The Olympic Games start in Rio
today. As usual in the build up to a big sporting event, there
has been a focus in the media on the intellectual property
issues at play. With sponsors shelling out big money, the
International Olympic Committee goes to great length to ensure
other brands do not try to benefit from the games.
The IOC is taking a hard line on social media. For example,
it is clamping down on media companies making Olympic
as Ars Technica reports.
The US Olympic Committee has attracted attention for what
some term "legal bullying".
The Guardian reports the USOC has sent warning letters
to companies that sponsor athletes but don’t have
a commercial relationship with the USOC or the International
One of these letters says: "Commercial entities may not post
about the Trials or Games on their corporate social media
accounts. This restriction includes the use of
USOC’s trademarks in hashtags such as #Rio2016 or
Daily Caller reports that retweets of official
Olympics Twitter accounts are also prohibited.
Minnesota carpet cleaning company
Zerorez is suing USOC over its right to post Olympics-related
tweets to its 234 followers. Its lawyer Aaron Hall
said in a statement: "Zerorez, like millions of small
businesses across our nation, has been silenced by the actions
of the US Olympic Committee."
He added: "This is
overreaching. This is trademark bullying. I doubt Congress
intended to chill the free speech of patriotic businesses
sharing in the Olympic spirit."
The Broadcast Law Blog has
a good overview of the lengths the US Olympic
Committee will go to protect its trade marks.
"The Olympic Committee also has an extra enforcement tool in
its arsenal. In addition to the traditional protections
afforded under the Lanham Act, as well as those under state and
common law, some of the Olympic trademarks are protected by a
special statute, designed in order to allow the USOC exclusive
rights to control all commercial use of USOC trademarks,
imagery and/or terminology in the United States."
The protections cover the word OLYMPIC, the Olympic rings,
the word PARALYMPIC, the Paralympic Agitos, the word PAN
AMERICAN, the Pan American torch, and other words or symbols
suggesting an association with the USOC, the US team or the
"So take extra care if you are
considering using these marks, as it will be easier for the
USOC to enforce a claim against you in court – the
statute makes actionable any use of the word Olympic or similar
terms tending to cause confusion or mistake, to deceive or to
falsely suggest a connection with the USOC or any Olympic,
Paralympic or Pan American Games activity," warns the Broadcast
In April, we ran an article by Albert Guerra outlining how
Brazil tackles ambush marketing ahead of the Olympics and what
lessons were learned from the World Cup in 2014. You can read
it for free
As Smart & Biggar outlined in
a recent article, anti-ambush marketing legislation was
introduced for the first time during the Sydney 2000 Olympic
Games. "The 2016 Rio Olympic Games are similarly protected
against ambush marketing. In preparation for the upcoming
Games, Brazil has enacted specific legislation including
the Olympic Act (Law 12,035/2009) to protect
official sponsors from ambush marketing," said Smart &
"Article 8 of Brazil's Olympic
Act extends protection to the use of terms and
expressions that would cause undue association with the Rio
2016 Games or the Olympic Movement. This increasing trend
towards protection of intellectual property and sponsorship
rights is reflected in the Rio 2016 Brand Protection Guidelines."
As we outlined in May, the Olympic Charter includes Rule 40,
an agreement between the International Olympic Committee and
athletes that establishes a "blackout period" during which the
athlete’s name and image cannot be used by any
non-official sponsors of the Olympics. If an athlete is found
to be in breach of Rule 40, he or she can be barred from
participation and/or stripped of a medal.
While Rule 40 goes a long way to protect official
sponsor-brands, if enforced, it puts athletes in a precarious
position. Particularly in the aftermath of the 2012 London
Olympics – and controversies surrounding
advertisements such as leaked photos of Michael
Phelps’s appearance in Louis Vuitton
advertisements – the rule has been criticized as being
enforced too strictly by some local Olympic Committees and for
being disadvantageous to athletes.
"[In ambush marketing matters involving] social media, we
have to apply Rule 40," José Eduardo de V Pieri, an IP
attorney with Barbosa, Müssnich, Aragão in Rio de
Janeiro, Brazil. Pieri, told us in May. "This will be a very
big challenge because social media has become a channel of
marketing. So you have a famous star athlete, and he uses his
social media – and he even is paid to use his social
media – to market and attract media to a
brand’s products. So if we have a Rule 40, how
will we find a balance between what [from] the star athlete is
just a regular tweet, or regular post or what is not?
It’s the million dollar question."