Can You Put A Non-Licensed Sports Logo On A T-Shirt Sports and Intellectual Property Rights

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Sports and Intellectual Property Rights

Intellectual property (IP) rights (patents, industrial designs, trademarks, copyrights, etc.) are usually associated with an industry, usually a manufacturing industry. Intellectual property rights grant exclusivity to the owner of the IP for a limited period of time. But organizers of sporting events use intellectual property laws to capitalize on interest in certain sports.

Sports activities were started as a hobby or pastime to allow participants to enjoy sports or as a form of physical exercise. Now certain games have evolved into gigantic international events, or rather, international affairs with their own “tailored” law. Such international events even challenge the sovereign laws of countries.

Popular games such as football, golf, tennis, basketball, cricket, yachting, auto racing, and so on, have evolved into international events with huge followings, creating gigantic marketing potential for organizers. Organizers of popular games such as FIFA (soccer), PGA (golf), NBA (basketball) and so on organize and manage events, typically international competitions, in such a way as to extract maximum value from others who wish to exploit the marketing potential that the events offer.

Organizers initially create a distinctive logo, emblem or phrase(s) to identify the event. If the logos or emblems are original, they would also be protected as copyrighted works.

For example, the 2010 FIFA World Cup emblem is protected as a trademark and as a work of art under copyright laws. Terms such as “2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa”, “2010 FIFA World Cup”, “2010 World Cup”, “Football World Cup” and their similar derivatives are also protected from unauthorized use and are subject to the applicable laws in various jurisdictions.

As the logo/emblem/phrases (“event identifiers”) are heavily promoted in the mainstream media, the public easily and very quickly associates them with the event and thus acquires a strong trademark value. Event organizers then go on to leverage the value of the trademark to other businesses.

Let’s take a look at the various income streams of organizers. The first line of income is sponsorship fees. This includes the right to display the sponsor’s trademark inside the venue/stadium, the right to use event identifiers on items produced by sponsors or the right to use event identifiers in connection with a service (eg banking, credit card (VISA), business process outsourcing (Mahindra Satyam )) or placement rights (eg a certain luxury watch brand next to tee boxes on golf courses).

Another line of income is the gate fee. Even here, the printing of tickets can be sponsored – a ticket bearing the trademark of the sponsoring party.

A third source of income is the exclusive supply of gaming products, such as soccer balls, tennis balls, balls (badminton), fuel and lubricants (car racing), etc. The Item Supplier has the right to describe itself as an “Official Supplier” to promote its items and advertise itself as the exclusive supplier of such items. Ironically, even though Adidas was the top sponsor/partner at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, it was Nike that attracted more attention from the spectators, either through the players’ boots or clever commercials. Is this a case of bad sponsorship strategy by Adidas?

The fourth source of income and the most lucrative source of income is the exclusive right to record and broadcast events via television and radio, and in the near future possibly via the Internet. Broadcasting rights are given to regional and national broadcasting networks. All copyrights related to the recording and broadcasting of the games are retained by the organizers or licensed to certain entities.

Finally, organizers also grant exclusive rights to manufacturers to produce and sell mascot merchandise or products bearing the event identifier in exchange for royalty payments.

Organizers have a wide stream of income, namely:

1. Sponsorship Fees

2. Collecting gates

3. Exclusive rights to use the product in case

4. Broadcasting rights

5. Trading rights

In addition to event organizers, other manufacturers and service providers also take advantage by sponsoring sportswear and game equipment of certain teams or players. Just consider the brand of the player’s shirt, shorts, cap, gloves, shoes, socks, etc. In South Africa, the non-sponsor brand shoes worn by the players stood out as much (if not more) than those of one of the official sponsors. In the case of race car drivers, have you ever seen regular driver’s overalls? On the contrary, the driver’s overalls, including the protective helmet, are often plastered with various trademarks.

Even the refreshments/beverages consumed by the player during the game are sponsored, taking advantage of the full advertising value. Here, the trademark advertisement is not a product advertisement, like what appears in a TV commercial, but the trademark or product is inherently associated with a successful player. What further persuasive message can be produced, if not for a world-class player using an advertiser’s product?

In addition to the organizers generating revenue as mentioned above, players, especially top players in the games, often endorse sporting and even non-sporting products or services or businesses. For example, Tiger Woods not only endorses golf clubs, balls, t-shirts, hats, etc., but also endorses watches, consulting services, and personal hygiene products (Note: he was later suspended/dismissed from the latter two after his transgressions); Maria Sharapova, one of the best tennis players, endorses shoes and clothes, cameras and watches, among others; and football player Ronaldinho has contracts with Pepsi, Nike and Sony.

In order to maximize revenue streams, organizers of major events like FIFA must strictly enforce their trademark rights and act against those who associate themselves with their trademark without the organizers’ consent. Unless the organizers take strict action against violators, it is unlikely that they will demand a high rate of sponsorship for future events, not to mention a possible breach of the sponsorship agreement.

Unfortunately, intellectual property laws are not designed for such periodic international events. Many manufacturers or service providers would like to be associated with such prominent international events that attract billions of television audiences, but either do not have the opportunity or cannot afford the fees and costs. Therefore, they try to associate their product/service with the event without the consent of the event organizer. This is where “ambush marketing” comes into play. Event organizers are having a field day taking action against such marketers. But whether a particular event or ad constitutes ambush marketing is unclear under conventional intellectual property laws. To avoid this, countries, especially host countries, are often required to pass specific laws to address ambush marketing before they are given the opportunity to host an event. Britain had to pass the London 2006 Olympic and Paralympic Games Act before the 2012 London Olympics. The trademark “London 2012” is protected.

The following question arises as to how and in what manner the revenues from events, such as the 2010 FIFA World Cup, are spent. Who benefits from the proceeds? That will be the subject of another article for another day.

Note: Trademarks and designs identified in the article belong to their respective owners. The author does not claim any right of ownership; they are used for educational purposes only.

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