Intellectual Property

Can the IOC Claim Ownership of Athletes Names?

When a manufacturer skiing equipment congratulated US skier Lindsey Vonn on its web site after she won gold, it didn't expect to hear from lawyers about unauthorized and illegal conduct.

Uvex Sports sells skiing and bicycling equipment, like eye wear and helmets. It's the US distributor of a Uvex, a German company that specializes in safety gear.

Uvex Sports is also a sponsor of US Olympic skiing sensation Lindsey Vonn, and she, of course, uses Uvex gear when she skis. After she won the gold medal in the women's downhill event, they posted a message on its web site congratulating Vonn on her victory. The message may have noted that Vonn was wearing Uvex gear.

It was then reported that a lawyer from the IOC contacted Uvex Sports informing it that it couldn't use the athlete's name on its web site even though it sponsors Vonn and she used its gear.

Sound Right?

The person breaking the story on the web asked a good question: Can the IOC claim ownership of an athlete's name? Our investigation - coupled with Uvex Sports' explanation - lead to a surprising answer: Yes, at least sort of.

The Olympic Charter controls practically all aspects of the Olympic Games. It contains guidelines and several rules or "bylaws," including Rule 41. This Rule requires all athletes to follow the Charter to be eligible to play in the Games. Rule 41's bylaw is the kicker, as far as the Uvex-Vonn saga:

"Except as permitted by the IOC Executive Board, no competitor, coach, trainer or official who participates in the Olympic Games may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games."

So, because Uvex didn't get permission from the IOC, it had no right to use Vonn's name on its web site for advertising purposes. The question, of course, is whether Uvex Sports' congratulatory post - with or without mention Vonn's use of its gear - was an "advertisement." Maybe, maybe not. We'll probably never know because Uvex replaced its post with a clever poem, and the IOC has, apparently, dropped the matter.

What's the Big Deal?

There's big money in the Olympics. Businesses that can connect their products or services with the games can get world-wide advertising and name recognition. They pay a lot of money to become "official sponsors" of the games and/or to use the Olympic trademarks (the familiar rings and torch). So, right or wrong, the IOC goes out of its way to protect its rights and the rights of its sponsors.

And there are all sorts of strange rules and policies that you've probably never heard of, like:

  • Rules about the athletes' use of Twitter and other social media web sites. Vonn and other athletes were confused by the rules, which, according to the IOC, are meant only to prevent the athletes from acting as journalists or reporters. That would interfere with the IOC's licensing rights to the media, like NBC, which probably paid a lot of money to get exclusive TV rights to the games
  • Covering up the names and logos of goods that aren't official sponsors of the games. For example, one US athlete was reprimanded for carrying a bottle of Perrier water at a press conference. Athletes and others are given Dasani water to drink during press conferences - it's made and distributed by Coca-Cola, an official sponsor of the 2010 games
  • Several rules about if, how, and when the media - especially internet and press media - can show or use pictures, video, and Olympic logos

There are Rules, and Then There are Rules

There are rules for any games, from grade school sports to college, to games our children make up on their own. There are rules in Olympic events, too, of course. But there are more than rules of the games. Athletes and their business partners have rules to follow.

Make sure you and the IOC are on the same page before you use an athlete's name or picture in connection with the business.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • I want to sponsor an athlete at the 2012 games. Can you help me negotiate with the IOC about using her name and photographs in my advertising?
  • Can my company use photos of an athlete using our gear after the 2010 games are over?
  • I don't think the IOC can interfere with the private contract between my company and an Olympic athlete. If I want to file a lawsuit, where would it be filed? Do I have to file it in Canada?
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