Faster, higher, stronger

David Barnett

Following the opening ceremony last Friday, the games of the XXXI Olympiad are now well underway, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The Olympic Games are big business. The cost, in public money, of simply hosting the 2016 games (including the construction of the necessary infrastructure) has been estimated at around $12 billion[1,2], though the final overall level of profit or loss is yet to be determined. In terms of ticket sales alone, it is estimated that a total of 7.5 million tickets will be sold, with prices ranging from R$40 ($12 US) up to R$4,600 (approx $1,400) for the most expensive seats at the opening ceremony[3]. Revenue is also generated – both for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) itself and for other businesses – through sponsorship agreements (likely to generate of the order of $2 billion for Rio 2016) and merchandising deals, in addition to the significant proceeds generated by the sale of broadcasting rights[4]. These extraordinary sums of money result in significant potential for infringers and fraudsters to make a quick profit and, accordingly, highlight the importance of brand owners proactively protecting their revenues and brand equity.

The IOC is renowned for how aggressively it protects the Olympics brand. During the period surrounding the previous (2012) summer games in London, the requirements for the government to introduce legislation protecting the rights of the Olympic brand, and those of the event’s sponsors, were widely reported. As part of this legal framework, non-sponsors were prevented from “employing images or wording that might suggest too close a link with the Games” (so-called ‘penumbral [brand] protection’), including the use of terms such as ‘games’ or ‘2012’ in conjunction with words such as ‘London’, ‘gold’ or ‘sponsor’[5]. Similar protection is again in place for Rio 2016[6].

However, despite the protective frameworks in place, significant levels of infringements can still be observed ‘in the wild’. In the run-up to the games, a piece of research by NetNames considered the example of domain-name issues. Over 700 gTLD domains with names containing ‘rio2016’ were identified and, of a subset of 120 of these that also contained other keywords of interest (such as ‘shop’, ‘hotel’ or ‘ticket’), almost 90% were found to be registered to third parties and could potentially pose a threat to the public[7]. Considering another similar issue, large numbers of mobile apps making reference to the Rio 2016 name, but that have been developed by unofficial organizations or individuals, have also been identified across a range of app marketplaces and standalone download sites. As with domain infringements, any examples that are not under the control of the brand owner can present a risk of security or brand-protection issues.

As early as the start of 2015, fraudulent e-mails mentioning the 2016 games were already being reported, including numerous examples pertaining to fake lottery scams. By May 2016, significant numbers of fake ticketing websites – many of which were phishing for bank login details in attempts to steal money from victims’ bank accounts – were also being identified. Some of these were even making use of cheap SSL certificates, allowing the fraudulent sites to use https web addresses and employ web-traffic encryption[8], all of which makes it significantly more difficult for users to distinguish these sites from legitimate ones.

Rogue merchandising, however, presents one of the most straightforward opportunities for counterfeiters to take advantage of the huge sums of money being spent on goods and services relating to the Olympics. There are reports of significant on-the-ground sales of non-official branded items in Rio and elsewhere, with items ranging from license plates, to handkerchiefs, to narcotics[9]. One of the ways in which the Olympic organizers are attempting to tackle this problem is via the introduction of a ‘second tier’ of lower-quality – and corresponding lower cost – merchandising products. Still official, these products are being sold through a range of local outlets and are targeted towards local residents and those operating on a budget[10]. However, the trade in bootleg items is likely to continue. Moving online, a search for ‘Rio 2016’ across just four key marketplace websites generates in excess of 5,000 results, potentially representing many tens of thousands of individual infringing items. These numbers illustrate the importance to brand owners of not only ensuring that their brands are protected using appropriate IP registration (and, in the case of the Olympics, legislation), but also utilizing this protection via a proactive program of enforcement to prevent the sale of infringing items.

David Barnett is Head of Analysis and Consultancy in the NetNames Brand Protection team.
His forthcoming book, ‘Brand Protection in the Online World’, will be published in December and will shortly be available to pre-order via the publisher’s website: