Setting the Olympic bar

What better way to grab people’s attention than to take a ride on the back of the Olympic train? Remember the excitement surrounding the London Olympics. I attended some of the events myself and the buzz around London was staggering. Shops were full of merchandise and people flocked to get their hands on the memorabilia. But is all merchandise legitimate? Can businesses cash in on the hype unrestricted? What about home-made banners, posters and decorated cupcakes? What about an athlete’s sponsor mentioning the competition? The answers to all of these questions lie within the scope of intellectual property law.

This is the area of law in which I have been specialising for 15 years. It is a complex area and can catch many people unawares. Knowledge of some of the basic principles and access to experts is well advised.

As we get carried away by the Rio carnival, let’s take a look at the dos and don’ts of the Olympic logos. I am sure everyone is aware of the Olympic rings these, along with the flame and words such as “Olympic”, “Olympiad”, and “Paralympic”, are registered trademarks owned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the global organizing body of the Olympics. The marks are protected worldwide and are upheld by national committees. In fact, any nation hosting the Olympic Games must themselves agree to and pass statutes designed to protect the trade marks. This year it is the turn of The United States Olympic Committee (USOC).

The consequence is that the Olympic marks cannot be used without the IOC or the USOC’s prior written consent. Even if permission to use is granted there are stringent rules governing the visual representation of the marks, so that only authorised versions can be portrayed legitimately. Already we are seeing warning letters being sent by the USOC to certain sponsors of Olympic athletes for featuring “#Rio2016” and “#TeamUSA”. Official sponsors can do so, but those not authorised must watch out.

Ok, that is great for lawyers, but what does this actually mean for you? In an Olympic year, the question for many businesses is “Can I put the Olympic marks on my products?”. Admittedly, when the host country is your own, as in the last Olympics, the hype and potential for cashing in will be much higher but, generally, the Games generate excitement and “Olympic” branded goods are popular and in high demand.

So what are the boundaries? The bottom line is the prevention of unauthorised commercial use, basically, using another’s successful brand for your own gain. Generally, private or personal use of the marks is tolerated but, where a profit is been made, there is a dedicated team of lawyers waiting to pounce. Even using a poster of a former Olympian could violate the marks, and that is before you even begin to consider the individual’s image rights and any copyright issues relating to the image.

So the best basic advice I can give is to take care and, if in any doubt, either don’t do it or seek specialist advice.

Ailsa Pemberton

Ailsa Pemberton

Ailsa Pemberton
Head of Intellectual Property
DD: 0113 227 9260

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