by Comi Sharif, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff
Next month, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) will launch its “Road to Sochi Tour” to count down the final 100 days leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics. As the games draw near, we are likely to see a rapid increase in the amount of Olympic advertisements and related promotions. From cereal box covers to credit card commercials narrated by Morgan Freeman, materials will flood the market for the weeks leading up to the competition, to the point where one cannot help but get caught up in “Olympic Fever“. The Olympics bring the joy of cheering on our fellow countrymen (and countrywomen) regardless of whether we have ever heard of them or their sport, let alone watched on television before the Games. Though American athletes put in countless hours of commitment in preparation to represent our country, all of it would be for naught without the efforts of the USOC.
Formed in 1894, the USOC is driven by its mission to support U.S. Olympic and Paralympic competitive excellence while exhibiting the values of the Olympic Movement. The key element of this responsibility is generating and allocating revenue. Though the USOC is federally sanctioned under the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act (ASA), the non-profit corporation does not receive federal financial support. For this reason, the USOC relies heavily on sponsorships to fund its programs.
Due to the importance of sponsorships, the USOC has a major incentive to maintain its positive brand along with the reputation of the Olympics as a whole. For this reason, the ASA also grants the USOC exclusive rights to use a number of words and marks in a commercial or athletic context, including the name “United States Olympic Committee,” the International Olympic Committee symbol (consisting of 5 interlocking rings), and the words “Olympic,” and “Olympiad.” Congress has even granted enhanced protections and enforcement powers to the USOC in some circumstances. As part of these rights, the USOC can authorize the use of the protected words and marks by sponsors as well as bring legal action against violators under the Lanham Act. The rationale is that the more control over Olympic intellectual property the USOC holds, the further it can maintain and promote its good name. This, in turn, makes the exclusive right to use Olympic words and marks more valuable to sponsors, which generates more capital that can be used for the U.S. Olympic program.
The scope of the exclusive rights under the ASA has often been a source of controversy, however. Though many alleged infringers discontinue their use upon the receipt of a USOC-issued cease and desist letter, a number of disputes have been brought to court to challenge the scope of the USOC’s protection and enforcement rights under the ASA.
Author Marcella David discusses one case in particular in Trademark Unraveled: The U.S. Olympic Committee Versus Knitters of the World (Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Vol. 14.2), involving alleged infringement by Ravelry.com in its use of the word “Ravelympics.” Rather than sending a conventional cease and desist letter, the USOC informed Ravelry.com that their use was not only infringing on the USOC’s trademarks, but that their use tends to “denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games.” Instead of convincing Ravelry.com to switch the name of its event, the letter sparked outrage throughout the online community. Ironically, in an attempt to protect its reputation, the USOC managed to do the exact opposite shortly before the Olympics were set to begin. In her article, David assesses the USOC’s claims of infringement against Ravelry.com while noting areas in need of improvement in the current legal framework of trademark infringement enforcement.
As intellectual property infringement becomes increasingly difficult to prevent and enforce against in the age of the Internet, owners need to be creative and proactive to limit unauthorized use. In regards to the USOC, this means not going too far in enforcing rights, however. So until there is more clarity as to the extent of the USOC’s protection under the ASA, we may be in store for a repeat of the Ravelry fiasco in the coming months. Let the countdown begin!