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Is It Legal to Use the Olympic Rings in Ads?

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

Is it legal to use the Olympic rings in ads? The answer to this question will depend primarily on why you're using the trademarked symbol and whether you got the proper permission to use it.

The International Olympic Committee is notoriously aggressive about protecting its trademarks, as explained in a Wired story from the 2012 Summer Olympics. Same goes for the Sochi Olympics that officially kick off Friday.

Here's what small business owners need to know:

Using Olympic Rings in Ads

All of the symbols of the Olympic Games, including the famous multicolored rings, are trademarked under U.S. law. Before using the symbol, you must get the IOC's prior written consent.

In addition, you need permission to use many of the words and phrases associated with the Olympics, including "United States Olympic Committee"; "Olympic," and "Olympiad."

Depending on what Olympics-related content you're using (texts, images, or films) and how you're using it (for educational use, private use, or commercial use), the IOC may give you permission.

In general, you should shy away from using any Olympic-related symbol, slogan, or term in any advertising or promotional announcements that aren't graced by the approval of the IOC. That goes for sweepstakes and contests, too.

Beware any use that could suggest a sponsorship or endorsement with the official event, unless you obtain permission beforehand.

Licensing the Olympic Rings

The organizing committee for each Olympics licenses its logos and symbols to specific manufacturers and partners. Businesses pay a pretty penny to license the use of trademarked symbols and terms associated with the Olympics.

Though an exact dollar amount is tough to pin down, it's safe to say most small businesses probably can't afford it: the organizing committee raked in $163 million from 68 licensees in 2008's Beijing Olympics, according to Wired.

But if you think your business is too small to get in trouble for using the Olympic rings in ads, think again.

During the London 2012 Olympics, shopkeepers, florists and even butchers (with Olympic rings fashioned from sausage links) who put Olympic symbols in their windows were reportedly being asked to take them down, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

Worst-case scenario, your unauthorized use of the Olympic rings can potentially lead to a legal action. In that case, you'd need a legal Olympian, otherwise known as an experienced small business attorney.

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