With the opening ceremony for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games less than 1 month away, Olympic sponsors and non-sponsors alike are thinking about how they may be able to capitalize on the event’s popularity. Brands must, however, beware of using Olympic trademarks (as discussed in our previous blog post, Golden Rules: Wrestling with the Use of Trademarks), in large part, because of the relative ease with which Olympic rights-holders, such as the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), can take legal action. In the United States, under the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act (Ted Stevens Act), the USOC has exclusive rights to use “Olympic,” “Olympiad,” the interlocking rings, event mottos and other Olympic trademarks. The Ted Stevens Act also prohibits use of any word, symbol, or combination thereof that “tends to cause confusion or mistake, to deceive, or to falsely suggest a connection with the user and the Olympics”. In practice, this is a very broad prohibition.
For example, the interlocking ring design is a trademark owned and controlled by the USOC. Unauthorized use of the image of the rings is not permitted on the basis of copyright defenses, such as the public domain or fair use, despite popular misconceptions to the contrary. The rings, and other Olympic trademarks, including the word “Olympics,” are also not generic. Use of the word “Olympics” can be protected by free speech in narrow circumstances, but if you are an advertiser reading this blog, it’s highly unlikely that you will be able to fit your uses into that “protected speech” category, even if you can credibly claim that your use is expressive.