Both individuals and businesses need to be extremely careful about what they post on social media, but, when it comes to the Olympics, there are extra concerns, especially for businesses of all sizes, as certain types of posts can lead to potential lawsuits.
Here is what you need to know:
1. The Olympics are not public domain. While people often think of the Olympic Games as belonging to humanity in general, and of the sharing of images and videos taken by themselves on social media as protected by Freedom of Speech, both assumptions are incorrect.
2. The International Olympic Committee owns the rights to the Olympics and associated intellectual property, and requires that participating nations establish laws to protect trademarks associated with the Olympics. The United States has done so - in a section of federal law known as U.S. Code 36 Subtitle II Part B Chapter 2205 - UNITED STATES OLYMPIC COMMITTEE. Subchapter 1 of that law allows the United States Olympic Committee to sue businesses that use Olympic trademarks "for the purpose of trade, to induce the sale of any goods or services, or to promote any theatrical exhibition, athletic performance, or competition." (While this law is not new, the Olympic committee had not, in the past first, attempted to apply the law to social media in the manner that it is doing now.)
3. The Olympic Committee considers many things to be its intellectual property - including results from Olympic events, images associated with the games, and videos associated with the games. (By "associated with" I include not only images and videos from the games themselves, but from practices, medal ceremonies, opening and closing ceremonies, etc.) A business that shares any of these on social media (or information created from these - e.g., a GIF created from a video or by combining multiple still images) may be infringing on the USOC's or IOC's rights.
4. The Olympic Committee has warned all interested parties that it owns all rights to the Olympics, including the right to broadcast and disseminate any visual content related to the competition, and that it will be strictly enforcing its rights from July 27 through August 24 of this year.
5. The United States Olympic Committee has warned all businesses that are not Olympic sponsors not to post on social media: "Do not create social media posts that are Olympic themed, that feature Olympic trademarks, that contain Games imagery or congratulate Olympic performance unless you are an official sponsor as specified in the Social Media Section." The Committee justifies this demand by noting that "Unless a company or organization's primary business is disseminating news and information, social media platforms (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) serve to promote the company/brand; to raise the brand's profile and public opinion about the company/organization; and/or to increase sales, membership or donations. Thus, any use of USOC trademarks on a non-media company's website or social media site is viewed as commercial in nature and consequently is prohibited." Translation: If you are a business that is not a sponsor of the Olympic games, you cannot even congratulate an athlete who works at your firm or is a customer of your business if he or she wins a medal. You read that correctly.
6. To make matters worse, even businesses that are sponsoring athletes are subject to the same rules if they are not also sponsors of the games themselves. That's right: a business sponsoring an athlete cannot, on social media, wish the athlete good luck or congratulate him or her if he or she medals. Crazy? Yes. Legal? Yes. Really going to happen? Yes. One firm that sponsors athletes already publicized that it was "contacted by the US Olympic Committee to remove all references to the Big Event in the Southern Hemisphere from social media posts, blogs, and website."
7. Paid influencers may not be able to post about the Olympics either. While some have suggested that brands can leverage individual influencers to do their posting and thereby avoid the requirements placed on businesses by the Olympic Committees (there are rules on individuals, but they are not as tight), be careful: An individual working on behalf of a brand and being paid to do so may be considered an agent of the business, and, even if not, may be prohibited from making such posts under the IOC's rules for individuals.
Interestingly, a small carpet cleaning business in Minnesota has filed a federal lawsuit against the USOC claiming that the Committee's rules violate Freedom of Speech; the case is unlikely to be heard on time to impact the 2016 games, but could impact the rules for future Olympics, or impact any lawsuits filed related to violations of the USOC's rules during the present games.
So, what should businesses do:
1. Learn the rules - the USOC's rules are online. Adweek also clarifies some in this article.
2. If you are using a social media filter, configure it to warn you if you make posts that might violate Olympic trademarks and hashtag rules. (For full disclosure: SecureMySocial offers such a capability.)
3. If you want to leverage the Olympics on social media, do so indirectly by leveraging timing; there is nothing wrong about tweeting about swimming, for example, during Olympic swimming events.