US Olympic Committee's history of lawsuits against non profit organisations
What do robots, lab rats, rappers and pet ferrets have in common? They've all come under fire from the U.S. Olympic Committee for using the word "Olympics."Trademark infringement is proving to be an "Olympic" sport as the United States Olympic Committee has threatened to sue those who use the trademarked term, including the Ferret Olympics and the Nose Olympics. Every Olympic season, the USOC threatens to sue dozens of businesses, clubs and nonprofit organizations for using the trademarked word to promote events or products. USOC lawyers say they're protecting one of the world's most lucrative sporting events from "ambush marketing" by companies seeking to profit from the Games. While the committee's vigilance has certainly thwarted such efforts, it has had another side effect. It's produced a slew of awkward and often comical substitutes for the forbidden phrase.
To raise money for her ferret shelter in Eugene, Ore., Melanee Ellis created the Ferret Olympics 13 years ago. The annual competition tests ferrets in events such as racing through a plastic dryer hose, knocking down empty beer cans, and climbing out of a paper bag. During the 2004 Olympics, Ms. Ellis got a call from a USOC lawyer who warned the shelter would be sued for trademark infringement unless she changed the event's name. "I thought it was a joke," Ms. Ellis says.
It wasn't. The event is now called the Ferret Agility Trials.
Other groups have also struggled to find catchy synonyms. Olympets -- a contest in California that tests dogs and other pets in categories such as ball catching, "laziest" and "most disobedient" -- changed its name to the National Pet Games after the USOC contacted organizers two years ago. Toy maker Play Vision tried unsuccessfully to register a trademark for the Nose Olympics -- a game that includes a pair of gag glasses with attachments like small plastic basketball hoops that wearers can play by tossing their heads around. The company settled for Nose Aerobics.
Play Visions Inc. Nose Aerobics: The object of the game is to get the ball in the basket. The toy's maker, Play Vision, tried to trademark the name Nose Olympics.
A biking, swimming and strength contest in Hawaii held to promote raw foods became the Raw Games after the Olympic Committee blocked the organizers' attempt to register the trademarks "Raw Olympics" and "Rawlympics."
Why can't vegetable lovers and miniature horses have their own Olympics? A 1978 U.S. congressional act gives the Olympic Committee exclusive rights to the words Olympic, Olympiad and Citius, Altius, Fortius, the Olympic motto, which is Latin for "faster, higher, stronger." The legislation was drafted to protect the Olympics Committee's lucrative sponsorship deals. It was upheld by a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that barred San Francisco Arts and Athletics from calling their contest the Gay Olympic Games. The court ruled that "Olympic" isn't a generic word and therefore is subject to trademark protection.
Since the last Olympics, the USOC has gone after more than 1,000 trademark violations, a spokeswoman says. A search through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reveals more than 446 trademark applications with the word "Olympics," or some variation (including Biblelympics, Caveman Ughlympics and Olympigs). Almost all of them were denied. Recently, the Olympic Committee has gone after the Hip Hop Olympics, an international videogame competition called the Digital Olympics, and Baby Me Fit Olympics, a fitness program for young children, a USOC lawyer says. "It demeans the brand," says Rana Dershowitz, USOC general counsel.
"It's pure, unfounded greed," David Calkins, president of the Robotics Society of American, says of the USOC policy. Mr. Calkins heard from USOC lawyers five years ago after filing a trademark application for the term ROBOlympics. The international competition, which began in 1983, pits robots against each other in 82 categories, including boxing, soccer, kung fu, sumo wrestling and firefighting. Mr. Calkins says he considered waging a legal battle because he thought it would spur publicity, but the group's sponsors were reluctant to take on the deep-pocketed Olympic Committee. So the event is now called the RoboGames.
Nebraska Wesleyan University's psychology department had held the Rat Olympics for nearly 30 years before it caught the USOC's attention. Every December, about 25 lab rats, coached by psychology students, compete for gold, silver and bronze medals -- and, perhaps greater incentive for a rat, yogurt morsels. The events include rope climbing, swimming, hurdles, weight lifting and the long jump (subway riders take note: the all-time rat long-jump record is 4.5 feet). In 2003, the university got a warning call from the USOC. "We tried to demonstrate to them that this wasn't a profit-making event, it was truly an academic event," says Sara Olson, director of public relations for the university. "They didn't buy it."
University officials decided to milk the situation for publicity. They issued a press release announcing a naming contest, and got 200 entries from 30 states. The governor of Nebraska came to campus to unveil the winner: The Xtreme Rat Challenge.
New names don't always stick. Ms. Ellis struggled to come up with a noble-sounding substitute for her Ferret Olympics, and considered calling it the Ferrelympics, the Ferret Festival and the Great Ferret Challenge before finally settling on the Ferret Agility Trials. But, she says, "I have tons of people who still ask me, 'What's happening with the Ferret Olympics?' "
Nebraska Weslyan University
Xtreme Rat Challenge
A lab rat goes for the gold in a contest formerly known as the Rat Olympics. Rats are trained by psychology students to compete in events such as rope climbing, swimming and long jump.
Robots compete in a soccer match, one of 82 events during the annual games -- formerly ROBOlympics -- in San Francisco. Other contests include kung fu fighting and boxing androids (the first robot to hit the floor loses). "It actually is very similar to the Olympics," says David Calkins, president of the Robotics Society of America.
The Global Gaming League tried to call its international videogame tournament the Digital Olympics, and filed a trademark application complete with a symbol of multihued, overlapping blades that resembles the Olympic rings. (Games in the tournament include Burnout Paradise) The USOC objected earlier this year.
National Pet Games
National Pet Games
A Boston terrier competes in California. Formerly called Olympets, the games have drawn dogs, parrots and lizards. A miniature horse is expected this year.
Ferret Agility Trials
A pet ferret pulls a weighted wagon in a strength contest. Ferrets also compete at yawning and digging in the dirt.
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