Fans of Federer at this year’s Wimbledon may be wondering why he’s no longer sporting the distinctive ‘RF’ logo on his tennis whites. That’s because the trademark is actually owned by his former sponsor Nike.

While defending Wimbledon champion Roger Federer has said he expects he will obtain the rights to the ‘RF’ logo from Nike, the dispute highlights the importance of clarifying IP ownership as part of any sponsorship or partnership agreement.

Although the ‘RF’ monogram was designed for and promoted by the tennis star, the rights to it are owned by Nike, which has sponsored Federer since 1994. The sports footwear and apparel giant registered the ‘RF’ trademark in 2010.

The monogram has become widely associated with Federer with tennis fans still using it on makeshift banners at this year’s Wimbledon. Nonetheless, the much-loved tennis champion is no longer able to use the brand following the expiry of his agreement with Nike in March 2018.

The importance of clarifying IP ownership

Federer isn’t the first star to face difficulties over third-party ownership of a brand associated with his name. “Unfortunately, IP ownership isn't always front of mind when such deals are being struck,” explains Alastair Rawlence a Senior Trademark Attorney at Novagraaf in the UK. “Few consider what may happen in the future when agreements come to an end, often leading to avoidable disputes.”

Federer may have assumed that as he inspired, collaborated on and promoted the design that gave him some rights to the finished product; however, this is not the case. When it comes to the joint creation of a brand, it is crucial to clearly define IP ownership, as Rawlence explains:

‘While Federer has registered his own name "Roger Federer" as a EUTM he has not, it seems, registered his initials “RF”. This case highlights the importance of sports personalities protecting their names including nicknames (and in this case, initials), slogans and catchphrases which are associated with them as registered trademarks, as soon as possible. They can then license those rights to third parties such as sport companies, while retaining ownership over them.’

As we have written previously, this is common practice in many areas of sport, in particular football, with Jesse Lingard, one of the most recent football stars to have registered trademarks to protect his nickname and distinctive goal celebration.