Application of Trademark Laws in The Realm of Sports

2022年02月25日 14:34:53


Trademark is a distinctive sign, emblem, logo, or indicator representing a specific business, entity, or individual. The rapid development of sports into a commercially incentivized sector has increased the role of intellectual property and thus trademarks within this field. Sports franchises, athletes or companies trademark various things such as athlete names, catchphrases, nicknames, team names, mascots, etc. The trademark registration confers the exclusive right to use the trademark. With sports fans having an emotional attachment to the team’s identity, brands can profit by merchandising various accessories associated with the team. Often, third parties are involved in ambush marketing and bring identically similar brands to capture the market of the dominant entity. In 2020, Manchester United filed a suit of trademark dispute against the gaming providers SEGA for illegally using the club’s name and logo. ADIDAS filed a trademark infringement suit in Japan over ADIDOG, a pet clothing unit. In addition to franchises and companies, individuals also register a trademark over their names and catchphrases. Trademark makes its invariable presence from Usain Bolt’s ‘Bolt to the world’ to Michael Phelps’s ‘MP’. These instances established the overwhelming influence of trademarks in the world of sports.

Trademark, sports & commercialization

With the commercialization of sports, there is an increased involvement of intellectual property rights. Competition between brands has led to the creation of technologically advanced sporting materials, which has brought patents into play. The theme songs, music, albums of franchises involve copyrights. However, the area of intellectual property rights that takes the pole position in the hierarchy with respect to an application to the world of sports is a trademark. Trademark has a wide range of applications, including image rights and personality rights. A renowned sports person can file a trademark on their personality per se as their name would hold high commercial value.  Football star David Beckham runs a successful perfume merchandising brand trademarked in his name.

Usually, trademarks come into the picture in IP merchandising. It is the process of granting a trademark license to the licensee. Merchandising helps the licensee’s sales and profit by capturing the market with the help of famous athletes or clubs. Merchandising agreements lead to multilateral gains as the licensor also earns substantial amounts in revenue besides promotion and publicity. Hence a typical merchandising agreement is beneficial for both the licensor and the licensee.  In India, trademark can be registered under the Trade Marks Act, 1999. The current registration process includes filing of application online and payment of fees along with other requirements. Further, registration can be done through WIPO’s Madrid system. However, registration is not compulsory for filing a trademark infringement case in India. Individuals can proceed against the infringement irrespective of their registration process. However, with the amount of merchandising prevalent in sports today, trademark registration becomes quite necessary.

The role of trademarks in sports has grown substantially over the last decade. Traditionally Europe was the world’s sporting hub with several franchise-based tournaments being held across the year. The rapid growth of league-based sports in South Asia has tapped in to one of the world’s biggest markets. The introduction of the Indian Premier League (IPL), Pro Kabaddi League, Indian Badminton League, PSL, ISL etc., has taken the commercial value of sports over the roof. In 2021, the IPL cricket team Royal Challengers Bangalore was ranked 8th in the world in terms of social media engagement. The IPL teams’ revenue from merchandising is still minimal compared to other mega-clubs worldwide. As per a report from Duff and Phelps, global football teams such as Manchester United, Chelsea, Barcelona, and Real Madrid have a merchandising revenue that contributes 15 to 20 percent of their total revenue, whereas in the case of IPL, it is less than 5 percent. However, it is likely that this would change in the near future, with the IPL teams giving more importance to branding and merchandising. This should bring IP, especially trademarks, into maximum contention.

The challenges of trademarking in sports

Applying for a trademark and gaining sole rights to it might sound an easy and powerful tool to maximise revenue, but the sporting world has seen a number of ridiculous trademark rights and more ridiculous trademark attempts. If you are an athlete and a fan of Usain Bolt, do not ever make the famed ‘LIGHTNING BOLT’ gesture in public because you may be charged with a trademark infringement suit for that. Nike, the sponsor for the Tennis legend Roger Federer, trademarked ‘RF’, which they printed over Federer’s clothes. When their deal ended, Federer did not hold the rights over his own initials as it was already a trademarked product of Nike. In 2003, the International Cricket Council tried to retain a trademark over the term ‘WORLD CUP’ as they had trademarked ‘ICC CRICKET WORLD CUP SOUTH AFRICA 2003’. These instances suggest that sometimes a trademark in sports can get the licensor, licensee as well as an ordinary man in quite some trouble. With the increase in popularity of sports persons and celebration of their enigma, trademarking has seen a boost like never before. However, the courts, registering parties, and the public need to stay informed and vigilant, failing which one may unintentionally perpetrate a breach of trademark or infringe upon others’ trademarks.


With the commercialization of sports taking rapid speed, the role of intellectual property in sports has become ever important. Trademarks lead the way and are touted to remain the most applied IP concept in the field of sports. Understanding the trademark right plays a crucial role for everyone as no one would love to get into trouble unconsciously. Further, sport has the ability to reach every household across the world. With the development of technology, fans are becoming an even more significant part of leagues, franchises, and clubs. This development would only lead to the furtherance of IPR violation risks. Hence, as an athlete, an interest holder or as a loyal fan, keeping up with the world of trademark rights would help one go a long way in being an informed individual.



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