NIL and University Intellectual Property Controls
Updated: Oct 18, 2022
One issue that has not been greatly addressed with respect to student-athletes being able to monetize on their rights of publicity (i.e., name, image, and likeness – NIL) is how will universities and colleges monitor the use of their intellectual property (IP). Universities are very protective of their trademarks, copyrights, and any IP that is associated with the university. Time and time again, these institutions have asserted their rights against any number and type of organization or individual who attempts to use some aspect of a university’s IP, or something too similar, in a commercial manner. This could include logos, colors, names, mascots, likeness, or other that would be copyrighted or trademarked by the university or would readily associate with a university. For example, universities have gone after high schools for copying their logos or having too similar of a logo, have gone after apparel companies for using their trademarks and/or copyrights without permission, gone after breweries/distilleries for using a university’s likeness, and so on.
With athletes now able to monetize their NIL, something to watch is how the athletes associate themselves with their universities, and how much leeway the universities will give the athletes. It is a given that at least some of the value of an athlete’s NIL is directly associated with his or her university. Fan bases, alumni, and even rivals know that athletes have short terms with a school, and thus, tend to root for or against a school as much as the athletes themselves. While it is true that some athletes may have greater popularity than the schools themselves, these are likely rare. Therefore, it will be beneficial to the athletes to be able to market themselves as an extension of the school itself, which may require use of colors, logos, names, or other IP of the school.
The rulings of the Supreme Court and legislative acts to not allow for unmitigated use of a school’s IP for an athlete. Thus, it is likely that any attempt by an athlete to use an aspect of a school’s IP in a commercial manner will fun afoul of the university’s policies, and the university or other institution may need to make a determination whether to act against its own athlete and require them to stop use of the unlicensed IP, or to potentially take action and sue the athlete and any entity compensating the same as part of their use of their NIL. It will be a bit of a catch-22 for the universities – enforce their IP rights and risk athletes choosing to go elsewhere, or allow the unlicensed use of the IP, which could open the door to the weakening of the IP rights and inability to prevent others from using their IP.
An easy solution will be education and working together between the universities and athletes. Bringing potential opportunities to the universities will allow them to evaluate the potential use of the university’s IP, and may even allow the university to license use to both the athlete and third-party working with the athlete, which can provide another revenue stream for universities. Take the following example, QB1 gets an opportunity to make money by selling t-shirts with their nickname. The t-shirts will include reference to QB1’s school in the use of the color schemes and helmets with logo. The school could license the use of the color/logo to QB1 and the apparel company, and all three could obtain a cut of any money made by sale of the shirts. Without the logo, the school would likely be able to stop any and all sales for violations of their trademark and/or copyright rights.
While it is great that athletes are able to start making money on their rights of publicity, the universities will still be able to have at least some control on how they are presented. However it pans out, it is going to be a busy time to be in compliance and IP law associated with universities.
UPDATE: On July 20, 2021, the University of North Carolina Tarheels announced a voluntary, Group Licensing Program for its current student athletes. The Program is intended to allow the athletes to “benefit from their NIL in conjunction with UNC's official trademarks and logos.” However, the athletes are not obligated to join this program, and are still able to negotiate their own licensing opportunities outside of the program.