What the Olympic Committee and Entrepreneur Media Have in Common

Olympics, Olympic, Olympians, Olympic athlete, Olympic athletes, Rio, Rio de Janeiro, #Rio2016, #TeamUSAHow do you get so big, and so powerful, that you can tell other big and powerful organizations what they can and can’t say—and prohibit them from using very commonly used words and phrases? The Olympic Committee’s ban on non-sponsor brands ostensibly does just that as ESPN recently reported. They’re even banning non-sponsors from using the hashtags #Rio2016 and #TeamUSA. (Sheesh; hope I don’t get in trouble for that—I’m not an official sponsor, after all.) Those aren’t the only usages that are being banned though. According to a Mashable article, other banned words include “Rio” and “Rio de Janeiro.” Huh?

The whole thing kind of baffles me and makes me wonder whether they could really bring a case against a company whose social media specialist inadvertently congratulated an Olympian (oops! can’t use that word either!) for their Olympic (nope! can’t use that!) victory.

Mashable also talked about a billboard from some anonymous source with the line: “Good luck, you know who you are, on making it you know where.” And I suppose that clever kind of workaround might be just the thing that banned brands might do.

Now, to be fair, hijacking big events like this when you’re not a paid sponsor is unfair to the sponsors who have paid hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars, to be associated with these events. Many brands do this, though. It’s called “ambush marketing.” For example, back in 2010, Nike and Pepsi were in the news for hijacking the World Cup.

Those kinds of purposeful actions certainly seem egregious. But tweeting about an internationally televised event, or the city it’s being held in, hardly seems to be something that you could be dragged into court for, even if you are a big-brand non-sponsor. Where do they draw the line I wonder?  The Olympics are a hot topic on social media right now and I have to believe that there are a lot of companies, and their representatives, posting comments related to the events. Will the Olympic Committee go after all of them, or only those they approached to sponsor the events that declined?

The counter-point to all of this, of course, is that the Olympic Committee claims that certain words and phrases represent their intellectual property—that they “own” these words. That’s a valid claim. After all, trademarks represent value to organizations and clearly need to be protected.

The Olympic Committee isn’t the only organization that’s attempted to prohibit others from using “their” words. Entrepreneur Media, which publishes Entrepreneur Magazine, has frequently gone after hapless business owners who dare to use the word “entrepreneur.” Really. Usually the thing about trademarks is that they have to represent unique words or phrases that aren’t in common use. However, that doesn’t stop people from trying and, sometimes, like Entrepreneur Media, succeeding in their efforts to lay claim to a commonly used word or phrase.

It’s not easy to attempt to trademark a word or phrase; I’ve worked with attorneys to do it—or attempt to do it—on numerous occasions for various companies and clients I’ve worked for. That’s one of the reasons that I’m so baffled that it’s possible to trademark words like “entrepreneur.”

What do you think?


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