At one time, sport figures and entertainment figures occupied different social worlds but now these individuals jump from one world to the next and have blurred the lines. Successful (sometimes not so successful) athletes tend to become entertainment figures during and after their competitive careers. One of the major issues that sport and entertainment lawyers must deal with is protecting their star’s names and images. Publicity plays a major role in whether an athlete or entertainer can leverage their celebrity for profit. Brian Socolow, Partner in the New York office of Loeb & Loeb LLP and head of the firm’s Sports Law practice area confirms:
“Intellectual property rights are extremely important in both practices because they are both so tied to promoting and protecting their stars’ names and images. One of the key intellectual property rights for both sports and entertainment celebrities is the right of publicity, a property right that was first recognized in a lawsuit about baseball trading cards. Part of our practice centers on how athletes can protect their name and publicity rights, and how other entities in the sports industry can gain value from their association with those athletes, often by endorsement contracts, which can be extremely lucrative for athletes, in many cases beyond what they make in the competitive aspects of their careers. On the other hand, companies in the sports industry looking to enter into some type of endorsement deal have to consider very carefully who it is they want to be associated with.”
A big issue that sport and entertainment lawyers must be cognizant of is protecting their clients intellectual property rights once an endorsement has ended. Many times the term of the contract will expire but companies will continue to try and generate revenue from the property they once sponsored. Socolow uses two notable star athletes as examples:
“…Athletes need to be proactive in protecting their names and publicity rights so that they can capitalize on them off the field. They have to know what their rights are, then monitor the use of their name or likeness so that their rights aren’t violated. One example is Tom Brady, the MVP quarterback for the New England Patriots, who had an endorsement deal with General Motors that allowed the company to use his likeness and image. After his contract with GM ended, GM continued to use ads featuring Brady but they no longer had that right. That led to a dispute that was reportedly settled. Andre Agassi recently sued Target in a similar matter, claiming that it used his name on its line of sports sandals without his permission.”
Protecting the star’s rights is extremely important in this present time because athletes and entertainers are thought of more as brands than just talent. For decades companies worried about protecting logos and trademarks and now luminaries including professional athletes must protect their intellectual properties in the same manner. For all the athletes and agents out there Brian Socolow gives two tips that can save you from a costly intellectual property violation:
“The first thing an athlete can do is enter into agreements with the company he is dealing with so that each side is clear on exactly how that athlete’s name and likeness can be used. Beyond that, the athlete has to be very careful to monitor how others might be using the name and be ready to take legal action when necessary. Just like we help companies protect their trademarks or “brand image” from infringement, athletes have a “brand” that they have to protect also. Tiger Woods, for one, has done a very good job at seeking to prevent the unauthorized use of his image.”
For the February 2008 issue of the Metropolitan Corporate Counsel, the editor interviewed Brian R. Socolow. The interview did not compare athletes and entertainers rather it presented the perspective that athletes tend to become entertainers and are subject to legal issues that were once reserved for entertainers. Objective criteria aside what do you think makes an athlete an entertainer?