The 2012 Olympic Games began on July 27th, and sports fans the world over are eager to show off their Olympic spirit. Official sponsors of the Games have been cashing in on the quadrennial fever for months, advertising every imaginable type of service and product emblazoned with the famous symbols of Games. Those who were not fortunate enough to secure such official sponsorships, but who wish to depict the symbols nonetheless, should beware.
The word "Olympic" and various Olympic symbols enjoy unique trademark protection in the United States. A special provision in the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, 36 U.S.C. §§ 371-396, authorizes the United States Olympic Committee ("USOC") to prohibit certain commercial and promotional uses of the words "Olympic" and "Olympiad", the phrase "Citius Altius Fortius", and that ubiquitous symbol of the Games, the five interlocking rings. Specifically, Section 110(a) of the Act, 26 U.S.C. § 380(a), prohibits any person from using these words and symbols without the consent of the USOC "for the purpose of trade, to induce the sale of any goods or services, or to promote any theatrical exhibition, athletic performance, or competition."
The Act is unusual in several respects. First, Congress expressly granted a private entity, the USOC, exclusive trademark rights in certain words and symbols without its having to prove that the marks are distinctive or even used in commerce. Second, under this Act (unlike under the Lanham Act) the USOC need not prove that an authorized use is likely to cause confusion. Third, the usual statutory defenses afforded under Section 33 of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1115, are unavailable. Fourth, as the Supreme Court found in San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc. v. United States Olympic Committee, 483 U.S. 522 (1987), the right to prohibit use of the marks for the promotion of theatrical and athletic events "may go beyond the strictly business context" of commercial speech, and thus impose "incidental restrictions on First Amendment freedoms."
If it's any consolation, the Olympic trademarks are afforded similarly broad protection in other countries, too. In fact, any city bidding to host the Games must agree to pass legislation protecting against infringement of the Olympic trademarks. Such vigilance is essential in order to protect the all-important "official sponsor." Official sponsorships are the International Olympic Committee's second-largest source of revenue, just behind broadcasting rights.
Of course, there will always be those who think they can outsmart the brand police and get in on the action. Let the games begin!