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IP and Sports - Background Brief

It’s early evening and you’re heading toward the gates with thousands of other sports fans to cheer on professional athletes competing at the highest level. Whether it’s Yankee Stadium in New York, Old Trafford in Manchester, Eden Garden in Kolkota or the site of any other major sporting event, throngs of ardent fans are decked out in the jerseys, caps and scarves of their club.

Before kick-off or the opening pitch, this type of team branding and merchandizing is just one example of how the global intellectual property (IP) system supports athletics around the world. Sport creates communities of players and fans alike and it’s also a $300 billion-plus economic engine that provides jobs around the world.

(Photos:  EMMANUEL Berrod)

Jerseys, branded grounds: trademarks in action

As you stand in line to enter the stadium, you may realize that many of the world’s most-famous playing grounds now bear the names and brands of their sponsors, as well as team names and logos. This kind of branding is aided by the international trademark registering system administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). WIPO is a Geneva-based specialized agency of the United Nations that promotes innovation and creativity for the economic, social and cultural development of all countries, through a balanced and effective international IP system.

Brand owners seek to control their trademarks such as logos or jingles, which act as the cognitive touchpoints for their customers. In sports, as in all areas of business, trademark-protected material represents special qualities that attract fans – which in turn generates the income for companies to make investments in new talent or better infrastructure.

Personal product: players and trademarks

As you settle into your seat, the players take the field to cheers. Some of these individuals may use IP rights to control the use of certain image with which they are associated. For example, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s “Lightning Bolt” pose and his “to di world” slogan, US basketball star Michael Jordan’s “jumpman” pose and his Air Jordan brand shoes, and English Rugby star Johnny Wilkinson’s distinct kicking stance are all registered trademarks. Without bestowing absolute rights over those poses and words, trademarks prevent unauthorized commercial use ofproducts without the endorsement of the celebrities. Even without a registered trademark, however, celebrity athletes have “image (or personality) rights” to prevent unauthorized use of their name, likeness or other personal attributes.

Trademarks are protected by entry on a national trademark register. Once registered, they are valid potentially unlimited in time as long as they are used. WIPO’s international trademark registration system, known as the Madrid system, enables trademark holders to file a single application for registration in up to 85 countries, and to maintain and renew those marks through a single procedure.

Lights, camera, copyright

While the players warm up, television camera lights brighten as announcers welcome broadcast audiences to the action. Advances in communications technologies – satellite, cable, broadband and mobile internet – have revolutionized broadcast sports coverage and enabled billions of people around the world to take part in the spectacle and excitement of major sporting events.

Copyright and related rights provide protection against unauthorized retransmission of broadcasts and underpin the relationship between sport and television and other media. Television and media organizations pay huge sums of money for the exclusive right to broadcast sporting events live. For example, of the US$3.7 billion in total revenues (excluding ticket sales) generated by the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa, two-thirds or US$2.4 billion was derived from the sale of broadcasting rights. The sale of marketing rights brought in another US$1.1 billion, with the remainder accounted for by sale of hospitality rights and licensing.

Sport tech: industrial design and patents

Play gets going, and competitors swing bats, kick balls and cut back and forth in state-of-the art gear – all examples of objects whose designs can be protected. In most countries, an industrial design must be registered in order to be protected under industrial design law. However, protection is given only in the country where the design is registered. WIPO's Hague system provides an easy and cost-effective way to obtain protection for an industrial design in up to 57 countries.

During half-time or between innings, players sit down and stretch, reaching their heads toward multi-colored shoes. This simple shoe actually contains multitudes: It may be protected by several IP rights, such as patents that protect the technology used to develop the shoe. WIPO’s Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) system provides an easy and cost-effective way to obtain patent protection for an invention in up to 148 countries. Registered designs protect the “look” of the shoe, while trademarks - distinguish the shoe from similar products and protect the “reputation” of the shoe (and the company making it), while copyright – may protect artwork and audiovisual creations used to publicize the shoe.

A lot has changed since Rudolf Lettner obtained a patent for one of the first sport-related inventions, the steel edge ski, in the late 1920s. Today, thousands of sport-related inventions are protected by patents, many of which have been granted on the basis of patent applications filed using WIPO’s PCT system.

An economic and employment engine

But it’s not just professionals and their sponsors who derive benefits from the IP system, it’s all of us who go home from major sporting events to try our own luck on sandlots and schoolyard pitches.

