Sunday, October 11, 2009

Olympic Committee wins gold medal in obnoxious enforcement of IP

The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has gone a little overboard in enforcing its rights to the word "Olympian".
The newspaper in Olympia Washington is "the Olympian" - and it has been so since 1889. Washington wasn't even a state then!
What difference does statehood make? None. I just thought it was interesting; but if you don't then how about 'before the modern Olympics'?
That's right, the modern Olympic Games began in 1896, 7 years into the run of the Olympian newspaper.
Now the USOC thinks it has some kind of priority over the name Olympian.

Why would they think that? I mean, the games ante-date the newspaper, and the committee itself wasn't called as such (or really formalized) until 1961. Why would this relative babe in the use of the term claim it had an exclusive right to the name?
Well, the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 is why.
That law was set up to protect the rights of athletes and provide some consistency across national borders. It also gave the USOC the exclusive rights to the trade names "Olympic" and "Olympiad."
In 1998 Congress gave us The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act. That gave even more power to the USOC, and added some words to the exclusive trademark regime of the USOC - though oddly, it did not add the word "Olympian".
What's even more interesting though is that the Congressional Record (where all the debates in Congress are, well, recorded) includes background statements from at least one Senator explaining why there is an exception in the law for businesses in the part of Washington state around the Olympic Mountains. He (then Senator Slade Gordon) said it would only be fair to let those people keep using the name of their location.
Well, it looks like the USOC no longer wants to play fair.

So what are they doing about it now? In 2006, the Olympian newspaper in Olympia Washington applied for registration of their name as a trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The newspaper tried to register their mark and the USOC is trying to stop them, claiming "Olympian" is so similar to "Olympic" or "Olympiad" that consumers will get confused.
Yeah, I know I hate it when I want to buy tickets for a biennial sporting event and instead end up with a newspaper covering western Washington state.
The two are so similar.

Seriously? Confusion? And this hasn't come up in the past 100+ years the two entities have been operating?
This is actually pretty standard fare for the USOC. In preparation of a possible Chicago Olympic Games, the USOC forced Chicago businesses "Olympic Meat Packers" and the "Improv Olympic Theater" to stop using the names (now they are Olympia Meat Packers and iO Theater).
Was there really a fear that someone might confuse a side of pork with the Olympic Games?

USOC is acting a lot like the parent IOC (International Olympic Committee).
The IOC has a tradition of greedily claiming everything they can.
The most recent to hit the news being the take down letter sent to Richard Giles. (IOC Letter)
Seems they are not too happy about him taking photographs of their events and posting them on Flickr with a Creative Commons license.
I don't think the IOC has a chance of stopping him. From what I can tell, they seem to be making 2 claims:
1 - Upon entering the Olympic event you agreed to certain terms, including limitations on how you may use any photos you take there.
2 - The Olympic logo is intellectual property and you don't have a right to make a copy of it (say, photographing an Olympics flag) or to distribute said copy.

The second is pretty much a dead claim since there are more fair use exceptions available than there are pictures of barely clad female athletes on Richard's Flickr Page

The first strikes me as more fruitful for the IOC since it's basically a contract claim. The problem is they said he could use his photos for "personal" use, but there's no definition of what that means. I suspect putting your photo up on your Flickr page is personal, even if you let other people take and modify copies.

It will be interesting to see it play out if they do bring a legal action. His deadline to comply was Thursday - and the photos are still there.

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