Watch What You Post on the Olympics, or Face the Wrath of Organizers

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When it comes to protecting its trademarks, symbols and logos, the International Olympic Committee is the lord of the rings. Is it preserving Olympic integrity, or just bullying?

Watch what you post about Rio 2016.

You could find yourself on the wrong side of an Olympic-size legal battle, especially if you own a business trying to cash in on the competition.

Last month, runner Kate Grace made Team USA by winning the women’s 800-meter finals at the Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon.

Great, thought Oiselle, the Seattle-based women’s athletic-wear maker and Grace’s corporate sponsor on her “#RoadtoRio.”

Just like Grace’s friends and fans, Oiselle posted to its website and social media accounts pictures showing Grace and her race. The photos captured Olympic symbols including the five rings and the Team USA logo.

Nope — can’t do that, Oiselle swiftly learned from the U.S. Olympic Committee. The USOC told the company to remove all references to what the company now merely calls the “Big Event in the Southern Hemisphere.” Here’s Oiselle’s description of what happened:

Oiselle was contacted by the US Olympic Committee to remove all references to the Big Event in the Southern Hemisphere from social media posts, blogs, and website. All photos of the Big Event in Eugene will need to be altered to remove any prohibited references to the Big Event in the Southern Hemisphere. Such references are included on the bib that is ironed onto the athletes’ competition kit, as well as located on all prominent surfaces of the stadium, walls, and the steeple pit…

Race-day pictures on the Oiselle blog now have black tape over Olympic symbols. Oiselle also refers readers to Grace’s personal accounts.

Blackout period

You can tweet, post and pin about the Olympics, the athletes, medals and more as much as you like with whatever Olympic Games words and still images you like if you post from personal accounts and your posts are not meant for commercial purposes, Bloomberg points out. (No moving pictures, though  — including video and gifs — as those are the sole province of NBC which paid $1.2 billion for broadcasting rights.)

But under IOC’s Rule 40 nonsponsors are barred from using Olympic participants’ names, pictures and sports performances in ad campaigns during a blackout period that began July 27 and runs until August 24.

Oiselle is not alone in learning that Olympics trademark protection is not a game to the Summer Games organizers. ESPN reported that the USOC recently told companies who sponsor athletes but are not official USOC or International Olympic Committee sponsors not to even tweet about it:

“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 #TeamUSA.”

The Olympic committee is “truly lord of the rings” when it comes to protecting the use of words, images, symbols and other properties it owns, Chanel L. Lattimer, a lawyer in the Philadelphia office of national law firm Cozen O’Connor, wrote in a blog about intellectual property. Trademark law, special legislation passed by Olympic host nations plus IOC rules give it monopoly power over so-called ambush marketing, she said.

Others call it bullying.

Preserving integrity or bullying?

Eric Goldman, a Santa Clara University law professor, told the BBC the USOC approach is overly aggressive and ridiculous. “Trying to tell companies that they can’t use the hashtag #Rio2016 or #TeamUSA in their tweets, most of the time they’re going far afield of what the law permits, and when companies use the ambiguities of trademark law to try and squelch socially beneficial conversation, I call that bullying.”

Oiselle’s ordeal upset Grace’s boyfriend, Patrick O’Neil, so much he posted on Facebook that the USOC demand constituted “behind the scenes bullying that Team USA does to the athletes chasing their dreams and the people and companies that are there for them during the years of training when no one else is.”

The Team USA and the IOC defended their protection practice to the BBC:

“The IOC and its partners in the Olympic Movement take the threat of ambush marketing very seriously. Our aim is to protect the integrity of the Olympic symbols, the Olympic Games, and the investment of our official partners. Without the revenue and support of our broadcast partners and official marketing partners the Olympic Games would simply not happen.”

That investment includes more than $2.2 billion over four years from 11 giant sponsors called Worldwide Olympic Partners. The IOC lists them as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Visa, Bridgestone, Samsung, Panasonic, Omega, Procter & Gamble, General Electric, Dow and Atos. Toyota will join them in 2017. Team USA sponsors and licensees are here.

If you’re not on the lists, these are the terms to avoid in commercial posts, Team USA says:

  • Olympic
  • Olympian
  • Team USA
  • Future Olympian
  • Gateway to Gold
  • Go for the Gold
  • Going for the Gold
  • Let the Games Begin
  • Paralympic
  • Pan Am Games
  • Olympiad, Paralympiad, Pan-American, or any combination of those words
  • Road To Rio, Road To Pyeongchang, Road To Tokyo, Etc.
  • Rio 2016, Pyeongchang 2018, Tokyo 2020, Etc.

Federal law also prohibits unauthorized use of simulations of the word “Olympic” such as Aqualympics, Biolympics, Chicagolympics, Radiolympics, Mathlympics, etc.

AdWeek points out you can’t commercially use hashtags that include Olympics trademarks such as #TeamUSA or #Rio2016, any official Olympics logos or any photos taken at the Olympics.

Sometimes the use of the terms really is criminal.

Brazilian police seized 93 bags of cocaine, some embellished with the official Rio 2016 logo, 28 bags of crack cocaine and 13 rounds of ammunition in the tourist-friendly neighborhood of Lapa, about a mile from where the Olympic Games are being held in Rio, Bloomberg News and other media outlets reported. The drug traffickers were at least responsible enough to warn users to “keep away from children,” they said.

Attorney Tim Sitzmann of Minnesota law firm Winthrop & Weinstine, looked at ambush marketing another way in a blog on JD Supra: “Between the conditions of athlete housing, possible threat of the Zika virus, and other issues that have been dominating the run-up to the Olympics, it seems like the USOC should be excited to get any positive publicity, even if it’s from unofficial sponsors.”

What do you say about the Olympics? Do these trademark rules on your free speech rights? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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