Let the games begin Rio Olympics and the IP minefield Ian Johnson is Head of IP Legal at CPA Global August’s opening ceremony in Brazil’s Maracanã Stadium kick-started 17 days of the Olympiad: 10,500 athletes from 206 countries competing across 306 events. Since winning the bid for the Olympic Games in 2009, Rio de Janeiro has worked to make South America’s first Games a success. The government has invested in new stadiums and sporting venues, building new transport links including the $8 million elevated cycle path over the sea. In the build up to the event, Olympic organisers expected significant media focus, but were they prepared for the issues surrounding intellectual property (IP) and what this would mean for sponsors and the Olympic brand? A giant leap for sporting technology The 2016 Rio Olympics has been the most technologically advanced Olympics to date-embracing digital systems and innovative start-ups to stage a multiscreen, virtual Games. For the first time the Olympic Broadcasting Service (OBS) broadcast high-definition images of the opening ceremony in virtual reality, and will show one event each day in the same way. GPS technology has been implemented in long distance races, allowing fans to follow the canoe sprint and rowing events more closely than ever before. GPS devices are attached to every vessel so spectators can view key data relating to the speed and direction of boats in real-time. Traditional scoring systems in archery and shooting have also been electronically upgraded: target shooting now incorporates laser technology for millimetric precision. While in archery, to add to the tension, Rio spectators will be able to monitor athletes’ heart rates in real time. Radio-frequency tags have even been attached to guns so that organisers know where each weapon is at any given time. In 2014 investors spent more than $1 billion in venture deals for sports-related start-ups, representing a shift from investors who once shunned the sports sector, now flocking towards it. IP management and protection plays a key role in enabling innovation in sports and the continued investment in research and development of more effective and affordable technologies for athletes. With the amount of sophisticated technology on show in Rio, there is a promising future for IP in sports. How did so many new technologies make it to Rio? After the inception of an idea, it would have been vital for inventors to protect their IP with a patent or other form of security. A worldwide sporting stage is not the place for a trade secret technology to debut. In most countries an industrial design must be registered to be protected under industrial design law. However, the patent process can be a lengthy and costly investment. In the lead up to the Games, Brazilian authorities recognised the space for new technology and made moves to accommodate new innovations. The Brazilian patent trademark office (PTO) issued Resolution No.167–fast tracking the processing of industrial design applications related to sporting goods. To meet the criteria for the fast tracked examinations, industrial design patent applications had to exclusively concern sporting goods and have been requested prior to 16 June 2016. Resolution No.167 also helped to curb the effect of territorial patent rights. In general, exclusive rights are only applicable in the country or region in which a patent has been filed and granted, in accordance with the law of that particular location. Brazil’s fast tracked patent process secured IP as soon as an application was accepted–new technologies could be introduced in Rio safe in the knowledge that Brazil’s PTO would protect IP. The social media takedown Intellectual property was supported by Resolution No.167 and embraced by the Rio Olympics. However, in an attempt to protect its own IP the International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued a ban on non-official sponsors sharing Olympic content: “…Any use of USOC trademarks on a non-media company’s website or social media site is viewed as commercial in nature and consequently is prohibited.” With the US tightening its grip on IP regulation, trademarks are a key method of protection: trademarked brands, sporting venues and even, athletes. Some of the most famous athletes in the world use IP rights to control the use of images with which they are associated. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s ‘Lightning Bolt’ pose, US basketball star Michael Jordan’s ‘jumpman’ pose, and English Rugby star Jonny Wilkinson’s distinct kicking stance are all registered trademarks. With future of IP evolving, social media watching is becoming increasingly important. While regulating the use of certain terms and words on social platforms is not new - banning hashtags is. The first US applications for trademark hashtags were submitted in 2013, and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) now owns a number of words and phrases. In the lead up to Rio 2016, USOC successfully trademarked ‘#Rio2016’ and ‘#TeamUSA’, as well as ‘going for the gold’ and even ‘let the games begin.’ Rule 40 was implemented to protect investment from official sponsors. Big corporations such as Coca Cola, McDonalds and Samsung have all sponsored Olympic cycles, paying an estimated 100 million euros each to the IOC to advertise directly with the Olympics. Rule 40 reminds companies: if you have not paid for access to IP rights you cannot use popular hashtags to self-promote. It could be argued that the strict enforcement of rule 40 is not only restricting companies from benefiting from ‘Olympic fever’ but the athletes themselves, too. The by-law not only deters non-official sponsors, but establishes a ‘blackout period’ during which an athletes name and image cannot be used by any non-official sponsors during the Games. ‘Olympic-related terms’ are also off limits to non-official sponsors from 27 July until midnight on 24 August 2016. According to the IOC, ‘Olympic-related terms’ include: effort; challenge; summer; Rio; games; victory; and among many others – medal (including pictures of a medal). If an athlete breaches Rule 40, they can be barred from competing and even stripped of medals they have already won. This may seem extreme, but strict measures are a way for the IOC to establish IP