Intellectual property in sports business: the ultimate goal

By Admin

In this digital age, sport is competing hard for the public’s attention and, in doing so, it’s becoming increasingly shorter, faster and more dynamic.

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By Brian Kajubi

On April 26, 2019, Uganda joined the rest of the world to mark the World Intellectual Property Day under the theme “Going for Gold: IP and Sports” (Fighting Counterfeit and Piracy: Advancing fair play).

In this digital age, sport is competing hard for the public’s attention and, in doing so, it’s becoming increasingly shorter, faster and more dynamic. The need, on one hand, to respect and uphold a sport’s tradition is now being balanced with the public demand (particularly from younger audiences), on the other, for easily digested, accessible and narrative-heavy sports content, often fusing sport with music & entertainment which presents positive business prospects as well as challenges.

The bad news for sports lovers and creators is that the idea or the concept of sports itself will not, from an IP law perspective, be protectable or protected. However, some steps can be taken by different stakeholders to protect their interests.

This is so because IP rights are used in the sports sector to secure and protect the value of events and products. Sports practitioners have been able to generate enormous revenues from the exploitation of aspects of intellectual property rights via merchandising. It follows that sports of recent have become of great commercial value through marketing, promotion, franchising, merchandising and brand building of professional sports teams, such teams like Onduparaka , KCCA, VIPERS, Wakiso Giants, City Oilers, UCU-Canons, DMark Power, Kobs, Heathens etc, have now become more economically significant and viable and have assumed the influences associated with multi-national companies. Sportsmen and women have also become more commercially important surpassing previously existing notions with respect to their financial worth.

Several sports have increasingly evolved like, football, tennis, basket, cricket, car-racing, etc into mega international events. They have also become more profitable domestic sports events like; Star Times premier league, The Nile Special Premier Rugby League, Lato Milk motor car Rally, etc.

These professional sports teams and corporations tend to exploit and capitalize on varying intellectual property rights through merchandising, advertisement, exclusive and non-exclusive licenses, broadcast rights, etc.

Also, sportsmen enter into endorsement and advertisement contracts worth millions of shillings outside the pitch. Similarly, sports teams and sports organisations are able to derive commercial benefits via branding, merchandising, licensing& sponsorship.  Hence a cocktail of IP laws has been set up to offer legal protection in the bid to secure the business interests within sports.

Trademarks provide protections for marks, symbols, logos, slogans & names that distinguish the products of one undertaking from those of other undertakings and business from other businesses.

Trade marks are at the forefront of protecting any “brand” and help to protect the visual elements which the consumer is most exposed to. The most effective means of protecting a trademark against unauthorised use is to register the trademark (if possible).

It should be noted that the more successful the format of the game, the more prestigious the brand. Any personal name or signature can potentially be registered as a trademark. Fred Perry was one of the first sports personalities to register his signature as a trademark back in 1965 in UK.

Since then, numerous athletes and sports personalities have registered their names and/or signatures as trademarks, including Andy Murray®, Roger Federer®, Wayne Rooney®, Lionel Messi®, Nico Rosberg®, Usain Bolt® and Lewis Hamilton®. 

It is also possible for an athlete or sports personality to register his/her initials in a stylised format as a logo. e.g, Andy Murray has a trademark registered which, like a logo, includes his initials and the number 77 (77 representing his win at Wimbledon on July 7). Many athletes have signature moves, whether it’s their stance before they take a penalty kick or their celebration when they win. What isn’t so well-known is that these stances and movements are potentially capable of trademark registration. Usain Bolt registered his name and signature as trade marks &t also owns registered trademarks featuring his famous “lightning bolt” stance, Ugandan sportsmen and women can build such brands worth protecting.

Sports events marks; these are essentially any sign logo, mark, a name that is capable of distinguishing one sports competition (event) and its organiser from another. The most popular sports event mark is the interconnected rings of the Olympic Games with great legal protection.

Sports events and copyright broadcasting

The genesis of football season coincides with a change in the way viewers are consuming content. As viewers continue to move online it is more important than ever for rights holders and broadcasters to take steps to protect themselves from the risks of illegal online streaming. The FUFA (STAR-TIMES) Premier League is leading this fight and the stakes are high through the broadcasting & licenses TV. However, if rights holders fail to take steps to combat illegal streaming of their content then this can erode the value of their rights in Uganda. Online sharing affects IP rights where streams or clips of events are uploaded to the internet and made accessible to members of the public without the rights holder's consent.

Infringing streams are made available through social media platforms like, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, which clearly puts infringing content readily at the fingertips of a huge number of fans.

Personality rights

These are the rights to control the commercial and economic exploitation of one’s personality and its peculiar attributes, like an individual’s name, image, likeness, unique personality traits relating to his/her personal identity. Personality rights can be used by sports events organisers to boost their competitive edge. It can help in no small measure in the brand development and building of sports teams and sports competitions.

They are also known as image rights though not an integral part of IP but related. Image rights are simply the right a player possesses to control, sell, license and otherwise monetise his or her likeness – that is, his or her image, name, nickname, voice, signature and all other characteristics unique to the player. A case in point is Aqua Sipi brand association with the 2012 Olympic gold medallist Stephen Kiprotich, who is their ambassador.

The rest include patents and trade secrets.

In conclusion let’s all embrace the role of Intellectual Property in sports business in Uganda through awareness.

The writer is an advocate of the High Court