Guardian of the Rings

February 18, 2018

The 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang are upon us. From February 8 to 25, spectators around the globe will attend, watch and follow the world’s best-of-the-best athletes as they compete in the Republic of South Korea. Not only will spectators view elite athletes battle for gold, we will view on television, in print and online what some consider the most recognized trademark in the world: the Olympic rings.

The well-known Olympic rings, five interlocking circles of differing colors, are symbolic of “five continents and the meeting of athletes from throughout the world at the Olympic Games,” according to Rule 8 of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Olympic Charter. Developed by French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of modern-day Olympics, the rings were first presented publicly in 1913.  According to the Olympic Games website article, “Olympic Rings,” there are seven official versions of the Olympic rings: a full color on a white background (preferred usage), and monochrome (any of the six official Olympic colors).

What is probably less well-known to spectators watching Chole Kim win the Women’s Halfpipe gold medal, is the serious rigor by which the eye-catching rings, and other Olympic-related intellectual property such as the Olympic flag, torch or logos, or words and phrases, (PYEONGCHANG 2018), are protected.

The IOC owns exclusive intellectual property rights through its Olympic Charter, and, according to Rule 7 of the Charter, it has the exclusive right to control the use of the “Olympic symbol, flag, motto, anthem, identifications [including but not limited to ‘Olympic Games’ and ‘Games of the Olympiad’], designations, emblems, flame and torches.” The IOC may also license all or part of its rights on terms and conditions set forth by its executive board.

Additionally, the IOC Olympic Charter Bye-Law to Rules 7-14, stipulates that each national Olympic committee is responsible to the IOC for the observance, in its country, of the IOC’s intellectual property rules, meaning the country must take steps to prohibit any use of any Olympic properties contrary to IOC rules. Further, where a national law or a trademark registration or other form of legal instrument grants legal protection to a national Olympic committee for the Olympic symbol or any other Olympic property, the national committee may only use it in compliance with the Olympic Charter and with instructions received from the IOC.

In the United States, there are various federal statutes and regulations that prohibit or protect the use of certain words, names or symbols, including Smokey Bear, Girl Scouts and Little League. Olympic symbols and property are accorded such statutory protection. According to § 1205.01 in the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (TMEP), the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, 36 U.S.C. § 220506, protects various designations associated with the Olympics. Interestingly, the United States Supreme Court has held that the grant by Congress to the United States Olympic Committee of the exclusive right to use the word “Olympic” does not violate the First Amendment. (See San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc. v. U.S. Olympic Comm., 483 U.S. 522, 3 USPQ2d 1145 (1987) (concerning petitioner’s use of “Gay Olympic Games”).

Like the IOC, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) rigorously guards its intellectual property—as it must in accordance with the IOC. According to TMEP § 1205.01(b), following passage of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, 36 U.S.C. §380, unauthorized use of words and symbols associated with the USOC or the Olympics subjects such a user to civil actions and remedies. The USOC has the exclusive right to use the name “United States Olympic Committee” and the words “Olympic,” “Olympiad,” among others. For prospective trademark holders, marks that contain Olympic-related words or symbols cannot be registered on the Principal or Supplemental Register.

The USOC maintains a “U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Brand Usage Guidelines” page on the website. From logos to trademarked words and phrases to social media to classrooms, the site outlines friendly guidance on the use of its intellectual property, along with a stern warning that “federal law gives the USOC extensive rights to control the use of USOC IP in the United States and allows the USOC to file a lawsuit against any entity using such intellectual property for commercial purposes without consent.”

To be sure, there is little human endeavor that is as splendid, accomplished—somehow hopeful—as this year’s free skate program of Germany’s Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, for which they won a gold medal. The Olympics is where we have the opportunity to view such athletic, artistic mastery. But the Olympics is also a business, with $100-million sponsors and highly recognizable trademarks like the Olympic rings. As such, its intellectual property is fiercely guarded by the IOC, USOC and other nation watchmen.