I was fortunate enough to spend some time earlier this month in London, at the Olympics. While there, I noticed just how closely the Olympic venues were guarding against any advertising from any non-official Olympic sponsors. This article from the AP notes how even the restroom fixtures had tape covering all brand names to prevent the manufacturers from getting any Olympic tie-in. I witnessed the tape and had puzzled over it many times when in London. At Wimbledon, too, where the tennis finals were held, the drink Pimms Cup, a fixture at events there, was not available as Pimms had not shelled out to be an Olympic sponsor. Again, I can attest that we spectators had to instead drink "No 1 Fruit Cup" which, I am told, was the same beverage. The AP article talks about many other similar enforcement actions taken by Olympic committees, zealously guarding Olympic trademarks. These actions all contain a warning for broadcasters – be very careful using any Olympic trademarks, symbols or other branded content in advertising and marketing campaigns, or those of other big events where trademarks (or service marks, as trademarks are known where they apply to services as opposed to goods) limit the use of the name of the big event.
We've written before (here and here) how Olympic sponsors pay big bucks for the rights to sponsor the Olympics, and to get exclusivity to associate their brands with the games. Thus, the sponsors guard their territory carefully, as do the Olympic organizations whose ability to stage the games is dependent on such sponsorship. Thus, when a broadcaster is approached by a local car dealer, who wants to promote an “Olympics of Savings”, or a local gym that wants to show in its commercial its exercise facilities with the Olympic rings hanging over a bank of treadmills, don’t do it, as there could be consequences far beyond the advertising revenues that you receive. And don’t plan your own WXXX Hometown Olympic festival, as that also could bring issues from the Olympic “police.” (see this video on one local festival that confronted this issue from Comedy Central's the Daily Show, not the first time that Comedy Central has explained trademark law -see our reference to a Colbert Report story dealing with the same question at the Winter Olympics). And the Olympics is not the only event over which you should have this concern.
This same caution extends to any other branded event like the Olympics – including the Super Bowl, March Madness, many music festivals, and other branded entertainment. Using the logos of sports teams or even colleges in your advertising, without permission, may lead to similar concerns.
Obviously, we are talking about commercial or promotional announcements, not news or talk programming. You are usually safe in using the name of one of these big events in your news coverage, or even the banter between your morning show hosts, critiquing the performance of some athlete performing in the games the previous night. Just don’t go too far with such coverage, for instance by implying that you are an official Olympics news source or something along those lines – which would again be a situation where you are implying an official connection between your company and the branded event.
Finally, just as a matter of legal terminology - the issue is one of trademark, not copyright law. We see many questions about whether "Olympics", "Super Bowl" or "March Madness" are copyrighted - when, to be technical, the real issue is one of a trade or service mark. But no matter what you call it - be cautious to avoid legal issues.