Friday, August 5, 2016

The Power of the Olympic Trademarks

          This is my first non-comic book related post, but as it says in the header, this is a comics and entertainment law blog. As such, it seems like the right time to look at an issue you will be seeing over the next few weeks, if you haven’t noticed it already. The 2016 Summer Olympics start today in Rio, and the United States Olympic Committee (“USOC”) is notoriously aggressive in defending its trademarks. If you are not an official sponsor of the Olympics and are thinking about trying to capitalize on the games through marketing or social media, you may want to think again.
In the U.S., and in all countries that have hosted the games, there are laws protecting the intellectual property associated with the Olympics.[1] In the United States, the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act gives the United States Olympic Committee the “exclusive right to use:
(1) the name “United States Olympic Committee”;
(2) the symbol of the International Olympic Committee, consisting of 5 interlocking rings, the symbol of the International Paralympic Committee, consisting of 3 TaiGeuks, or the symbol of the Pan-American Sports Organization, consisting of a torch surrounded by concentric rings;
(3) the emblem of the corporation, consisting of an escutcheon having a blue chief and vertically extending red and white bars on the base with 5 interlocking rings displayed on the chief; and
(4) the words “Olympic”, “Olympiad”, “Citius Altius Fortius”, “Paralympic”, “Paralympiad”, “Pan-American”, “America Espirito Sport Fraternite”, or any combination of those words.”[2]

The statute also gives the USOC the exclusive right to license the trademarks to sponsors,[3] and it allows the USOC to file a civil action against any party using the Olympic trademarks without its permission.[4] The Supreme Court has even ruled that unlike in traditional trademark lawsuits where a suing party must show a likelihood of confusion, there is no such requirement for the USOC to enforce its rights and typical trademark defenses are not available.[5] Additionally, the Supreme Court found that the First Amendment does not provide protections against using the Olympic trademarks in commercial speech.[6]
            Through the Stevens Act and court decisions, the USOC has a broader and stronger trademark interest than any other trademark owner. It has also not been shy about enforcing its rights. Recently, it even went so far as sending out letters to companies who sponsor athletes but not the Olympics warning them to not (i) post about the Olympic Trials or Games on their social media accounts, (ii) share or repost media from official Olympic accounts, or (iii) use hashtags involving USOC trademarks such as #Rio2016 or #TeamUSA.[7]
            While this seems ridiculous, based on the statute and court decisions, the USOC just might be able to enforce it. Even though you may be tempted to try and trade on the Olympics to promote or support your brand, doing so could be costly if the USOC finds out.    

[1] (last visited August 3, 2016).
[2] 36 U.S.C. §220506(a).
[3] 36 U.S.C. §220506(b).
[4] 36 U.S.C. §220506(c).
[5] San Francisco Arts Athletics, Inc. v. United States Olympic Committee, 483 U.S. 522, 531 (1987).
[6] Id. at 535.
[7] Rovell, Darren. USOC sends letter warning non-Olympic sponsor companies,, July 21, 2016, (last visited August 3, 2016).

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