Scottish sporting starlets need a lesson in law from Usain Bolt

Gold medals are only part of the equation for young sports stars. Rosemary Gallagher finds out what they should think about in legal terms
When young athletes burst into the public eye, they have an opportunity to capitalise on their hard work. Picture: ShutterstockWhen young athletes burst into the public eye, they have an opportunity to capitalise on their hard work. Picture: Shutterstock
When young athletes burst into the public eye, they have an opportunity to capitalise on their hard work. Picture: Shutterstock

When Mo Farah does his famous Mobot and Usain Bolt performs his signature lightning strike pose, legal protection is unlikely to be the first thought that comes to mind.

But ensuring such sporting personalities have an effective brand strategy and adequate legal protection in place is a top consideration, say experts.

Farah and Bolt have clearly been well advised when it comes to protecting their lucrative brands, with their signature moves registered as trade marks.

But it is also vital that up and coming sports people have a brand management strategy from the outset, according to Andy Nolan, managing associate at Brodies, one of Scotland’s largest law firms, which has a number of sporting clients.

“The Commonwealth Games is an example of an event that has catapulted a lot of young athletes into the spotlight in a way they wouldn’t necessarily have imagined,” says Nolan.

“Agents and sponsors will be looking to agree lucrative deals with these athletes.

“This is an opportunity for the athletes to capitalise on their hard work and dedication,” he says.

“If a sports person doesn’t implement a proper brand management strategy at the outset that can become really problematic.

“They should get advice not just from agents, but also from lawyers and accountants,” he says.

Brand protection is of real commercial value as it can generate revenue through endorsements, sponsorship and licensing.

There are various ways for individuals and organisations to protect their brands, with two of the main methods being trade marks and effective management of image rights.

Another is the common law of passing off to help prevent an organisation’s or person’s reputation being compromised.

Trade marks act as a badge of origin and give consumers reassurance that a product is genuine.

A registered trade mark lets the owner bring a legal action against unauthorised third parties using it.

Image rights are the proprietary rights that an individual has, along with unique characteristics associated with their personality.

Nolan explains that trade mark registration lies at the heart of brand protection strategies for both sporting organisations and individuals, and the likes of a person’s name and signature can be registered.

Such strategies aren’t as new as people might think.

The first sports personality to register their signature was tennis legend Fred Perry back in 1965.

Since then numerous athletes have registered both their names and their signatures, including Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Wayne Rooney and Lewis Hamilton.

Unfortunately, not everyone gets it right. When football manager Jose Mourinho was appointed as manager of Manchester United his move was delayed because his former club Chelsea retained his image rights, including his signature, which they acquired and commercialised when he joined the London club.

As a result, Chelsea was in a position to demand a significant amount of money from Manchester United.

“That is the nub of a concern that I often have,” says Nolan. “A lot of sports people allow third parties to own their trade mark name.”

Looking to future challenges, Nolan believes the law has to catch up with what is happening in the digital age and be able to address such issues as ambush marketing.

Counterfeit goods are another ongoing problem and Nolan advises organisations to engage with customs and trading standards and have preventative marketing strategies in place.

In terms of how the UK compares with other countries when it comes to protecting image rights, Nolan describes the current system of statutory and common law courses of action as one that has “room for improvement” and is hopeful that in time, more legislation will be introduced.

He says Guernsey stands out as the first country in the world to provide a person with the opportunity to register an image right and not just a trade mark.

“The overriding message for organisations and individuals is look after your trade marks and your trade marks will look after the brand,” concludes Nolan. The Brodies Tennis Invitational at Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire is on 22 and 23 June. For details and tickets visit