–Sharon Armstrong, Attorney
I just can’t stop writing about the Olympics or, more accurately, the intellectual property enforcement efforts of the United States Olympic Committee (“USOC”). But, then, how can I stop when the USOC continues to make such noteworthy headlines?
The most recent kerfuffle comes courtesy of popular knitting/social-networking website Ravelry, whose home page shows cheerful llamas, sheep, and bunnies frolicking across a landscape of bountiful and soft yarn. Ravelry, up until recently, was the home of the “Ravelympics,” which featured an “afghan marathon,” “scarf hockey,” and “sweater triathlon.” Now in its third year, the event drew the ever-watchful eye of the USOC, which, like its counterpart in London, which I wrote about last month, is charged with protecting the brand value of the OLYMPICS mark, with which major companies pay millions of dollars to be associated.
As we’ve discussed in the past, the USOC has significant fire power to use against infringers or misusers; the USOC relies not only on the Lanham Act but also on the Ted Stevens Act to assert its rights in its marks. As most trademark owners have only one major federal law upon which to rely in their trademark enforcement battles, one would think that the USOC could get away with a form cease-and-desist letter, or maybe even a phone call.
But the USOC went one, apparently regrettable, step further. Instead of simply contacting Ravelry, pointing to the law, and asking the site to change the name of its event to something else, the USOC stated the following:
“The athletes of Team USA have usually spent the better part of their entire lives training for the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games and represent their country in a sport that means everything to them. For many, the Olympics represent the pinnacle of their sporting career…We believe using the name ‘Ravelympics’ for a competition that involves an afghan marathon, scarf hockey and sweater triathlon, among others, tends to denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games. In a sense, it is disrespectful to our country’s finest athletes and fails to recognize or appreciate their hard work.” (Emphasis added).
In response, many of Ravelry’s 2 million account holders took to social media, flooding the USOC’s Facebook page with comments denouncing the USOC’s characterization of their activities as “denigrating” any activity sponsored by the USOC and commenting on Twitter.
In a surprising turn of events, the USOC apologized. While Ravelry did end up changing its name to The Ravellenic Games, I still say that the gold medal in brand loyalty goes to Ravelry, whose active and loyal membership showed that you can’t throw around words like “denigrate” and not receive backlash.