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Let the games begin: Rio and the IP minefield

Ian Johnson of CPA Global considers some of the issues surrounding intellectual property and patents at this year's Olympic Games.

The MaracanĂ£ Stadium marchello74

Last week’s opening ceremony in Brazil’s Maracanã Stadium kick-started 17 days of the Olympiad. Since winning the Olympic bid in 2009, Rio de Janeiro has invested in new stadiums, sporting venues, and new transport links to help make South America’s first Games a success.  The Olympic organisers expected significant media focus, but were they prepared for issues surrounding intellectual property (IP) and what this would mean for sponsors and the Olympic brand?

A giant leap for sporting technology

The 2016 Olympics has been the most technologically advanced Games yet – embracing digital systems and innovative start-ups: GPS devices for following long distance races; laser technology for precision scoring and wearable data for performance analysis.

After an idea’s inception, it is vital for inventors to secure new technology with a patent or other method of protection. In the lead up to Rio, Brazilian authorities recognised the space for new technology and made moves to accommodate emerging innovation. The Brazilian patent trademark office (PTO) issued Resolution No.167 to fast track the industrial design application process for sporting goods.

Resolution No.167 also helped to curb the effect of territorial patent rights. Exclusive rights are normally applicable in the country or region a patent has been filed and granted, not elsewhere.  Brazil’s fast tracked patent process secured IP as soon as applications were accepted – innovators could introduce technology safe in the knowledge that Brazil’s PTO would protect IP.

The social media takedown

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 – brands, venues, athletes and even hashtags. Internet monitoring is now an important tool for IP owners regulating the sharing of content online, particularly when enforcing trademarked hashtags. The United States Olympic Committee (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.’ 

Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter bylaws was implemented to protect the investment of official sponsors. It establishes a ‘blackout period’ – from 27 July until midnight on 24 August 2016 – where athletes’ names and images cannot be used and ‘Olympic-related terms’ cannot be shared by non-official sponsors. According to the IOC, ‘Olympic-related terms’ include: effort; challenge; summer; victory; and among others – medal (including pictures of a medal). Brands can face prosecution for a trademark breach, while athletes could be banned from competing and stripped of medals.  Although extreme, strict measures are necessary for the IOC to establish IP ownership and stop other companies financially benefitting from their property. 

Big corporations including Coca Cola and McDonalds pay an estimated €100 million each to the IOC to gain access to Olympic IP. Whereas small businesses on the receiving end of the IP debate have received cease and desist letters, including a knitting group that used the term ‘ravelympics’ for a knitting competition and a Philadelphia sandwich shop called ‘Olympic Gyro’.

The right to fight for IP

Twitter should be significantly populated by 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 throughout the Olympics, but the Games highlight issues IP owners will face in the future and why organisations need to be ahead of the game. The IOC is a non-profit organisation using IP to support the Games. Enforcing restrictions on social media is a means of IP protection, stopping individuals that do not own – or sponsor – Olympic IP from financially benefitting from it. Social media watching is crucial in today’s interactive landscape to ensure infringement is not taking place across any media channel. Internet monitoring for the misuse of trademarks is a growing business and IP owners need a trademark strategy in place that covers both PTOs and the Internet. 

Ian Johnson is head of IP legal at CPA Global, an intellectual property management and technology company.

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17 August 2016

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