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.

Filed Under: free speech, olympics, trademark
Companies: red bull, usoc, verizon


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  1. identicon
    David, 23 Feb 2010 @ 3:46pm

    Re: Re: Olympics is a business, hello!

    Mike,

    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.

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