What’s in a name?

Athletes and celebrities’ images are personal brands on which they rely to earn an income via endorsements.

Endorsement income often far exceeds salaries paid by respective clubs and countries, by up to 4 times in the case of athletes like Rafael Nadal.

The advent of digital and social media has exacerbated the exploitation of fame relating to modern-day athletes and celebrities by unscrupulous entrepreneurs and large businesses.

Mohamed Salah, a famous footballer, is a current case in point. He is the most recent athlete to be embroiled in a dispute over his image rights. Through his image rights company, he had a sponsorship agreement in place with telecommunications company Vodafone. However, the Egyptian FA had allowed his image to be used to endorse a competitor. This prompted outrage from Salah and his agent, and public outcry in Egypt in support of their most famous sportsperson, with “I support Mohammed Salah” trending online. This eventually prompted the intervention of Egyptian government officials to resolve the issue.

Here In SA, media personality Basetsana ‘Bassie’ Kumalo won a court case against Cycelab, SA’s largest cycling retailer after it had unlawfully used an image of her in an advert. In this case, Bassie had registered her image rights in a separate entity. We will elaborate on this case in the next publication of our ‘image rights’ series.

Even the children of many celebrities are born into popularity with an image many wishes to use and exploit for monetary benefit. Beyoncé has been fighting since 2012 – when Blue Ivy, her daughter, was born- to claim the trademark but was denied the rights because an event company had registered the mark beforehand.

Image rights in personal names are per se not recognised as such by South African common law, requiring additional steps to secure recognition and protection.

Trademarking personal names enables protection and enforcement. It is not only the personal names but associated nicknames, acronyms, abbreviations, logos and designs, be it Ronaldo’s CR7, the legendary ‘Messi’, or not to mention Tiger Woods’s ‘TW’ and ‘TGR’ and who ironically tainted his own portfolio of images which were dented albeit temporarily with the ‘swing of a club’ — and it wasn’t even his swing.

However, South African common and tax law places various restrictions and disincentives on image rights and trademarking, more especially in the cases of stars with a global appeal.

This article is the first in a series that will elicit the importance and benefits to athletes and celebrities of registering brands as well as the effective structuring and management of image rights to maximise royalty income and mitigate taxation.

Get in touch with our team of trademark specialists and learn how the law can help you.

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