Olympics: Thou Shalt Not Tweet (Without Paying Up)

from the the-gold-medal-in-stupidity-goes-to... dept

Every time you think that the Olympics can’t get more ridiculous with its attempts to abuse trademark law to control its name, they go one step further into ridiculousness. Following the threat to goggle maker UVEX for mentioning skiier and gold medalist Lindsey Vonn on its website, the US Olympic Committee is threatening Red Bull and Verizon for daring to tweet about the Olympics without first paying up. I’m not kidding. Both companies showed some basic Olympic spirit with some simple tweets, supporting some winning athletes. Here’s Red Bull’s “offending” twitter message:

We’re rooting for you @LindseyVonn @Shaun_White @GregBretzz and @Drahlves in the 2010 Winter #Olympics!

And Verizon’s:

Who are the REAL American Idols? Shaun White, Lindsey Vaughn & Shani Davis draw more viewers than American Idol

Seriously. And the US Olympics straight-faced response?

“When people partake in this kind of ambush behavior, it hurts American athletes.”

Yes. Two simple tweets from companies cheering on successful Olympians are considered “ambush behavior” that “hurts American athletes.” Apparently, these threats from the Olympics worked on at least Red Bull who pulled its Twitter message supporting the athletes.

This goes beyond the typical abuse of trademark law to ridiculous levels. While Verizon hasn’t yet pulled its post, I would hope that it will stand up for basic free speech rights that say the Olympics has no right to tell it what it can and cannot tweet in support of the games.

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Companies: red bull, usoc, verizon

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Comments on “Olympics: Thou Shalt Not Tweet (Without Paying Up)”

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Dave says:


OMG, yes, you’ve managed to find something even stupider than usual IOC behavior. Impressive!!! And these are the same morons who blame the poor luge guy for getting himself killed, oh no, the track couldn’t possibly be too dangerous! Oh, no, someone might sue us, so we have to lie!

While those companies advertise like crazy, those particular Tweets are nothing but pleasant positive statements! Might someone make note of who is tweeting? Yes. Should they be able to make Tweets like that? Of course.

Of course, if someone were to give the IOC free advertising, they wouldn’t object for one second.

David says:

In defense of the IOC

I know its not a popular position to take, but Verizon and Subway and others do not sponsor any major Winter Olympics athletes. When a corporation cheers for an athlete is it cheering or is it advertising? If it is advertising then the athletes or the IOC should be compensated for their names being used.

What I see is that Verizon is too cheap to actually give money to the athletes and Subway spent all its add money on Michael Phelps, so now they try to leech off of the successes of Vonn, White, et. al. by repeatedly mentioning their products in the context of athletic successes where they have not contributed a single time to the athletes, development programs, or hosts.

I may hate the IOC, but I hate Verizon more. At least the IOC created something of value for the athletes (a forum to showcase their skills) while ripping off everyone in sight, and trampling the free speech rights of others.

Don DeBold (profile) says:

Re: In defense of the IOC

I am not a Verizon fan, but frankly I don’t see anything wrong with companies like Verizon or Red Bull cheering on athletes in their tweets without paying the USOC. So what if this is in some sense “advertisement”. These are public figures and the Olympics is an international event. They folks at Verizon who who tweeted their encouragement might be true fans and sharing their excitement, and yeah, it might also be good PR for the company. This is not the same as including an athlete’s photo in an print ad where there is an implied endorsement of the product by the athlete. I’m willing to bet that if you showed those tweets to Lindsey Vaughn or the other athletes that their reaction would be “Cool!”, and not “Show me the money”.

I wonder how much the USOC spends on lawyers and others who spend their time watching Twitter and Facebook and every other place someone may mention the Olympics so they can quickly shoot off their “shut up or pay up” emails. Maybe the money spent on the lawyers would be better spent on the athletes.

David says:

Re: In defense of the IOC

Amending my previous… Verizon does sponsor US Speed Skating (and therefore indirectly Shani Davis — although he has had some fights with USSS in the past), but I cannot find evidence they support Vonn and White.

Maybe, what we really need is the end to “official sponsorships.” The USOC/IOC/etc should be required to accept money from anyone who is willing to donate. Its as if “UNICEF” was officially sponsored by Microsoft, and then refused money from IBM, and then proceeded to criticize them for advocating for Children.

Alan Gerow (profile) says:

Re: In defense of the IOC

So, the Olympics can never be mentioned by anyone without paying them first? Oops, I owe the IOC a charge, because I made a comment that mentioned them, and the comment is advertising for my point of view, and I’m using the power of the Olympics brand to push my point of view of freedom and liberty … I guess I owe the IOC a ton of money now, too.

And the athletes bring the value, not the IOC. You have that entire concept backwards. Would you rather watch the snowboarders in the Winter X Games or on your local slopes tearin’ it up … or watch video of the Olympic downhill track with nobody on it or if it were filled with a bunch of local kids just learning how to not fall down?

