Practical Ecommerce

Olympic Committees Seek to Restrict Content Marketing, Social Media

The are indications that the USOC and IOC seek to stop all sponsors from using Olympic terms and emblems on social media and in content marketing.

The are indications that the USOC and IOC seek to stop all sponsors from using Olympic terms and emblems on social media and in content marketing.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) are warning athletes and businesses not to use Olympic trademarks in content and social media marketing.

The Olympics are an international spectator event. Millions, if not billions, of people worldwide will follow the competition. There is a real sense in which everyone in the world has a bit of ownership. But unfortunately, the IOC and USOC have decided to adopt strong tactics to make Olympic sponsorships more valuable.

Effectively, these organizations have stated that they will pursue commercial entities that use Olympic intellectual property and which are not official Olympic sponsors. The apparent goal is to make sponsoring the Olympics more valuable, since only Olympic sponsors will be able to use the word, “Olympic,” or employ other Olympic phrases and images.

According to an ESPN report, the USOC has already begun to warn some American businesses not to post about the Olympics.

How Not to Mention the Olympics

The USOC and IOC seem to be trying to prevent any possible use of the Olympics. According to a report on Adweek, marketers should avoid the following.

  • Mentioning Olympic words or phrases, like Olympic, Olympian, Paralympic, Rio 2016, Road to Rio, or similar.
  • Incorporating the word Olympic into other words, so no Matholympics.
  • Using any Olympic words in hashtags, i.e., #Rio2016, #TeamUSA.
  • Employing Olympic imagery, thus no Olympic logos and no photographs taken at the Olympics.
  • Naming Olympic athletes, so please don’t mention Michael Phelps on social media. Don’t even wish him luck.
  • Describing Olympic results, businesses cannot even say who won a medal.

How the Olympic Committees Can Stifle Content, Speech

Most businesses would agree it makes sense to not use Olympic logos and that sponsors that have paid a lot of money should be protected. But there is a significant difference between protecting a logo and telling businesses they cannot mention the word “Olympics” or wish a favorite athlete good luck on Facebook.

Imagine, for example, what sort of response you would get if the National Football League suddenly said that only official sponsors could use the phrase “Super Bowl” on social media or in content marketing?

By way of comparison, would it be appropriate for the NFL to stop Martha Stewart from publishing Super Bowl chicken wing recipes?

By way of comparison, would it be appropriate for the NFL to stop Martha Stewart from publishing Super Bowl chicken wing recipes?

What would be the response if the NFL sent a cease-and-desist letter to Martha Stewart for publishing Super Bowl chicken wing recipes? How would it be if the NFL sued a local pizzeria in Seattle for posting #GoSeahawks on Twitter? These things sound absurd. Nonetheless, this is precisely what the USOC and the IOC are doing.

What’s more, these Olympic committees can probably enforce this level of trademark protection. The IOC requires any nation that wants to host the Olympics to pass special national trademark laws that provide stronger than usual limitations on the use of Olympic trademarks and emblems.

The provision that applies in the United States is U.S. Code 36, Subtitle II, Part B Chapter 2205, Subchapter I. This federal law allows the USOC to sue businesses that use Olympic trademarks “for the purpose of trade, to induce the sale of any goods or services, or to promote any theatrical exhibition, athletic performance, or competition.”

This provision has been around for a long time. The difference is that previously the USOC has not tried to apply it to social media or content marketing in this way. The bottom line now is that businesses need to be extremely careful about how they use or mention the Olympics.

Sorry, Bad Advice

For the past couple of months, I have been advocating that you use the Olympics in your content marketing. In fact, I explicitly mentioned it in four posts.

In my defense, in each post I encouraged you to abide by trademark laws and all of these were published before the USOC and the IOC began discouraging social media and content marketing posts. I believed you could employ the Olympics in your content marketing in the same way that you might employ the World Cup or the Super Bowl.

Given these new developments and the letters the USOC has sent to some companies, it may be best to avoid mentioning the Olympics altogether.

News media and individuals may still mention and use Olympic trademarks. Thus, this article about the Olympic trademarks is not an infringement since it is published on a media site. But it is not clear whether this exact article, written word-for-word, would be problematic if it were published on a blog that belonged to an online store, as an example.

Armando Roggio

Armando Roggio

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  1. Armando Roggio August 5, 2016 Reply

    FYI, it looks like Minnesota based Zerorez has filed a Declaratory Judgement action in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota related to the use of Olympic trademarks. It may be worth following.

    • Armando Roggio August 5, 2016 Reply

      Here are some comments from Jonathan Hyman of Knobbe Martens,

      It’s Olympics time! And while most of the news has been about Zika and the conditions on the ground in Rio, brand owners know this as a time when the U.S. Olympic Committee is on the warpath sending notices and cease and desist letters to anyone running afoul of the USOC’s trademark rights. In fact, the USOC has sent letters to non-sponsor companies, warning them that they may not post about the Trials or Games on their corporate social media accounts or even mention Olympic results.

      While the USOC does have broader than your typical trademark protection given the legal rights granted under the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act (36 U.S. Code § 220506), brands have always considered that typical notions of fair use still apply. As such, there should be some leeway for brands to discuss the games that does not constitute trademark infringement. Much like the NFL’s rampant enforcement of use of the term SUPER BOWL, the USCO’s enforcement efforts typically go unchecked. However, not this year.

      Zerorez, a carpet cleaner in Minnesota, has filed a Declaratory Judgment action with the United States District Court District of Minnesota seeking clarity on “its rights to discuss the Olympics in social media and other online forms of public discourse” in social media posts. Zerorez’s complaint provides sample Tweets that it believes constitute fair use, but run afoul of the USOC’s enforcement efforts:

      Congrats to the 11 Minnesotans competing in 10 different sports at the Rio 2016 Olympics! #rioready;
      Are any Minnesotans heading to #Rio to watch the #Olympics? #RoadToRio;
      There is no substitute for hard work. -Thomas Edison #TeamUSA is a great example of hard work paying off;
      Let the rumble in Rio begin! From badminton to BMX, Minnesotan Olympians are at the #Rio2016 Olympics. Go #TeamUSA!;
      St. Cloud native Alise Post is an #Olympian competing in the #Olympic BMX events today. Follow her at @alisepost11; and
      Good luck to our 11 Minnesota Olympians competing in #RIO2016.

      Zerorez has requested a speedy resolution to the matter given that the games open today and close on August 21. Whether this issue gets resolved in that time frame, or at all, will be interesting to see. However, brand owners may finally get some clarity on how far they can go in social media messages surrounding events like the Olympics and the Super Bowl.

  2. Carlos Rivera August 9, 2016 Reply

    That is a crazy amount of control the IOC has. There can’t help but to be some backlash from this.