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Thinking About a Marketing Campaign Based Upon an Olympics Theme? Think Again (Unless You Have Permission)!

Posted on Aug 22, 2016 in Blog

The 2016 Rio Olympics® are upon us and the eyes of the world are firmly focused on Brazil, host of this summer’s blockbuster event for a brief two week period from August 5th to the 21st.

During this short period of time, companies of all sizes look to grab the attention of fans all over the world by associating themselves with the games. For the Olympics, the host organizing committee, individual country committees, and television partners this means big business by selling sponsorships and licensing use of intellectual property surrounding the Olympics. Olympics sponsors pay enormous sums, some into the hundreds of millions of dollars, for the right to associate themselves with the Olympics, and to get exclusivity to associate their brands with the games. Thus, the sponsors guard their licensed rights carefully, as do the Olympic organizations, i.e., the International Olympics Committee “IOC” and the national governing bodies such as the United States Olympics Committee “USOC”, whose ability to stage the games is dependent on such sponsorship.

The Olympics organizations (IOC and USOC) own and aggressively enforce their rights in the Olympic trademarks, slogans, and symbols. In addition to the traditional protections afforded under the Lanham Act, as well as those under state and common law, certain Olympic trademarks are protected by United States statute which grants to the USOC exclusive ownership and control over commercial use of USOC related trademarks, imagery and or terminology in the United States. Specifically, under the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, Congress granted the USOC exclusive ownership of certain Olympic and Paralympic words and symbols, including the name “United States Olympic Committee” and the words “Olympic,” “Olympiad,” “Citius Altius Fortius,” “Pan American,” “Paralympic,” “Paralympiad,” “America Espirito Sport Fraternite,” and the IOC’s symbol of five interlocking rings.

Aggressive patrolling of the Olympic trademarks has led to significant clashes between the IOC, USOC and the public. In a very significant case, in 1982 the USOC successfully sued San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc. to stop it from using the word “Olympic” in its Gay Olympic Games. The court noted that the legislative history demonstrated that Congress intended to provide the USOC with an absolute monopoly over the use of the word “Olympic.” In other words, it does not matter whether any unauthorized use of the word tends to cause confusion, which is a requisite showing under the Lanham Act or common law. All uses by entities other than the USOC and its licensees, are prohibited.

The USOC has also threatened lawsuits against and forced name changes for the Ferret Olympics, Rat Olympics and Olympets, among others. In 2012, the USOC demanded that a Greek restaurant in Philadelphia, which had operated for decades under the name Olympic Gyro and adopted the Olympic rings, change its name. The proprietor agreed to change the name to Olympia Gyro and drop the rings. This level of trademark monopoly and enforcement power allows the Olympic organizations to quickly gain injunctive relief, when necessary, and generally succeed in putting an end to infringing uses, like Olympic Improv Theater, Olympic Provisions restaurant (rebranded to Olympia Provisions), and the use of the Olympics rings on the Wallenpaupack Pennsylvania school district’s crest. In Wallenpaupack, the rings were featured since around 1969 and were there to symbolize school athletics. Another infringing use includes “Ravelympics” for knitting competition held by knitting social network group, Ravelry.

There are certain exceptions to these rights. In one interesting example, the Act includes a provision recognizing Washington state’s claim to the Olympic name. This exception covers circumstances where the word OLYMPIC refers to the naturally occurring mountains or geographical region of the same name, and not to the USOC or to any Olympic activity, and the business is operated in the state of Washington, west of the Cascade Mountain range, and marketing outside this area is not substantial. Former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton (Wash. 1981-1987) sought that exception.

Through common law, federal registration, Olympic specific legislation, and internal marketing rules, the Olympics organizations have a formidable arsenal of tools to protect their Olympic properties. So be careful if you are considering using any of these marks, as it will be relatively easy for the Olympic organizations to enforce a claim against you in court.

– By Michael J. Berkowitz

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