Winter Olympic Games: a test bed for extended trademark protection?
Milano-Cortina has been recently selected to host the 2026 Winter Olympic Games. Most of the projects involve building and construction activities, but also special set of laws aimed to regulate the use of the Olympic Games trademarks and logos. Therefore, it is necessary to extend the scope of protection granted to the trademarks of the event. The set of regulations to be drafted and enacted to discipline the use of Milano-Cortina Winter Olympic Games trademarks and IP should possibly provide guidance and principle capable of preserving the full value of the investments made by official sponsors and licensees. In which way?
The venue of Milano-Cortina has been recently selected to host the 2026 Winter Olympic Games.
The Olympic torch is going to start its trip to Milan in more than six years from now; apparently a lot of time, but not too much if we think of the many projects that need to be completed before the Opening Ceremony.
Most of those projects involve building and construction activities, per se time consuming, also in terms of legal set-up and requirements. There are however other legal activities not immediately related to physical works that need to be put in place with sufficient advance. Among them the special set of laws aimed to regulate the use of the Olympic Games trademarks and logos.
The IOC (International Olympic Committee) traditionally requires that any Country hosting an edition of the Games adequately protects the Olympic IP assets also by enacting special rules that, at least for the duration of the Games and in the preceding and following months, prevent anyone but the authorized persons and entities from using the marks and other signs of the event.
Rules to secure the investments
These provisions have the main purpose to secure the value of the investments made by the official sponsors and licensees of the Games, one of the main sources of funds for the IOC, the host Country and the organizing committee.
The protection of this revenue flow requires, of course, the availability of effective measures to prevent infringements and remedy to related damages.
For events like the Olympic Games, however, this standard protection is not enough. It is indeed usually necessary to prevent also initiatives that do not amount to a traditional infringement but nonetheless leverage on the event to get undue exposure for third parties’ marks, products or activity.
These techniques are usually called “ambush marketing”, a definition encompassing all the initiatives aimed to “steal the scene” from official sponsors. Some examples took place in recent editions of the FIFA World Cup by various subjects, the most famous of which had advertised a brand of beer (different from the official sponsor of the event) gathering on the stands a group of attractive female fans, making them wear bright colored T-shirts and thus attracting numerous TV shots, until the fans were taken out of the stadium, ending up directly on YouTube (to the delight of the ambush marketer).
In which way?
In order to prevent initiatives like these the ad-hoc regulations in place in occasion of events like the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games usually extend the scope of protection granted to the trademarks of the event.
We can therefore expect that marks like “Milano - Cortina”, "Winter Olympic Games", the official event logo, the 5-rings logo, etc. will receive an extended and enhanced protection against any kind of use thereof capable of suggesting a misleading relation (sponsorship, endorsement, authorization, etc.) with the event.
In short, it will be possible to use the above mentioned signs by parties different from the official sponsors and licensees only when said use is dictated by free speech, chronicle rights or for other purely descriptive reasons.
The overall terms and scope of protection of Olympic trademarks, in particular in connection with ambush marketing and similar phenomena, have been developed in the course of the past decades and are therefore fairly established, with predictable boundaries and exceptions.
Enter now the social media.
Among the many disruptions brought by sharing platforms, user generated content, influencers, etc. we could easily include the blurred borders of marketing and advertising communication, with new rules and standards emerging from the combined results of market forces, self-regulating bodies and judiciary interventions.
These new rules and standards should presumably address also ambush marketing initiatives carried out in the digital and social media realms, where by definition the role of each player (event organiser, athlete, official sponsor, licensee, influencer, audience/public, customer, journalist, commentator, etc) are less clear and partially overlapping.
The set of regulations to be drafted and enacted to discipline the use of Milano-Cortina Winter Olympic Games trademarks and IP should better address these issues, possibly providing guidance and principle capable of preserving the full value of the investments made by official sponsors and licensees and at the same time to take into account that the public discussion on the games that is undoubtedly going to take place on the social media will indeed contribute to build value for the games themselves.
This public discussion will more and more involve using and sharing the Games IP by a large number of different actors: a balanced approach requires that the value thereby generated is not hindered by too strict regulations, and that at the same time that said value is not unduly harvested by people that did not invest in the event.