Diving into the “Hashjacking” Claims – The USOC and Trademark Infringement
The Olympics have ended, and the United States has come out on top of the medal count. We have seen amazing athletes perform, cheered as they set world and personal records, and empathized with their crushing defeats. We have all been a part of the Olympics in some way, be it watching the games on TV or tweeting our support to our favorite athletes. Social media has been a large part of the Olympics this year, which allows us to feel closer to these inspiring people as they compete all the way from Rio. However, social media has landed some people in hot water, as the USOC doesn’t appreciate unaffiliated sponsors tweeting with the official hashtags.
Historically, the United States Olympic Committee has been litigious. Every time the games are held, the Committee registers marks that combine the host city’s name with the year, so this year we saw “Rio 2016” as the mark. Then, the Committee strictly polices the use of these marks, sending out cease and desist letters to anyone they think is using it without consent. On the one hand, this makes sense, as the official sponsors of the games pay a lot of money to use these marks, and it is a badge of honor for them to bear the name “official sponsor of the games.” This isn’t a new thing either – we’ve seen it happen during March Madness as well. On the other hand, however, the USOC seems to go a bit overboard.
During the games in London, the USOC sent a cease and desist letter to Olympic Gyro, a Greek restaurant in Philadelphia. Despite being in business for over 30 years, the restaurant changed its name to Olympia Gyro to avoid legal action from the Committee. This year, the USOC has been doing more of the same, and even taking it a step further. They have been sending warning letters to businesses on Twitter who use hashtags that use phrases like “Rio2016” or “TeamUSA.” In keeping with the times, this practice has been dubbed “hashjacking.”
While it is true that some businesses may be using these hashtags as a way to benefit from the goodwill of the official Olympic sponsors, some are truly just using them as a way to be involved in the conversation or wish the athletes well. Social media is a great way for them to do that. However, it is also a great way for not so well-meaning companies to confuse consumers and trick them into thinking they are affiliated with the USOC. The Committee has come under fire this year for the warning letters they have been sending out, but it is clear that there is a fine line they must walk.
How do organizations such as the USOC police their marks in an age where social media reigns without unnecessarily targeting innocent businesses? Some have suggested rule changes to keep up with the times. This is a question that will continue to come up in the coming games, and it will be interesting to see how the USOC handles it.