedowns come from companies that are known for stealing intellectual property and creating knock-off items. The biggest challenge is ads popping up on Facebook and Instagram because those platforms do not enforce trademarks or issue guidelines for people uploading designs.


“These are companies that are typically out there to make money off of hot market items.” said Zarnstorff, “They don’t care if it’s NC State or Taylor Swift or some other pop culture event. They just want to create a design, use their intellectual property, and make as much money as possible.” 

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