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Protecting the Olympic Properties

August 2016

By Marianne Wüthrich, Trademark Senior Legal Counsel, International Olympic Committee

For 17 days in August, all eyes will be on Brazil as athletes from across the globe come together to compete in the Olympic Games Rio 2016. During this, the world’s largest and most complex sporting event, the icons of the Olympic movement – from the five interlocking rings to the Olympic mascot, Vinicius – will be central features of global media coverage. This article explores how the International Olympic Committee (IOC) protects these so-called Olympic properties, which are so familiar to us all.

Olympism is a philosophy of life that places sport at the service of humankind. The Olympic Movement encompasses concerted, organized, universal and permanent action carried out by many individuals and entities who are inspired by the values of Olympism under the overall umbrella of the IOC. It brings together athletes from every continent for one of the world’s most well-known and celebrated sporting, cultural and entertainment events – the Olympic Games.

The Olympic properties are more than just logos. Because of their honored place on the world stage, the IOC benefits from special legal measures to protect them internationally (Photo: International Olympic Committee).

The Olympic properties are the visual ambassadors of Olympism. The Olympic symbol, in particular, is one of the world’s most recognized brands. The five interlocking rings represent the coming together of five continents and symbolize the Olympic values: Excellence, Respect and Friendship. The Olympic properties have become iconic – they are more than just “logos”. People around the world associate them with the fundamental values of sport and of the Olympic Movement.

Because of their honored place on the world stage, the IOC needs to protect its Olympic properties at the international level. The IOC benefits from special legal means to do this but it also relies on standard means of trademark protection.

The Olympic properties defined

The Olympic torch for the Olympic Games Rio 2016
was designed by São Paolo-based design
studio Chelles & Hayashi. When lit, the torch expands
to reveal the colors of the Brazilian flag and the elements
that give it a truly Brazilian flavor, namely, diversity,
energy and nature. The colors of the extended torch evoke
the sky, mountains, the sea and the earth
(Photo: Courtesy of Chelles & Hayashi Design)

The Olympic Charter is the codification of the Fundamental Principles of Olympism, Rules and Bye-Laws adopted by the IOC. According to Rule 7 of the Charter, the Olympic properties include the Olympic symbol as well as the Olympic flag, motto, anthem, identifications (such as “Olympic Games” and “Games of the Olympiad”), designations, emblems, the Olympic flame and torches.

All rights to any and all Olympic properties belong exclusively to the IOC, including rights to their use in relation to profit-making, commercial or advertising purposes.

Financing the Olympic Games

The IOC and the organizations that make up the Olympic Movement are entirely privately funded.

Support from the business community is crucial to the holding of the Olympic Games, one of the most effective international marketing platforms in the world, reaching billions of people in more than 200 countries and territories across the globe. The IOC distributes more than 90 percent of its revenues to organizations throughout the Olympic Movement to support the staging of the Olympic Games and to promote the development of sport worldwide.

Broadcasting the Olympic Games is the most important means of communicating the Olympic ideals worldwide. The primary broadcasting objective is to ensure that the widest possible audience has an opportunity to experience the Olympic Games. As the owner of the global rights for the Olympic Games – including broadcasts on television, radio, mobile and Internet platforms – the IOC grants its partners exclusive broadcasting rights in their respective territories.

The IOC’s worldwide sponsorship program, the Olympic Partner (TOP) Programme, was established to enable long-term corporate partnerships of benefit to the Olympic Movement. The TOP Programme provides each worldwide partner with exclusive global marketing rights and opportunities within a designated product or service category.

Consequently, the IOC must be able to protect the exclusivity granted to its broadcast and marketing partners, and needs to have the necessary means to prevent third parties from making any unauthorized association with the Olympic Games.

Protecting the Olympic properties

Numerous countries have adopted permanent national legislation protecting the Olympic properties. Although the Olympic Movement’s efforts have contributed to the implementation of legislation, the parliaments that have adopted such measures also understand the importance of sport and the Olympic Movement, as well as the need to protect the properties related to them.

Adopting specific legislation has also proved necessary in countries that host an edition of the Olympic Games. Such legislation not only concerns the protection of the Olympic properties, but also provides the means to fight against ambush marketing and to regulate advertising, in particular in and around Olympic venues. The first specific legislation related to an edition of the Olympic Games appeared in Canada prior to the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games. Since the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, all host countries have adopted such legislation; this will also be the case for future editions of the Olympic Games, such as Pyeongchang 2018 and Tokyo 2020.  

The Rio 2016 Olympic Games

The Olympic symbol is one of the world’s most
recognized brands. The five interlocking rings
represent the coming together of five continents and
symbolize the Olympic values: Excellence, Respect
and Friendship. All rights to any and all Olympic
properties belong exclusively to the IOC, including
rights to their use in relation to profit-making,
commercial or advertising purposes
(Photo: International Olympic Committee).

