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Intellectual Property – The Star Asset Clubs Are Trying to Sign

February 16, 2021, By

Footballers need to be paid more money, said no one.  But the commercialisation of Intellectual Property Rights, namely image rights and trade marks, is providing a lucrative revenue stream for already affluent footballers.  The days of just scoring goals, winning matches, and eating a pie at half time have long abandoned football as it continues to move into the entertainment and branding sphere, driven by the increase in commercial partners with clubs looking to exploit the ‘brands’ created by superstars around the world such as Ronaldo, David Beckham and Lionel Messi.

Recently, larger than life superstar Zlatan Ibrahimović, brought intellectual property to the fore when he took issue with EA Sports for using his name and face (his likeness) in their video game series “Fifa Football” without his permission.  However, this is not an isolated case and intellectual property continues to play an ever-growing role in football.

Intellectual property has also caused stumbling blocks in the transfers of players and managers.  In the case of Paulo Dyabala, the transfer fee between Juventus and Tottenham Hotspur had been agreed, the player’s wages had been agreed, but the transfer broke down due to the ownership of his intellectual property rights.  Ordinarily, players assign their image rights to an image rights company that they own and then sell in a separate agreement to their club.  These image rights can include their name, signature, image or other unique characteristics.  In turn, football clubs obtain a return on their investment in a player from using the player’s intellectual property and selling merchandise, as well as allowing their corporate partners to use their player’s intellectual property to endorse their products.

In the case of Dyabala, he previously sold his image rights to a 3rd party who insisted on being paid £13.7m to relinquish these rights to Tottenham.  Tottenham refused and the deal collapsed, perhaps fortunately for Dyabala…In hindsight, Dyabala should perhaps have consulted Briffa who would have advised him on his commercial options which would have included retaining ownership of his intellectual property and granting a licence to the 3rd party.

Jose Mourinho also encountered difficulties when he was set to be unveiled as the manager of Manchester United.  Jose’s previous employers, Chelsea, acquired his image rights, including his name and signature as a trade mark that runs through to 2025.  This would prevent Manchester United selling any merchandise such as toiletries, clothing and even talcum powders bearing Jose’s name, unless they were able to come to agreement with Chelsea to acquire his rights outright (an assignment) or via a licence agreement.  This issue continues, as Jose was sacked from Manchester United and joined, yes you guessed, Tottenham Hotspur, who are unable to sell any Jose merchandise due to Chelsea’s clever ownership of the Jose Mourinho brand.

Intellectual property is an asset for a player and their club, and the ownership structure and handling of those rights is important as highlighted above.

Briffa are specialist IP lawyers with decades of experience in the field of image rights management. We act for many well-known organisations, personalities and sportspeople, helping them to get the best deals, maximise the value of their imagery and retain brand value.  You can check more of our services here:  https://www.briffa.com/key-practice-area/image-rights/

Written by Raj Girn, Solicitor

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