Go for the Gold

welocalize July 25, 2019
The Important Role of Intellectual Property in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

On September 7, 2013, the City of Tokyo, Japan, welcomed the news it had long been hoping to receive. After a vote by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Tokyo was selected as the home of the 2020 Olympic Games. It marked the second time Tokyo had hosted the games in its history, branding them as the only city in Asia selected to host the games twice.

While the decision to award the games to Tokyo took place in the fall of 2013, the preparations began long before then. Some of the most critical steps taken early in the process related to the protection of the intellectual property (IP) of Tokyo 2020 and the Olympic Games.

IOC selects Japan for 2020 Oympics
Credit: The 2020 Candidate Cities Briefing for IOC Members. 3 July 2013. Lausanne, Switzerland. (c) R. Juilliart/IOC

IP law has a long, interesting history with the Olympic Games. Many winter sports were made possible by these guidelines. A 2014 study of trademarks related to Olympic sports highlighted a mixture of ancient tools and cutting-edge technology that combined to make the Games possible. The IP system also protects the unique properties of the Olympic Games, protecting iconic images, such as the Olympic rings, from infringement.

The Importance of Olympic IP Protection

The IOC is an enormous umbrella, underneath which are hundreds of entities that make the games possible. These entities, from national committees to the organizing committees responsible for each of the Games, are privately funded. Accordingly, much of the IOC’s funding comes from the marketing of their IP.

The largest source of IOC funding is the sale of media rights. Additionally, the group generates a substantial portion of its revenue from the sale of officially licensed merchandise bearing the Olympic rings, the logo of the host city, and other properties.

Nearly all of the revenue earned through the marketing of Olympic IP is used to fund the organizations that make the Olympics possible, such as the national committees. Due to their lack of federal funding, the IOC and its sister organizations could not survive otherwise. That is why protecting their IP is so important to the IOC.

For the IOC, the importance of protecting Olympic IP properties will only increase with time. The sports sector of the global economy has steadily grown over the years, and that growth is unlikely to slow. Currently, the European Commission estimates that sporting events generate roughly two percent of the global GDP.

How the IOC Protects Olympic IP

To secure the resources necessary to continue to fund the Olympic Movement, the IOC’s legal team acts swiftly to protect the exclusivity of their properties, as well as their lucrative relationships with official sponsors. From counterfeit merchandise to non-sponsor corporate entities using officially branded hashtags on social media, the IOC quickly challenges any unauthorized use. The tools these lawyers use can vary from one country to another. Additionally, the IOC benefits from some international laws.

“The IOC faces challenges similar to many other globally recognized brands. We don’t always think about images like the Olympic Rings as being protected IP rights, but it’s the monetization of this IP that enables the IOC to fund, in many ways, their existence. Global IP enforcement can be tremendously difficult, particularly when many of the infringing products and media campaigns are in multiple languages. The IOC, like any global entity rigorously enforcing its IP rights, should be leveraging modern technology like AI to help identify infringement, mitigating the associated financial risks,” comments Jeff Schmidt, Strategic Director, Litigation Services at Park IP, a Welocalize Company.

The most reliable protection for the IOC and its properties stems from the Nairobi Treaty. Adopted in 1981, the treaty obligates all member companies to protect Olympic properties, such as the Olympic logo, from unauthorized commercial use. The restrictions include the sale of goods and broadcasting advertisements that use these symbols without permission. The treaty sets the framework that allows the IOC and its affiliates to pursue these violations in countries that are part of the agreement.

Additionally, many countries have adopted local laws designed to protect Olympic IP rights and sporting event IP in general. One common form of legislation provides legal countermeasures to so-called “ambush marketing.” Ambush marketing is a general term for the use of IP by businesses without any formal connection to the sporting event. Any attempt to use Olympic imagery or otherwise exploit the Olympic Games with unauthorized marketing can be penalized under these laws. Countries that have adopted protections against “ambush marketing” in recent years include:

For companies that are not official sponsors of the Olympics, associating their brand with the event is often more risky than rewarding. Many jurisdictions consider branded posts from corporate social media as advertising, which means there could be serious consequences for what a company shares on social media.


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