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Game on: It's time to mind intellectual property rights in sport

Singapore has a reputation for protecting IP, and should extend this into the commercialisation of sport.

IP rights undergird the licensing and other transactions that support the activities of sponsorship, merchandising and advertising, which have formed the financial lifeblood of professional sportsmen and sportswomen.

IN an era of political turmoil, extremism and strained international relations, the sporting arena, with its attendant concepts of sportsmanship and camaraderie, provides some much needed respite. Sport has proven itself to be an effective unifier that heals fractures and resolves fissures within communities, and leads individuals from all walks of life to aspire to greatness and compete.

Among youth, we have seen the development of sport as positive, both in terms of contributing to the maturity and mental well-being of this precious group, as well as fostering esprit de corps and equipping them for future endeavour.

There was a time when sport was just that - a class of activities that individuals participated in, possibly competitively, striving to be faster, higher and stronger. Then came the switch to the world of professional sport.


Today, the global market for professional sport has grown to such an extent as to encompass vast swathes of industry involvement, ranging from the organisation of sporting competitions that draw massive followings to the exploitation of the fame of sporting superstars and brands, and the proliferation of different technologies to support these individuals' remarkable exploits.

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A report published by A T Kearney valued the global spectator sport market at US$265 billion in 2017, with sport-related business endeavours contributing to nearly 1 per cent of global gross domestic product.

It is no surprise, then, that every sector of the Singaporean public would have some form of exposure to sport, be it a fanatical obsession over whether Liverpool FC will lift the Premier League trophy for the first time in 29 years, watching Joseph Schooling's success at the Olympics or participating in the increasingly vibrant sporting community that is being fostered by Sport Singapore and the Singapore Sports Council. At the same time, Singapore, being the hyper-connected, techno-savvy smart nation that it is, has seen an unprecedented increase in availability of global sporting events for viewership as a form of digital entertainment.

In July 2007, the European Commission noted that a growing part of the economic value of sport is linked to the protection of intellectual property (IP) rights. Nearly every aspect of the sporting arena invariably deals with IP rights such as copyright, trademarks, patents and image rights. These rights undergird the myriad of licensing and other transactions that support the activities of sponsorship, merchandising and advertising, which have formed the financial lifeblood of professional sportsmen and sportswomen.

They lend the strongest commercial incentive to strong performance in the sporting arena. As the value of the sporting industry increases, so too does the incentive to obtain access to sport content, legitimately or otherwise. Illegal streaming of broadcasts of sporting events, counterfeit sporting apparel and ambush marketing are but some of the many ways in which unmeritorious individuals and syndicates undermine IP rights and also retard the growth of the sporting industry. The central theme is the effective enforcement of IP rights and it is important for the health of the sports economy.

Pursuant to its vision to be a global IP Hub, Singapore rolled out the IP Hub Master Plan in 2013; this was updated in 2017 to augment the already significant progress that had been made in building a strong and reliable IP regime. The Intellectual Property Office of Singapore has established a comprehensive network of international partnerships in the field of patents, trade marks and industrial designs, and works with global partners like the World Intellectual Property Organization, among others, to deliver best practices and fair rights to all stakeholders in the innovation ecosystem.

The crucial question is this: moving forward, how can Singapore further develop its IP regime to support the growth of the sporting economy in light of the challenges posed by increasingly effective technology and increasingly sophisticated actors?

There are at least two immediate areas of focus, to better safeguard the rights of IP owners in commercial exploitation in the area of sport. The first is the fight against online piracy, and the second, a proper response to ambush marketing.


As mentioned previously, Singapore is well ensconced in the digital age. The Infocomm Media Development Authority reports that 91 per cent of households are equipped with Internet access. Internet metrics company Ookla recognises Singapore as the country with the second-fastest Internet speeds in the world. These factors, along with a technologically literate society, continue to provide fertile soil for the weeds of online piracy to grow.

First, there was the advent of torrent P2P sites, which provide Internet users hyperlinks to stream and download unlicensed copies of media programmes, including coverage of sporting events. This was followed by live-streaming websites which circumvent "geoblocks" and paywalls. Most recently, there has been great consternation over the overt sales of set-top boxes that are specifically designed to enable users to access content from unauthorised sources.

Singapore has commendably responded to each of these challenges. The introduction of the judicial site-blocking mechanism under the Copyright Act allows rights owners to apply to court for an order that Internet service providers (ISPs) disable access to "flagrantly infringing online locations", which are essentially websites that facilitate copyright infringement.

This mechanism has been used in the sporting arena, most recently by the Football Association Premier League to prevent Internet users from accessing unauthorised material online. The Singapore Courts have been one of the first jurisdictions to grant a "dynamic" site-blocking order, in which rights holders may notify ISPs to block other Web addresses or URLs that point users to the same infringing sites.

This will potentially pre-empt efforts to allow users to sidestep blocked content by using alternative web addresses. There is a growing body of site-blocking jurisprudence in the Singapore Courts that will reinforce the egregiousness of these illicit activities, and over time, increase deterrence to infringers.

The sellers of streaming boxes are also not spared. The Ministry of Law plans to amend the Copyright Act later this year to update Singapore's copyright regime to better support creators and the use and enjoyment of creative works. It is expected that new enforcement measures will be made available to copyright owners to deter retailers and service providers from profiting from the provision of access to content from unauthorised sources, through the sale of set-top boxes.


Ambush marketing has crept into the sporting world. This phenomena refers to a form of marketing practice that creates a false impression in the minds of consumers that an association exists between a company and a sports event or personality where no such association exists. This is typically achieved through opportunistic placements and advertising, and in doing so, the company seeks to exploit the goodwill associated with a sporting event or take advantage of an athlete's reputation without having to provide financial sponsorship or enter into a marketing equipment.

According to data by the World Advertising Research Center (WARC), US$65.8 billion was spent on sponsorship deals in 2018. Sponsorships provide a mutually beneficial arrangement for companies and sports personalities or events. In exchange for some form of pecuniary reward, sports personalities or events apply their reputation to the brand in question, boosting the brand's market presence and driving revenue upwards.

However, companies that engage in ambush marketing seek to undermine these arrangements by circumventing the need to pursue sponsorship or pay a marketing fee.

In Singapore, we will have to be more vigilant about these practices. Collectively, they are a lacuna of loss value to sportsmen and sportswomen and their sponsors. In negotiating sponsorship and downstream marketing agreements, advisers must be mindful of territorial delineations and placement clauses (over the permissible use of images, likeness and indicia) to minimise, if not prevent, upstream as well as downstream ambush marketing.

On World IP Day, it is a timely reminder to bring Singapore's formidable reputation for strong IP protection into sport, and sport-related commercialisation. IP has its role to play in many areas of human endeavour. It can play its part to push sport to the next level in this country.

  • The writer is chairman of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore.
    The theme of World Intellectual Property Day on Friday is anchored on how IP plays an increasingly important role in the global sporting industry.

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