What are Image Rights in Football?

Football is one of the most popular sports in the UK. The football phenomenon has turned supporters into consumers, and clubs and players are perceived as brands in their own right. Given the large global audience that the sport reaches, football clubs are entering into numerous commercial partnerships as they seek to grow their revenue, and many companies want to be associated with these clubs and their high-profile players in order to advertise their products. The protection of a player’s image rights has therefore become increasingly important and, in many circumstances, of significant commercial value.

The term “image rights” refers to proprietary rights of a player’s personality, and the right to control, licence, exploit and prevent third parties from making use of attributes related to the player’s image. This includes the following:

  • The player’s name, nickname and / or initials
  • The player’s squad number
  • The player’s image and / or photograph
  • The player’s voice
  • The player’s autograph
  • The player’s social media handles
  • All other characteristics that are unique to the player

Who owns a player’s image rights?

The individual player is the owner of their image rights. However, often players will create an image rights company and assign the rights to that company. One of the reasons for doing this is so that image rights can be kept out of a player’s main contract with their club. Clubs will then enter into a separate agreement with the company to use the player’s image rights both to promote itself and to endorse the products / services of their own sponsors.

The use of player’s image rights

There are provisions relating to image rights in the standard forms of employment contracts between players and clubs, but these are often very limited in scope. For example, clause 4.6.1 of the Premier League Contract contained in the Premier League Handbook 2022/23 provides that the club’s use of the player’s image “shall be limited to no greater usage than the average for all players regularly in the club’s first team”. This means that if, for instance, Tottenham Hotspur FC wanted to use the image of certain players who may be more recognisable or influential in certain markets than others in its first team, such as Harry Kane (the current captain of England’s national men’s team), or Heung-Min Son (the current captain of South Korea’s national men’s team), the club would need to enter into a separate image rights agreement with each player (or their image rights company).

Restriction of Image Rights

Some Premier League clubs have over 50 commercial partners. Meanwhile, players often have their own personal sponsorships, ranging from clothing (such as Jack Grealish’s partnership with Gucci), perfumes, watches, cars, and food / drink companies. Therefore, conflicts of interests have the potential to arise, and clubs may seek to restrict their players from using their image rights to promote a direct competitor of their own sponsors.

Any contracts relating to image rights must therefore be negotiated very carefully, especially where a player is joining a new club. There have been some instances where a transfer deal has been held up or even collapsed due to the issue of image rights, as was reportedly the case in 2019 when Paulo Dybala’s negotiations with Tottenham Hotspur FC fell through.

Managers can also experience such delays when finalising deals with their new club. For example, when Jose Mourinho joined Manchester United FC in 2016, he was sponsored by the watch company Hublot and the car manufacturer Jaguar. However, the club had their own sponsorship deals with Bulova and Chevrolet. Further, Mr Mourinho’s name and signature were (and still are) registered trademarks belonging to his previous club, Chelsea FC. Negotiations regarding these image rights issues reportedly delayed Mr Mourinho’s appointment as manager of Manchester United FC.

How can image rights be protected?

Some countries (such as Italy and France) have specific laws preventing the use of a person’s image for commercial purposes. However, in the UK, there is no codified legislation that protects image rights. Players will therefore have to piece together a cause of action to prevent an unauthorised use of their image using common law as well as statutes, intellectual property rights and regulatory protections (e.g. registered trademarks).

An example of how common law can be used to protect image rights

In Irvine v TalkSport Ltd, a dispute arose when a radio station, TalkSport, used an image of former Formula One driver, Eddie Irvine, on a leaflet it produced for a promotional campaign in 1999. Whilst TalkSport had purchased (properly and without any breach of copyright) a picture of Mr Irvine holding a phone to his ear, they altered the photograph by substituting a radio with the station’s logo for the phone and used this doctored image on the leaflet.

Mr Irvine alleged that by 1999 he had built up a valuable goodwill and reputation in his name and image, and that TalkSport’s use of the doctored image was used to deceive and lead the public to believe that he had endorsed the radio station. Mr Irvine therefore issued a claim for damages caused by the passing off by the radio station as it being endorsed by him. TalkSport denied liability for passing off and submitted that the image was used as part of a promotional pack that was intended to be a joke.

However, the court did not consider “the humorous nature” of the image to be relevant to the question of whether the impression given by the image was that Mr Irvine had endorsed the radio station. In considering that question, the court found it difficult to conceive of a clearer way of conveying the message that a particular radio station had been endorsed by a celebrity than by depicting them “listening intently” to a radio bearing the station’s logo.

TalkSport was ordered to pay damages in the sum of £25,000 (on appeal, increased from £2,000 at first instance), as the court found it would have had to pay this amount “to enable it to do lawfully that which it did unlawfully, that is to say represent by means of the image appearing on the front of the leaflet that Mr Irvine had endorsed Talk Radio”.

How we can help you

If you have an image rights agreement (or other contractual relationship) and believe that the other party has acted in breach of contract, or if you are facing such a claim, our expert civil litigators can advise you on effective causes of action. For more information on how Saunders Law can help you, please contact Vikesh Navsaria, Senior Associate, at [email protected], or call us on 020 7632 4300.


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