The Olympics are a money machine, not just for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which runs the games, but for its corporate sponsors. The world's biggest brands pony up big dollars for the chance to partner with the Olympics, granting them a massive international audience and, perhaps more importantly, exclusive rights to all things Olympics-related—logos, words, phrases and even athletes. A top partnership can cost sponsors upward of a billion dollars.
So it's no surprise that the IOC goes out of its way to protect its trademarks. Via AdWeek:
Last week, the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) sent non-sponsor companies a letter warning them against using the Olympics' intellectual property. (The USOC did not respond to Adweek's requests for comment.)
Olympic trademarks are the subject of intense legal protections around the world. The International Olympic Committee requires each host country to create "special trademark protection" laws. In the U.S., these rules are dictated by U.S. Code Chapter 2205, which is why you'll often see the USOC describing its trademark rules as being "under federal law."
While individuals, news media and official sponsors are generally free to post about the games and athletes during the Olympics, other businesses and brands are essentially locked out from anything close to a direct discussion.
And, yes, "other businesses and brands" includes nonprofits. Rule 40, the much-discussed IOC regulation governing who gets to use Olympic intellectual property and where, was ostensibly relaxed for the 2016 games. But it remains remarkably restrictive. And while the language in Rule 40 is a bit hazy as to whether nonprofit organizations—who, by definition, would not not be profiting from use of Olympic trademarks—are subject to the restrictions, the USOC made clear that they are.
"The USOC relies on fundraising efforts to raise funds to support the dreams of athletes aspiring to compete at the games," reads Team USA's brand usage guidelines. "Accordingly, USOC trademarks should not be used in fundraising for other charitable organizations or initiatives that may confuse donors or take away from these efforts."
And then there's this helpful list of don'ts for nonprofits:
- Do not use USOC trademarks or images for fundraising or public awareness campaigns
- Do not use an athlete's Olympic or Paralympic medals, footage or photos of games competition if an athlete is involved in promoting the organization
- Do not use Olympic- or Paralympic-themed events in fundraising
- Do not host events with "Olympics," "Paralympics" or "lympics" in the name
- Do not use USOC trademarks to promote fundraising efforts for aspiring athletes hoping to compete in the games
The guidelines do allow nonprofits to use Olympic terminology to identify an athlete by his or her accomplishments, but only if that athlete is involved with the nonprofit. Olympic terminology is also allowed in text (but not headlines) to "factually describe an athlete's hopes and dreams," which seems oddly specific, but OK.
And that's it.
None of this is really new—Rule 40 has been in place for awhile. What is new is the virtual lockdown the IOC has now imposed on social media. If you're not an Olympic sponsor, talking directly about the Olympics on Twitter, Facebook or any other social network is strictly prohibited. From the USOC brand usage guidelines:
Unless a company or organization’s primary business is disseminating news and information, social media platforms (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) serve to promote the company/brand; to raise the brand’s profile and public opinion about the company/organization; and/or to increase sales, membership or donations. Thus, any use of USOC trademarks on a non-media company’s website or social media site is viewed as commercial in nature and consequently is prohibited for the reasons found here.
The rules further bar non-sponsors from even wishing an Olympic athlete good luck on social media. And hashtags, like #Rio2016 or #TeamUSA? Forget about it. Those fall under the list of restricted words. Here are the rest:
- Team USA
- Future Olympian
- Gateway to gold
- Go for the gold
- Let the games begin
- Pan Am Games
Oh, and these:
- Road to Rio
- Road to Pyeongchang
- Road to Tokyo
- Rio 2016
- Pyeongchang 2018
- Tokyo 2020
- No Olympic logos, official or otherwise
- No retweeting or sharing anything from official Olympics social media accounts
- No posting event results
The good news is the restrictions are temporary, spanning July 27 to Aug. 24. After that, social media is back to (mostly) fair game. And even if you do accidentally tweet the results of the much anticipated Men's 50 Kilometer Walk event, it's unlikely the USOC is going to aggressively litigate. More likely, the organization will just ask you to take down the post, as it did with athletics company Oiselle. But, as with most things law, you never know.
“The law may not provide the USOC and the IOC as much trademark protection as they would like,” Haskell Murray, assistant professor of business law at Belmont University, told us over email. “Whether courts would provide protection against use of all of the listed terms is uncertain, but with uncertainty there comes risk of legal action. As to social media, again, I think it depends on the use. Using a picture of the Olympic Rings in connection with a tweet that advertises a product seems clearly out of bounds. The USOC would have a much weaker argument, however, if a nonprofit simply wished one of its Olympian volunteers good luck in Rio without a tie to any product or service. The former use is what the official sponsors are paying significant sums of money to be able to do, and the USOC appears especially interested in policing use of its marks for commercial purposes.”
Basically, just don't post about the Olympics.