As we get ready to support our athletes at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janerio ("Rio 2016"), this provides a timely reminder about what we can and cannot publish on social media platforms around this event. 

Rio 2016 and social media

Rio 2016 has been dubbed as the “largest social media event ever” and already has more followers on social media platforms  than ever seen before for a single event. Historically, the Olympics have been the most popular and most watched international sporting event in human history. This year, Rio 2016 is expected to take digital consumer engagement to the next level. Global Web Index estimates that over 3 billion viewers worldwide will simultaneously watch the Olympics while holding a mobile device in their hands. 

This presents an unparalleled opportunity for us, the audience, to engage with the Olympics and there is an obvious temptation for everyone, particularly brand owners, to use social media to promote brands to demonstrate solidarity with our countries or teams. However, doing so can be legally risky and potentially costly if we inadvertently make illegitimate use of protected insignia in our social media posts. It is, therefore, important for us to be reminded what Olympic signs and symbols are protected and what is regarded as acceptable or unacceptable use of those signs. 

What Olympic symbols and signs are protected?

Most jurisdictions have enacted specific legislation to protect Olympic insignia. In Australia, the Olympic Insignia Protection Act 1987 (Cth) regulates the commercial use of Olympic symbols. It confers rights on the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) to use and license the Olympic symbol (i.e. the five rings logo), the Olympic torch and flame design, the Olympic motto (“Citius, altius, fortius”) and the protected words OLYMPIC, OLYMPICS, OLYMPIC GAMES, OLYMPIAD, OLYMPIADS. It is an infringement if an unauthorised person uses these protected marks, or confusingly similar marks, for commercial purposes.

The AOC and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are registered as owners of several Olympic trade marks in Australia, including the words OLYMPIC, OLYMPIA, OLYMPEX, OLYMPIAD, SUMMER GAMES, RIO 2016, ROAD TO RIO, TEAM AUSTRALIA and the Rio 2016 emblem shown alongside. Unauthorised use of these trade marks, or confusingly similar marks, could give rise to trade mark infringement. 
In addition, the Australian Consumer Law provides broad protection against misleading and deceptive conduct and making false representations about having a certain affiliation, association or approval. As a result, even where a social media post or campaign does not use protected Olympic insignia, it could still be problematic if it misleadingly or falsely evokes an association or affiliation or similar relationship with the Olympics or its organizers. Similar misrepresentations that are likely to cause damage to the goodwill of the Olympics could also be actionable for the tort of passing off. 

For a comprehensive list of the protected Olympic insignia, please see the IOC's Brand Protection Guidelines.

General principles for using Olympic insignia on social media 

The IOC, just as any other brand owner, recognizes the marketing potential of social media (which had over 1.5 billion active users as of April 2016). It encourages participating athletes, coaches, officials, members of accredited media and us to share our experiences about the Olympics through social media but requests that certain rules are observed in doing so. It has issued detailed Social and Digital Media Guidelines and Brand Protection Guidelines for ascertaining whether use of the Olympic insignia is likely to be appropriate in a particular social media post or campaign.

The following key general principles emerge from these guidelines:

  • Only organisers and authorised entities can use the Olympic insignia for commercial purposes or suggest an association with the Olympic games.
  • The word “Olympic” and other Olympic-related words can be used as a factual reference provided no commercial association is drawn with a third-party or its products or services.
  • Participating athletes, coaches and officials must not use the Olympic rings on social and digital media. However, they can share their experience and still photographs from the Rio Games through social media provided such photographs are not undertaken for commercial purposes or for demonstration or any form of political, religious or racial propaganda.
  • Participating athletes, coaches and officials may post about their sponsors, or its products and services, if they have obtained the prior written approval of the IOC or the AOC.

Examples of acceptable use of Olympic insignia in social media

The most important thing to remember is that the ability to use Olympic insignia depends on several factors, including one's association with the AOC and/or the IOC, the context and purpose of the posts and their timing. 

Below is a table we have collated as a handy reference guide on what may or may not be acceptable social media posts based on our review of the guidelines issued by the IOC, AOC and the New Zealand Olympic Committee:

Click here to view table.

Take-home points

Drawing unauthorised association with the Olympics is legally risky and can be very costly. Brand owners not affiliated with the games should, therefore, steer clear of any social media posts or advertising using protected signs such as “Olympics”, “Olympic Games” and “Rio 2016” or any similar words in order to avoid allegations of infringement. 

This is not to say that we can not embrace the spirit of the Olympics as long as we do not cross the legal line in our enthusiasm. We encourage brand owners to check their legal position on any proposed social media campaigns and posts for the Olympics.