07 March, 2014

Intellectual Property Law and Sports

As an avid fan of a number of sports, this writer for one understands the importance which it carries, not only to individuals who enjoy watching and rooting for their favorite teams and players, but for the organizations who benefit from fans engaging in their sport. Even though sports in general enjoys a massive following all over the world, its relation to intellectual property can allude the layman, and just how much teams and players can have invested in their particular organization or brand.

Probably the clearest example of intellectual property and sports teams being intertwined is their ownership of several trademarks, relating undoubtedly to their name, logos and the like, if possible to register. Such an example is the football club Manchester United, who own trademarks in their logo, name and their respective variations. Issues relating to trademarks and football clubs have gone as far as the European Court of Justice in Arsenal v Matthew Reed, only adding to the clear importance these types of marks carry for teams.

Even the equipment which is used in a variety of sports can be patented. Examples of this are old patents for a basket ball from the 1920s, and a patent for the manufacture of a baseball bat from 1902. As one can imagine, incredibly popular sports such as the above, can produce quite the monetary incentive to lock down the production of a certain essential piece of equipment. In addition to the equipment used in games, apparel used can be, and has been, patented. Basketball shoes and football pants have been patented in the early part of the 20th century. Much like the equipment themselves, the sale of apparel can be quite lucrative, with basketball shoes alone yielding over 2,7 billion dollars under Michael Jordan's name. Something which often does not come to mind as a patentable subject matter in relation to sports are the rules of the sports themselves. The rules of American football were patented in the 1980s, and the game ping-pong was patented as early as 1902.

On a more specific level intellectual property can even protect the personalty of athletes. These are what are called 'personality rights', which exist in the majority of common law countries for example. In the US, States have independent laws which protect personality rights, as opposed to a nation-wide federal law, such as in California. These rights protect the image of a celebrity, which includes the image of professional athletes in sports. This protection can extend to protect the person's image being used without authorization for the sale or promotion of goods or services.

A much lesser known, and more recent, instance of where one can see intellectual property law and sports collide, is in relation to tattoos (something which has been discussed more extensively on this blog before). A very minor issue, and something which will not be noticed by many, but goes to show just how nuanced the relationship between law and society can be, even when talking about sports.

As you can very well see, intellectual property has its place even in sports. What has been said above is only a slight overview, with much more to discuss on a more in depth scale, so if this piques your interest, please do read more about the subject.

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