By Duncan Potgieter, Associate at Webber Wentzel
Every July, professional cyclists from around the world gather to compete in the most beautiful (yet brutal) bicycle race in the world, le Tour de France. Described as the Super Bowl of bicycle racing, le Tour de France is an annual multi-stage spectacle primarily held in France with occasional passes through nearby countries. This year is the 109th edition of le Tour and will be followed by the first edition of the women’s race, le Tour de France Femmes.
The history of le Tour dates back to 1903 when Géo Lefèvre, a cycling journalist for the French newspaper L’Auto, suggested the idea of a bicycle race to his editor, Henri Desgrange, to promote their newspaper. Henri liked the idea, and the inaugural race was held later that year. Promotion of le Tour de France proved a great success for L’Auto and circulation of the newspaper leapt from 25 000 before le Tour to 65 000 afterwards. Since then, traces of commercial sponsorship have been embedded in the race, including the iconic yellow jersey (maillot jaune) worn by the race leader, which comes from the colour of L’Auto newspaper.
With an estimated 12 million spectators lining up along the 21-stage route and a television audience of approximately 3.5 billion viewers across 190 countries, the race is the perfect platform to market brands. Sponsors, ranging from caffeine shampoo to national lotteries, are splashed across team jerseys, creating a kaleidoscope of moving colour on wheels known as the peloton.
Cycling bodies such as Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), which owns and organises the race, have recognised the need to adequately protect their brands. In addition to trademark protection, ASO has created detailed guidelines on how fans, broadcasters and partners can use their protected content. For instance, each country has its own cycling retailer offering a selection of the official le Tour de France merchandise. In South Africa, the 2022 le Tour licensed products from premium brands such as Oakley and Santini are available from Cycle Lab stores.
Apart from brand exposure and trademarks, other forms of intellectual property rights are associated with le Tour. The creative works, photographs or videos taken during each stage of le Tour receive copyright protection, and the look and feel of cycling apparel and accessories can be protected through design rights. A search on the United States Patent Office database indicates that it has issued cycling brand Trek with a patent for their passive seat tube pivot joint, which is marketed under their IsoSpeed Technology. Patents can also be found for innovations in cycling technology relating to chainrings and derailleurs.
Beyond the scenery, coveted jerseys and extraordinary figures, le Tour is a reminder of the value of intellectual property rights and the importance of understanding and protecting these rights.