The USOC v. Ravelry: Denigration, Indeed

I write here not to question the validity of the United States Olympic Committee's trademark of the term "Olympics" or variants thereof. The US court system decided years ago that they are allowed to hold a trademark on a term that has existed for thousands of years. As such, the USOC has a right to defend their trademark from inappropriate use. I write here today to discuss how a standard cease and desist scenario with a clear right and wrong is now turning into a PR nightmare for the USOC.

Ravelry, the largest yarn craft community online, has hosts a yearly event called the Ravelympics. Knitters and crocheters compete to finish challenging projects--in quantity or technical difficulty--for a two week period that coincides with the Olympic games. This year's planning was well underway when the USOC had a legal clerk send what was supposed to be a standard cease and desist letter to Ravelry over the phrase "Ravelympics."

It was not a standard cease and desist letter.

We believe using the name "Ravelympics" for a competition that involves an afghan marathon, scarf hockey and sweater triathlon, among others, tends to denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games. In a sense, it is disrespectful to our country's finest athletes and fails to recognize or appreciate their hard work.

The letter explains how hard it is to be an Olympian before shooting out the "denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games" line. In context, that means this legal clerk said knitters and crocheters are not skilled, have no training, and have not worked hard their entire lives to learn how to do elaborate feats of yarn art in a ridiculously short period of time.

The Ravelympics

The outrage came fast and furious. Ravelry members began a twitter campaign (#Ravelympics) and have been tweeting at the legal clerk for the better part of a day.

The simple solution would be an apology for attacking the integrity and skills of a group of crafters who wanted to take on an extra challenge while watching the Olympics. Technically, the USOC tried to do that.

The letter sent to the organizers of the Ravelympics was a standard-form cease and desist letter that explained why we need to protect our trademarks in legal terms. Rest assured, as an organization that has many passionate knitters, we never intended to make this a personal attack on the knitting community or to suggest that knitters are not supportive of Team USA.

We apologize for any insult and appreciate your support. We embrace hand-crafted American goods as we currently have the Annin Flagmakers of New Jersey stitching a custom-made American flag to accompany our team to the Olympic Games in London. To show our support of the Ravelry community, we would welcome any handmade items that you would like to create to travel with, and motivate, our team at the 2012 Games.

Something has gone haywire here with internal communications. I highly doubt that the USOC's standard cease and desist letter claims that the local barber shop with the Olympic rings on their window "[denigrates] the true nature of the Olympic Games." I very much doubt that the USOC chooses to insult the integrity and skill of anyone who violates their trademark and would equally insult a school with an Olympics day, a library holding an Olympics-themed readathon, or a television station airing a parody Olympics episode of their show.

Perhaps most insulting of all is the effort to patch over the issue by saying they will "welcome any handmade items" that these terrible, horrible, not very good crafters who "[disrespect]...our country's finest athletes and [fails] to recognize or appreciate their hard work." So yesterday, knitters and crocheters were bad people mocking the Olympics. Today, they're welcome supporters who have the privilege of giving away free things to a not for profit sponsored by McDonalds and Coca Cola. Right. That adds up.

I hope that the USOC will find a way to fix this PR mistake before it turns into a far bigger mess. I'm somehow doubting that will happen. It appears they may just be the latest company/organization to learn the hard way that the Internet is forever and you can't rewrite history when anyone can access the insult-riddled letter that started the bad press.

Maybe they can start by apologizing for customizing that C&D letter to insult knitters and crocheters. The only other option is doubling down and claiming that, no really, they accuse everyone of insulting the hard work of the athletes who dares to use an ancient term without a licensing deal. I'm sure that will go over well with the elementary school field days and summer craft programs around the country.

UPDATE

Wow. Turns out the whole "denigrate" nonsense is in their standard cease and desist letter. So is including examples of "denigrating" content.

So, does that mean it's time to double down?

UPDATE 2

Since the initial posting at 2:30 this afternoon, the USOC issued another apology on their Facebook page (that you can't link to).

As a follow-up to our previous statement on this subject, we would again like to apologize to the members of the Ravelry community. While we stand by our obligation to protect the marks and terms associated with the Olympic and Paralympic Movements in the United States, we sincerely regret the use of insensitive terms in relation to the actions of a group that was clearly not intending to denigrate or disrespect the Olympic Movement. We hope you’ll accept this apology and continue to support the Olympic Games.

Remember, their C&D letter was written to stress that anything Ravelry members ever did was nothing compared to the hours their dedicated athletes spent in pursuit of competition. Their form letter chooses to address a trademark concern with insults and shaming rather than address a cut and dry trademark concern.

And again, there is a complete flip flop here. Yesterday, Ravelry members were bad people, mocking the US Olympians by daring to associate "ympics" with yarn work. Today, they're asking for donations of free stuff to go where their massive corporate contributions. If you can't see the cognitive disconnect between the two opinions, you're being willfully obtuse.

The apology should have been delivered the first time around. Instead, they chose to spin it to say that Ravelry was mad that they were called on trademark violations, which wasn't the issue.

My sincere apologies for not being able to update this post the minute the new apology was posted on a Facebook page I do not follow.

Thoughts? Speak your mind. Just remember, there's an uptick in lawyers trying to sue people for discussing IPR cases. Love to hear from you.

The Link Rally: 21 June 2012

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