Sport and Intellectual Property

SHARE   |   Sunday, 07 September 2014   |   By Oabona Monnakgatla

“Our last two articles focused on intellectual property at schools and intellectual property at the workplace. Today we look at sports and intellectual property and the role intellectual property (rights) play in sports.. Most of the material used in the article is obtained from the World Intellectual Property Organization web site and readers are encouraged to visit this website to learn more about intellectual property and intellectual property rights and their impact on our everyday lives.

Sport today is bigger, brighter and more branded with big money sponsorship deals than ever before. In every sporting field, inventors and creators are working behind the scenes creating new opportunities for enjoyment and for athletes to perform better. Novel and groundbreaking sports technologies are protected under the intellectual property system by patents. Patents protect new inventions and facilitate the diffusion of technology. They prevent the unauthorized use of an invention for the life of the patent – usually 20 years. This provides an incentive to innovation by giving inventors the chance to recover their investment in developing the invention and to earn a financial reward. From the sports shoe to the swimsuit and the tennis racket to the football, sports technologists have applied their ingenuity, creativity and expertise to develop better and safer equipment in the quest for sporting excellence. The outcome has been enhanced performance, better, safer and more effective sports equipment, precision measurement of performance and a multiplicity of ways to experience sporting events anywhere and at any time. 

Patents encourage businesses to invest in developing and commercializing new and improved products. They help to stimulate technological progress, because all patent applications are published. And as these products are commercialized, they become widely available to sports enthusiasts in the marketplace. The cycle of innovation, promoted by patents, has resulted in the progressive replacement of natural materials (wood, twine, gut, rubber) used to make early sports equipment by a wide range of highly sophisticated man-made materials including alloys and polymers. Stronger and lighter sports equipment made with these high-tech materials have enabled sportsmen and women across the globe to reach new heights of achievement while minimizing the risk of injury. Other improvements range from sleeker and faster surfboards to more comfortable gloves with an anti-slip lining for football goal-keepers. Other patented sports and training equipment includes bobsleds, aquatic wheelchairs, starting block assemblies, stop-watches, golf clubs and gym equipment. 

Brands are critical for creating business value, and the sports business is no exception. Strong brands command customer loyalty and premium prices, constituting valuable assets that drive company revenue and growth. They are central to many sports business transactions, especially sponsorship deals and product merchandising. At the heart of branding lie trademarks. Trademarks distinguish a company, its products and services from those of competitors and acts as quick and reliable guide to quality. They help the company to build a reputation in the marketplace and to develop and retain a loyal clientele by instilling consumer confidence and trust in the goods and services it provides. The goodwill associated with a successful trademark or brand can be a huge commercial asset. The prominent display of trademarks at prestigious sporting events increases sales by appealing to the aspirations and emotions of sports fans who are drawn to signs associated with a given club or sport. Trademarks can also become symbols of a specific lifestyle or behavior. Thus sponsorship of a prestigious sports event, such as the FIFA World Cup™ or the Olympic Games, can link a company or product to the prestige, youth and dynamism of that event.

Brand advertising using sports teams and players is also big business, and the financial health of many sports organizations and clubs. The more successful a team, the more valuable its brand, and the higher the income and spending power of the sports organization involved. This in turn enhances the entertainment value of, say, a football match, because the club can afford better facilities and more skilful players. Successful examples of the use of trademarks to market and develop the business of sport include the NBA (National Basketball Association) in the United States and Manchester United football club in the United Kingdom. 

Designs too play a very important role in sport.  Designs can include athletic shoes, sports bags and sport apparel such as swimsuits, gym wear and tennis outfits. Good designs make products easier, more comfortable and safer to use. As an example a sports shoe may be protected by several intellectual property rights. Patents protect the technology used to develop the shoe, while design rights protect the aesthetic aspects of the shoe such as its shape, form and decorations. Trademarks distinguish the shoe from similar or identical shoes and protect the reputation of the shoe and the company making it. Copyright protects any artwork and audiovisual creations used to publicize the shoe.

Intellectual property lies at the heart of the huge commercial opportunities offered by the world of sport. Patents, trademarks and broadcasting rights and the legal protection they give help to secure economic value of sport. This in turn stimulates growth of the sports industry, enables sporting organizations to finance high-profile sports events, and provides the means to promote sports development. Business transactions related to sponsorship, merchandising, broadcasting and media deals are all built on intellectual property rights. The sports industry has a growing impact on the world economy by creating jobs, investing in public infrastructure and mobilizing resources.  The global revenue of the sports industry comprising sponsorships, gate revenues, media rights fees and merchandising was predicted to reach US$ 133 billion in 2013 from US$ 114 billion in 2009. The annual global turnover of sporting equipment, apparel and footwear is put at around US$ 300 billion.