The Pink Battle, Version 20
As clever media strategies go, there’s no better. Launch an obscure supplement in different parts of the country with the masthead in a similar font as one of the world’s leading financial newspapers, in this case, Financial Times. To a lay person, it’s just another piece of newsprint with some articles with a ‘local’ flavour. It comes along once or twice a week in pink with the The Times of India.
But for the two media houses involved—and the informed reader—it’s a very big deal. For behind it is a 20-year-old legal battle that has prevented a premier foreign business daily from entering the country and has allowed a domestic print giant, The Economic Times, to continue its domination of the market.
Times Publishing House’s (a Bennett Coleman & Co Ltd arm) offering, Financial Times—a supplement of local business news in Delhi NCR—has nothing to do with the UK-based Pearson Plc’s financial daily Financial Times. But that’s not apparent from the ads that appeared promoting the BCCL supplement recently. In retaliation, FT promptly issued ads in the same market, disclaiming any connection to the supplement.
Now, the BCCL is no shrinking violet when it comes to tough marketing tactics. But in this instance, the immediate threat is from what is playing out in the courts. In April this year, by an order from the Intellectual Property Appellate Board in Chennai, it has been established that Financial Times Ltd had a trans-border reputation, a subscriber base and an intention to enter India and use the name. Also its mark, Financial Times or FT, is distinctive rather than descriptive. “We’re really encouraged by the deep well of support from the business community in India,” says Khozem Merchant, president, Pearson India, which owns Financial Times.
In a nutshell, as per the IPAB order, the trademark no longer belongs to either Financial Times or BCCL. This matter, however, has been stayed by the Delhi High Court and is pending a decision in October. “It’s a tactical move to make a noise about this now because they (the BCCL) have seen a change in the circumstance and the quality of dialogue in the court recently,” points out a media observer. Clearly the issue has moved beyond just intellectual property rights.
A bit of history here: the ToI supplement first started in the early 1990s in Bangalore when BCCL launched it under the Financial Times name. BCCL has managed to hang on to this title ever since by printing enough copies of the supplement to maintain it as an active name under the PRB Act. As per a court order, this was possible only as long as BCCL made it clear that their supplement, Financial Times, had nothing to do with the Financial Times, London.
That said, it’s clear that BCCL’s ruse has been successful in staving off competition from Pearson’s FT. “Isn’t it strange that the company that owns, prints and distributes the largest selling English daily is scared of a little competition? Especially given that both these companies had tried to tie up for content initially,” points out Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, senior journalist and political commentator. Under the tutelage of then ET editor T.N. Ninan, there was a syndication relationship between BCCL and Financial Times Ltd in the early 1990s. It’s also evident that BCCL was aware of Financial Times’s desire to enter India.
At that time, the anti-foreign direct investment in print segment lobbied hard to ensure it wasn’t allowed. The lobby’s argument was that foreign media would impact public opinion and that newspapers could not be treated like any other business. “Ironically, it is these same people who lobbied against FDI in print that treated media the same as selling soap and shampoo,” adds Thakurta. BCCL got an edge by registering the name under the Press and Registration of Books (PRB) Act in the days when foreign participation in Indian media was not allowed. While the FT trademark was registered by Pearson way back in the early 1990s under the Trademarks Act, it wasn’t allowed to print and publish then due to prevailing regulations. This is essentially what the dispute has centred around.
In the meantime, FT had a syndication deal with Business Standard, the paper T.N. Ninan had become editor of by then. It then bought a 14 per cent stake in the paper (earlier owned by Aveek Sarkar’s ABP, and later bought out by Uday Kotak and others). FT got out of that partnership in 2008. At the time, FT was in talks with Raghav Bahl’s Network 18 to launch a financial newspaper. However, the discussion was abandoned. In 2009, FT entered a syndication agreement for content with the Indian Express group’s financial daily Financial Express.
But in December 2011, BCCL sent a court order to the Express group asking them to stop using the logo, title and name Financial Times or FT on their masthead. This is currently under appeal as well. Now there are rumours that FT is keen to forge a relationship again with Behl’s Network 18 group (now owned by Mukesh Ambani). However, Khozem Merchant denied this. In the meantime, word on the street is that BCCL is gearing up to spread the reach of its Financial Times supplement in 10 more cities.
Now the future depends upon what happens in October—will the Delhi HC uphold the IPAB order? There’s also another pending appeal in the Supreme Court to allow FT and FT Weekend to come out with facsimile editions in India. Both companies have easily expended over Rs 30 crore in just legal fees over the last two decades and this is a battle that still sees no end. “I don’t think it matters to BCCL what the outcome of the war is, because they’ve made their point. It might just be too late for Financial Times to finally enter India in print at the end of all this,” says a media analyst. Merchant says that FT will continue to expand their print (through subscriptions), digital and apps in the meantime. At this point, it’s difficult to say if FT will ever go beyond a toe-hold in India.
Most tie-ups between foreign companies and Indian partners end up in tears (When the Ink Dries, Aug 6). If you’re inviting WalMart, let it come in with 100 per cent ownership. Ditto for Financial Times.
Most tie ups between foreign companies and Indian partners, necessitated by the caps in the FDI policy, end in tears. If the nation needs Walmart, it should be permitted to come in with 100% ownership. Ditto for the Financial Times.
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