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There is only one Lord of the (Olympic) Rings…but then there was Sochi

Posted in Advertising, Branding, Fair Use, International, Marketing, Social Media, Television, Trademarks

There is only one Lord of the Ring, only one who can bend it to his will.  And he does not share power.  – Gandalf, Lord of the Rings

As we have posted about more than a few times on DuetsBlog over the years (like here and here), the OLYMPICS trademark and the Olympic Rings mark are highly enforced marks that uniquely bear special protection granted from Congress.  In order for a country to be eligible to host one of the Games, they must have a law providing heightened protections for use of these marks.   36 U.S.C. 220506 provides that only the US Olympic Committee (“USOC”) has the exclusive right to use ” the symbol of the International Olympic Committee, consisting of 5 interlocking rings”,  the word “Olympic”, and other Olympic- and Paralympic-related names and marks.  The USOC may file a civil action if the Olympic rings, the word Olympic or trademarks owned by the International Olympic Committee are used without their consent and for the purpose of trade, to induce the sale of any goods or services, or to promote any theatrical exhibition, athletic performance, or competition.  If you want to use OLYMPICS or the five interlocking rings on any product or in any promotional materials, the general advice is the reverse Nike slogan – “just DON’T do it” (well at least without getting consent).

But then came the epic mechanical failure during the Sochi Opening Ceremonies…with four rings and a snowflake/asterisk-like contraption that malfunctioned.  #SochiFail.

The failure was maybe only overshadowed by Costas’ gruesome eye infection, and amazingly not seen by Russians on their TVs since the Russian government spliced in images from a dress rehearsal during the local broadcast.

A meme was created…

And then there were t-shirts…

And then there was this brilliantly executed (but fake) ad for Audi, with the “asterisk” next to copy that says “when four rings is all you need.”

So does the use of this gaffe on products and in advertisement to promote products or services violate the USOC’s exclusive rights in the rings as described in 36 U.S.C. 220506?  Perhaps not.  The statute specifically describes the symbol as “consisting of five interlocking rings.”   Not two rings, not four rings, not five rings spaced apart from one another – five interlocking rings.  While courts have weighed in differently on trademark fair use for parodies, it is doubtful that this use confuses the consuming public into assuming source or sponsorship by the Olympics.    So it is possible that this could be one of the few instances of fair use for the “Olympic rings.”

What do you think about the Olympics’ unique rights in their mark over other brand owners?  Do you think those rights are fair?  Are there other marks that you think deserve similar protection?