Souvenirs from Athletic Events

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Souvenirs from Athletic Events

With the advent of computer technology, counterfeiting of clothing and other goods has proliferated in the world's markets. Basic computer software and hardware can be used to copy, alter, and reproduce almost any item, and sports logos are particularly easy to duplicate. Computers also make it easier to produce and distribute illegally reproduced items. In 2000, the counterfeit market in the United States was estimated to be approximately $1 billion. The FBI estimates that between 5090% of all celebrity and sports collectibles sold in the United States are fakes.

Although many companies producing and selling sports souvenirs have used sophisticated methods, such as holograms and refractive logos, to try to discourage counterfeiting and forgery, pirates have continually been able to circumvent the preventative measures. Beginning around 1996, some companies adopted authentication methods that rely on DNA as well as optical taggants (a substance or material added to a product to indicate its source of manufacture).

In 1997 the FBI initiated an undercover operation targeting counterfeiters of sports and celebrity memorabilia. Nicknamed Project Bullpen, the operation culminated in 2000 with the seizure of more than $10 million in illegal goods and the arrests of 25 people. The charges included conspiracy to defraud the United States and tax evasion. Penalties included up to five years of imprisonment and fines up to $250,000 per offense.

Typical memorabilia seized by Project Bullpen operatives included jerseys, shoes, bats and balls, helmets, hockey sticks and pucks, photographs, posters, and trading cards, all of which bear the signature of an athlete or celebrity. The most commonly forged autographs on seized memorabilia included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Tony Gwynn.

The report filed as a result of Project Bullpen claimed that, although there is an extremely large public market for sports memorabilia, almost all of the counterfeit autographs, especially those of deceased athletes, trace back to a small group of forgers. These counterfeiters are able to maintain a low profile by selling much of their merchandise over the internet.

A key player in the marketing chain for forgeries is the authenticator. Sometimes memorabilia are sold with mass produced certificates of authentication, but often people claiming to be experts in verifying autographs assign authenticity to the item. The certificate of authenticity allows sellers to claim that their items are authentic and gives them an excuse if the items are found out to be fraudulent.

In order to evade forgers, some athletes have signed agreements that give certain distributors exclusive rights to their signed memorabilia. For example, all souvenirs autographed by Michael Jordan are sold through the company Upper Deck. Mark McGwire has refused to sign his signature for money since 1990.

Some athletes and professional sports leagues are adopting more technical means to prevent forgeries. DNA markers and optical taggants have proven to be excellent tags for sports memorabilia and they have also been used to authenticate artwork, ID cards, and certificates. Because of their complexity, DNA tags and optical taggants can be used for tracking products during manufacture and shipping. They have also been used to authenticate valuable wines and pieces of artwork.

The DNA molecule is composed of a sequence of four different nucleotides: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T). Because DNA is a double stranded molecule, the nucleotides are connected in pairs on opposite strands. Adenine always pairs with thymine and guanine always pairs with cytosine. Because the nucleotides are found in pairs, they are referred to as base pairs. Using biochemical techniques, scientists can engineer short strands of DNA, called oligomers, with any sequence of base pairs. This inherent variability of the sequence can be used as a code to verify the authenticity of objects. For example, there are 10.5 million possibilities for engineering an oligomer that is ten base pairs long. An oligomer that is twenty base pairs long has 1.1 trillion possible variations. If several different oligomers are combined, the possibility of reproducing the DNA code is extremely remote. In addition, masking DNA can be combined with the authenticating DNA to make reverse engineering of the oligomers nearly impossible. Finally, it is sufficiently easy to frequently change the base pair sequence used for authentication.

Once the specific oligomer or several oligomers have been synthesized, they are coated with a protein. This is similar to putting a hard shell around the DNA, protecting it from interacting with other chemicals such as alcohols and dyes. The coated DNA is incorporated into a special matrix, which is then added to ink. The DNA-laced ink can be applied to practically any surface. The ink into which the matrix is added can either be invisible or colored, depending on the intended use.

After DNA has been incorporated into ink and applied to an item, authentication can be performed in a laboratory. A small piece of the item that has ink markings is removed. This piece is digested and the DNA is chemically extracted. PCR (polymerase chain reaction) produces many copies of the DNA from the ink. This amplified DNA can then be sequenced to verify that it is the code associated with the item. The ink marks are expected to be permanent and therefore can be used for authentication into the future.

