8 min read

What are the legal “rules” for the Olympics? Can you use video footage or logos or images from the games or the individual athletes? What about if it’s fair use? I’ll answer all these questions and more, so let’s dive in!

It’s that time again! Every four years countries from around the globe gather together to compete in a winter season of games. This year, the world is set to witness North and South Korea come together under one flag! But, that’s just one of the exciting moments set to occur in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The 2018 Winter Olympic Games will bring a barrage of official video streams, recaps, prime-time specials, merchandise (lots of merchandise), advertisements, sponsorships, Tweets, news articles, gold medals, disappointing losses, and stories of success against all odds. In the midst of everything, it’s easy to forget interaction with and usage of media content surrounding the Olympics is highly regulated.  Let’s examine some key points everyone should understand when interacting with the Olympic games.

Olympic Trademark & Copyright Protections

The Olympics are protected by a special kind of trademark that is recognized the world over, or at least by every participating country. Furthermore, the logos and marks are protected by copyright laws. What’s the difference? A very basic way to comprehend the difference is to think about the copyright protecting the design, videos, pictures/images, music, and artistry, while the trademark protects the names, logos and marks, overall recognition and consumer association, or goodwill, with the games – but, the two do overlap in some aspects. The main takeaway should be that usage of anything “officially” Olympic Games is protected by law and you should be careful in how you use the content and brand assets.

The International Olympic Committee, or “IOC” for short, owns everything… And I mean everything! The Olympic Rings, Olympic flame and torches, medals, historical images, expressions, flag, motto, anthem, mascots, identifiers, emblems… Basically anything that you can possibly associate with the Olympics is owned and controlled by the IOC. They control any commercial, or profit-making uses of them. Most countries have enacted special legislation that specifically grants these protections. Since the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, the IOC has required every host country to enact special legislation, which includes creation of a special country-specific Olympic committee. So, what does this mean? Here are a few examples of what shouldn’t be done:

  • Create your own “Olympic Ring” coffee mugs to sell;
  • Produce a local car dealership commercial of someone running with the Olympic torch to get a great deal on a new car;
  • Edit a YouTube video where you recap and discuss a stellar bobsledding team performance;
  • Tweet out, from a business or influencer account, #PyeongChang2018 or #WinterOlympics to interact with the brand, unless you are an official sponsor

Important Considerations

So, what are some “officially sanctioned” ways you may be able to utilize the Olympic marks? According to the International Trademark Association, or “INTA”, “The word Olympic may be used, without sanction, to identify a business or goods or services if:

  1. Such use is not combined with any of the Olympic trademarks;
  2. It is evident from the circumstances that the word Olympic refers to the naturally occurring mountains or geographical region of the same name, and not to the USOC or to any Olympic activity; and
  3. Such business is operated, or such goods or services are sold and marketed, in the state of Washington, west of the Cascade Mountain range, and marketing outside this area is not substantial.

Also, any use of the word Olympic commencing before September 21, 1950, may continue.”

Practical Tip: Avoid trying to make any appearance that there is an official sponsorship or authorization of any kind when using the marks.

When brands that haven’t become official sponsors try to cash in on the games, it’s referred to as “ambush marketing.” There are sneaky ways it can be done, and without a doubt occurs every year! This is also a common occurrence with the Super Bowl, which is another heavily protected branded sporting event.

The safest bet is for a brand or internet creator to become an official sponsor or partner of the IOC or their regional committee, or work with an existing official sponsor or partner. If you operate a website or other service, such as a news website, blog or YouTube channel, you may be within an editorial exception and allowed to talk about the games from a newsworthy standpoint, but it mustn’t be for a commercial purpose. If there are advertisements on the content you post, you must take extra care to make sure there isn’t any inadvertent association or endorsement of those advertisers as official Olympic sponsors. The factual information about the games, such as winners of a particular event or social media activity of an athlete, can be reported on and discussed. However, incorporating a photograph or video clip without a proper license may become an issue. Some alternatives include embedding a photo or video from Twitter or Instagram, which currently have more broadly written content usage policies.

Practical Tip: A helpful message you should probably include on ad-supported content you create can be like this: “Note: These advertisers are not related to the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Games and are the exclusive sponsors of this blog/website.”

Companies, brands or individuals that talk about the Olympics or post images and videos of the Olympics could easily be in violation of the rules and laws. There is an inherent value, at least from the point of view of the IOC, in being able to enforce these protections. However, if they fail to actively and effectively regulate how companies or individuals use and/or interact with the Olympic brand, it can lead to a decrease in value to official sponsors, and, ultimately, income from licensing revenues to the IOC or local committees.

If you’re the average home viewer that is watching the freestyle skiing competition and tweeting about it, you’re likely not going to get in trouble. This would be an example of a “trademark fair use,” and, arguably, encouraged by the IOC through their implementation of official hashtags on social media. Nominative fair use, according to INTA, “permits use of another’s trademark to describe the user’s products or services, rather than as a trademark to indicate the source of the products or services.” This is generally allowed under the following circumstances:

  1. The protected brand is not easily identifiable without referencing the trademarked name… basically, you can’t easily refer to the Olympics without using the term Olympics.
  2. Usage of the trademark is limited to just what is enough to properly identify the protected brand… such as tweeting with an official hashtag.
  3. Using the trademark does not imply or expressly state that a sponsorship or endorsement from the trademark owner… so, that means you likely can’t upload a video to YouTube of you making Olympic Ring donuts.

There is an inherent difference in an individual joining the conversation, interacting with official brands, when compared with a company or celebrity taking the opportunity to piggyback off the promotional nature of being a part of the conversation of the big events. It’s mostly viewed as an effort to increase their brand power and could be construed, at least in a legal sense, as a commercial activity.

You also can’t just recreate or draw the symbols and expect to get away with it. This would be an attempt to “pass off” an unofficial logo or mark. Trying the recreate the vibe or spirit of the Olympics, including use of the same color palates, regional landmarks, city names, or similar, could be actionable under local laws. The same goes with use of athletes images, names, or likeness that are competing in the Olympics, or have in the past. There are also some harsh penalties that could potentially be faced by Olympic athletes who participate in ambush marketing campaigns. This is a common tactic used by brands looking to avoid paying more money to become official sponsors. However, if there is an underlying message stating opinion or cultural expression, you might be in the clear, provided there is no commercial purpose.

What About Video or Images?

It’s going to be a tough battle when it comes to using video footage or images from the games. Networks and other media companies pay big bucks when they obtain exclusive broadcast or publishing and rebroadcast rights to for offering coverage of the games. There might be a copyright fair use defense, such a offering commentary or educational purposes, to use of video or images. However, copyright fair use is simply a defense that can be used once you’ve already been sued! It’s not going stop you from potentially getting in trouble and facing hefty legal fees or infringement penalties.

Practical Tip: Try to use images or video of generic sporting activities that don’t feature major brands, such as the Olympics or even specific teams.

Other Options

If you need expert advice on how to properly use the marks, check with a local attorney in your area. It’s always best to simply not use any official branding of the Olympic games when creating your own content.

If you want to become an official licensee of the Olympic trademarks and copyrights, you can find out more information from the IOC by clicking here. There is also a helpful brand guidance document published by the IOC you can access by click here (hint: jump to page 55).

Basically, just be careful when using Olympic images and videos, names or other marks, and copyrighted materials when you prepare and release your content targeting the upcoming quadrennial global sporting event!

Franklin Graves is the founder of Frankly Legal. He's an internet creator and practicing attorney based out of Nashville, TN.


Leave a Comment


img advertisement