The sports industry has a growing impact on the world economy, creating jobs, investing in public infrastructure and mobilizing resources – and an important component of this is generated through IP-protected activities. The global revenue of the sports industry – comprising sponsorships, gate revenues, media rights fees and merchandising – is predicted to reach US$ 133 billion in 2013 from US$ 114 billion in 2009. The annual global turnover of sporting goods (equipment, apparel and footwear) is put at around US$ 300 billion.

How does WIPO help?

Aside from easing the way for protection of trademarks, patents and designs around the world, WIPO works to ensure that the benefits of the sports industry are spread wide and deep.

WIPO awareness raising and training activities look at successful IP rights strategies and monetization of IP assets to promote the growth of sport as a tool for development. Activities also address challenges for creating an enabling regulatory environment and how to ensure effective action against IP violations that erode sponsors confidence and the benefits associated with the hosting of major sport events.

IP awareness raising and training programs are demand driven and tailored to the specific social and cultural context of each country.

Activities target a wide range of stakeholders such as: government and public bodies; enforcement officials and judiciary; legal practitioners; agents, athletes, clubs, sports federations; event organizers, donors, sponsors; sports good manufacturers; television and media companies.

Themes addressed include: The sport business model building an effective IP rights strategy; Signal piracy and the WIPO draft broadcasting treaty; Sale of media and broadcasting rights; The use of patents, trademarks, designs and models in sport; Use of domain names and Sports-related domain name cases; Digital content, using social media for sport; Sport contracts; Marketing, merchandising and licensing agreements; Athletes’ image rights; Building successful sponsorship programs; Enforcement of rights & Building respect for IPR’s in sport; Sport disputes and alternative dispute resolution for sport.

New frontiers: tech and sports

As you head home the stadium, you’re rejoining the global public that is able to access sporting events remotely, via television, radio, the Internet and other media.

The royalties that broadcasters earn from selling their exclusive footage to other media outlets enable them to invest in the costly organizational and technical undertaking involved in broadcasting sports events to millions of fans all over the world. This is made possible through the protection the IP system provides for their broadcasting rights.

Beijing Olympic Broadcasting, which as host broadcaster for the Beijing Games supplied television signals from all the Olympic venues, deployed 6,000 staff, 1,000 cameras, 575 digital video tape recorders, 350 broadcast trailers and 62 outside broadcast vans.

Television rights are thought to account for about 60% of the income of the Tour de France, which is broadcast in over 180 countries. The English Premier League, whose matches are broadcast in 212 countries, sold domestic and international television rights for the three seasons 2010-2013 for £3.2 billion.

Broadcasters’ rights

Under the International Convention for the Protection of Performers, Producers of Phonograms and Broadcasting Organizations (Rome Convention) of 1961, broadcasters have exclusive rights for 20 years to authorize rebroadcasting, “fixation” (recording), reproduction and communication to the public of their broadcasts. However, there is wide agreement that the protection of broadcasters’ rights needs updating to accommodate the digital communications revolution. Ongoing negotiations at WIPO aim to update the international legal framework to adequately and efficiently protect against the piracy of broadcast signals.

Competitive sport has become a global billion-dollar industry due in large part to IP rights and ever closer cooperation between the media, sponsors and sports authorities.

Pirates: not team players

However, more sophisticated communications technologies, accessible to a wide public, have not only enabled fans to follow live sports wherever they may be but have opened new possibilities for signal theft. Live sports broadcasts have been a particular target for unauthorized retransmission on the Internet, often through peer-to-peer file-sharing technology that acts as a conduit for users to share content.

Signal piracy not only threatens the advertising and sales revenues of the broadcasters that have paid for exclusive rights to show live coverage of sports events, but also risks reducing the value of those rights and hence the revenues of sports organizations. While national laws provide various options for tackling signal piracy, including shutting down illegal websites in some countries, broadcasting organizations have pressed for better legal protection at international level.

Sports have now created global communities, with supporters rooting on teams in distant corners of the world. Many fans may never have the chance to root on their team in its home stadium – but their support is no less important to the teams nowadays.

Similarly, the business of sports is now a worldwide affair, creating jobs and providing livelihoods for employees of broadcasters, apparel merchants and others across the globe –underscoring that IP is everyone’s property.