Some chemicals are optically active, which means that they react in the presence of light. These chemicals absorb a photon of light traveling at a particular wavelength and then reemit it at a different wavelength. This process is called excitation and emission. Usually there is a range of wavelengths, or a spectrum of light, that excites a chemical. Similarly, there is a range of wavelengths of light that will be emitted by the chemical. Combining different chemicals with different excitation and emission spectra can result in a mixture with a fairly complex emission spectrum. This emission spectrum is sometimes referred to as a spectral signature.

Companies seeking to authenticate their products have developed a variety of optically active chemicals. Scientists have developed methods to assemble these chemicals in a variety of different combinations so that they emit a unique spectral signature in the presence of the proper excitation wavelengths. These chemicals are referred to as optical taggants and they can be added to a matrix along with engineered oligomers of DNA. Just like the protein-coated DNA, optical taggants are stable molecules that can withstand exposure to alcohols, dyes, plastics, and threads.

Hand-held optical devices have been developed that can be programmed to emit the exact wavelengths of light necessary to excite the optical taggants. They can also be programmed to detect the emission spectra of the chemicals and emit beeps or lights when the correct spectrum is detected. These devices are battery powered and relatively inexpensive. They allow authenticators to scan objects for the presence of the correct spectral signature in the field and to apprehend counterfeiters when the optical taggants are not present.

Counterfeiting of souvenirs and apparel at Olympic games is an enormous market. At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, it is estimated that as much as 40% of all merchandise sold was unlicensed. Following that enormous loss of revenue, the Australian Government passed the Sydney 2000 Games Indicia and Images Protection Act, which protects the Olympic word and the symbols associated with it from being copied illegally. In order to help uphold the Act, Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) contracted with DNA Technologies, a subsidiary of CrossOff Incorporated in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to develop DNA and optical tags for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

SOCOG decided to incorporate the DNA of an Australian Olympic athlete into the DNA tag as a means to increase public awareness of the counterfeiting detection strategy. DNA was extracted from cells swabbed from the inner cheek of the athlete. A portion of this DNA was then amplified using PCR and mixed with other sequences of DNA to mask the original sequence. Both the engineered DNA and a unique optical taggant were used to label nearly everything sold at the Olympics including pins, clothing and hats. More than 34 million labels and tags were produced by DNA Technologies and distributed to 40 official Olympic licensees.

Olympic counterfeit investigators were provided with optical scanners that emit a light in the presence of the optical taggant. They performed more than 3,400 inspections during the course of the Olympics. The inspections uncovered 507 trademark violations and more than three quarters of the violations occurred within the first three months of the inspections. Early seizures of unlicensed items included soccer balls and watches. The Olympic committee estimated that less than 0.5% of the revenue generated by merchandise sales at the Sydney Olympics was lost to counterfeiting.

Beginning in 2000, the National Football League contracted with DNA Technologies to tag football souvenirs. About 100 footballs used at the Super Bowl games were tagged each year. The NFL also used the DNA labeling technology to identify jerseys worn during the Super Bowl and Pro-Bowl games. In 2003, the National Hockey League began a program in which they sold hockey pucks that were used in games. DNA Technologies labeled all these pucks with the DNA and optical taggant-laced ink. The label associates the pucks with the specific game in which they were used and also shows whether or not the puck was used to score a goal.

A variety Major League Baseball souvenirs have been labeled with DNA and optical taggant markers. These include baseballs and bases from the 1999 World Series and the uniforms, baseballs, and bases used by the Detroit Tigers in the final game at Tiger Stadium. A number of historical baseballs have also been labeled with DNA tags. These include the baseballs hit by Mark McGwire for his 70th home run in 1998, Sammy Sosa for his 66th home run in 1998, Mickey Mantle for the 500th home run of his career and Hank Aaron for the 715th home run of his career. DNA Technologies authenticated the bat used by Babe Ruth to hit his first home run at Yankee Stadium in 1923 and a DNA and optical taggant label was applied to that bat. It later sold for almost $1.3 million at a Sotheby's auction. Shoeless Joe Jackson's "Black Betsy" bat was authenticated and labeled with DNA and an optical taggant. In 2001, it sold for $577,000 at auction.

Beginning in 1998, DNA Technologies teamed with Professional Sports Authenticator, a Newport Beach, California company. Called PSA/DNA, the collaboration has developed a method for professional athletes to guarantee the authenticity of their autographs by incorporating DNA and an optical taggant into the ink they use to sign their names. The DNA and optical taggant label is expected to remain detectible in the ink indefinitely. The company guarantees that the chance of duplication of the DNA sequence used in the ink is one in 33 trillion.

see also DNA sequences, unique; Handwriting analysis.

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Souvenirs from Athletic Events