Olympic Sponsors Must Follow Strict Social Media Rules

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By Michaela Ross

Aug. 4 — Companies looking to get in on the social media buzz around the Summer Olympics will come up against strict regulations from the International Olympic Committee and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Images of Olympic athletes or words such as “summer”, “challenge” and “gold” may not be used by non-approved Olympic sponsors between July 27 and Aug. 24 if they “imply an association” with the games, according to Rule 40 of the International Olympic Committee, which governs advertising.

The punishments for a social media violation are harsh, but athletes give up some freedoms of expression when they enter a contract agreeing to the Olympic charter to compete at the games, said Eric Perrott, trademark attorney at Gerben Law Firm, PLLC.

“Every athlete knew going into it and must accept it, because it’s the Olympics,” Perrott said.

Even companies that sponsor an athlete, but are not paying the high price tag to be an official Olympic sponsor, may be violating the committee's trademark rights if they tweet or share congratulatory messages using the athlete's name, image, or a list of other Olympic-related terms.

Participating athletes themselves may not tweet or post about a sponsor in an advertising context that implies their association with the games, unless they've gained prior approval, according to U.S. Olympic Committee guidelines. Athletes found to violate these rules could be forced to withdraw from competition or be stripped of their medals, according to the Olympic charter.

The rule was modified since the last Summer Olympics to allow companies with ongoing social media campaigns that use an athlete's image to apply for a waiver to the restrictions by January 2016, but all campaigns needed to have begun before March 2016.

Non-approved companies posting last-minute messages to cheer for #TeamUSA or with the phrase “Go for the Gold!” may be violating the trademark rights of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said Matthew Asbell, a partner at Ladas & Parry who practices trademark, patent and copyright law.

The restrictions are in place to protect the spirit of the games and the rights of official Olympic sponsors, such as Coca-Cola Co. or McDonalds Corp., who don’t want their messaging diluted by competing companies alluding to the games, Asbell said.

“We’ve got people who’ve paid for these rights in relation to an event that the whole world has got their eyes on,” Asbell said. “How can you expect organizers and sponsors to go through the huge effort of arranging this without having some limitations on the other parties that haven’t paid for these rights?”

Ambush Marketing

However, companies often get creative with their advertising to try to skirt trademark violations, a practice known as ambush marketing, said Asbell. He described a tweet from a sports drink company with an image of an unidentifiable athlete overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro. No Olympic logo or related terms were used.

“It’s not violating anyone’s rights because it’s not using Olympic trademarks, but it’s timed well,” Asbell said. “How can anyone claim ownership of the City of Rio?”

The U.S. Olympic Committee, which oversees enforcement of the International Olympic Committee charter as well is its own national licensing, has super-trademark rights under the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act of 1998, 36 U.S.C. §220501. Under the law, the committee can stop the usage of Olympic trademarks without having to prove that the use is a violation because it could potentially confuse consumers as to goods or services' sponsorships or affiliations, as is also the case under regular trademark law.

Other Olympic terms the International Olympic Committee has banned from advertising usage for unapproved parties include: 2016, Rio or Rio de Janeiro, gold, silver, bronze, medal, effort, performance, challenge, summer, games, sponsors, victory, Olympic(s) and the Olympic motto in any translation, “Citius, Altius, Fortius.”

By Michaela Ross

To contact the reporter on this story: Michaela Ross in Washington at mross@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

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