Role Of Intellectual Property Law In The Sports Industry

By: Pallavi Tiwari


Sports are said to form 1-5 percent of the GDP and thus are very important for economy and various related companies. As far as the recent trend is concerned Indian Premier League (IPL) is going on and this is the most appropriate example to understand the connection between sports, marketing and business. Here, every team has its brand value, their advertisements, their theme songs, logos, brand name, tag-lines, marketing strategy and players’ performance strategy and all of this forms a part of IPR.  All these assets need to be protected as part of IPR from being taken away by third parties.  IP in sports came up first as recommended by Kunstadt but only with respect to copyright and trademark as the players who invest labor to develop a new move should be given economic benefit for the same.[1]

Copyright subsists in the photos clicked in the IPL events and the theme song of the themes or the title track of IPL itself.[2] Design rights can be established in the bats used by players which are specially designed and aim to facilitate their game. Trademark relates to the logo of the teams or their merchandise used in the games. All this helps in the branding of the team and also create some value in the eyes of the viewers. Unless and until something is appealable it holds no value in the market, so for investment it is important that it has created some value in the market. These logos and other IP rights have to be protected so that no one else could copy them or use them in their business and gain advantage of the established image of the players or the team, according to trademark dilution under Section 29(4) of the Trademark Act. [3]

Any third party could come up with these marks or designs and thus cause great loss to the owners and can also tarnish their image by selling bad products in the name of the players or teams by creating confusion in the minds of the consumers, which happened in the famous PayPal or Paytm case. Thus sports and IP laws work in intersection with each other and IP is essential for the commercialization of sports.[4]

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Patent law can be used in the sports industry with respect to the techniques used in the game or in the making of sports equipment to enhance the efficacy. Some examples of such patents are “D.S. Miller’s Dominant Hand Putting Method” or the “Nolan Ryan’s baseball pitch” and both are either to evade the impediments caused due to some handicap or improve the technique involved in a game. Patent can only be granted if something is novel, non-obvious and has industrial use as per Article 27(1) of the TRIPS[5] and also imbibed into the Indian Patent Law. As far as sports patents are concerned and the first requirement of novelty is to be addressed, it is important to note that even if a player has developed a technique or a move to play or designed an equipment to enhance the game it is important that he gets a patent first on it and then use it in front of other players. If he fails to do so, the patent is said to be already in the public and thus not novel or non-obvious. To determine novelty it is important that the technique or anything to be patented should not be in the mind of the public already expert in the field but the moves or techniques used by the players are just movements of limbs  and thus very commonly discussed and seen amongst the players. Thus generally players fail to get patent due to non-fulfillment of the novelty criteria. Another condition is of industrial application and there is no proof that sport related patent can be used commercially or in an industry. It depends on patent to patent and thus this condition may or may not be fulfilled.[6]

Sports is about learning new moves and mostly players learn from one another but if these moves are patented it would cause an unfair advantage on the other competitors. Sometimes another player in between of a match can use a patented move which would cause the game to come to a halt and thus destroy the basic essence of sports. Thus, this would make the players first think and then make a move or use a technique which would not be spontaneous anymore and going against the principles of sports.[7]

As far as India’s position with respect to patenting moves of a game are concerned section 3(m)[8] of the Indian Patent Act clearly debars “a mere scheme or rule or method of performing mental act or method of playing a game” from being granted a patent. Thus India is still not open to patenting of sports or the moves involved as compared to US which observes as laid down in Diamond v. Chakraborty[9] case that anything can be patented.[10]

Thus, the position of patent grant with respect to sports move is still not clear and uniform across the globe so no decision can be called upon the same.


