Julia Schroeder – Swiss tennis star Roger Federer has dominated grass, clay, and hard courts for decades. The winner of twenty Grand Slam titles, he is not only consistently regarded as one of the greatest athletes of all time, but is revered as a style icon, as well. His successful 24-year partnership with the Oregon-based sportswear brand, Nike produced collections of clothing, shoes, and caps featuring the “RF” logo, worn enthusiastically by fans and Federer himself. So, when Federer announced the end of his partnership with Nike in 2018 and the signing of a new partnership with the Japanese brand UNIQLO, many wondered what would come of his signature logo.
Despite owning trademark rights in his name and signature, Federer did not own the “RF” mark. This meant that he could not simply bring it with him to UNIQLO. As a result, intellectual property disputes quickly reached center stage for Federer and his former sponsor. As articulated in an article by The Fashion Law, if Federer used the mark still registered to Nike, he could risk being accused of trademark infringement. However, if Nike continued to sell merchandise adorned with the fan-favorite logo without striking a deal with Federer, it could risk infringing the trademarks in Federer’s name and signature already owned by the tennis giant, and being subjected to accusations of misleading the public into believing there was still a partnership between Nike and Federer.
Fortunately for Federer, his company Tenro AG—which holds his other trademarks—was able to purchase the RF logo from Nike in early 2020. However, battles over personal brands are not uncommon.. Other popular celebrities, athletes, and designers have completely lost the rights to their names and logos at the end of business partnerships. In fact, Karen Millen, founder of the popular eponymous clothing brand for women, lost the right to use her own name in the development of a new business after selling it. NBA star Kawhi Leonard also found himself in the middle of a lengthy and complicated IP dispute centering around “The Klaw” logo owned by Nike. Leonard’s contract stipulated that Nike would own the logos, trademarks and other IP developed in connection with their partnership. Therefore, when his relationship with Nike ended in 2019, “The Klaw” remained with the brand instead of with the athlete it represented.
After announcing that he had regained control of the mark, Federer took to social media to inform his fans that the “#RFcapisback.” On December 8th, 2020, UNIQLO released eight color combinations for the “RF” cap—all of which sold out within ten minutes. Despite Federer’s success in securing the logo, the legal battle over it only emphasizes how important it is for athletes to protect their personal brands. It may seem natural for logos reflecting personal names and identities to belong to the individual they represent. However, as Federer’s case shows, this does not always happen. Though generous contracts and partnerships with well-known brands are appealing—especially to young athletes who have not yet “made it big”—it is important for them to be aware of the implications of contracting over major parts of their personal identities before it is too late. Granting an exclusive license to use a logo only during the course of a partnership is one way for athletes and other celebrities to avoid future ownership problems. Overall, it is always essential for these public figures to contact an attorney who will be able to advise them on the possibilities of controlling a personal mark after a commercial relationship has ceased.