The rising importance of social media is creating a new legal challenge for companies that use social media for marketing.
The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has been sending cease and desist letters to unofficial corporate sponsors of athletes that even mention the summer games held every four years on their social media accounts or use the hashtags #Rio2016 or #TeamUsa.
A copy of one of the letters obtained by ESPN warns companies that the USOC has trademarked the name of the games, as well as the hashtags. The letter also explains that the restriction only applies to companies whose primary activity is not media-related and who are not official sponsors of athletes.
The USOC is the U.S. section of the International Olympics Committee (IOC), a nonprofit that organizes the biennial games and draws revenue from holding exclusive broadcast rights on those games. Broadcasters that have contracts with the IOC can broadcast the games themselves, while those that don’t have such contracts can only produce “news” about the games, which excludes any video of sports being played (including GIFs).
Although as a media organization, The News is not subject to the same restrictions as non-media companies, The News staff was warned not to use the phrases “Olympics,” “Rio,” “Rio 2016” or variations thereof in headlines, hashtags or section titles, not to use videos of sports events, photos of the torch or rings and not to interview Olympic athletes.
The IOC has a history of threatening legal action against companies that use variations on the word “Olympics” or versions of the event’s characteristic logo. The legitimacy of their most recent threat is unclear; while the IOC has successfully forced companies to change their names due to seemingly trivial copyright infractions, it hasn’t successfully sued anyone for the use of a hashtag. A Minnesota carpet cleaning company that received a letter has already sued the USOC on First Amendment grounds.
Exclusive broadcast rights and trademarks of the Olympic brands are the IOC’s main source of income, so it makes sense that it would defend them jealously, even if it means making threats it can’t back up.