SPECIAL REPORT: Do Olympic branding rules go too far?
PUBLISHED: 17:22 25 June 2012 | UPDATED: 19:36 25 June 2012
Archant © 2012
Organisers of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games have come under fire over what critics see as draconian use of copyright and other laws aimed at protecting the commercial interests of the Games’ official sponsors. But the organising committee argues it is doing what is necessary to bring such an event to Britain.
Arguably the world’s most prestigious sporting event is taking place in our country in a few weeks.
But, it would seem, that we all need to be extremely careful about how we celebrate that fact.
Displaying the Olympic rings, the Paralympic symbol, the London 2012 logo or even words that could be seen to be synonymous with the Games could land a business, charity, organisation or individual in hot water with solicitors acting for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG).
The terms ‘Olympics’, ‘Games’, ‘2012’, two thousand and twelve’, ‘gold’, ‘silver’, ‘bronze’, ‘London’ and ‘summer’ all come into this category.
To supplement existing law, the British government passed the London Olympics Games and Paralympic Games Act in 2006, to protect the London 2012 Games.
Broadly speaking, this act, along with The Olympic Symbol (Protection) Act 1995, prevents any unauthorised person (ie. anyone except official sponsors) from doing anything that is likely to create an association between the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics and that person and their goods, services or activities.
Critics say the government, LOCOG and the International Olympics Committee (IOC) are following and extending a dangerous trend.
They believe they are making images, titles and now words, previously in the public domain, brands or commodities that can be owned. LOCOG say it is simply doing what is necessary to ensure London is able to host the Olympics and Paralympics by protecting the commercial interests of companies which have paid for it to take place.
But how far will LOCOG go? Surely a pensioner knitting an Olympic kit for a doll for a fund-raising sale would not pose a threat to the commercial interests of such companies at McDonald’s or Coca-Cola.
Maybe not, but Trading Standards officers recently advised Joy Tomkins, 81, from Downham Market to not put a doll with a kit she made, featuring the Olympic rings and the words ‘GB 2012’ into a church sale. She had planned to sell it for £1.
There are many similar cases across our region. The EDP recently reported how Muriel Butler, 90, from Pott Row, near King’s Lynn knitted a collection of 22 athletes, the Olympic rings, torch and medals to be put into a charity raffle. She is now concerned that she may have broken the rules.
The Norfolk Squash League has recently renamed its Premier Division, the ‘Olympic Division’ and may end up having to change the name. And in Whissonsett, near Fakenham, plans for an Olympic-themed flower festival, held at the weekend, were changed as organisers feared breaching the law.
The festival was to be called ‘Olympic Flower Days’ but was renamed ‘Festival of Games in Flowers’ and people were advised to take care with their flower arrangements to ensure they don’t breach the rules.
Organiser Sue Rutter said: “We found out by chance a few days ago that we may be breaking the rules after speaking to the Rev Adrian Bell from Fakenham. We were furious as we spent months planning this.
“We’re not trying to cash in on the Olympics, we’re just trying to celebrate it and raise badly-needed funds for our church.”
Before she was aware of the potential legal issues, Mrs Rutter wrote to Lord Sebastian Coe, chairman of LOCOG, asking for a raffle prize. She received a reply, signed by Lord Coe, wishing her good luck, along with an autographed official London 2012 postcard.
Mrs Rutter said: “It would appear Lord Coe may have been unclear on the rules himself. It would be difficult for them to come down on us now.”
Mr Bell recently printed an article in his church magazine warning people of what he describes as, “the very tough line” LOCOG is taking.
He said: “I can see why they are doing it. If I was the MD of Coca-Cola I would want to ensure I’m getting something out of all the money I’m putting into the Olympics.
“But at the same time, there is a serious risk of alienating people from the Olympics altogether.”
Greg Gibson is a partner at national law firm Mills & Reeve and is based in Norwich.
He and his colleagues have recently held seminars in Norwich, Cambridge and London, advising businesses on what they can and cannot do in relation to the Olympics.
He said: “The original budget for the Olympics was £2.4bn. That has increased to an estimated £9.3bn. However, these figures only relate to infrastructure costs.
“Companies are paying huge fees to be official sponsors and they expect some level of exclusivity and protection from ambush marketing.
“In order to fund the London Games, LOCOG has had to take steps to protect the interests of sponsors, without which the Games would simply not happen. What many people do not realise is that, as part of the deal with the IOC, the government had to put in place specific legislation protecting Olympic branding rights. This is now a deal with all host cities.”
The crackdown was sparked by events at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Nike was not an official sponsor but plastered the city in billboards and erected an enormous Nike centre overlooking the stadium.
Mr Gibson said: “Surveys showed afterwards that many people associated the Games with Nike and not the official sponsors, so the IOC had to act.”
The London Olympics Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 provides an extended list of terms which, if misused by unauthorised parties (ie. not official sponsors) may infringe LOCOG’s rights.
These fall into two categories; Category one: ‘Games’, ‘2012’, ‘twenty twelve’, ‘two thousand and twelve.’ Category two: ‘Gold’, ‘silver’, ‘bronze’, ‘London’, ‘medals’, ‘sponsor’ and ‘summer.’
If the unauthorised party has used two words from category one (eg Games 2012) or used one word from category one and category two, a court could find it has infringed LOCOG’s rights. This could mean that the phrase ‘Summer 2012’ is banned but cases are looked at in context.
Mr Gibson said: “You either see this as a sensible thing to do to bring a really expensive event to the UK or you see it as one of the biggest restrictions on trade of all time.”
He added: “The owner of a sports shop will want to display athletics gear in their window when the Olympics is on. If the display includes Olympic logos or medals, the word ‘Olympics’ or any other word which could suggest association with the Olympics then they are likely to be breaking the rules. They also need to be careful with adverts in newspapers and magazines.
“Many people say the Olympics is a great opportunity to boost the economy which is being hindered by such strict rules. I understand that but equally appreciate that something has to be done to ensure sponsors invest the money necessary to make the Games happen.
“There are very few reported cases of LOCOG taking people to court over this and issues are usually dealt with before it goes that far.”
LOCOG spokesman Helen Holman explained that the organisation’s policy when dealing with infringements was to, “educate rather than litigate.”
She said: “in order to stage the games we had to raise at least £700m in sponsorship. We cannot do that if we do did not take steps to offer our partners protection.
“The London 2012 brand is our most valuable asset and if we did not take steps to protect it from unauthorised use and ambush marketing, the exclusive rights which our partners have acquired would be undermined.”
There are exceptions. A business which has traded under an ‘Olympic’ name since before 1995 can continue to do so.
Non-commercial organisations which take part in the London 2012 Inspire programme can apply to use a London 2012 Inspire logo. This is granted to projects LOCOG regards to be exceptional and genuinely inspired by the games.
Schools that become part of the Get Set network, which is a community demonstrating a commitment to Olympic values can use a get set network logo.
So while many will understand the hard line taken, such extensive efforts to ‘brand’ words will be regarded as a restriction on the freedom of speech.
Full guidelines to the rules can be seen at http://www.london2012.com/about-us/our-brand/using-the-brand/
For news on the Olympics, see Wednesday’s EDP for your copy of London Calling.