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The Challenge of Trying to Compete with Team USOC
February 26, 2018

By Michael F. Snyder and Emily A. Denisco

With each Olympics, the iconic five interlocking rings and Team USA paraphernalia are inescapable. The high profile and high profit marks are tenaciously protected both on an international and national stage.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) earn billions of dollars worldwide through licensing use of their iconic rings, name, athletes’ images and other trademarks. In fact, being a top sponsor of the Olympics can cost a company hundreds of millions of dollars. Panasonic paid a cool $350 million in 2016 for an eight-year sponsorship.[1] Additionally, the IOC had more than 5,000 different licensed products for sale at the 2016 Rio Olympics.[2] Based on those figures alone, it should come as no surprise that both the IOC and USOC protect their trademarks fiercely.

“Rule 40” is the IOC’s codified marketing policy and is one of the most controversial ways in which the IOC protects its brands.[3]  The Rule emerged as a way to prevent “ambush marketing” amidst the proliferation of social media. “Ambush marketing” is a tactic whereby non-sponsor advertisers attempt to associate their brand or product with an event that already has official sponsors. One historical example is when unaffiliated vendors sell unlicensed t-shirts outside of concerts or sporting events without the knowledge or authorization of the event organizers.[4]  Among other things, Rule 40 bans non-official sponsors from using “Olympic words” during the games, including hashtags on Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms.[5] Even Olympic Athletes who have contracts with non-official sponsors have to put those contractual arrangements “on ice” while the games take place.[6]

In 2016, a Minnesota-based carpet cleaning company planned to send a series of “good luck” tweets to the 11 Minnesotan athletes on the U.S. Olympic Team competing in Rio. However, the company refrained from tweeting because other companies discussing the Olympics on social media platforms received cease and desist letters and/or had lawsuits filed against them. The Minnesotan company brought suit against the USOC seeking a declaratory judgment to discuss the Olympics online and on its corporate social media platforms. After a lengthy analysis of what constitutes actual controversy by the Minnesotan Court, it was determined that no actual controversy existed between plaintiff and the USOC. Even though the case was dismissed, it highlights the frustration of many non-sponsor companies who wish to participate, at some level, in the Olympic celebration.

Similar to Rule 40, the USOC also relies upon §110 of the Amateur Sports Act. The Act grants the USOC exclusive rights to the word “Olympic” in almost any commercial setting.[7]  In 1987, the United States Supreme Court enjoined a California-based athletics company from using the word “Olympics” finding that the Act went beyond normal trademark protections. The Supreme Court held that the USOC did not have to show a likelihood of confusion, concluding “the legislative history [of §110 ] demonstrates that Congress intended to provide the USOC with exclusive control of the use of the word ‘Olympic’ without regard to whether an unauthorized use of the word tends to cause confusion.” The Court further reasoned that USOC had a right to exclusivity in the word “Olympic” and variations thereof because “the historical and present value of the word [Olympic] was the product of the USOC’s talents and energy.”[8] Additionally, the Court rejected the company’s argument that its First Amendment Rights had been violated, holding that the USOC was not a state actor and that the Act’s restrictions were no broader than necessary to further Congressional interests.[9]

There are countless cases in which the USOC comes out on top, garnering wins against may defendants, from bodybuilders to restaurants. In 2012, a Philadelphia gyro vendor was forced to change its name after operating as “Olympic Gyro” for almost 30 years.[10]

However, as in sports, the legal underdog does win on occasion. The defining line seems to be whether or not the trademarks or word “Olympics” are being used for a “commercial purpose.” In 1980, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled against the USOC after it sent cease and desist letters to an organization that was using both the word “Olympic” and the Olympic rings on posters. After the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, NY, plans developed to turn the Olympic Village into a state prison.  The Plaintiff designed a poster reading “Stop the Olympic Prison” which depicted the Olympic Rings behind prison bars. While most posters were distributed at no charge, some were sold for one dollar to raise funds for the movement. The Court ruled that because the image and word “Olympic” were not being used for commercial purposes or to induce the sale of goods and services, the USOC’s rights were not violated.[11]

Although infrequent, some situations have arisen in which the USOC is persuaded to adopt a more lenient approach. In 2012, the USOC sent cease and desist letters to an online knitting community planning to host the “Ravelympics.” The group took to social media posting complaints about the letters and sending a barrage of angry emails. After the inundation of communications from angry knitters, the USOC refrained from pursuing any legal action, issued an official apology to the group, and welcomed “any handmade items that you would like to create to travel with, and motivate, our team at the 2012 Games.”

While athletes jockey for the podium, companies worldwide compete for some of the Olympic spotlight. Given the billions of dollars generated from the use of official Olympic indicia, it should come as no surprise that the USOC deploys a thorough and aggressive approach to maintain the integrity of its lucrative intellectual property. As the cases show, anyone, from street vendors to large companies, may encounter the long arm of the USOC’s enforcement team if Olympic indicia are being used commercially. Commercial enterprises looking to support team USA during the Olympic games should cheer heartily and tweet carefully.

[1] Sponsorship And Advertising Trends In The 2016 Rio Olympic Games: Three Things To Watch For, Charles R. Taylor and John A. Murphy, (Aug. 4, 2016), https://www.forbes.com/sites/onmarketing/2016/08/04/sponsorship-and-advertising-trends-in-the-2016-rio-olympic-games-three-things-to-watch-for/#5edfdbb418c7

[2] Rio 2016 Sponsorship Report

[3] Olympic Charter, Rule 40, OLYMPIC.ORG (Aug. 2, 2016), https://www.teamusa.org/Athlete-Resources/Athlete-Marketing/Rule-40-Guidance

[4] Ambush Marketing – Business Dictionary (http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/ambush-marketing.html)

[5] Olympic Charter, Rule 40

[6] Grady, J. (2017). Analyzing Rule 40’s Restrictions on Using Athletes in Olympic Sponsorship at Rio 2016. The Entertainment and Sports Law Journal, 15(1), 1. DOI: http://doi.org/10.16997/eslj.205

[7] Amateur Sports Act of 1978.,95 P.L. 606, 92 Stat. 3045

[8] San Francisco Arts & Ath., Inc. v. United States Olympic Comm., 483 U.S. 522, 524

[9] Id at 544.

[10] Olympic Committee Demands Local Gyro Stand Change Names (August 24, 2012)

[11] Stop the Olympic Prison v. U.S. Olympic Comm., 489 F. Supp. 1112 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 15, 1980)