The Olympics come around once every 4 years; it’s a truly huge affair and gets bigger with each event, this year in Rio we are being treated to 11,000 athletes from 206 nations who are competing in 306 events in 28 sports. Truly massive numbers. With such a large event comes an equally large bill and inevitably when there’s a large bill to pay, a large income has to be found to ensure adequate funding is to hand.

The Olympics is not just a huge event, but also a world famous brand and that worldwide renown provides the perfect base for revenue generation. For the months before the event itself, and during the days of heated competition when billions are watching, everyone wants to be associated with the spectacle. That desire presents a unique revenue generating opportunity for the Olympics brand and a myriad of licensing deals are put in place through which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is able to maximise its income. However with that opportunity comes a paradox. The IOC of course wants the Games to generate huge publicity, the more people watch, the more the brand is “worth” in terms of licensing and the accompanying association. Therefore it wants people to talk about the Games, however it also wants to make sure that those that do so abide by its strict guidelines in terms of what can’t be used without permission, i.e. isn’t “free” and in the public domain.

To this end, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has recently sent letters to those who sponsor athletes but don't have any sponsorship designation with the USOC or IOC, warning them about use of intellectual property as follows "Commercial entities may not post about the … Games on their corporate social media accounts," and "This restriction includes the use of USOC's trademarks in hashtags such as #Rio2016.” References to what many would see as a descriptive term i.e. Rio 2016, has caused some anger and created a great deal of discussion.

The technical legal argument is of course that where the term has been registered as a trade mark it does have the status that accompanies such registration and so its use can be controlled. However for its use to be prohibited, broadly speaking, that use must be in the course of trade and in respect of the goods or services for which it has been protected. Further, and again generalising, that use must also be as a trade mark, i.e. in a manner that denotes trade origin. Therefore in many cases saying that someone cannot use the term #Rio2016 per se is over simplistic as there needs to be an examination of the specifics of that use. A trade mark right is after all exclusive, not monopolistic. The IOC and its affiliated organisations are of course in a difficult space, they need to protect what they own but they also need the world to promote and talk about the Games. This is by no means an easy line to walk and so perhaps it’s a good thing that we only have to wrestle with the issue once every 4 years!