Wednesday, April 9, 2008

IP and the Olympic Games

There was a pretty well-attended demonstration outside the Main Library yesterday marking the arrival of the Olympic Torch in San Francisco, the only U.S. stop on the torch relay route.

I won't touch the issues surrounding the protest in this space. But the local presence of such a recognizable emblem got me thinking intellectual property. Is the torch patented? Who owns the rights to the "Olympics" name? The ring insignia?

I decided to commit the time it takes to drink of a cup of coffee this morning to seeking the answers. I searched TESS, the U.S. trademark database. I search the USPTO patent database. I search for international patents through esp@cenet. I came up with nothing.

I eventually found an answer in the United States Code. It would appear that Congress extends special protection to marks associated with the Olympics. (You may have noticed that there is no picture accompanying this post. I'm not taking any chances with Congress!) Here's an excerpt from 36 USC 220506:

(a) Exclusive Right of Corporation.— Except as provided in subsection (d) of this section, the corporation has the exclusive right to use—
(1) the name “United States Olympic Committee”;
(2) the symbol of the International Olympic Committee, consisting of 5 interlocking rings, the symbol of the International Paralympic Committee, consisting of 3 TaiGeuks, or the symbol of the Pan-American Sports Organization, consisting of a torch surrounded by concentric rings;
(3) the emblem of the corporation, consisting of an escutcheon having a blue chief and vertically extending red and white bars on the base with 5 interlocking rings displayed on the chief; and
(4) the words “Olympic”, “Olympiad”, “Citius Altius Fortius”, “Paralympic”, “Paralympiad”, “Pan-American”, “America Espirito Sport Fraternite”, or any combination of those words.
The exemptions in subsection (d) allow use of the word "Olympic" by people who have used it since before 1950 and by people in western Washington (I'm not kidding).

The punishment for infringement is the same as that of a normal trademark (I assume that means it would be decided in court). I wonder, then, why the U.S. Olympic Committee gets special protection. Maybe they're too busy to remember to renew registration?

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