Businesses beware: Olympic brands are aggressively protected

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Business owners thinking of celebrating Olympic glory during the Winter Games that kick off tomorrow in South Korea should beware: It can be a legal minefield. According to attorney Jessica Levy, businesses must follow strict rules if they choose to decorate, post on social media or even advertise Olympic-friendly specials.

Levy is a partner at the law firm Sherman & Howard — which has offices in Colorado Springs and Denver — and an expert on branding and trademarks. Her advice to businesses who want to cash in on Olympic excitement is simple: Don’t do it.

The reason, says Levy, is that it could be costly.

“If you thought the NFL was aggressive with its policing of its Super Bowl trademarks, just wait till you see what Team USA and the U.S. Olympic Committee have in store,” Levy said in a press release from the law firm.

To avoid a potential lawsuit with official organizations, it’s important to know the rules about naming a drink after a favorite athlete or using the Olympic symbols to promote events. Plus, using athletes’ photos are not allowed.

Right of publicity laws prevent commercial entities from using celebrities’ likenesses in advertising or promotions,” Levy said.

But, she said, “… if a bar wanted to celebrate figure skating in general it could do so during a figure skating telecast, so long as it otherwise complied with the guidelines. But should a bakery make Olympic-ring cakes? No! Can a sports bar decorate with Olympic rings festooned throughout? No!”

The rules even extend into the social media realm.

“The guidelines are very clear that businesses may not use USOC trademarks without permission, nor its hash tags,” Levy said. “Their stated rationale for this is that without strict regulations on the use of its trademarks — i.e., only authorized sponsors may use the trademarks — it’s difficult to maintain those sponsorships and keep the funding that sends athletes to the Olympics. So that’s why non-sponsor, non-journalistic businesses are forbidden to use hash tags, trademarks, images of athletes during the Games, or pretty much anything else.

“But it’s even more rigid than that — if you’re an athletic footwear business, the USOC forbids you to post news updates regarding the Games because you’re a footwear company and not a media company.”