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COVID-19: Tokyo 2020 Postponed – The Race is on for Trademark Protection

17 April 2020

The decision to delay the 2020 Tokyo games until 2021, while disappointing for sports fans and athletes around the globe, has been welcomed by many due to the current global health crisis. The games have never been postponed before with cancellations occurring only during wartime in the past. Nevertheless, this postponement will have an interesting impact on the trademark registrations associated with the games.

The approach of the International Olympic Committee

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is renowned for its robust brand protection practices. Despite the decision to postpone the Games to 2021, the IOC has decided to retain the name “Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020” along with any other associated marks. By keeping the Tokyo 2020 brand, there will not be a need to re-apply for trademarks or rebrand any of the materials which have already been manufactured. The marks for the games are usually applied for years in advance. Some of these marks had been applied for as far back as 2012. This decision also neatly aligns with the Tokyo 2020 sustainability initiative. Therefore any registrations already secured in advance of the games will be relied on and enforced by the Japanese Olympic Committee, the Japanese Paralympic Committee and the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Permission to use any of the IP associated with the Olympic and Paralympic Games must be obtained by these organisations prior to use.

The issue with this approach is it potentially leaves a gap for other entities to seek to register marks the same as or similar to “TOKYO 2021”. Of note here is Puma, the major athletic apparel brand, which applied to register PUMA TOKYO 2021 as a trademark in the United States on the same day that the decision to postpone the Olympic games was announced. It remains to be seen whether other brands will seek to do the same and whether such applications will even proceed to registration. It is highly likely that there will be oppositions raised by the IOC to such applications. However, smaller events, which lack the resources of the IOC to defend their brand, should consider whether it would be more cost effective to register a new trademark to seek to fend off third party applications.

The importance of protecting your brand

Sports competitions can be very lucrative events with associated advertising generating significant revenue every year. IP rights like registered trademarks are vital to protecting and exploiting the brand associated with these events. These protections along with event specific laws and regulations are particularly important in fighting the most popular form of illegal brand exploitation at such events: “ambush marketing”.

What is ambush marketing?

Ambush marketing is a marketing technique in which advertisers work to connect their product with a particular event in the minds of potential customers while avoiding the payment of sponsorship fees.

One of the most famous examples of ambush marketing was when, at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, sprinter Michael Johnson won two gold medals while wearing a $30,000 pair of gold lightweight spikes given to him by Nike. Millions of viewers witnessed history being made as Johnson sprinted down the track with the ever recognisable ‘swoosh’ on his gold-clad feet. Nike’s competitors, Reebok were not impressed as they had reportedly paid $50 million for the right to call themselves an official Olympic sportswear sponsor.

Because of similar marketing campaigns, the IOC has had to become increasingly strict about the enforcement of its intellectual property rights in order to protect its brand and the revenue that is generated via official sponsorship. The ability for athletes to freely proclaim their affiliation with brands has been restricted in recent years, particularly with the rise of influencer culture. The efforts of the IOC are now always supported by local event specific laws and regulations.

What does this mean for your event?

If your event has been postponed as a result of COVID-19 you should assess whether you need to register new trademarks as a result of the date being changed. This should be acted on immediately to ensure that the relevant trademarks are registered in advance of the rescheduled date and to ensure that any ambush marketing or other unauthorised event mark use by un-official sponsors and even bad faith applications are prevented.

In addition, you should consider whether any risks of ambush marketing/unauthorised use in connection with your event exist. If so, contractual provisions may need to be reviewed so as to protect the brand associated with the event and the rights of any official sponsors. You should also consider whether any sponsorship agreements need to be extended or amended to take account of the postponement or any changes to the marks which will be used throughout the event.  

Conclusion

While COVID-19 has put many events on hold for the foreseeable future, event organisers should not sit idle and should consider whether their brand and trademarks need to be re-registered or updated to ensure that sponsorship revenue in the future is protected.

For more information on the continuing impact of COVID-19 and any related disruption to your business, please do not hesitate to contact a member of our Intellectual Property team. 


The content of this article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other advice.

Discuss your related queries now with Brian McElligott.


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