Don’t meddle with Olympic rights

By Brand Heeler

When it comes to brand enforcement, the Olympics are world champions!

The Olympics don’t come cheap, and the IOC has just one opportunity every 4 years to maximise its revenue from tickets, merchandise and sponsorship. As part of the deal, official sponsors and manufacturers need to be guaranteed exclusive rights, and action needs to be taken against ambush marketing. But that’s true of many global sporting and cultural events, from the World Cup to Glasto. What makes the Olympics truly exciting for trade mark nerds is the extra lengths participating countries have to go to in order to protect Olympic IP, above and beyond normal trade mark rights. For example, in the lead up to London 2012 we were treated to the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006, on top of the Olympic Symbol etc. (Protection) Act 1995. Between them, these put the Olympic rings on a podium and gave the Olympic motto (CITIUS ALTIUS FORTIUS) faster, higher and stronger enforcement rights than might otherwise have been the case. There were all sorts of complicated rules about not being allowed to mention GOLD in the same breath as 2012 or LONDON and GAMES etc. (As for FIVE GOLD RINGS, well, maybe it’s a good thing the Olympics don’t coincide with Christmas!)

The Olympic spirit is a fine ideal but doesn’t mix very naturally with exclusive trade mark rights. There’s nothing more likely to deflate the feel-good factor of Team GB’s successes than some pettifogging legal warning to ‘stay the right side of the line’ in your tweeting, or to ‘steer clear of using protected signs such Rio 2016’ on social media. So British businesses risk legal action simply for congratulating our gymnasts online? Strikes us as slightly petulant, and rather at odds with the professed aims of the Olympics movement. Here are some more examples:

–              the German Olympics Committee suggests in its guidelines that all commercial references to the Olympics are off limits to everyone other than official sponsors;

–              likewise, the USOC says commercial entities should not use #TeamUSA or #RIO2016, although it seems prepared to permit individuals some freedom of speech;

–              meanwhile, the AOC (Australia) states that the word ‘Olympic’ and other Olympic-related words can only be used as a ‘factual reference’ provided ‘no commercial association is drawn with a third-party or its products or services’.

Such approaches are (at best) overzealous and (at worst) risk coming across as bullying and may even tarnish the brands they seek to protect. Most of us will simply shrug and get on with it, but the Games are all about rising to a challenge so step forward Zerorez Carpet Cleaners of Minnesota, surely now gold medal contenders for Underdog of the Year. Reasoning that the USOC’s spiel is (to put it generously) an overstatement of US law, Zerorez are seeking a declaration that their use of Olympic-themed hashtags is free speech protected by the First Amendment and does not infringe the USOC’s rights. Obviously, there’s a bit of a local angle there – the US Bill of Rights does not yet have global application – but it would be good to see the official line being questioned a little more widely elsewhere in the world. There is plenty of room for ordinary businesses and individuals to be able to make honest references to the Olympics without jeopardising the genuine commercial rights of sponsors and official partners. We hope there’s room for common sense to break out here, remembering fondly that, after all, UK café chain Little Chef managed to save their Olympic Breakfast and it’s still possible to fly with Greece’s Olympic Air.

This article contains our thoughts and opinions on an issue of general interest and is written from the perspective of Australian and/or English law. It is not legal advice and is not provided in the context of a solicitor-client relationship. It may not even be relevant to your jurisdiction. No duty of care is assumed or accepted. Please carry out appropriate research and consult with a suitably qualified legal expert before taking any action or making any decisions.