Lawyering about Olympic Intellectual Property Matters Could be an Olympic Sport

In a fascinating article, Marianne Wiithrich, Trademark Senior Legal Counsel of the International Olympic Committee, poetically explains that Olympic logos and pictures are not just logos. The intellectual properties are “…the visual ambassadors of Olympism… The five interlocking rings represent the coming together of five continents and symbolize the Olympic values: Excellence, Respect and Friendship.”

Olympic intellectual property is protected by Rule 7 of The Olympic Charter of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Protected property includes the Olympic symbol as well as the Olympic flag, motto, anthem, identifications (such as “Olympic Games” and “Games of the Olympiad”), designations, emblems, the Olympic flame and torches.

The International Committee is international, the Olympics this year are in Rio, and I live in the U.S. I know I know…it’s a bit confusing. After doing a bit of research I learned that The United States Olympic Committee is one of 204 National Olympic Committees and 174 National ParaOlympic Committees within the International Olympic and Paralympic Movements.“The USOC was reorganized by the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, originally enacted in 1978. It is a federally chartered nonprofit corporation and does not receive federal financial support (other than for select Paralympic military programs). Pursuant to the Act, the USOC has the exclusive right to use and authorize the use of Olympic-related marks, images and terminology in the United States. The USOC licenses that right to sponsors as a means of generating revenue in support of its mission.

Why is this important and how does this relate to intellectual property? Well recently, the United States Olympic Committee made it clear that businesses can’t use any of the following: Olympic, Olympian, Team USA, Future Olympian, Gateway to gold, Go for the gold, Let the games begin, Paralympic, Pan Am Games, Olympiad, Paralympiad, and Pan-American. They were serious enough to start banning retweets (maybe they should help with our presidential nominees’ tweets).

In a Daily Caller article, author Ted Goodman explains that many businesses and brands don’t have an agreement with the United States Olympic Committee but often use the games for their own purposes. There are sponsors, non-sponsors, businesses that create products specifically for the games approved by the both the USOC and IOC, businesses that don’t but help sponsor or qualify athletes for the games, etc. New Balance and many others were rightfully confused. Not an official USOC or IOC sponsor, they did have 70 of its athletes (who work with the brand) qualify for the Games. They expressed their frustration by making this statement to ESPN:

“We find the IOC’s Rule 40 extremely frustrating and challenging to work with as a brand which wants to celebrate the many amazing achievements of our hard-working global athletes…It is also unfortunate that many athletes do not have the freedom or opportunity to support the brands that support them.”From:

As part of a new compromise after businesses became outraged at all the rules and labeling process of sponsor vs. non-sponsor, the IOC, in concert with the USOC, allowed companies that did not have an official relationship to run ads during the Games so long as those ads started running in March and ran continuously through the Games.

The most shocking may be the word ‘Olympic’ itself. What do you mean? It’s just a word you think as you read this blog. Well the International Trademark Association has been so kind to remind us that the word cannot be used for business unless…

  • Such use is not combined with any of the Olympic trademarks;
  • It is evident from the circumstances that 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
  •  Such business is operated, or such goods or services are sold and marketed, in the state of Washington, west of the Cascade Mountain range, and marketing outside this area is not substantial.

Figuring out who qualifies as a business for these rules, whether to follow U.S. or International rules or both, whether an exception for use is met, or whether a simple tweet is perhaps an intellectual property violation—makes me feel like I am doing rhythmic gymnastics on a small boat in murky Rio water. Know that if you don’t know what is allowed, especially for business purposes, it is always best to check.

At Mohr IP Law, we have attorneys who despite whatever challenges exist go for bronze, silver, or gold when helping clients with intellectual property needs. Contact us today to get the ball or shot put rolling.



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