San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc. v. United States Olympic Comm.

483 U. S. 522

June 25, 1987

The Amateur Sports Act gave the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) an ultra-strong tradmark in the word “Olympic.” Anyone wishing to use the word would have to get permission from the USOC first, even if the usage would not be confusing, as is usually required for a trademark violation. The Special Olympics was one organization which got proper permission from the USOC. But when a San Francisco group tried to get authorization to call an event the “Gay Olympic Games,” the USOC took exception. The San Francisco groups sued, citing First Amendment concerns.

The Court ruled 5-4 that the USOC was in the clear. Powell first answered the objection that the law did not dispense with the confusion requirement; a quick look at legislative history proved otherwise. Turning to the First Amendment, Powell said “Olympic” was not too generic to merit protection, since the modern Olympics were such a universally recognized and understood phenomenon. Since 1896, a clear and unique secondary meaning had developed. Powell further held that the special distinctiveness of the Olympic games could justify the super-strong nature of the trademark. All of this was a 7-2 decision – in the final 5-4 section, the Court held that the government had not discriminated, because the USOC made the calls, and it was a private organization.

Brennan and Marshall dissented from the entire ruling. Brennan disagreed that the USOC was not really a government entity. At the Olypmics, it effectively functioned as a representative agent of the government. Furthermore, the Amateur Sports Act had required the USOC to put a number of important provisions in its charter, and mandated that the USOC provide reports to Congress. Finally, the USOC received a massive amount of government funding. “It would certainly be “irony amounting to grave injustice” if, to finance the team that is to represent the virtues of our political system, the USOC were free to employ Government-created economic leverage to prohibit political speech.” O’Connor, in an opinion joined by Blackmun, said she largely agreed with these arguments, and would have required a remand.

Brennan went further, finding the entire act unconstitutional. It was overbroad, because it prohibited even non-commercial expressive speech without providing good reasons for this vast reach. Moreover, there was no other good word left to convey certain expressive messages. “[A] title such as “The Best and Most Accomplished Amateur Gay Athletes Competition” would not serve as an adequate translation.” The USOC’s rejection of the San Francisco group was indeed viewpoint discrimination. And finally, the government had offered no compelling reason for making this one particular trademark super strong.

This decision was an {censored}-sized blunder. You know the intellectual property law is messed up when it has me agreeing with every word in a Brennan opinion, and even quoting it twice! The hubris and selfishness shown by the USOC is large enough to win an {censored} gold medal. The greatest irony of all is that the USOC and the IOC acquired the word “Olympic” by blatant theft in the first place. The word properly belongs to the Greeks. I’m not one to indulge in oppression {censored}, but I’d say Greece has a pretty legitimate grievance.

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