Do people only watch hockey games once every four years? Would the Olympic hockey rink be nearly as interesting if the hockey players weren’t there or if it were filled with random Joe BlowBeerguts slapping away?

No, the IOC brings little value to the Olympics, it’s the training and hardwork of the athletes and their coaches that create the value, and the IOC is banking off of their value and charging everyone else who even mentions any of the athletes or the event by name.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Who are the REAL American Idols? Shaun White, Lindsey Vaughn & Shani Davis draw more viewers than American Idol”

Unless you know the names, you would have no idea it was a comment about the Olympics.

If an athlete participates in the Olympics, does that mean their name becomes the property of the IOC? I sure hope not…

taoareyou (profile) says:

Alright I give up

For some reason, every single comment I made today has been “held for review” but NONE of them have been posted. I see that other comments are getting through so that must mean mine are not (since I posted some early this morning).

No idea what the deal is, but reading uncensored comments was a draw to this blog. I’m not interested in reading only what your moderators approve. Good luck.

David says:

Tweeting is rather innocuous, but as part of a larger campaign i think it is ethically dubious. In the end it comes down to how you view corporate speech. I feel that corporate speech is not generally a protected 1st amendment form of speech, and as such I don’t give them the benefit of the doubt that you evidently do. I don’t view this as being a protected first amendment expression of “patriotic fervor”. So this becomes a lesser issuer of trademark, in which case the IOC has established (stupid IMHO) rules regarding who gets to put the Olympic rings on their ads, and I think its reasonable for them to be annoyed by associations that skirt the boundaries of trademark by including everything but the rings. I think both the USOC and Verizon/Subway are ethically suspect organizations, but I support the USOC a bit more hear.

PS If this went to court I suspect that the USOC would lose, especially given the Citizen’s United ruling.

PPS I have no ethical complaint against RedBull, since they actively support the athletes mentioned.

Pat says:

Olympics is a business, hello!

Why is everyone so upset that there is money to be made at the Olympics? If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. I don’t see anyone complaining about the owners of pro sports teams trying to make a buck. Of course the athletes make the games, but at the same time the games make the athletes. An unheard athlete can win a gold and overnight be a multi-millionaire. Nothing is perfect in this world, get over it and try to have some fun.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Olympics is a business, hello!

Why is everyone so upset that there is money to be made at the Olympics?

Strawman alert. No one is upset that there is money to be made at the Olympics. They’re upset about someone abusing trademark law to prevent someone from cheering on the Olympics.

If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. I don’t see anyone complaining about the owners of pro sports teams trying to make a buck. Of course the athletes make the games, but at the same time the games make the athletes. An unheard athlete can win a gold and overnight be a multi-millionaire.

Again, no one is complaining about the business side of things.

Please try to stick with defending what’s actually being argued.

Free Capitalist (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Olympics is a business, hello!

Yes, clearly there are some people upset about it. You are not one of them, that’s fine. I believe it’s pretty clear that this would not fly in court anyway, so it’s really a non-issue.

Well that certainly clears up a thing… or two.

Why are you not upset that commerce and marketing is stifled, on scales large and small, by abuse of IP laws?

Pat says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Olympics is a business, hello!

I realize I look like a tard referencing ISPs when we were talking about IPs. Ignoring my slip, can you explain how Internet Protocol laws are involved in this? Perhaps I’m missing it, although I think you’re a bit of a d-bag for your quip. Maybe you fancy yourself somewhat intellectual, but I can tell you’ve got a bit of a confidence issue. Maybe you should contribute something? =) I’m sure you have a lot to offer.

Michial Thompson (user link) says:

Re: Re: Olympics is a business, hello!

These companies did not have the INTENT of cheering on the athletes… These companies fully INTENDED to get their names in front of anyone that was searching or monitoring for these names.

THIS is where the flaw is, y’all are all taking the message at face value, and not taking into account the INTENT of the message.

Twitter has an alerting process that allows people to watch for names and phrases to be used and to alert you of these uses. These companies intended to take advantage of this to get their company names out there. Do you not see the flaw in this?

David says:

Re: Re: Olympics is a business, hello!


As much as I love TechDirt your comments demonstrate my biggest criticism which is a real one-sided editorial view. Why have a forum if your comments act to cut off debate on potentially relevant aspects to the discussion? It seems that you want was is being argued to be limited to the narrow question of “Isn’t the USOC’s arguments about what can be tweeted an abusive ridiculously over-reaching use of trademark?” And I would say that, there is another point of view incorporating a more expansive view of the USOC’s relationship to its athletes which makes this a valid concern of the USOC, and weakens the “abusive” aspect to the claim.

I think the constant editorial comments in the articles make it harder to educate people, by making TechDirt seem a bit extreme. I’m not against editorial content, but you do a great job consolidating reporting on the issues, I think it would be shame to have the blog become nothing more than a one-sided editorial piece. I’d like to share more of your articles with friends, but there are too many that just seem extreme. This is one of those instances.

