Venable partner Po Yi and associate Jessica Borowick were interviewed in an August 1, 2016 Law360 article on the challenges advertisers face during the Olympics. While a worldwide audience would seem ideal for advertisers, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) are notorious for aggressively enforcing their trademarks and advertising deals. Common words and phrases like "Olympic," "Olympiad," "Go For The Gold," and the interlocking rings logo are protected by federal law in the U.S. making it near impossible for companies who are not official sponsors to use them.
"If you don't have a sponsorship with IOC or USOC you can't do anything, period. ... It is very strict ... [the USOC] are extremely, extremely proactive in seeking out infringement, so there is really no room," said Yi. "Just because something is around and everyone is using it doesn't mean you can too. The USOC will absolutely go after you. They have a whole team ready." Added Borowick, "It is great that everyone gets excited about the Olympics and brands see that and want to get involved, but they don't have all of the tools to do so and that is by design."
Recently relaxed restrictions on athlete endorsements have allowed companies that are not official sponsors to get in on some of the action. While Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter prevents participants from allowing their name, image or likeness to be used in advertising during a blackout period, they can be used in "generic advertising" that does not infringe on any Olympic trademarks.
"They have to always tread carefully because it is so easy for companies to cross that line," said Yi. "When you are using Olympians, you have to be very careful because their fame is really tied to the Olympics, so it is really easy for advertisers to cross the line." Commenting on what brought about the rule change, Borowick said, "This came from the athletes...they wanted the opportunity to be sponsored…This is the first year. There are Winter Olympics coming up, so there is going to be a lot of opportunity to get this right both from a brand perspective and the USOC's perspective."