As far as sports are concerned copyright exists in a lot of things like slogans for a team, pictures of players, or any other photography associated with the events. As copyright now involves broadcaster and performers’ rights under the Act, it gives a broadcaster a right to telecast a particular sporting event and to possess that right the companies pay huge amounts. So if any other person uses the broadcast for his own channel then it shall also be an infringement of copyright. These broadcasters make available to the public the sport events as each and every event cannot be attended by the viewers. Thus broadcasting is the major area where copyright subsists in case of sports and due to the revenue generated by licensing the broadcasting rights events can be organized and other related events can take place. Apart from the field events there are computer games also which use software which can be subjected to copyright protection and also patent protection when combined with hardware as computer programs or software are per se not patentable.[11] The characters or graphics used in video games are also subjected to copyright protection as now the craze for online games and events including video games are no less than field sports events.[12]

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As far as copyright in sports is concerned, there are two categories of sports that can be discussed: purposive or non-aesthetic sports or aesthetic sports.[13] Section 13 mentions about works in which copyright subsists and sports is clearly not a part of it. The case of Institute for Inner Studies v.Charlotte Anderson,[14] was one landmark case which discussed why copyright protection is not offered to sports. The High Court observed that yoga asana cannot be granted copyright protection because they are neither included under literary or dramatic work under the Act. The Court also felt that sports lack the main criteria of fixation in tangible medium with respect to copyright. It is also considered anti-competitive in nature as it will thereby reduce the scope for future players to use similar moves.

This is not the case with aesthetic sports (dance, gymnastics, skating) as they involve some creativity and can come under choreographic works protected under copyright. Dancers, gymnasts can also avail the performers’ rights under Section 38 of the Act. They also fulfill the requirements of performance under 2(q) of the Act and performer under Section 2(qq) of the Act and thus are eligible for protection. As far as uncertainty or originality is concerned with respect to copyright protection, aesthetic sports fulfill this criterion. They are also fixated in nature as most of the copyrighted works are as they constitute of certain specific moves.

Further in the case of Star India Pvt. Ltd. v. Piyush Agarwal & Ors.[15] the Single Bench observed that cricket events are subject to performers’ rights protection under the copyright act. But later on, this decision was overruled and the Delhi High Court observed that performers’ rights are not under copyright as they are clearly mentioned to be “special rights” under Section 38 of the Act. But stand in India relating to copyright protection for sports is still unclear.


Trademarks are used to distinguish goods and services from one another. These days’ sports events also involve a lot of brands and use them in logos and their marks to gain commercially. This is done essentially to create a brand value for products used in these sports or to catch the viewer attention. For example, champions rise is used for FIFA and like in IPL as well every team has their own logo and mark. It helps the viewers to establish a relation with the team or game and to choose their favorite side. There have been cases where players have trademarked their name like David Beckham. In the recent trend of online games it is important to have brand names for teams and events so the viewers can distinguish between them. If some revenue has to be generated through a sports event or by a team it is important that it should have some recognition in the market and this can be established through trademark.[16]

In a famous case STJUE Arsenal v. Reed,[17] the defendant used the branded goods outside the stadium in a commercial manner unofficially thus causing an infringement. Getting trademark on a team or a player’s name which in turn become very popular helps the sports apparel manufacture to establish goodwill on the brand value of the team or the player. According to Forbes ranking it is established that “the portion of [a sports team’s] enterprise value attributable to local revenue streams like television, advertising, merchandise and tickets, that exceeds what a typical team in the same sports generates.”[18]

There are some associated rights to trademarks which are known as personality rights where a player can control how much his personality in the public can be exploited to create a brand value or use it as recognition for a product. When someone uses a player’s name on their goods and does not do well on the goodwill of the player it is a clear case of trademark dilution under Section 29(4) of the Indian Trademark Act. This brand value created by using team names or players’ names can also be used by broadcasters to attract the audience and thus IP law is all mixed up in the sports industry.


Apart from these above-mentioned IP rights, there is one right which though not yet recognized under IP is important for the sports industry. It is trade secret which forms part of all the secret strategies of teams to win or secret compounds in their gears to make playing easy and winnable or any other dietary ingredient. It is not be disclosed to the public unlike patent rights. Generally other teams might try to steal these assets but they are to be necessarily protected so that no other team or player can gain undue advantage on the same.

Data analysis is another trade secret which needs to be protected from being used by fellow competitors. It may involve screening the way other team plays, their loopholes and the team’s strength and weakness in the past few matches. This then later on helps the team to decide how they will strategize their game and also observe patterns in the player’s physiological and psychological behavior. This data is also known as big-data and though India doesn’t recognize a specific trade secret law it still has been given special importance in US and UK with newly introduced legislations.


