USOC serious about protecting Olympic trademarks

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Olympic fever has gripped much of Colorado Springs — and the country — but most businesses can’t take direct advantage of that. If they try, it could easily result in a lawsuit.

The United States Olympic Committee and Team USA stringently protect their sponsors and have a history of filing lawsuits to do so. The USOC refuses to allow any non-sponsor businesses to promote the Olympic Games, Paralympics or the athletes.

Simply put, even in what is branded as “Olympic City USA,” local businesses can’t hang a photo of Shaun White in the window, name a drink after an Olympic athlete or put up a sign to say they’ll be showing the Winter Olympics on their big screen that night.

“Federal law gives the USOC extensive rights to control the use of USOC IP [intellectual property] in the United States and allows the USOC to file a lawsuit against any entity using such intellectual property for commercial purposes without consent,” Kelly Maser, USOC associate general counsel, intellectual property, wrote in an email. “We are committed to protect the USOC’s rights and those of its sponsors, so we can maintain a sound sponsorship program that will support Team USA and send our athletes to the Games.”

Attempts to obtain comment from official USOC domestic sponsors Comcast, Dick’s Sporting Goods and DeVry University were unsuccessful.

Business owners can support Team USA or its athletes on individual social media accounts, but not through a business Facebook page, for instance.

Don’t cash in on Olympic excitement

Most business owners probably aren’t aware of the guidelines, said attorney Jessica Levy, who has been practicing trademark law for 28 years. Levy is a partner at the law firm Sherman & Howard — which has offices in Colorado Springs and Denver — and has experience with branding and trademarks. Her advice to businesses thinking of cashing in on Olympic excitement is simple: Don’t do it. It could be costly.

“I believe business owners think the more the merrier when it comes to the Olympics and shouldn’t this be a celebration of America? It’s so easy to use the internet and social media, so why not be a part of it? But they should not.”

Not surprisingly, Maser agrees. The exception is the media, which is in the business of reporting information.

Otherwise, Maser says most businesses’ social media platforms are almost certainly commercial in nature, set up to promote the company or brand, and raise the profile of the organization, and perhaps to increase sales, memberships or donations.

“In terms of commercial entities, only official Olympic partners have permission to use USOC IP in social media,” Maser said.

That includes use of the Olympic rings, which are prominently displayed by USOC sponsors, as viewers of the Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, have no doubt observed.

The Games began Feb. 9 and  continue through Feb. 25.

“Individuals who want to support Team USA or a team member can do so on individual social media accounts,” Levy said. “But if you do a promotion in your bar that doesn’t follow the guidelines, you will get a cease-and-desist order.”

Super statute gives USOC power

Levy said if a business doesn’t follow the guidelines, repercussions are likely.

“A business looking to go for the gold during Olympics season by piggybacking on Olympic fervor is likely to find itself shelling out the gold to its lawyers to defend it,” she said. “I would be far more permissive with clients asking about use of Super Bowl or Oscars than I would with anything to do with the Olympics. They’re aggressive, well funded, and have lots of law on their side.”

In 1978, Congress passed the Amateur Sports Act — revised in 1998 to the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act — which gives the USOC power to coordinate Olympic-related activity in the U.S. It also gives the USOC more power than other organizations to protect its intellectual property.

“The statute protects the USOC more because it’s specific to them and their intellectual property and the uses of that intellectual property,” Levy said. “The standard for ordinary trademark infringement under the Lanham Act is ‘likelihood of confusion’ which is not always easy to prove; under the Olympic statute any use that has a ‘tendency’ to confuse is actionable.”

That’s why the USOC has sued various groups, including a band called “The Olympic Hopefuls” in 1971, the Gay Olympics in 1982 and the Redneck Olympics in 2011. Special allowance is made for the Special Olympics.

“This public law not only protects the trademarks of the IOC and the USOC, but also gives the USOC exclusive rights to the words ‘Olympic,’ ‘Olympiad’ and ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius,’ as well as Olympic-related symbols in the United States,” Maser said.

Why is this so important? As usual, it’s all about the money.

The rationale for the regulations, Levy explained, is to protect USOC sponsors who spend millions for team expenses.

“Unlike most National Olympic Committees around the world, the USOC doesn’t receive government funding to support athlete programs,” Maser said.

The USOC sends athletes to the Olympics and Paralympics every two years, he explained.

“To allow the USOC to fulfill these responsibilities, Congress granted the USOC broad rights to control commercial uses of USOC IP in the United States. Official corporate partners provide critical funding for elite athletes and athlete programs. The USOC allows our official partners to use USOC trademarks in recognition of their support for these athletes.

“When others use USOC IP without authorization, it creates a disincentive for our partners to continue funding Team USA in exchange for the right to promote that association with the U.S. Olympic Team. Additionally, when individuals or other charitable organizations use USOC IP in their own fundraising, it detracts from the USOC’s ability to raise money for Team USA.”

Maser encourages any business with questions about what is or is not allowed in a commercial context to review the USOC website, or contact them directly.

Olympic City USA 

The city of Colorado Springs has an agreement with the USOC to use Olympic City USA, updated since the original 30-year agreement that was signed in 2009, which allowed the city to claim itself “hometown of the USOC.”

Jamie Fabos, chief communications officer for the city, said in an email that, “This is not a contractual relationship, but a marketing and community relations partnership that benefits both organizations.”

The Springs, of course, is home to USOC headquarters and more than 20 national Olympic governing bodies, as well as an Olympic Training Center and the future U.S. Olympic Museum.

The 2009 agreement with the city provided $53 million in incentives for new downtown offices for the USOC at the northeast corner of Tejon Street and Colorado Avenue, and upgrades to the Olympic Training Center.

Fabos said the Olympic City USA local task force — which includes the city, USOC, athletes and National Governing Bodies along with about 25 other community organizations — “created the ‘Athletes Welcome’ program, which is a discount program aimed at encouraging resident or visiting athletes to patronize our local businesses and to get out and experience our city. The purpose of this program is threefold.

First, it gives local businesses a way to [participate] without violating USOC sponsorship rules. Second, it sends a message to athletes and residents alike that we ARE Olympic City USA, and that we support our local athletes. Third, it encourages athletes to experience our city beyond the walls of the Olympic Training Center. This empowers them to be ambassadors for our city as they travel the globe, competing.”