Several months ago, Slowtwitch.com erupted over an altered image that had been discovered of pro triathlete Hillary Biscay. The original image showed Biscay running during an Ironman-branded race with a jersey that bears a small blue decal. That decal is the logo for REV3, which is the organizer of a series of races that compete with Ironman races. Presumably, at the time, REV3 was one of her sponsors.
The altered image appeared in a promotional piece for the World Triathlon Corporation, owner of the Ironman trademarks. In the altered image, the REV3 logo had been removed. Underneath that image ran information about Biscay and Ironman Louisville.
We frequently see the removal or blurring of logos on TV. This is often done to make it clear that the logo’s company doesn’t appear to be a sponsor of the show or the television station. But the removal of an athlete’s sponsor’s logo is something different: the athlete has a contract with that sponsor to promote the company along with his or her personality and results. The removal of the logo interferes with that the contract and the ability of the company to promote itself.
Is this something that trademark law affects? Perhaps. The doctrine of reverse passing off makes liable one who removes a trademark and attempts to pass it off as their own. The infringing party need not replace the mark with its own; instead, merely leaving the product unbranded is enough for liability. The underlying harm is from the infringing party thwarting the efforts of the trademark owner to identify the source of the product, to link the product with existing goodwill surrounding the mark, and to advertise itself. The de-branding of athletes triggers similar harms. Here, REV3’s link to a successful athlete is eliminated and the promotional value of its logo on Biscay’s jersey is prevented, and passing off seems to be a viable claim, even though WTC isn’t passing the Hillary Biscay “product” off as one of its own. Moreover, it is possible that a general claim for unfair competition may lie as well.
Despite the above, it is doubtful that the practice will be discontinued. It is fairly widespread through cycling and triathlon, and to this point, companies seem to be accepting of the fact that their marks will occasionally be removed from their products or sponsored athletes.