No one is upset that there is money to be made at the Olympics

Yes there are people who are upset about the financial aspects, and while they would generally be remote from a discussion of trademark and IP they are relevant here as per the USOC’s objection that some companies are advertising without being official sponsors.

They’re upset about someone abusing trademark law (emphasis added)

The USOC is not a person, and neither is Subway/Verizon. I think that makes a big difference, and I think you would agree.

Point 1: I don’t believe that tweeting is an important aspect to a narrowly defined conception of Verizon’s business activities, and therefore is advertising. If they are not sponsors of those athletes then in my mind they should have no legal right to use the athletes name in advertising (anymore than Verizon could use my name). Contrast this with RedBull (a sponsor of the athletes), and the New York Times (a newspaper with a business purpose of protected 1st amendment rights) where I would draw different conclusions.

Point 2: Assuming Point 1 does the USOC have a legitimate right to act on Vonn’s behalf? I believe it would as it provides the venue, and manages publicity for the events. In essence it can act as a publicity agent for the athletes during the two-week span of the Olympics. This is a good thing for a new athlete who captures the public’s attention. Following their successes they will have a powerful organization attempting to limit the misuse of their name giving them time to contact a professional to work on their behalf.

Point 3: The USOC’s lawyers may feel that trademark is the simplest and most direct means of accomplishing this goal.

rebuttal Point 1: The USSC has clearly indicated that corporate speech is not to be narrowly constrained to the corporate activities, and they can say just about anything a person can say. Legally the USOC has no case.

rebuttal Point 2: The USOC doesn’t act in athletes interests, but rather in the interest of the “official sponsors.” I concede the point, the USOC sucks, the whole system sucks.

rebuttal Point 3: Trademark is a poor legal argument for the USOC to make. IANAL so I cannot assess the merits, as a citizen I would hope this would not hold up in court.

I would be concerned if given points 1 and 2 the third held, but you never even gave a thought to a reasonable argument of why the USOC would be interested in this and its bearing on athlete welfare before ridiculing the USOC’s comments.

The best argument is to say “Even assuming that the USOC cares about the athletes and has a reason to try and stop the use of athletes names in advertising, is trademark a remotely appropriate vehicle to achieving that end? Should tweeting references to newsworthy items be sufficient to violate trademarks? We think not!” That’s an argument I would share with others.

Any Mouse says:

Re: Re: Re: Olympics is a business, hello!

First, calm down before you type. Much of your message is unintelligible as the combination of words do not make sense when put in the order in which you put them.

Second, the USOC and Verizon and Subway each acts as a singular entity, thus the personification of the organization is proper.

Now, as to reasonable arguments for trademark violation, since the mark is not being used in a confusing manner, nor does this use dilute the mark in any way, then yes, they are violating trademark law. Does not matter if Verizon gets some ad time out of it.

Crispy Chris says:

What if I sponsor one of these athletes?

I don’t know about the other athletes, but Red Bull has at least 500,000 reasons to sent a tweet about Shaun White. After all, they did build him a private half-pipe at a cost of half a mil. This thing is so remote he has to take a helicopter to get to it. I think that entitles Red Bull to tweet about SW all day if they want.

If it were a tweet from Coca-Cola or Visa, you can bet this comment would not have been uttered by the IOC. Never bite the hand that feeds you…

JustMe (profile) says:

Just in case someone from the IOC reads this

I’ll add my comments here.

A) You are driving people away with your Orwellian world views. I don’t watch summer Olympics and may not watch the closing ceremonies this weekend because I just so sick of you thinking that you are the King of Everything.

B) Go US athletes!

C) Re: Michial Thompson No, sorry. That isn’t how the law works. In trademark law, anyone is allowed to say anything they want as long as they aren’t trying to cause confusion. They also cannot misrepresent the facts. Pepsi can say “people don’t like Coke” or “some Olympic athletes drink Pepsi.” and both are legally allowed in the US, even if the IOC owns trademarks on the word ‘Olympics’.

tom says:


well i think its completely messed up how apolo just got dqued and 2 canadians won first and 2nd when apolo should of been 2nd. the other guy should of been gqued too because he completely shoved the korean out of 1st. just shows how those people are CHEATERS! we should NEVER allow them to hold an olympic in their country again. they suck and they cheat and dont deserve anything that they have.

FormerUSOCEmployee says:

I’m really late on this one. The U$OC is full of greed and forget the athletes are fullfilling a dream, one that American’s can relate to. Instead the U$OC thrives on donations and they need the donations to pay the executives 400 – 699k a year. Not joking. No one is held accountable. The IT department doesn’t even have an Athlete’s database (seriously – they don’t know the results of these amazing athletes). The Athletes should be the center – instead being able to get money by using the Athletes names is center. And of course selling broadcasting rights.

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