By Ian Johnson ‑ August 18, 2016
Contributors: Ian Johnson and Andre Andrade
Last week’s opening ceremony in Brazil’s Maracanã Stadium kick-started 17 days of the Olympiad: 10,500 athletes from 206 countries competing across 306 events. Since winning the bid for the Olympic Games in 2009, Rio de Janeiro has worked to make South America’s first Games a success. The government has invested in new stadiums and sporting venues, building new transport links including an $8 million elevated cycle path over the sea. In the build up to the event, Olympic organisers expected significant media focus, but were they prepared for the issues surrounding intellectual property (IP) and what this would mean for sponsors and the Olympic brand?
A giant leap for sporting technology
The 2016 Rio Olympics has been the most technologically advanced Olympics to date, embracing both digital systems and innovative start-ups to stage a multiscreen, virtual Games. Among many other new technologies, the Rio Games will use GPS devices to follow long distance races, laser technology for precise target shooting and scoring, and wearable data for performance analysis
How did so many new technologies make it to Rio? After the inception of an idea, it is vital for inventors to protect their IP with a patent or other form of security. In the lead up to the Games, Brazilian authorities recognised the space for new technology and made moves to accommodate emerging innovation. The Brazilian Patent Trademark Office (BRPTO) issued Resolution No.167, which enabled the fast tracking of the processing of industrial design applications related to sporting goods.
To meet the criteria for the expediting of examinations, industrial design patent applications had to exclusively concern sporting goods and have been requested prior to 16 June 2016. Resolution No.167 also helped to curb the effect of territorial patent rights. In general, exclusive rights are only applicable in the country or region in which a patent has been filed and granted, in accordance with the law of that particular location. Brazil’s fast tracked patent process protected IP as soon as an application was accepted. New technologies could be introduced in Rio safely and with the knowledge that the BRPTO would safeguard IP.
The social media takedown
In an attempt to protect its own IP, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued a ban on non-official sponsors sharing Olympic content:
"…Any use of USOC trademarks on a non-media company's website or social media site is viewed as commercial in nature and consequently is prohibited.”
Trademarks are a key method of protection of trademarked brands, sporting venues and even, athletes. Social media is also deploying trademarks to protect IP. Internet watching is an increasingly important tool for IP owners to survey and regulate the sharing of content online. While the regulation of certain terms and words on social platforms is not new, banning hashtags is a relatively new phenomenon. The first US applications for trademark hashtags were submitted in 2013, but the USOC now owns a number of words and phrases as trademarked hashtags: ‘#Rio2016’ and ‘#TeamUSA’, as well as ‘going for the gold’ and even ‘let the games begin.’
In 2015, the IOC created a by-law to existing Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter specifically to protect the investment made by official sponsors. The by-law not only deters non-official sponsors, but establishes a ‘blackout period’ from 27 July until midnight on 24 August 2016 during which time an athletes name and image cannot be used, nor can “Olympic-related terms” be shared by any non-official sponsors. According to the IOC, "Olympic-related terms" include: effort, challenge, summer, victory, and among many others, medal (including pictures of a medal). Social media users face prosecution for a trademark breach, while athletes could be banned from competing and stripped of medals. This may seem extreme, but strict measures are necessary for the IOC to establish IP ownership and stop other companies or individuals financially benefitting from their property.
Big corporations have sponsored Olympic cycles, paying an estimated 100 million euros each to the IOC to gain access to Olympic IP and a global audience. Some small businesses have been on the receiving end of the IP debate, receiving cease and desist letters, including a knitting group that used the term ‘ravelympics’ for a knitting competition, a charcuterie in Portland named ‘Olympic Provisions’ and a Philadelphia sandwich shop called ‘Olympic Gyro’.
The right to fight for IP
Twitter normally would be significantly populated with Olympic interaction, but Rio has barely been present in trending topics. The IOC may be upsetting social media users by staking ownership over hashtags, but as the owners of Olympic IP are they wrong to protect what is theirs?
The Internet vs IP debate will rage on through the duration of the Olympics, but these Rio Games highlight issues IP owners will face in the future, and why organisations need to be ahead of the changing game. The IOC is a non-profit organisation that uses IP assets to generate revenue. Enforcing restrictions on social media, i.e. preventing individuals that neither own nor sponsor Olympic IP from their financial benefit, is a legally protected method of IP protection. Social media watching is crucial in today’s interactive landscape to ensure infringement is not taking place across any form of media. Internet monitoring for the misuse of trademarks is a growing business and it is vital that IP owners have a trademark strategy in place that covers both PTOs and the Internet.
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