You Don’t Have to Pay for That? “Concussion” Movie Legally Allowed to Depict NFL Logos Without League’s Consent

As anyone who has ever watched a football game on TV knows, one of the first things you hear before opening kickoff is a disclaimer stating that any broadcast or use of the NFL brand or its logos without its consent is prohibited under the law. People are so used to hearing the disclaimer that they probably don’t think about it too much; they just know that in order for the TV stations to broadcast the games, they need to legally disclaim any right to the images and logos of the League and the teams, as they are protected under trademark and copyright law.

What the average person is not aware of, though, is that you can legally use those images and logos under the law even without the explicit permission of the NFL, as long as you do so within a strict set of boundaries. This issue has come up recently concerning the new Sony Pictures movie “Concussion,” which stars Will Smith and Luke Wilson as Dr. Bennet Omalu and Commissioner Roger Goodell, respectively. The movie concerns Dr. Omalu’s discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease brought on by repetitive head injuries and concussion related trauma, and its prevalence in a significant amount of former football players.

Throughout the film, images of team logos and the NFL’s insignia are depicted in many scenes, so as to make the movie as authentic as possible. Obviously, the NFL does not outright endorse the movie or its message that the League tried to cover up its knowledge of head trauma and other devastating medical issues that can result from football-related injuries. It seems hard to believe, therefore, that the NFL would grant permission to the moviemakers to use their copyrighted and trademarks logos – yet they’re littered throughout the film.

Under the law, however, the people behind “Concussion” did not have to seek the NFL’s or its thirty-two member club’s permission to use their logos in the movie. Legally, a person is allowed to use copyrighted and trademarked logos so long as that use does not in and of itself disparage or misrepresent the brand being depicted. In other words, as long as the use shows how those images would be used in real life, then it’s perfectly legal to use them without permission and without paying the copyright/trademark holder for those rights.

Because “Concussion” shows the team logos and the NFL’s crest in ways that they would be used in real life – such as behind the speaker of a press conference or in League boardrooms – the moviemakers did not need the NFL’s consent to use the images, even though the movie as a whole depicts the League in a negative light. Naturally, this comes as a significant blow to the NFL and its ability to protect its business, potentially harming the League and its teams’ public image.

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