Image Rights As An Athlete; Do You Need Trade Mark Protection?

Michael Jordan hasn’t played an NBA game since 2003 and his last with the Chicago Bulls was 16 years ago. Yet Jordan earned approximately $90 million in 2013. Jordan made hundreds of millions from endorsements during his career, but 2013 was his biggest year yet. His 2013 payday was more than any retired or current athlete, outside of Floyd Mayweather.

Jordan’s hefty earnings are mostly attributable to the incredible success of Nike’s Jordan Brand. Other partners for Jordan, the man, include Gatorade, Hanes, Upper Deck, 2K Sports, Novant Health and Five Star Fragrances. He also owns seven restaurants, a car dealership and 80% of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats.

High-profile athletes like Michael Jordan and David Beckham have founded global business empires on the careful use of their images. However, the widespread use of smartphones and social media has made it increasingly difficult for athletes to protect their images because their pictures or videos can be uploaded to the internet and, within seconds, accessed by millions of people. 

Protecting an image is not just about money; an athlete’s reputation can be severely damaged through their unauthorized association with certain products or enterprises such as tobacco, alcohol or gambling.

Unlike other countries, personality or image rights are not explicitly recognized in Kenyan law. As a result, athletes whose images have been exploited are likely to find themselves having to initiate court action in a legal system which is ill-designed to protect their individual image rights. Consequently, many are turning to the use of trade marks.

A trade mark provides a legally enforceable right in relation to the use of an image, symbol or words associated with a person or other entity.

Trade marks can be particularly helpful because they can extend beyond the athlete’s image, to their name, signature and other images associated with the individual athlete. Essentially, if there’s some unique image associated with you, you can apply to trade mark it. Usain Bolt, for example, has entered his famous “winning pose” in the United States Trade Mark Registry, preventing its use by others.

  • Once you have trade marked an aspect of your sporting personality, you can:
  • Exclusively use your trade mark to start a brand, or sell a product;
  • More easily prevent people ‘piggy backing’ off your image;
  • Sell or licence the exclusive use of your trade mark for profit;

Get nation-wide coverage for your exclusive use rights to your trade mark. This is critical because if you do not have a trade mark and someone infringes your rights, any action you may have against them could be limited by state jurisdiction. Nation-wide coverage is also the first step to be taken if you want to later consider expanding your rights in other countries.

What should you do?

Professional athletes should give serious consideration to whether their image, or part of it, should be trademarked. This will provide them with a course of action in trade mark infringement if their image is exploited at any time. 

For some athletes, the registration of a trade mark may seem excessive. However it is important that all athletes know what rights they have in relation to their sporting images, and the options available to them if they think they may be being exploited. 

Trade mark registration is included in the services offered under Kenyanstar Athlete Branding and Marketing Services. Should you need any further information or to sign up for our services please contact us

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