Intellectual property rights and the Olympic Games

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Intellectual property rights and the Olympic Games

12 Aug 2016

The Olympic Games are a remarkable celebration of sporting excellence and human spirit and go back almost 3,000 years. 2016 is the year of the Rio Olympics and, with this in mind, businesses might be tempted to promote their products or services by making reference to the Olympics. However, there are strict controls around the use of intellectual property rights in place which are monitored and policed vigorously by the International Olympic Committee (‘IOC’).

First of all, there is the Nairobi Treaty which protects the Olympic symbol – the five interlaced rings. This is administered by the World Intellectual Property Organisation. All states which are party to the Nairobi Treaty must agree to invalidate or refuse registration of anything depicting the Olympic symbol which would be used for commercial purposes. Not only that, trade mark protection, design right protection and copyright protect a variety of things associated with the Olympics including the anthem, the flag, the torch and even the staff uniforms.

Prior to awarding the Olympic Games to a country, the International Olympic Committee also requires confirmation from each country that they will enact legislation to ensure that there is intellectual property protection for the Olympic Games. The UK enacted such legislation well prior to the London Olympic Games in 2012, with the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 and the Olympic Symbol etc. (Protection) Act 1995. These acts protect the word ‘Olympics’ and also ban unauthorised association with the Olympics.

The IOC takes a very strong approach to the monitoring and policing of intellectual property associated with the Olympic Games, working closely with social media platforms to prevent unauthorised use of its properties, including videos of Olympic sporting events. Official sponsors pay very large sums of money to be associated with the Olympics and therefore enforce their rights rigorously.

Amongst other things and unless authorised, businesses should therefore:

  • Avoid using branding, symbols or logos associated with the Olympics in advertising, as part of a company name or as part of a domain name;
  • Avoid using the images of athletes 15 days before the competition period, during the competition period and 15 days after the competition period;
  • Avoid using the Olympics Games as a theme for competitions. Care must also be taken for anything which relates to placement advertising;
  • For individual pubs and restaurants intending to screen the Olympic Games, only use one official poster and only factual statements relating to the event being screened.

Although there are some limited exceptions, the IOC makes it very clear that businesses should avoid creating false associations with the Olympic Games. Just recently, the Olympic Committee in the United States even issued warnings to companies who use Twitter hashtags such as #Rio2016. It is therefore imperative for businesses to take a cautious approach and avoid making references to the Olympic Games. There are certain exceptions, including using the brands for editorial and journalistic purposes and for the communication of opinions provided that there is no commercial association between the content and the Olympic Games.

For advice as to what can and cannot be done and for a commercial view, please contact a member of the IP team on 0161 838 7816.

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