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How Intellectual Property Law Matters In Sports

The world of intellectual property isn’t relegated to the artists and inventors. In fact, sporting events are bristling with intellectual property.

Team slogans, team logos, jersey designs, and so many more items and possessions at sporting events can be protected by intellectual property rights.

Think about the case of Pepsi and Betty Inc. There you are at a sporting event. The cameras cut to commercial and the red-shirted man steps onto the field. During those few minutes between innings, downs, or pit stops, countless IP lawyers begin scrambling for their phones.

Why? Because PepsiCo allegedly stole Betty Inc’s idea and illegally used copyright material in a commercial during the 2016 Super Bowl.

Okay, so you might be wondering, “But that’s a commercial. What about the actual sports?” To answer that question more directly, we’ll have to go a little more in-depth.

“I’ve known of people who didn’t think it was necessary to trademark their team’s logo. Needless to say, they sure changed their mind when they saw it on somebody else’s jerseys.”

What Kind of IP Covers Sporting Events?

There are four main focus areas in the field of intellectual property law: copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets. Trade secrets don’t really apply to sporting events, but everything else sure does!

A team’s advertising fliers, press releases, and catch phrases? Copyrights.

A team’s jersey design and uniform colors? Design patents.

A team’s logo and mascot? Trademarks.

By registering your intellectual property with the United States Copyright Office and/or the United States Patent and Trademark Office, you can potentially have the government proclaim you the sole owner of that text, design, and/or logo.

How Does Intellectual Property Law In Sports Protect Owners and Managers?

J.D. Houvener, a Houston patent attorney, once said, “I’ve known of people who didn’t think it was necessary to trademark their team’s logo. Needless to say, they sure changed their mind when they saw it on somebody else’s jerseys.”

The above example could be one of either trademark violation or even patent violation. One way or the other, had the team manager or team owner properly registered their intellectual property with the USPTO, this situation could have been avoided.

Government-Granted Monopolies

By securing your intellectual property, you prevent against competition, theft, and lawsuits to some extent. If you don’t properly register your intellectual property, it becomes impossible to be reimbursed for attorney fees and court costs.

Of course, the greatest benefit of securing your patent is the artificial scarcity that it engenders. By becoming the sole owner of a team’s logo, you become the only person who can legally use that logo for any purpose whatsoever.

This means that anybody who wishes to add it to their merchandise, advertising, or do anything else with it will first have to pay you and ask for your permission. This artificial scarcity drastically increases your team’s income at the expense of your competitors.

pro lacrosse mll denver outlaws
Photo courtesy of Major League Lacrosse

READ MORE: Catch up on last week’s first round of the playoffs in the Premier Lacrosse League and Week 13 of Major League Lacrosse in this week’s “Pro Lacrosse Winners and Losers” by Steve Wizniuk.

How Does Intellectual Property Law In Sports Protect Athletes?

Every athlete has a personal brand that they try to advance and build upon not only to further cement their legacy but also to get paid. As with any brand, athletes can increase their revenue far beyond what would be possible in a free market system by filing for intellectual property protections.

Whether it’s a catchphrase, logo, nickname, or something similar, athletes can make great use trademark laws. In fact, the phrase “three-peat” was once trademarked in 1989 by the then-coach of the LA Lakers. Even Tim Tebow managed to trademark the phrase “tebowing.”

What does this mean legally? This means that nobody else would be legally allowed to say that phrase or use it on any of their own materials without first paying you, unless they did so through an editorial or educational medium.

By using the force of government to maintain these sorts of monopolies, athletes stand to massively increase their personal wealth and brand notoriety at the expense of their competitors, killing two birds with one stone.


Of course, benefits like these are not without their costs. Although intellectual property laws, government copyrights, trademarks, and patents can positively help sporting professionals and professional athletes grow, they can cost a pretty penny and take years to secure.

For example, the question of how much a patent costs is often measured in the thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars and can take upwards of two full years to be approved, and there’s no guarantee that you will be approved even after paying all that money and waiting all that time.

This isn’t meant to discourage you from pursuing your own intellectual protections afforded to you by the United States Constitution. Rather, it is just meant to highlight the importance of hiring an attorney to help you through the process.

If there’s one thing we know in the world of sports, it’s how to win. Intellectual property rights can help you take that victory all the way to the bank, but only if you score an attorney first.