Mark Armitage, partner and trademark attorney, Withers & Rogers
Mark Armitage, partner and trademark attorney, Withers & Rogers
A view from Mark Armitage

Think BR: Marketers should heed the Olympic clampdown

With the Olympic enforcement team making its presence felt, brand owners need to be aware of what the law has to say, writes Mark Armitage, partner and trademark attorney at Withers & Rogers.

There was consternation in Coventry recently when the city’s Ricoh Arena, which is one of the football venues of the London 2012 Olympics, revealed the extent of the cover up they are required to undertake to remove all visual references to non-sponsors during the event.

As part of their preparations, the stadium is required to cover logos on anything and everything - from hand dryers in toilets, to road signs directing people to the venue.

With just six months to go, it is not surprising that the Olympic enforcement team is making its presence felt, and brand owners must take care not to be found in breach of the stringent marketing and advertising rules that apply.

While the approach may seem draconian to some, it is important to remember that any trademark registrations and statutory provisions that exist are specifically designed to protect the interests of corporate sponsors - a point that marketers should appreciate.

Many corporate sponsors for the London 2012 Games are thought to have invested more than £100m a piece for the right to associate their brand with the event.

And they could be justified in feeling that this is not money well spent after discovering that according to research carried out by Ipsos MORI, three out of five (59%) people in the UK were unable to name a single Olympic sponsor.

The Olympic symbol of five rings is one of the most protected logos in the world and it is registered as a trademark in most of the 45 categories of goods and services in the EU trademark registry.

These intellectual property rights belong to the International Olympic Committee but are enforced in the UK by the British Olympic Association and until the end of 2012, by the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (Locog).

In addition to preventing any misuse of the Olympic ‘rings’ there is also statutory protection under the Olympic Symbol (Protection) Act 1995 for certain words, symbols and mottos, including the words, ‘Olympic’ and ‘Olympiad’ and the motto "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (Faster, Higher, Stronger).

For the 2012 Games, a new statutory right has been created, called the London Olympics Association Right (Loar).

Owned by Locog, this is an exclusive right preventing any entity from referring to or associating itself with the Games without permission.

This legislation prevents unauthorised use of certain ‘listed expressions’, which could suggest an association - for example, seemingly innocuous phrases like ‘summer 2012’ and ‘London 2012’.

The marketing and advertising restrictions that apply to the London 2012 Games are probably the strictest to date and not without good reason.

There have been examples of ambush marketing at some recent Olympic events. For example, Nike bought up billboard space around the venues and constructed its own ‘Nike Village’ beside the real athletes’ village during the Games in Atlanta in 1996.

As if this wasn’t enough, they even handed out flags bearing the Nike logo outside key events in an attempt to ‘ambush’ the Games’ official sponsor, Reebok.

It is possible that some brand owners are unaware of the extent of the restrictions and the consequences they could face if they are found to have breached them.

For example, misusing one of the Olympic trademarks, such as the ‘five rings’, in any design - even if the rings are filled with images and are not a direct copy of the Olympic emblem - could lead to enforcement action.

Such action could lead to an injunction being imposed against the offending company along with a claim for damages and potentially, a share of any related profits.

Similar penalties could apply if phrases are used that suggest an association with the Games, even if this is done innocently by a brand owner, perhaps just as an expression of support for the national team.

Brand owners planning campaigns over the next few months should continue to prepare them with care and attention and seek advice where necessary.

Mark Armitage, partner and trademark attorney, Withers & Rogers