Design rights are generally an extension of trademark law and copyright law where the difference is only that design first of all is only to refer to aesthetic beauty of the product and cannot include anything technical or anything attributing to the functions of the products. Teams or sports events use beautiful designs for products to be used in the game like bats, balls and other goods to attract the viewer attention. It is highly creative in nature and it aims to enhance the appearance of the goods to be used so that if someone buys the product later they can associate it with the design of the team or the player.

One such example is development of clever bicycle by Lucio Tortola, a cyclist to reduce issues in the back and any chance of injury in bicycle rides. This was designed to be a shock absorber and help the cyclists in future. Now this design has become very famous and used by most of the cyclists across the globe. So design is just not for beauty but to also remove some issues involved in the game and help the future players. [19]

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The author has discussed various IP rights associated with sports and players and how India stands with respect to these rights. There is also another term called ambush marketing apart from these IP rights infringements which is a problem in the sports industry. Generally it is not within the scope of IP law but needs to be addressed whenever any sports issue is under consideration. It is a very prevalent practice these days when some company tries to commercially get advantage on the basis of already established goodwill of an event. They reap commercial gains in this process by unofficially associating themselves with famous sports events and gaining advantage of being a sponsor when they are not.

Relying on afore-mentioned propositions, it is important to recognize the importance of various IP rights in sports and how they can be protected. IP is always an essential ingredient of any commercial activity and since sports is now more of commercial nature it is important to protect it. In this write-up, the author shall discuss how patent, copyright, trademark, designs, trade secret and other IP rights are closely attached to sports and how can they be infringed so that businesses and companies related to sports can avoid such activities. To save a business it is important to save the IP related to it and similar is the stand for sport industry.

[1] F. F. Scott Kieff, Robert G. Kramer &  Robert M. Kunstad, “It’s Your Turn, But It’s My Move: Intellectual Property Protection for Sports Moves”, 25 Santa Clara High Tech. L.J. 765 (2012).

[2] Anita Roy, “Shield of IPR around IPL”,

[3] Vaishali Singh, “The Untapped Emergence of IP Rights and Sports: Faster, Stronger and Higher” (2019) PL (IPR) July 91.

[4] Zia Akhtar, “Sports development, legal infrastructure and protecting Intellectual Property rights”

[5] Article 27TRIPS 1994, “Patentable Subject Matter”.

[6]Leveraging Intellectual Property In The Global Sports Economy: Sports As A Tool For Progress And Development”, Global Innovation Policy Centre,

[7] Derek Bambauer, “ Legal Responses To The Challenges Of Sports Patents”, Harvard Journal of Law & Technology Volume 18, Number 2 (2005).

[8] Section 3(m), The Patent Act, 1970 “a mere scheme or rule or method of performing mental act or method of playing game”.

[9] 447 U.S. 303 (1980).

[10] Sharada Kalamadi, “Intellectual property and the business of sports management”, (2012),

[11] S.K. Verma, “IP Protection of Software and Software Contracts In India”, Vol. 17 JIPR (2012).

[12] Molly Torsen, “Intellectual Property and Sporting Events: Effective

Protection of Event Symbols through Law and Practice”, International Intellectual Property Institute,

[13] Seemantani Sharma, “A Copyright Incentive for Promoting ‘Aesthetic Sports’ in India”, The Entertainment and Sports Law Journal, 17(1), 7,

[14] Case Number: CS(OS)–2252/2011.

[15] MIPR 2013 (1) 201; 2013 (54) PTC 222 (Del).

[16] Paras Sharma, “Intellectual Property Rights In Sports” Volume 8, Issue 3, IJCRT, (2020).

[17] [2003] EWCA Civ 696 (21 May 2003).

[18] M Ozanian “The Forbes Fab 40: The World’s Most Valuable Sports Brands 2017”, Forbes, Forbes Fab 40: Teams (2017).

[19]Reiventing the Frame, Challenging the Status Quo”

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