Intellectual Property and Sports – Are they related?


The sports industry has always been a colossal sector of a nation’s economy, which unifies people, activities and business organisations which are involved in producing, facilitating or organising any activity or experience related to any sport. The most paramount part of this industry are the copious leagues of sports such as Basketball, soccer, cricket etc. In the earlier times, the sports industry used to be a mere industry for recreation and entertainment. The dimensions of the sports industry have now evolved from recreational to an established commercial industry through which individuals by various number of corrupt practises such as gambling, match fixing and betting. This industry has led to a clique of people to unite together and support a specific team, club or an individual athlete. It has led to boost and enhance the economy of a nation by creating jobs for those people who either fix matches or manufacture products of a particular brand. Sports has become a multi- billion dollar global industry as in this industry, money has obtained a very significant value as the sports matches are not just matches played between two individuals or teams but also involves a huge sum of money being placed on either of the teams, predicting which team would succeed. Intellectual property is a category of property that includes intangible creations and inventions of the human mind. Protecting these invaluable constructions is imperative as it would inspire and assure the creator that they would a get and a fair recognition for their work and could also earn their living from their work. Innovation and creativity are key drivers in the world of sport. In every sporting field, inventors and creators are working behind the scenes to push the boundaries, creating new opportunities for enjoyment and for athletes to better their performance.

There are many categories of IP Rights, such as trademark, patent and copyright. These rights are provided by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), “a Geneva based specialized agency of the United Nations which promotes innovation and creativity for the economic, social and cultural development of all countries through a balanced and effective Intellectual Property system.” Trademarks help in protecting the name of the product or service being offered, through which a customer easily gets acquainted with the product. Trademark protection is usually done for the logo, wordmark, team names or slogans of the brand. For a better understanding, we can take an example of the famous football club Manchester United, in which the red and yellow coloured logo comprising the symbol of a devil and their slogan “youth, courage, greatness” is protected by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). A patent is a right granted to the inventor in order to encourage the inventions that are made him and are unique and useful to the society. It helps to distinguish the show from similar products and builds it’s own reputation and goodwill. For example, the technology used in a cap manufactured by Manchester United Club would be patented and no other brand would be allowed to use the same technology. Moving on, copyright gives a legal protection to the author’s work by giving him/ her the exclusive right of publication and distribution. India has signed the Berne Convention of 1906 for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works and the International Copyright Order, 1999. Copyright in India is not compulsory but it is always wise and prudent to get a certificate of copyright as this could be presented before a court for showing the proof of ownership. The repercussions of copyright infringement can be harsh, including imprisonment up to 3 years a fine up to Rs. 2,00,000 along with a permanent injunction. Taking an example of the Manchester united cap, we can conclude that the design of that cap would be protected by copyright. These registrations help in protecting the unique design and marketing capabilities of the sporting gear.

Intellectual property stimulates the blossoming of the sporting industry and encourages the sports organisations to capitalise various events and assists in the buildout of sports. “As sports have developed into a global business, so too has the significance of athlete’s image rights.” The vogue and brand image of a particular athlete enables them to have their own trademark. This is referred to as their personality rights and nobody is allowed to use their name or any personal trait anywhere without their authorization. For instance, the famous tennis player, Roger Federer has his own line of products such as caps, jerseys, tennis racquets, shoes etc. No unauthorized person can use the name of Federer on his product in order to market their own products or else this will lead to infringement of personality rights. India does not recognise personality rights under any act particularly but they can be recognised under right to privacy under Article 21 of the Indian constitution. In the case Titan Industries vs. M/s Ramkumar Jewellers, 2016, the plaintiff had entered into an “agreement of service” with Mr. Amitabh Bachan and Mrs. Jaya Bachan and accordingly used their pictures on it’s advertisement. The defendant company also put up a similar hoarding, and had also put up an identical image of the celebrities. Here, the matter was held in favour of the plaintiff and the defendant’s company was held responsible for performing copyright infringement of the plaintiff and also misappropriation with the personality rights of the two celebrities.

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Another important area in the intellectual property rights are the licensing and franchising rights of the clubs and teams. This right protects the products like merchandise, video games and services like bars, cafes and restaurants which are exclusive to one specific club or a team. In a bogus and fraudulent market, it is necessary to have the protection of the products and all apposite contacts and agreements relating to the same should be signed.

The last aspect of IP rights is the Ambush marketing. Ambush Marketing is a kind of marketing in which one particular brand pays a certain amount of money to become an official sponsor of an event and another competing brand, tries to associate itself with the same event, without paying the massive amount of sponsorship fees. The aim of the competing brand is to beguile the customer into being of the opinion that it has an official alliance with the said event. Ambush marketing can lead to the official sponsor suing the ambusher for infringing the event owner’s trademarks, copyright and other intellectual property rights in relation to the event. Even if the ambusher is not prosecuted, it can lead to it’s negative advertising if the information reaches the media. Some cases in relation to ambush marketing are discussed below:

First of all, during the London 2012 Olympic Games, the brand Nike had launched a campaign named as “Find Your Greatness”, which showcased various people all over the world, performing different kinds of sports and exercises filmed in cities named London, other than the main city which is located in England. This deluded the audience in believing that Nike was the official sponsor of the London Olympics and thus this ultimately led to the increase in sales and goodwill of Nike during that time period. The next case was that during the Indian Premier League match, 2017 which was officially sponsored by Vodafone. In the course of one of the matches, Reliance Jio a competitor of Vodafone, made it’s attendees to wear black and white shirts in a pattern that spelled out JIO and was clearly visible to those in the stadium and, even more importantly, to the viewers viewing the match on television, thereby ambushing the official sponsor.

In the end, I would like to conclude by saying that the IP rights of the owner should be protected at all costs so as to encourage the owner to use his creativity and also to build goodwill of a particular brand and also the interests of the stakeholders who invest in that brand. It will also help to ensure that the sports sector of the industry always remains a profitable financial activity in the world if the government gives it the support it needs.

Image from WIPO


  2. Titan Industries vs. M/s Ramkumar Jewellers, 2016

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