ownership and stop non-official sponsors financially benefitting from its property. National Olympic committees are responsible for enforcing regulations in each jurisdiction, and some countries are choosing to edit rule 40’s strict application. Olympic Team GB published its guide in December and chose to introduce the by-law with slight exceptions: “For London 2012 and in recognition of the important role personal sponsors play in athletes’ careers, the #BOA [British Olympic Association] relaxes the provisions of Rule 40 to allow athletes to appear in personal sponsors’ advertising during Games (subject to certain conditions).” While individuals, news outlets and official sponsors are generally free to post about the Games and Olympic athletes, most businesses and brands are excluded from anything close to a direct discussion. Some non-profits, small businesses and even individuals, have been on the receiving end of the IP debate - including a knitting group that used the term ‘ravelympics’ for a knitting competition, a charcuterie in Portland named ‘Olympic Provisions’, and a Philadelphia sandwich shop called ‘Olympic Gyro’ – all receiving cease and desist letters. Tackling the heavyweight sponsors However, some brands have leveraged the enthusiasm of the games without breaking the rules. These tactics include alternative hashtags, patriotic Snapchat lenses, and using animals and animated fruit in place of humans when depicting athletic events in adverts. Under Armour - a manufacturer of athletic clothing - is not an official sponsor of the Rio Olympics, but the company has ties with some of sports most high-profile names: Michael Phelps; Andy Murray; Jordan Spieth; and Kelley O’Hara. Despite not paying to sponsor Phelps’s Olympic performance, the company is using social media to associate themselves with the Olympian, using creative ways to congratulate the swimmer without breaking IOC rules. One tweet read: ‘It’s what you do in the dark, that puts you in the light,’ posted minutes after Phelps won his record breaking 20th gold medal. Under Armour tagged Phelps in the post alongside its ‘Rule Yourself’ slogan, an American flag and an applause emoji – Olympic connection with no Olympic reference. Historically the Olympic Games has been about bringing people together in sporting competition, but the nature of this year’s official sponsorship guidelines has questioned this, fuelling the debate over the future of IP in the digital age. Twitter should be significantly populated by Olympic interaction, but Rio 2016 has barely been present in trending topics. The threat of a lawsuit from a multi-million pound organisation is enough to stop free speech in its tracks. The IOC may be upsetting social media users by staking ownership over hashtags, but as owners of Olympic IP – are they wrong to protect what is theirs? The Olympics is a shining example of why IP owners must adapt to the changing landscape of IP. The IOC is a non-profit organisation that uses its IP assets to generate revenue. Enforcing restrictions on social media and banning the use of Vines and GIFs is a means of IP protection: restricting individuals who do not own – or sponsor – the Olympics from financially benefitting from its IP. Social media watching is crucial in today’s digital landscape to ensure infringement is not taking place across any form of media. Internet monitoring for the misuse of trademarks is a growing business and it is vital for IP owners to have a trademark strategy in place that covers both PTOs and the internet. The internet vs IP debate raged on through the duration of the Olympics, but it highlighted some of the issues IP owners will face in the future and why organisations need to be ahead of the changing game with a concrete strategy in place. The future is bright for Olympic IP Before the Rio Olympics had even begun, innovators were looking ahead to the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Already being described as the most futuristic Games – Tokyo promises to showcase the latest and greatest in technology. When Tokyo last hosted the Games in 1964, the nation made transportation history by debuting the Shinkansen world-famous bullet train, and Japanese technology looks to dominate the latest Olympic offering too. What can we expect to see? Famed for its world-leading robotics industry, Japan will be embracing automation. The Games will introduce a ‘robot village’ in Tokyo’s Odaiba neighbourhood, which will also be home to the athletes’ Olympic Village. Organisers are looking to employ robots to help manage the 920,000 visitors expected in Tokyo each day during the Games: they can be called upon for language translation, directions, or beckon transport - likely to be a self-driving taxi. Japan’s robot strategy will mean tripling the country’s spending on robotic technology - making it a $20.2 billion industry. Worldwide, the industrial robotics industry is poised to reach $40 billion by 2020, and Japan has every intention of leading the charge with the Tokyo Games. Heavyweight Japanese companies such as Panasonic are also contributing innovative technologies: installing tens of thousands of fixed and mobile cameras to work in tandem with restricted-area sensors to secure the stadium; and a translation project that will allow Olympics visitors to wear a tablet around their neck to translate Japanese into 10 languages – instantly. Similarly, Japanese start-ups are contributing to Tokyo’s technology legacy. ALE is designing a microsatellite to launch into space that shoots out tiny spheres of a secret chemical that burns and glows like a star–an eye-catching artificial meteor shower that will dominate Tokyo 2020’s opening ceremony. The impressive technology displayed at the Rio Olympics will motivate innovators to create something even more special for the Tokyo Games–more automation, robotics, security and accuracy through electronics. With four years to go, inventors must act now. It is paramount IP owners employ a sophisticated and scalable IP strategy to accommodate changing technology trends and monitor competitor behaviour. If you are looking to show your technology in a global arena, Tokyo 2020 will be the place to do it.
The Olympics is a shining example of why IP owners must adapt to the changing landscape of IP