The Olympics Games Rio 2016 officially concluded over a week ago yet the controversies it propagated are still in action. The US Olympic Committee claimed that non-sponsors could not tweet about the Olympic Games in Rio and in furtherance sent warning letters to numerous businesses tweeting with “official” Olympic hashtags such as “#TeamUSA” and “#Rio2016.” demanding them to take down such posts.

Certain intellectual property related to the Games are owned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) such as the Olympic flag, motto, anthem, identifiers, designations, emblems, flame and torches and the IOC has exclusive rights to these Olympic properties.

Sponsorship plays an integral part in ensuring the continued financial viability of the Games. Under the Olympic Charter, Rule 40 states that athletes must cut ties with non-official partners until three days after the conclusion of the Games. The bye-law of the Charter states that only approved official sponsors of the Olympics Games Rio 2016 were to be allowed to reference Olympic-related terms until midnight on 24 August. This meant that not even personal sponsors of Athletes could re-tweet wishing athletes luck or use any related Olympic terms on any social media platform. This Rule has restricted the ability of athletes to promote themselves as well as that of their sponsors (unless they are official Olympic sponsors of the Game). They technically need to sever their ties with their personal sponsors during the course of the Game.

Such regulations are not unfamiliar and were formulated to counter so-called ‘ambush marketing’. Ambush marketing is a form of unfair marketing, which has also been illustrated as ‘parasite marketing’. When commercial entities claim an association which they do not have or to be more specific for which they have not paid a penny for with any big event, the official sponsors do not get any value for the considerable sums that they have expended on the particular sponsorship.  This not only adversely affects the interests of these sponsors but also dilutes the value of the respective event and causes confusion amongst consumers and fans. In order to prevent such piggybacking on the demand of the Game and to safeguard the investments of the Official Sponsors, regulation such as Rule 40 has been strictly adhered to this year.

The USOC has always been infamous for defending its intellectual property in an assertive manner and has been involved in a number of trademark lawsuits over the years. This year the USOC through its numerous warning letters sent to various commercial entities around the world drew wide attention. In furtherance to such outburst, a Minnesota carpet-cleaning company, Zerorez filed a suit against the USOC after it received a cease and desist letter for a series of tweets with wishes to 11 Minnesotans representing the U.S. in Rio. The company requested a declaratory judgement to clarify the law when it comes to public discourse and social media conversations. In a classic trademark lawsuit, a plaintiff suing for trademark infringement would have to establish liability by showing that the use of the trademark of the plaintiff caused confusion among consumers. However, the USOC’s special protection under Title 36, Subtitle II, Part B of the US Code of federal statutes means the USOC doesn’t have to prove confusion. By the very use of USOC’s marks, commercial entities shall be considered infringing.

In India, the legislative front for ambush marketing is yet to be well-established. Reference can be drawn to the instances during the Indian Premier League 2016 wherein Apple’s CEO Tim Cook was reportedly watching the match between Kolkata Knight Riders and Gujrat Lions at Kanpur. The title sponsor of IPL 2016, Vivo seemed critical about the former’s visit. Apple being a competitor for Vivo viewed the enormous publicity given to the Apple CEO as ambush marketing by Apple. Similar was the instance wherein Coca-Cola was found selling its beverages outside the 2016 ICC World Twenty20 match venues in India even as rival PepsiCo remains one of the official sponsor of the ICC. Such ambush marketing occurred inspite of the ICC rules which prevent direct competitors of official sponsors to be visible at venues where matches are being played.

Ambush marketing is not new to most countries. However, there is a high chance that not all commercial entities are ambush marketers.   Therefore, stringent precautionary methods such as those adopted by the USOC in the 2016 Olympics in its course of limiting the unfair users caused hardship to various commercial entities who were only honest well-wishers of the Game and did not intend to misuse the fame of the Games. Hence, although the USOC has special permission concerning use of its name and other Olympic affiliated words, there should be some leeway for commercial entities to discuss the games without constituting trademark infringement.