Braegan Padley ‘13
With only 10 days until the opening ceremonies, U.S. Olympians have their sights set on London. With medals and national pride on the line there is sure to be a fair share of controversy. Back home, however, a different type of Olympic dispute has started to unravel.
Attorneys for the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) last month sent a cease-and-desist letter to Ravelry – an online knitting community – alleging unauthorized use of trademark and copyright material.
Specifically, the USOC took issue with the use of the name “Ravelympics” – the moniker for the group’s quadrennial knitting contest. The event was set to include yarn sports such as the “cowl jump,” “handspun heptathlon” and the “sock put.” There is no medal stand in this contest; the event simply encourages members to complete knitting projects while watching coverage of the Olympics.
The USOC lawyer’s letter states, “We believe using the name ‘Ravelympics’ for a competition that involves an afghan marathon, scarf hockey and sweater triathlon, among others, tends to denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games. In a sense, it is disrespectful to our country’s finest athletes and fails to recognize or appreciate their hard work.”
Ravelry knitters immediately took issue with the demeaning tone of the letter. USOC issued two separate apologies to the knitting group after outraged members took to Facebook and other social media outlets threatening to boycott the upcoming London Games altogether. Despite the apologies, many members claim the damage is already done.
The Olympic symbols are protected by trademark and copyright law. Under the Amateur Sports Act (and other nations’ domestic equivalents), protected material includes the iconic five interlocking rings, the logo, the motto, as well as the words, “Olympic,” “Olympiad,” “Paralympic,” “Paralympiad,” or any combination therein. Violations can result in civil and criminal penalties. By limiting access, these laws preserve the esteem of the Olympic brand as well as protect official sponsors who pay hefty premiums for the exclusive rights to market these words and symbols.
While the Ravelry knitters may feel singled out, this isn’t an isolated incident. USOC has actively policed it rights to its trademarked property for many years. In 1982 the Supreme Court ruled that the “Gay Olympics” infringed on USOC’s exclusive right to the word Olympics and anything vaguely related to the word “Olympics.” The event was subsequently forced to change its name to the “Gay Games.”
More recently, bakers from the British Sugarcraft Guild in England were banned from icing cakes with the Olympic logo in their annual cake decorating contest. Bakers argued there was no commercial gain as these cakes were only for display, but were still forced to change the theme.
There were also reports that a real estate office along the London torch relay route were asked to remove a window display. The offending decoration: five plastic hoola hoops modeled after the Olympic rings.
Olympic Committee legal departments have even gone so far as to crack down on tweets that use their protected words or symbols.
While the Olympic Committee has a right to protect its intellectual property, it feels as if they are targeting the wrong people. Instead of hunting down the real ambush marketers – advertisers that associate themselves with an event without paying sponsorship fees – USOC has used its resources to engage in a legal and social media battle with a harmless group of grandmothers. No one is going to mistakenly believe the “Ravelympics” are an officially sanctioned Olympic event. Under USOC’s aggressive enforcement scheme every elementary school that hosts a field Olympics is in danger of legal action.
Events such as an Olympic-themed cake decorating show or knitting competition do not “denigrate the true nature of the games,” as USOC suggests. If anything it drums up awareness and excitement for individual Olympians, Team USA and the games as a whole. The Olympics owe their continued success much in part to the fans. Officials should bear that in mind before criminalizing the act of getting into the Olympic spirit.