In relation to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Brazilian authorities have recourse to a number of laws to safeguard official Olympic symbols including: 

  • Brazil’s Industrial Property Law (Law 9,279/96). This law prohibits the registration as trademarks of names, prizes or symbols of official sporting events as well as imitations likely to cause confusion, except when authorized by the competent authority or entity promoting the event.
  • The Pele Law (Law 9,615/98), which grants the Brazilian Olympic Committee exclusive rights over the use of the flags, mottos, anthems and Olympic symbols as well as the names “jogos olímpicos”, “olimpiadas”, “jogos paraolímpicos” and “paraolimpíadas”. It also includes arena rights whereby media rights to sporting events belong to the sport entity organizing or taking part in such an event, but allowing for up to three percent of the event’s duration to be transmitted by non-broadcasting title holders for journalistic, sporting or educational purposes.
  • The Brazilian Copyright Law (Law No. 9,610/98), which protects symbols, designs and mascots as well as any other works related to the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
  • The Brazilian Olympic Act (Law 12,035/09), which extends legal protection to all properties associated with the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Federal authorities are responsible for monitoring, investigating and suppressing any unlawful acts that violate rights in the Olympic symbols. The Act also forbids any entity from associating itself or its products or services with the Olympic Games, whether or not for commercial use, without the express authorization of the Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games Rio 2016 or the IOC. The law also provides local authorities and the Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games Rio 2016 with the means to efficiently tackle ambush marketing practices (where goods are sufficiently similar to invoke an undue association with the Games), and to prevent unauthorized marketing activities, including sale of Olympic tickets at an Olympic venue or in the airspace surrounding it. These measures were further strengthened with the recent amendment of the law which took effect in May 2016.
  • The Brazilian Olympic Law (Law 13,284/16), which defines and criminalizes ambush marketing by intrusion and association, among other provisions related to the Games. This law complements the Brazilian Olympic Act.
  • Local Olympic Acts enacted by municipalities and states hosting the games:
  • The Nairobi Treaty: The IOC also benefits from an exceptional international legal instrument that protects the Olympic symbol. Adopted in 1981 and administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the Nairobi Treaty on the Protection of the Olympic Symbol obliges each state that has ratified it to refuse or invalidate the registration as a mark and to prohibit the use for commercial purposes of any sign consisting of or containing the Olympic symbol, except with the IOC’s authorization.
  • Trademark protection: The IOC is the worldwide owner of numerous trademarks protecting its Olympic properties. While this may seem logical, the IOC had to wait some 100 years before it could register trademarks in its own name. Prior to 1993, numerous national trademark laws (including in Switzerland, where the IOC is based) reserved the right to register trademarks only for commercial companies. As a non-profit association, the IOC had to wait for the harmonization of European law and the modification of Swiss law before it could register a trademark in its name.

The IOC registers trademarks, in particular through the WIPO Madrid System for the International Registration of Marks, relating to its permanent properties (which are common to each edition of the Olympic Games), such as the Olympic symbol and the words “Olympic”, “Olympiad” and “Olympic Games”. It also seeks protection for identifiers related to a specific edition of the Olympic Games, such as the official emblem of that edition of the Olympic Games and the City+Year word mark, for example “Rio 2016”, “Pyeongchang 2018” and “Tokyo 2020”.

Implementing the IOC’s rights

In the routine management of its intellectual property (IP) rights, the IOC encounters certain challenges, some of which are described below.

  • Social media platforms are fantastic opportunities to engage new audiences, especially young people. The IOC is embracing these opportunities and has a presence on several major social media platforms. The IOC works closely with social media platforms to prevent unauthorized use of the Olympic properties.
  • Ambush marketing. Some companies which are not official partners try to associate themselves with the unique and worldwide character of the Olympic Games free of charge. This is unfair vis-à-vis companies that financially support the Olympic Games as well as the participating athletes. The creativity of these ambushers makes it necessary to adopt specific national legislation to prevent ambush marketing. However, as these laws are in force only in the host territory, the IOC must invoke ordinary legal means such as trademark registration or unfair competition law to fight ambush marketing in other territories. Ordinary laws sometimes do not go as far as the IOC would like.

Protection of the City+Year word mark

Vinicius is the mascot for the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
Vinicius represents a mixture of all Brazilian animals
and was created on October 2, 2009, following the
announcement that Rio would host the Olympic Games
in 2016 (Photo: International Olympic Committee).

In 1993, before Sydney was elected to host the 2000 Olympic Games, a third party sought to register all the names of the candidate cities for the 2000 Olympic Games in numerous countries and then threatened the IOC partners with legal action if they used “Sydney 2000”.

To prevent such abuses in future, the IOC subsequently took steps to protect the City+Year identifiers well before a city is selected to host an edition of the Olympic Games.

Some court decisions have called into question the distinctive character of a trademark composed of a city and a year.

Acquired distinctiveness as a remedy for an initial lack of distinctiveness usually requires very long use in the market. However, numerous trademark offices around the world (including the European Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO)) agreed that, in the specific case of the Olympic Games, distinctiveness can be acquired faster, and even instantly. Given the exceptional worldwide interest in, and media coverage of, a city’s election by the IOC, distinctiveness is acquired the moment the result is announced.

Managing the Olympic properties for future generations

The Olympic Games are one of the most well-known sporting events in the world. Protecting the Olympic properties is therefore very important. The IOC benefits from a privileged situation thanks to the existence of the Nairobi Treaty, as well as national legislation to protect the Olympic properties and combat ambush marketing in certain territories. However, ordinary legal protection, such as trademark protection, remains essential. Like many other trademark owners, including sports governing bodies, the IOC faces a number of challenges in managing its IP, in particular in relation to social media platforms. While the IOC sees the advent of social media as an opportunity for sports bodies to engage new generations of fans and participants, it must ensure that the Olympic properties are still protected. Close collaboration with the providers of these services will undoubtedly go a long way in mitigating this risk.

Judicious management of the Olympic properties will help ensure that people of all ages and from all continents can continue to take part in the spectacle and celebrate the values that underpin the Olympic Games for generations to come.

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The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.