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8 August 2023

Paris 2024 Olympic Games and “golden” Intellectual Property Rights

Introduction

Next summer, all eyes will be on Paris when the city hosts the summer Olympic games (from the 26 of July to the 11 of August 2024). The first Olympic games took place in Greece in 776 BC (the most widely accepted date for the first event); however, the modern version of the games as we know it, dates back to 1896, when the event was revived by Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Since then, the event has grown significantly and has become one of the largest sporting events in the world. While the 1896 event involved 241 competing athletes; the 2024 version will welcome 10,500 athletes for a global audience expected to be above three billion.

The summer Olympic games are not just a huge sporting contest; sponsors pay huge sums to be associated with the event. For example, luxury giant LVMH is reported to have paid in the region of £130 million to sponsor the 2024 games and sponsorship revenues from the games are projected to exceed £1.08 billion. The popularity of the Olympic games is such that even non-affiliated businesses try to capitalise on the public enthusiasm for the games. However, that is a very risky strategy; as we discuss below, the Olympic games are protected by robust intellectual property rights.

“Golden” Intellectual Property Rights

Most of the symbols and names that are associated with the Olympic games benefit from special protection. For example, the Olympic symbol (the iconic five interconnected rings shown below) is protected, either under the 1981 Nairobi Treaty on the Protection of the Olympic Symbol or through special legislation, as is the case in the United Kingdom (which is not a signatory of the Nairobi Treaty) under the Olympic Symbol, etc (Protection) Act 1995 (“the 1995 Act”). Similarly, in Germany a special law (called “OlympSchuG”) protects the Olympic symbol.

These specific rules do not just protect the Olympic symbol, they also protect the Olympic motto (which is now “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together”), the Paralympic motto (“Spirit in Motion”) and protected words such as “Olympiad(s)”, “Olympian(s)” and “Olympic(s).” That protection extends to signs that are deemed sufficiently similar that they create a risk of confusion or association in the mind of the public. In the UK this results in the UK Intellectual Property Registry (“the Registry”) refusing any trade mark application that consists of, or incorporates, these protected names and symbols. For example, when a company attempted to register a word and a stylised mark for “OLYMPIC”, the Registry objected to the registration of both marks, on the basis that the marks contained a specially protected emblem protected under the 1995 Act.

In addition to the above, the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”), the non-governmental sport organisation behind the Olympic games, has protected a significant number of terms as trade marks, including “The Olympics”, “Paralympic”, Olympiad”, “World Olympians”, “Olympic Stadium”, “Friends of the Games” and “Olympic Torch Relay” to name just a few.

Marks that are specifically related to the up-coming host city are also registered well in advance of the event; for example, the wording “PARIS 2024” and a variety of marks comprising of “Paris 2024” were filed as early as 2016-2017, with most already registered. The city of Los Angeles will host the 2028 summer Olympic games in and as such, trade marks incorporating “Los Angeles 2028” and “LA 2028” have already been protected. Even marks incorporating “Brisbane 2032” have already been registered, in anticipation of the city hosting the 2032 games. Domain names such as “paris2024.org” are also registered well in advance, so as to prevent cybersquatting.

           

Risks for businesses

Any application for the registration of a mark that is identical, or confusingly similar, to the IOC’s registered marks will most likely be opposed. For example, a recent application for the registration of the mark “Isolimpia” (filed for a variety of class 17 products, including insulating tapes, insulators for cables and insulating oils) has been opposed by the IOC on the basis that the mark is confusingly similar to some of the IOC’s prior trade mark registrations (“Olympic”, “Olympian” and “The Olympics”). The IOC has also argued that the application “Isolimpia” should be prevented registration under the 1995 Act. Other examples of marks recently opposed by the IOC include “Olympia Lumina”, “Olympia Kristallon”, “Olimpo” (for alcoholic beverages and wines) and “Olympism” (for clothing and translation and interpretation services).

Any commercial use of the Olympic names and symbols, or signs that are so similar that the public will establish a connection with the Olympic games, will most likely be objected by the IOC. Commercial use includes affixing a mark on products that are sold; it also includes promoting goods and services using the mark. Even posts on social medias could put a business at risk, if they are seen as a way of promoting the goods and services of the business posting.

During the London Olympic games, a UK florist (who had created a paper tissue display of the Olympic rings) and UK butcher (who used a sign featuring the five Olympic rings made of sausage) were forced to stop since they did not have permission to use the Olympic sign. While these examples may seem trivial, infringing the IOC’s intellectual property rights could have serious consequences. Not only could the unlicensed trader be requested to stop use of the infringing sign; it could be liable for significant damages.

In Germany, an advertisement for a bathtub which included the designation “Olympia 2010” and the reference “Anticipation of Vancouver 2010” was blocked. The Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court held that the advertisement attempted to profit from the attraction, reputation and prestige of the Olympic designation and was unfair.

In another German case, however, the use of “Flat Rate Edition Beijing – Our offer for the Olympics 2008” for a marketing campaign, was allowed. The Regional Court of Nuremberg-Fürth considered that there was no exploitation of reputation or danger of confusion with the Olympic games. However, it is important to bear in mind that the appreciation of a specific marketing campaign always depends on the specific facts and circumstances surrounding that case.

Some companies try to by-pass these restrictions with so-called ambush marketing. Ambush marketing can be defined as a business’ attempt to benefit from the goodwill and publicity value of a sport event, without paying sponsorship fees. For example, when the summer Olympic games took place in London, the Irish betting company Paddy Power launched a billboard campaign claiming to be the “Official sponsor of the largest athletics event in London this year!” that claim was followed by a disclaimer that the event in question was a traditional egg-and-spoon race happening in a small French town called London. While being quite innovative and humorous, that campaign was still objected to and, although Paddy Power eventually succeeded with its legal claim that the campaign should be allowed to continue, not all businesses have the appetite (and financial resources) for such legal battles.

The above does not mean that businesses cannot launch sports themed ranges or products that, for example, have references to countries participating or hosting the games. For example, selling trainers featuring countries’ flags would not necessary be objectionable. However, while it is tempting for businesses to join in the public’s enthusiasm for the Olympic games, care should be taken not to unwillingly fall foul of the strict legislation protecting this event.