Sports and Intellectual Property Law: Is It Always Fair Play?

By Hugo Tapia | 19-Jan-2023

Sports and Intellectual Property Law: Is It Always Fair Play?

Big Sports is no game.  The recent World Cup in Qatar was a showcase of the grandeur and global appeal of the big business behind the world of sports, and IP played a big role in its success, as clearly stated in this recent report by the WIPO (view source). But beyond one event that occurs every four years, sports is an industry that generates around $500 billion dollars a year globally by some estimates, and has become a key player not only in entertainment, but in the business world too. Yet, with big money comes big legal challenges, particularly when it comes to intellectual property.

As athletes’ name, image, and likeness (NIL) becomes increasingly valuable, many opportunities for abuse and infringement rise. One example is the copyright infringement lawsuit brought against the NCAA by former student-athletes, who claim that the organization has profited from their likenesses without their consent. This case, which is still pending, illustrates the complex legal issues surrounding the use of athletes' image rights.  As a result, a new law was issued that allowed NCAA, since July of 2021 (not conventionally considered professional athletes), to be paid via endorsements, brand collaborations on social media and so on.

Of course, household names in the Sports business are not strangers to the importance of protecting their NIL or exploiting off the court, like the case of Steph Curry who recently filed for a trademark application for “Curryverse”, his incursion in the Metaverse  (

Another recent example is NBA’s star Luka Doncic’s legal battle against his own mother for a trademark dispute.  The Dallas Mavericks player has filed a cancellation petition to the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in an attempt to get a trademark for his name and the logo "Luka Doncic 77" registered. His mother registered a similar trademark, "Luka Doncic 7" in 2018, with Doncic's consent, but he now wants to use a different number, 77, for the Mavericks. The legal question that has arisen is whether a person referenced in a mark can withdraw their consent and cancel the trademark years later, as there is no legal guidance or case law on this issue. Some trademark lawyers say that the case could implicate both trademark and contract law, and that recent changes to publicity rights restrictions on college athletes could produce similar conflicts in the future.

Teams or clubs are also becoming increasingly interesting targets for investors, as the value of some brands has reached astronomical figures. 

Brands also understand the importance of associating with important sports-related IP (view source) as multi-million dollar sponsorships will continue to grow (view source), leading to more creative collaborations to further expand the value and the ROI of such big risks, like Nike demonstrated in one of its most recent campaigns around the FIFA world cup and some of the all-time soccer legends brought back to life thanks to CGI and creativity.

Piracy is another major challenge facing the sports industry. With TV rights being one of the most valuable assets (view source) sought after by TV networks, premium services, and digital platforms worldwide, the illegal streaming of live sports events has become a major problem. The loss of revenue from pirated streams can have a significant impact on the financial stability of sports teams and leagues.  This issue is only going to get more and more complicated as new major players with big pockets have entered the bidding wars for distribution rights, as proven by the latest entrance of YouTube as a new home of the NFL games.   The video platform, owned by Google, has signed a $14bn, seven-year deal to stream National Football League (NFL) games, marking the latest incursion by a Silicon Valley company into territory traditionally dominated by broadcasters and pay-TV companies. The deal includes DirecTV's "Sunday Ticket" package of games, which had been held by the satellite service since 1994. The agreement is the latest in a series of high-value deals by the NFL, the most expensive live sports rights in the world, after its $113bn, 11-year agreements struck with broadcast partners last year. 

YouTube’s NFL deal turns up the heat in battle for sports rights

As the sports industry continues to evolve and grow, it is important to stay informed about the latest developments in intellectual property law and anti-piracy efforts. For more information on these topics, we invite you to check out our selection of notes and articles about this to be on top of your game and stay informed about the latest developments in the sports industry as it relates to IP matters.

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Hugo Tapia
Business Development Director |
Marketing, Sales, CRM, Communication, Business Intelligence
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