As excitement builds for the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics in Rio, companies and organizations, big and small, will be tempted to use the “Games” or the “Olympics” to promote their products, services and agendas. But, they must beware of getting too caught up in the Olympic spirit. Although Olympic and Paralympic trademarks such as the interlocking rings, “Rio 2016,” and “Faster Higher Stronger” may be ubiquitous, especially this summer, an unauthorized use of such trademarks could bring a lot of legal headaches to the user.

Some background:

  • Ownership of the Marks: In the United States, Olympic-related trademarks are protected by the federal statute known as the “Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act,” which gives the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) the exclusive right to use, license, and protect the trademarks.
  • Team USA: The USOC uses and licenses its trademarks in large part to support Team USA, the group of athletes that competes under the United States flag in each iteration of the Games (“Team USA” is also a USOC trademark).
  • Individual Sports: Each sport’s National Governing Body (NGB), g., USA Gymnastics and U.S. Soccer, is a member of the USOC, and receives benefits from the organization – including the right to use certain Olympic-related trademarks. There are currently 47 NGBs that make up Team USA.
  • The IOC: The USOC is also responsible for enforcing compliance with rules and regulations of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), a separate, non-profit organization based in Switzerland. The IOC oversees the “Olympic Movement” worldwide, and members of the IOC get to pick the Olympics host cities, secure worldwide trademark usage rights deals with key, “TOP” sponsors, and negotiate Olympics broadcast deals.

Using Olympic trademarks, or even referring to the Olympics in marketing is a minefield for sponsors and non-sponsors alike for three main reasons:

First: The USOC can easily sue you, and win. The USOC can bring a civil action against anyone who uses an Olympic trademark in a way that tends to cause confusion or falsely suggests an association between any Olympic or Paralympic activity and that user without proper consent. This is a lower burden than trademark law generally imposes on regular rights-holders, and does not include a requirement that the USOC show any likelihood of consumer confusion.

Second: There are many different owners and authorities controlling Olympics-related trademarks. An unauthorized use of Olympics-related trademarks could result in cease and desist letters from the IOC, the USOC, NGBs, and/or the Team USA athletes themselves (and that’s just in the United States!). Even Olympic sponsors must beware of exceeding the scope of their respective licenses, using the trademarks without first obtaining approvals from the USOC, and infringing the rights of third parties (e.g., athletes or other Olympic sponsors).

Third: You are not likely to get away with it! The USOC, IOC, NGBs, and each of their sponsors are extremely protective of their rights related to the Olympics. They police and enforce their rights aggressively and they are very effective in finding and stopping potential infringers.

In short, brands beware! If your organization is not an Olympic sponsor, your marketers should stay far away from the Olympic-related trademarks. And, even if your organization is an Olympic sponsor, you must be careful to make sure that any use of Olympic-related trademarks is within the scope of your agreement with the IOC, USOC, or NGB.