Updated, June 2015
1. What type of international protection is afforded the Olympic trademarks?
Like Olympic athletes, Olympic trademarks enjoy a privileged status. The Olympic trademarks are protected by a statute over and above ordinary trademark protection. According to Rule 7 of the Olympic Charter, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is granted ownership of the Olympic rings as well as the Olympic flag, motto, anthem, identifiers, designations, emblems, the Olympic flame and torches (the “Olympic properties”). All rights to any and all of the Olympic properties belong exclusively to the IOC, including rights to their use such as in relation to profit-making, commercial or advertising purposes.
The IOC is the worldwide owner of numerous trademark registrations protecting its Olympic properties. In addition, many countries have adopted permanent national legislation protecting the Olympic properties, such as China’s legislation titled “Regulations on the Protection of Olympic Symbols of the People’s Republic of China.” Some countries are also signatories to the Nairobi Treaty on the Protection of the Olympic Symbol (1981).
The Nairobi Treaty grants special protection to the Olympic mark. The agreement is administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and is open to any state that is a member of that organization, the United Nations or any of its specialized agencies, or the Paris Convention. According to WIPO, 51 countries are contracting members. States that have signed the Treaty are obliged to refuse or invalidate the registration as a mark and to prohibit the use for commercial purposes of any sign consisting of or containing the mark, except with the IOC’s authorization. Adhering states prohibit use of the symbol except under license from the IOC. In those instances where the IOC imposes a license fee for the use of the mark, a portion of the revenue is allocated to the relevant national Olympic committee.
Prior to awarding a host country the Olympic Games, the IOC requires each bidding country to commit to enacting intellectual property legislation granting special trademark protection to the IOC, host country Olympic committees, and official Olympic sponsors. The legislation must protect several Olympic marks and restrict the ambush marketing activities of businesses who are not official sponsors of the Games. The first of such legislation related to an edition of the Games appeared in Canada prior to the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games. Since the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, all host countries have adopted such legislation, including the sites for upcoming Olympic Games, such as Rio 2016.
2. Which Olympic trademarks are protected in the United States?
The Olympic trademarks protected by U.S. statute (36 U.S.C. § 220506(c)) include the name “UNITED STATES OLYMPIC COMMITTEE”; the symbol of the IOC, consisting of five interlocking rings; the words “Olympic,” “Olympiad” and “Citius Altius Fortius,” and also the words “Paralympic,” “Paralympiad,” “Pan-American” and “America Espirito Sport Fraternite,” or any combination of these words; the emblem of the United States Olympic Committee, consisting of an escutcheon having a blue chief and vertically extending red and white bars on the base with five interlocking rings displayed on the chief; and the symbols of the International Paralympic Committee and the Pan-American Sports Organization, consisting of a torch surrounded by concentric rings.
3. Who has the exclusive right to use, and to authorize others to use, the Olympic trademarks?
The United States Olympic Committee (USOC), chartered by Congress in 1950 to be responsible for participation by U.S. athletes in the Olympic and Pan-American Games (and now also the Paralympic Games), has exclusive rights to the Olympic trademarks, including the trademarks of the Paralympic and Pan-American Games.
The USOC may authorize contributors and suppliers of goods or services to use the Olympic trademarks to advertise that the contributions, goods or services were donated or supplied to, or approved, selected or used by, the USOC, the U.S. Olympic team, the Paralympic team, the Pan-American team or team members.
4. How are these rights enforced?
By statute, the USOC may file a civil action against any person if that person, without consent of the USOC, uses the 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. A showing of actual consumer confusion, or even a likelihood of such confusion, is not necessary for the USOC to prevail. The statute makes actionable any use of the word Olympic or similar terms tending to cause confusion or mistake, to deceive or to falsely suggest a connection with the USOC or any Olympic, Paralympic or Pan American Games activity. This is a lower standard than the “likely to cause confusion” showing required to prevail under the U.S. Trademark Act (Lanham Act). The USOC also is not required to show that an unauthorized use of the Olympic trademarks is occurring in connection with goods or services similar to those on or in connection with which the USOC has previously authorized use.
Historically, the USOC has actively policed its rights to maintain the strength of the Olympic trademarks and thus protect Olympic corporate sponsors against dilution of the value of the Olympic trademarks. In this manner, the USOC ensures its financial health through a strong licensing program. The penalties for unauthorized use of the Olympic trademarks have also become progressively more severe, by action of the courts and by Congress, evidencing their strong commitment to the USOC corporate sponsorship program. In particular, the Trademark Counterfeiting Act of 1984 contains special provisions that apply in the case of counterfeit uses of the Olympic trademarks. These include criminal penalties, right of seizure by ex parte application, and award of attorneys’ fees and wrongful profits.
5. Are there exceptions to these rights?
The word Olympic may be used, without sanction, to identify a business or goods or services if
a. Such use is not combined with any of the Olympic trademarks;
b. It is evident from the circumstances that the word Olympic refers to the naturally occurring mountains or geographical region of the same name, and not to the USOC or to any Olympic activity; and
c. Such business is operated, or such goods or services are sold and marketed, in the state of Washington, west of the Cascade Mountain range, and marketing outside this area is not substantial.
Also, any use of the word Olympic commencing before September 21, 1950, may continue. It is important to note that each country in which the Olympics are held may enact specific legislation governing the use of the Olympic trademarks and other Olympic insignia. Expert advice should be sought from local attorneys in the jurisdiction where the Olympic Games are scheduled to be held.
6. What if I want to use an Olympic trademark?
The best approach is to obtain permission to use the trademark directly from the IOC or the USOC. Once a license is obtained, the IOC likely will require further restrictions for use of the marks. The IOC’s public-facing document, “Editorial Use of the Olympic Properties by Media Organisations”—though explicitly not permitting use for any purposes other than use by bona fide media companies—provides some telling guidance with respect to the IOC’s expectations of licensees’ usage. For example, the guidance requires maintaining the integrity of the Olympic rings such that they may not be altered or distorted, or used in a way that is not relevant to the piece for which or the context in which they are used. Moreover, the Olympic properties should not be used in any way that suggests a formal association between a third party and the IOC, unless such association has been agreed upon.