The U.S. Olympic Committee’s social media guidelines evaded review after a federal court judge found a legal challenge from a carpet cleaning business lacked an “actual controversy.”
As the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro approached, the USOC cautioned commercial entities against the use of USOC trademarks, even in hashtags such as #Rio2016 and #TeamUSA. Minnesota carpet cleaning company Zerorez—although not on the receiving end of a warning letter—filed suit against the USOC, seeking a determination of its rights to discuss the 2016 Olympic Games on social media.
Specifically, the company argued that the USOC cannot preclude businesses that are not official Team USA sponsors from discussing the Olympics on social media and that the Committee had exaggerated the strength of its legal rights.
The USOC responded with a motion to strike the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing that no case or controversy existed between the parties. U.S. District Court Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright agreed, and dismissed the case for lack of an actual controversy.
Zerorez was unable to persuade the court that the USOC’s “broad warnings” against infringement, which were widely publicized by the media, made it reasonable for the company to believe it could become the target of an infringement lawsuit.
“If news reports of USOC’s letters to other companies warning that only official sponsors of Team USA are permitted to use USOC’s trademarks on their corporate social media channels create an actual controversy between USOC and Zerorez, a company with which USOC never communicated before this lawsuit, then any company that is not an official sponsor of Team USA could bring a declaratory judgment action against USOC by asserting the same facts,” the court wrote. “Such a conclusion would eviscerate the actual controversy requirement.”
Zerorez did not allege that the Committee ever communicated directly regarding the USOC’s trademark rights and the parties did not have any history of trademark litigation. Instead, the company argued that the combination of the USOC Brand Usage Guidelines, written communications notifying other businesses that their use of the trademarks without permission is prohibited, and the USOC’s track record of commencing trademark litigation were enough to establish an actual controversy.
But this totality of the circumstances was insufficient for the court, even if Zerorez was reluctant to post comments about the Olympics through its corporate social media accounts. “Importantly, USOC never threatened litigation against Zerorez,” Judge Wright wrote. “Zerorez’s concern that it might become the target of a trademark litigation lawsuit is speculative and one-sided. It is not based on the existence of a concrete dispute between the parties.”
To read the order in HSK, LLC v. The United States Olympic Committee, click here.
Why it matters: With the dismissal of Zerorez’s suit, many open questions remain about whether advertisers can discuss the Olympics on social media without facing legal action from the USOC. Perhaps the next Games will present an opportunity for a court to consider issues such as whether a non-sponsor can praise an athlete on their Facebook page or tweet congratulations after a gold medal victory.