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IP and the Paris 2024 Olympic games

Paris 2024 intellectual property

The Olympics and Paralympics are coming to Paris in July (if you hadn’t realised it yet) – and apparently many Parisians are up in arms about the restrictions that are going to be imposed on them while they are on.

Leaving aside suggestions that Parisians are never happy unless they’ve got something to complain about, some of the issues being raised remind me of the run-up to the London Olympics in 2012.

Back then, I was employed by one of the UK marketing industry trade associations and we were working closely with the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG) on advising companies how to avoid infringing Olympic and Paralympic IP rights. Our members had a particular interest in the subject – and in fact one of our board directors was a senior director at a key Olympic partner.

Obviously, the IOC has registered rights covering Olympic symbols, trade marks and designs and has had for many years. But what many people don’t realise is that host countries and cities commit many years in advance to enacting special laws and regulations to give the IOC even stronger rights when it comes to games-related IP.

That’s why the UK Parliament passed the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 – six years before the London 2012 games. That law included rules for creating special zones where advertising and marketing were even more strictly controlled than usual – so, for example, in the area between Canary Wharf station and the Millennium Dome.

This act also heavily restricted the use of a range of terms by companies and organisations which weren’t IOC partners – including 2012 and Games, either together or separately, and references to medals, gold, silver and bronze. The act reinforced copyright protections extended to the Olympic symbols in the Olympic Symbol Protection Act 1995.

So we worked with LOCOG to develop leaflets clearly setting out what was acceptable and what wasn’t; for example, a company which wasn’t a games sponsor was allowed to encourage customers to celebrate the summer of sports, so long as its marketing didn’t talk about ‘cheering our team at the Olympics’…

But why exactly do governments and cities allow the IOC such extended and reinforced IP rights?

It’s because the money raised from sponsorship doesn’t just help support the costs of staging the actual Summer and Winter Games (never a cheap operation); beyond that, huge amounts get distributed to pay for projects to encourage grass-roots sporting participation, not just in host countries and cities, but also around the world.

And if the current rules on sponsorship, with the three tiers and exclusive rights within specific industry sectors, seem complex, then it’s worth pointing out that before they were introduced there had been no limit on how many sponsors there were, which had led to complaints about dilution of the value of the sponsorship packages.

For example, the 1976 Montreal Olympics had 628 sponsors. It made a loss. For the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the organisers restricted the number of sponsors – and the city made a $200m profit. The IOC then launched its official  ‘The Olympic Partners’ programme in 1988.

Now, with a smaller number of sponsors for the Olympics paying more, there is an expectation that their investment in the Olympics and Paralympics will be better protected.

This hasn’t always been the case – in the past, partners have had their marketing undermined by rivals through ambush or guerilla marketing. The ‘credit card wars’ between official Games sponsor Visa and rival non-sponsor American Express in the 1980s are one famous example.

Another is the famous incident involving UK sprinter Linford Christie in the run-up (excuse pun) to the Atlanta Olympic Games 100m final in 1996. The official sponsor was Reebok; but Christie’s sponsor was Puma – and he turned up to the pre-final press conference wearing contact lenses with the Puma logo on… which the media loved, of course.

So the Draconian measures that London – and Paris and every other Host City and country – have taken take to protect the IOC IP rights make sense.

There will still undoubtedly be attempt to get round the rules, although they have been tightened up to reflect the rise in social media – and in addition to the restrictions on what companies which are rivals to official Olympic and Paralympic sponsors are allowed to do, there are also restrictions on what athletes these rivals sponsor can do on social media, or in a venue, or in media appearances.

It’s unlikely an athlete would be able to get away with what Linford Christie did in 1996 without some kind of come-back…

To return to Paris, and the upcoming games. The restrictions on advertising and marketing during the games may seem onerous and will undoubtedly annoy Parisians even more; but there is a good reason for them to be in force. And they will only be in force for a limited time only.

The fact of the matter is, if you want to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games, you have to accept the rules the IOC lays down. And the IOC’s rules are there to protect the value of its intellectual property, and the interests of the partners that pay for the rights to use them under licence.

So when you watch the Olympic Games in Paris this year, enjoy the summer of sport – but pay careful attention and you might just learn some valuable lessons about IP protection…


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