With less than 6 months to go until the 21st Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, trade mark enforcement activities are beginning to heat up.

In January, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) launched its global campaign against the Canadian seal hunt with a version of the Vancouver 2010 Inukshuk logo clubbing a seal in a pool of blood above blood-soaked Olympic rings. PETA is also selling t-shirts, mugs, buttons and stickers displaying this logo, thus capitalizing on its use of the Olympic marks.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC), has publicly stated that it has no jurisdiction in this matter on the grounds that with PETA based in the United States, it is the US Olympic Committee’s (USOC) responsibility to enforce the International Olympic Committee’s rights in its trade marks.

The USOC duly complained about PETA’s use of the phrase "Vancouver 2010" and the image of the Olympic rings on its products. In response, PETA publicly took the position that its use was protected as fair use, being an obvious parody. "Absent … confusion, and in the context of a critical and parodic use of the images, there is no trade mark infringement." And there the matter appears to have ended, for now.

In June, 2009, PETA pushed the matter further with the launch of its website www.OlympicShame2010.com, which portrays the Vancouver Olympic mascots Miga, Quatchi and Sumi as bloodthirsty seal killers. 

PETA is clearly targeting the Vancouver Olympics in an attempt to put pressure on the Canadian government to end the Canadian seal hunt. Thus far, VANOC has declined to attempt to enforce its rights under Canadian intellectual property law, and the question remains, could it?

Intended to combat ambush marketing, the Olympic and Paralympic Marks Act (the OPMA) prohibits any person from adopting or using in connection with a business, as a trade mark or otherwise, an Olympic or Paralympic mark as set out in the Act. The OPMA provides for certain exceptions, including use for the purposes of criticism or parody. The Olympic rings, Inukshuk composite design, and the phrase "Vancouver 2010" are all Olympic marks for the purposes of the OPMA.

The Canadian Trade-marks Act also provides a mechanism to protect "official marks", which are uniquely Canadian. Entities that are "public authorities" such as VANOC and the Canadian Olympic Committee have the ability to request that public notice be given of their use and adoption. Once published in the Canadian Trade-marks Journal, official marks cannot be adopted by others in connection with a business, as trade marks or otherwise. Official marks, unlike regular trade marks, need not be associated with specific wares and services to be published and subsequently enforced. Once an official mark is published it does not need to be renewed and is virtually unexpungeable. Official marks accordingly possess far greater protection than any other kind of trade mark. The Inukshuk design, Olympic rings design, and Olympic mascot designs are all official marks owned by VANOC. 


With this statutory firepower at their disposal, could VANOC stop PETA’s display of the Olympic marks?

PETA’s "parody" defence could possibly be successful against any cause of action based on the OPMA, since the OPMA provides that use of an Olympic mark for the purposes of criticism or parody relating to Olympic Games is not a "use in connection with a business" (although one questions whether their "parody" qualifies as "parody relating to the Olympic or Paralympic Games"). 

Unlike the OPMA, there is no parody defence under the Canadian Trade-marks Act. However, to be successful, VANOC would have to prove that PETA’s activities constitute adoption of the marks "in connection with a business" and that there is a sufficient Canadian nexus to PETA’s activities for Canadian law to even apply. These are significant hurdles, and thus far, it appears that VANOC is reluctant to give PETA the publicity that a lawsuit would generate – no action has been commenced. 

An additional cause of action for VANOC could be copyright infringement based on PETA’s use of the mascot designs. While PETA may view its use as fair use due to parody, there are a number of court cases holding that parody is not a defense to an infringement of intellectual property rights in Canada.

Megan Langley Grainger, Bereskin & Parr LLP