Anticipation over the Summer Olympics is building worldwide as the 2016 Rio Games officially kick off tomorrow. Huge sports events are usually a good opportunity for marketers to use social media creatively, capitalizing on some of that excitement to get a little attention for their own brands.

But if you were planning to post about the Olympics this summer, using hashtags #Rio2016 or #Goforthegold, think again.

The United States Olympic Committee recently sent out a letter warning companies that don’t have official sponsorship deals against stealing intellectual property:

Commercial entities may not post about the Trials or Games on their corporate social media accounts,” reads the letter written by USOC chief marketing officer Lisa Baird. “This restriction includes the use of USOC’s trademarks in hashtags such as #Rio2016 or #TeamUSA.”

Yes, it may sound extreme, but the USOC does own the trademarks to many Olympics-associated words and phrases – and using them in any form on social media, including hashtags, could violate their legal rights.

So what does this mean, exactly? In short, if you’re a non-sponsor brand, you can’t post about the Olympics on social media.

Individuals, news media and official sponsors can post about the Olympics and its athletes, but other companies can’t post anything directly related to the event (this includes retweets or shares from official Olympics social media accounts).

AdWeek posted an extensive list of prohibited content, including:

1. You can’t use any trademarked words or phrases, such as:

  • Olympian
  • Team USA
  • Future Olympian
  • Gateway to gold
  • Go for the gold
  • Let the games begin
  • Paralympic

Or terms that refer to the location of the Olympics, such as:

  • Road to Rio
  • Road to Pyeongchang
  • Road to Tokyo
  • Rio 2016
  • Pyeongchang 2018
  • Tokyo 2020

This includes using any trademarked words in hashtags, such as: #TeamUSA or #Letthegamesbegin.

2. You can’t post the Olympics logos or any photos taken at the Games (including retweets or shares).

3. You can’t feature Olympic athletes in your posts, even to wish them luck or publish results from any events.

In response to our questions via email, Benjamin Seeley of the International Olympic Committee simply restated standards outlined in the IOC Marketing: Media Guide:

Only official Olympic Partners are able to associate with the Olympic Games or benefit from the goodwill of the Olympic Movement. Our aim is to protect the integrity of the Olympic properties marks (including the Olympic rings), the Olympic Games, and the investment of our official partners. Without the revenue and support of our broadcast partners and official marketing partners the Olympic Games would simply not happen.

We work on a market by market basis with our National Olympic Committee and Organising Committee partners before each Games to educate companies who the official partners are and why ambush marketing is detrimental to the Olympic Games.

Where there is an infringement we take a pragmatic approach to ensure there is an appropriate response. When there is a concerted effort to create an unauthorized commercial association with the Olympic Games or the Olympic properties then we will take swift action.

Bottom line? Proceed with caution.

There are still inventive ways for brands to be part of the conversation around the Olympics, while still playing strictly by the rules. But it’s important to read the fine print before you post.

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