Lawrence Stephens

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Mohit Pasricha explores athlete trademarks and brand protection in The Times

March 2024

With Kylian Mbappé recently registering trademarks for his name and iconic goal celebration, Head of Sports & Entertainment Mohit Pasricha discusses how athletes can use the law to build their identity and protect their brand.

Mohit’s article was published in The Times, 28 March 2024, and can be found here.

Kylian Mbappé is often described as the “next Lionel Messi”; however the French football star is not just following in the footsteps of his Argentinian counterpart on the pitch. He has already taken similar steps off the pitch: by formally applying to register a black and white logo that depicts his crossed arms celebration as a registered trademark, together with other trademarks relating to his surname, initials and most famous quotes.

A nine-year legal battle ensued before the Court of Justice of the European Union finally approved Messi’s registration of an EU-wide trademark for a logo consisting of his name and a stylized letter M. The French phenomenon’s trademark applications should – in theory – be approved much faster.

Notably, the applications do not seek to prevent others from performing Mbappé’s famous celebration. They only apply to clothing, footwear, games, sports equipment, accessories, luggage, and printed matter such as books and magazines. As a result, and if registered, he will be provided with legal protection in the EU and the UK, which prevents others from trying to sell such goods if they feature the trademark of him performing the celebration.

Seeking to monetise their image and using the law to proactively build their brand, Mbappé’s move is part of a wider trend by sports stars and celebrities to protect their intellectual property (IP) rights relating to their signatures, names, and other personal characteristics. Trademarking a logo, symbol, name or other similar mark grants these owners a monopoly right over their IP assets, protecting their personal brand and stopping third parties from using their image.

If Mbappé’s widely anticipated transfer from PSG to Real Madrid happens during the summer window, then these trademarks are likely to form part of the overall financial package. Not only will Real Madrid be hiring him as an employee for his footballing services, the Spanish club will also want to exploit his image rights for commercial purposes. Since these trademarks will be owned by Mbappé in his personal capacity, Real Madrid will need to licence the right to use them in his employment contract, or via a separate image rights agreement.

Following the inevitable transfer, attention will focus on Real Madrid’s use of Mbappe’s trademarks and on how the revenue generated from the sale of products featuring his image (including the trademark) will be split. Notwithstanding media reports suggesting that this will be agreed at 80-20 in Mbappe’s favour, Real Madrid and other La Liga teams have previously adopted a distinctive approach: agreeing a 50/50 split with players on revenue generated from the sale of goods and services using their image in a club context.

No doubt, Mbappé’s progress in monetising opportunities will be keenly watched by sporting superstars and their agents, since failure to protect and enhance their IP rights could potentially result in millions of lost revenue for all parties.