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Copyright in Sports

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Manish Jindal

December 6, 2023


0min read

Copyright in Sports

Do you know how copyright in sports plays a vital role?

In a world where a single sports highlight can go viral in minutes, and where merchandise featuring our favorite athletes becomes a hot commodity overnight, understanding copyright in sports has never been more important.

But as clear-cut as a penalty in a soccer game might seem, copyright rules in the realm of sports are anything but.

Whether you’re an athlete, broadcaster, or simply a superfan, it’s essential to know where the goalposts are. Welcome to the thrilling arena of copyright in sports. Buckle up!

Copyright in Sports

In the vast expanse of global entertainment, sports occupy a unique and significant place.

From the roar of the crowds in colossal stadiums to the collective cheers of families gathered around a television, sports have the power to unite and enthral.

However, beneath the surface of these iconic moments and the mammoth industry of sports lies a complex web of intellectual property rights.

1. The Basics of Copyright in Sports

Copyright is a form of intellectual property that grants creators exclusive rights over their original creations. In the context of sports, this doesn’t protect the actual sport or game being played.

For example, the basic rules and format of football or basketball are not copyrighted.

What copyright does protect are the representations, recordings, and creative expressions surrounding the sport.

2. Broadcast Rights and Live Coverage

Television networks and streaming platforms pay billions for the exclusive right to broadcast particular sports events.

These broadcasts are original works, and thus the footage is protected by copyright. This is why unauthorised re-broadcasting or streaming of sports events can lead to serious legal repercussions.

3. Photography and Videography

Ever wondered why certain iconic sports images are so closely guarded? Photographs and video footage of sports events are the intellectual property of the photographers or the entity they work for.

This means unauthorised reproduction or distribution can land one in legal trouble.

4. Merchandising and Player Likeness

Athletes, especially those at the pinnacle of their careers, are not just sportspeople – they are brands.

Their names, images, and sometimes even signature moves can be copyrighted or trademarked. This forms the basis for various merchandising opportunities, from video games to apparel.

5. Challenges in the Digital Age

The age of social media and instant digital communication has thrown a wrench into the traditional understanding of copyright.

Viral video clips, GIFs of memorable moments, and live commentary on platforms like Twitter often blur the lines of what’s permissible under copyright laws.

6. Global Differences

While the concept of copyright is universal, its application can vary greatly from one country to another.

Navigating international sports events requires a keen understanding of these nuances to avoid infringements.

Copyright in Sports – Infringement Cases

While the world of sports is often associated with fierce competitions on the field, court, or track, a different kind of contest sometimes plays out in courtrooms across the globe.

The arena of copyright law, with its nuances and complexities, often intersects with sports, leading to some noteworthy legal skirmishes.

Here, we’ll delve into some significant copyright infringement cases in the realm of sports, highlighting the multifaceted relationship between athletic pursuits and intellectual property rights.

1. The NBA vs. Motorola and STATS Inc.

In the 1990s, the National Basketball Association (NBA) took Motorola and STATS Inc. to court. The dispute arose over a device Motorola was selling, which provided users with real-time basketball game statistics.

The NBA claimed this was a violation of their copyright in the live broadcasts of the games.

However, the court found in favor of Motorola, stating that while broadcasts of games were copyrighted, the underlying facts and statistics were not.

2. Dataco vs. Sportradar and Others

A landmark case in the UK, this involved a dispute between Football Dataco, which manages football data rights for various leagues, and Sportradar, a company providing live data to online betting companies.

Dataco argued that Sportradar was infringing on its copyright by collecting and distributing live match data.

Ultimately, the courts sided mostly with Sportradar, reinforcing the distinction between raw data (not protected) and the organisation or presentation of data (potentially protected).

3. Baltimore Orioles vs. Major League Baseball Players Association

This 1986 case revolved around the rights to player statistics and profiles for use in fantasy baseball leagues.

The Players Association wanted compensation for the commercial use of player names and stats.

The court ruled in favor of the Players Association, leading to the now widespread licensing agreements that fantasy sports platforms maintain with leagues.

4. UEFA vs. Euroview Sports

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In a more traditional copyright infringement scenario, UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) sued Euroview Sports for unlawfully distributing satellite decoder cards, enabling UK viewers to watch games broadcasted from foreign channels.

This bypassed the exclusive broadcasting agreements UEFA had in place with specific UK broadcasters. The courts sided with UEFA, reinforcing the value and exclusivity of broadcast rights.

5. Ambush Marketing and the Olympics

While not a direct case, the Olympics have always been a hotspot for “ambush marketing,” where brands not officially associated with the event try to suggest an association.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has consistently clamped down on these unofficial uses, leading to multiple skirmishes and legal threats to protect its brand and that of its sponsors.


The intricate interplay of sports and copyright is a testament to the evolving nature of both fields.

As sports have transformed from mere recreational activities to massive global industries, the necessity to safeguard intellectual assets has become paramount.

Whether it’s broadcasting rights, player likenesses, team logos, or even game footage, copyright serves as the invisible goalkeeper, ensuring that the rights of creators and stakeholders are not sidelined.

It’s clear that in a world where sports moments can be instantly shared, replayed, and commercialised, understanding and respecting copyright is not just a legal obligation but an ethical one.

For the sporting world to continue its growth trajectory and maintain its integrity, both on and off the pitch, a solid grasp of copyright dynamics is crucial.

As fans, players, broadcasters, and industry stakeholders, our collective responsibility is to ensure that as we cheer for our teams, we also champion the principles of fair play in the realm of intellectual property.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What exactly is copyright in sports?

In sports, several elements can be copyrighted, including:
Broadcasts of sporting events.

Original commentary and analysis.

Photographs and video footage of events and players.

Team anthems, promotional videos, and certain choreographed celebrations.
Merchandise designs featuring team logos, slogans, or players. However, the actual game, its rules, and raw statistics aren’t copyrighted.

2. Can I share a clip of a live sports event on social media?

Generally, sharing clips of live sports events without permission can infringe on the broadcaster’s copyright.

While many leagues and broadcasters have started to embrace social media and allow some sharing, it’s essential to be aware of and respect the official guidelines.

Unauthorised sharing may lead to content being taken down or even legal action.

3. Are athletes’ images and likenesses protected by copyright?

While actual images (photographs, videos) of athletes can be copyrighted by the photographer or the entity commissioning the photograph, an athlete’s likeness is more commonly protected under rights of publicity or personality rights.

This means unauthorised commercial use of an athlete’s image or likeness can lead to legal repercussions.

4. Why can’t I use team logos freely on my merchandise?

Team logos are often protected under both copyright (as artistic works) and trademark law (representing the brand of the team or organisation).

Using them without permission on merchandise is both a copyright and a potential trademark infringement, leading to legal action and penalties.

How do sports video games use real players and teams?

Sports video game developers typically enter into licensing agreements with leagues, teams, or players’ associations.

These agreements permit the use of player likenesses, team logos, stadiums, and other copyrighted or trademarked elements within the game.

Without such agreements, using these elements could be considered an infringement.

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