With less than two months until the start of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, it is important to keep in mind that any unauthorized commercial use of the Olympic trademarks, logos or symbols is prohibited and will be enforced vigorously by the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC).

Federal law gives the USOC exclusive rights to the symbol of the five interlocking rings, the Olympic flame and torch, and to the words “Olympic,” “Olympiad,” “Team USA,” and “Sochi 2014,” among others. The statute is further extended to prohibit any advertising that tends to suggest a connection with the Olympics or the USOC. The USOC’s rights, however, are limited to situations where these words or symbols are used (1) to offer goods or services for sale; or (2) to promote a theatrical exhibition, athletic performance, or competition.

In addition to the exclusive statutory rights, the USOC holds trademark rights to Olympic-related words and symbols. Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act prohibits the use of trademarks when they (1) are likely to deceive or create a false impression of affiliation or endorsement; or (2) misrepresent in adverting certain aspects of the product. Unauthorized use of the trademarks could subject a user to possible claims of false endorsement or affiliation, which operate separately from USOC’s exclusive statutory rights. Although there are certain exceptions to infringement based on fair use, with the heightened exclusivity in regard to its trademarks, the USOC is not afraid to object to use of one of its trademarks by another party.

Some creative marketers have attempted to find a route around USOC’s rights by creating adverting materials with some Olympic flavors without using the protected marks, such as photographs of national flags or competing athletes. Such could be eye-catching to consumers, but they can also cross the line. For example, the USOC had previously alleged that a Subway television advertisement, which featured Michael Phelps swimming to “where the action is this winter,” to falsely imply that Subway was affiliated or associated with the Olympics. The USOC characterized this advertisement as “ambush marketing” and an attempt to associate Subway with the Olympics or as a sponsor.

In short, the USOC has a reputation for aggressively policing their exclusive rights to certain words, phrases and symbols, and they have a special federal law to back them up. Be cautious of the use of Olympic marks by knowing and understanding where the boundaries are.