Click here to skip to content

bl.uk > Sport & society home > Explore social sciences > Business & economics > Business > Intellectual property

The Olympics and intellectual property

Registered trade mark symbol [6KB]

A great deal of planning and implementation is going on for the 2012 Olympics in London, and that includes much that involves intellectual property, or IP. This is intangible rights associated with inventions, the look of new products, trade marks, and authorship in writing or artwork. This article gives examples of how some of these appear. 

The Olympic authorities are careful to preserve the integrity of words and symbols associated with the movement. How is this done ?

Many countries have signed the Nairobi Treaty on the Protection of the Olympic Symbol (1981)  which means that member states will refuse to allow as trademarks the 'Olympic symbol, as defined in the Charter of the International Olympic Committee' Article 1) is the text of the Charter, and Chapter 1 talks of the symbol being the famous five interlaced rings.

Britain isn't one of the member states, and has instead passed its own act, the Olympic Symbol etc. (Protection) Act 1995 c.32, which was amended by the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 c.12 in its Sections 32 and 33. All this is very odd, as a simpler way of preventing usage is available in '6ters' under the 1883 Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property, where countries or international organisations can submit prohibited marks. Perhaps the Olympic movement does not qualify.

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Limited, to give it its full title, fiercely explains what is involved with using the Olympic 'brand' , as words and images used to indicate the 2012 Games themselves have been registered. This is normal: the trade mark registers across the world are full of trade marks for past and future Olympic games.

The London Organising Committee has applied for a number of British trade marks such as 2012, 2012 London and the like, together with the logo and its variants.

When trade marks are registered, they have to be for specified goods or services within one or more of the 45 Nice classes. In this case, every single class is named, which is very unusual. The implication is that the Committee wants to use or license out the logos for just about every product and activity that might be associated with the Games, such as 'medical and pharmaco-toxicological controls'.

Trade marks and advertising are closely intertwined in practice though not in law, and a manifestation of this is the offering of sponsorship opportunities. What has happened in the past is 'ambush marketing', where companies which are not the official sponsors for specific products give the impression that they are indeed sponsors (Schmitz).

The London Organising Committee has also applied for many designs, this time using the Community Design system. Design registration traditionally was for the appearance of products but has increasingly been used for two-dimensional aspects such as packaging or instructions. Under the current rules the appearance is not limited to a specific product but applies to all (the appearance of a mascot for the Games, not yet chosen, for example, would apply to all possible products).

Community designs registered consist of the same logos as above, typefaces, and the appearance of web pages, something that normally is protected by copyright, where deliberate copying must be proved. The Committee has clearly not been willing to take chances - registration means no one is allowed to use it, period. Here is an example of a protected web page.

After trade marks and designs, there are patents. Generally speaking, these protect new or improved industrial products or processes. The Olympic movement is not known to have patented anything, but there are examples of movements made in sports that have been patented. These tend to be American, and are based on the Diamond v Chakrabarty court case, where it was said that 'anything under the sun' could be patented. If Dick Fosbury had patented the Fosbury Flop he used in the 1968 Olympic as a high jumping technique, and retained the rights, he would have blocked others from using it for many years ( Kukkonen, Das).

Getting started with the British Library's collections

Schmitz, J.K., 'Ambush marketing: the off-field competition at the Olympic Games'
Northwestern Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property, Vol. 3, 2005, 203

Kukkonen, C. A., 'Be a good sport and refrain from using my patented putt: intellectual property protection for sports related movements'.
Journal of the Patent and Trademark Office Society, vol. 80, no. 11, 1998, 808-829. (P)BL 00 –E(4).
British Library shelfmark: 9299.075000 DSC

Das, R. P., 'Offensive protection: The potential application of intellectual
property law to scripted sports plays'.
Indiana Law Journal
, vol. 75, no. 3, 2000.
British Library shelfmark: 4431.750000 DSC

Help us to provide a research legacy for the London Olympics and Paralympics

Find out more

Social sciences at the British Library

Find out more