Jose Mourinho and image rights

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The appointments of high-profile football managers to leading clubs are seldom without incident and, predictably, the appointment of Jose Mourinho as the new manager of Manchester United a few weeks ago was no exception.

An unexpected obstacle to Mourinho’s move to Old Trafford concerned his image rights. The concept of the “image right” has become increasingly familiar in the sporting, particular football context, but it is not an intellectual property right that is recognised in English law – although other jurisdictions do recognise an image right or at least something very like it.  Rather, it is a creation of contract.  Under the contract, the club will control the use that can be made of a player/manager’s image – this could be their photograph, autograph, catchphrase, goal celebration or shirt number for example.  Very often, the player/manager will have assigned whatever rights they have in these to an agency or management company acting on their behalf and the image rights agreement will be entered into between that company and the club.  The contract will typically require the player/manager to make personal appearances and perform other services (e.g. create content for social media, TV sessions, community visits) in support of the image and also not to undertake anything which could tarnish that image.  Ultimately, the object of the exercise is merchandising.

One obstacle impeding Mourinho’s path to Old Trafford concerned the rights in his name “Jose Mourinho”.  This has actually been registered as a trade mark by Mourinho’s former employer, Chelsea, in respect of a range of goods including toiletries, clothing, watchstraps, even talcum powder and lingerie.  Chelsea have a registered EU trade mark for Mourinho’s signature and national registrations for his name.  Clearly, the existence of these trade marks could seriously impact Manchester United’s merchandising opportunities presented by the arrival of Mourinho.  Obviously, the move has gone ahead so it can be assumed that some solution was reached, possibly the grant of a licence by Chelsea for United to use the marks, or an assignment of the marks from Chelsea to United.

A second obstacle concerned endorsement contracts that Mourinho had himself signed with a number of companies who, unfortunately, are competitors with sponsors of United.   Mourinho’s appointment will have involved discussions with these companies to ensure that a mutually satisfactory solution regarding Mourinho’s endorsements was reached and to ensure that the terms of any existing agreement concerning the use of Mourinho’s image is not breached.

The case highlights interesting issues around the ownership and control of images of famous sportspeople – or celebrities generally – especially when the rights are not owned by that person.