A little-known author, Robert Ronsson, has been threatened with legal action by the London 2012 Organising Committee because he wrote a children’s book called Olympic Mind Games. The title turned out to be prescient.
I first heard about this on the Today programme, but, as is always the case around 8am, several children were talking at the same time (in my house, not the studio – the BBC’s new budget-saving recruitment policies haven’t kicked in yet) and I didn’t quite catch all the details. Fortunately, you can rely on the Telegraph’s website to paraphrase a Today item a bit later as an original story, gallantly mentioning Radio 4 in the eighth paragraph.
(By the way, lest readers are wondering if they’ve accidentally picked up a publication written by people who listen to the Today programme and read the Telegraph, I would point out that the Guardian lacks a hands-free pre-school breakfast edition and has an annoying habit of writing its own stories.)
As the Telegraph explains, ‘organisers have trademark rights over words such as “Olympic” or “London 2012” or “2012”.’ This sounds like something Boris Johnson might have got a bit muddled, but it’s true. The Olympic Symbol etc (Protection) Act 1995 confers ‘exclusive rights in relation to the use of the Olympic symbol, the Olympic motto and the protected words.’ Those words being ‘Olympiad’, ‘Olympiads’, ‘Olympian’, ‘Olympians’, ‘Olympic’ and ‘Olympics’. We can assume George W Bush isn’t being invited to speak at the opening ceremony, or they’d have added ‘Olympianic’ and ‘Olympical’.
It’s no doubt true that those big-name sponsors aren’t going to stump up for the rights to print five rings on their sugary drinks if any old pleb can do it. But existing English words can’t normally be protected as a trademark unless they’re used in an original way. Despite the Mars bar, we still get to call that red planet what we like. (Although I’m beginning to wonder who made them change Marathon to Snickers.) The Olympic words, by contrast, are protected precisely where they refer to the thing that they already name. That’s surely a whole new sport, and an even dodgier one than synchronised swimming.
Fortunately, section 4 of the Act, ‘Limits on Effect’, provides ten paragraphs of exceptions, including use in literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works. But the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 erases all this in favour of a few narrowly defined exemptions, such as ‘incidental inclusion’ in a literary work. That probably wouldn’t cover Robert Ronsson’s story about the brother of an Olympic swimmer hiding out in the Olympic Village during the London Olympics.
It gets worse. The 2006 Act further prohibits creating ‘in the public mind an association with the Olympic Games’, and adds a list of expressions that might imply such an association. Through this legal catflap is introduced a whole bunch of other protected words.
The words you mustn’t use together include ‘games’, ‘2012’, ‘gold’, ‘silver’, ‘bronze’, ‘medals’, ‘London’ and ‘summer’. Yes, you could get just as much hassle for calling a book ‘Summer Mind Games’. At least there’s nothing about ‘Seb’, ‘Coe’, ‘irritating little’ and… well, maybe you’re not allowed to put that in an Act of Parliament.
This could perhaps have been dismissed as a bit of regulatory tomfoolery – in the end, Olympic high command sniffily pronounced itself ‘disappointed’ with Ronsson, and left it at that – were it not part of an all too familiar pattern. In the same week, Sony Music’s legal counsel told a US court that someone copying a CD they owned to MP3 files for private listening could be said to be ‘stealing’. Funny, they never mentioned that in the adverts for Sony MP3 players.
Meanwhile, Apple was breaking the iPhones it sold to hundreds of Americans to get back at them for trying to switch to a mobile network of their choice. Choice, you remember that: the thing that’s supposed to be delivered to consumers by corporations in return for allowing them to make money out of us. That’s working, then.
iPhone users are fighting back with a class action, and CD rippers are safe because there’s already protection for personal copying in US law, even if Sony hasn’t read it. But to defend ourselves on this side of the pond, maybe we need to revive another ancient Greek tradition. If we had a written constitution, we could wave it around when people tried to pass bad laws. They have something like this in the States, which they call ‘guns’.
The way things are going, I wouldn’t be too surprised if we did see the introduction of a written constitution. Written by David Miliband and Ed Balls, that is. The $1bn cost of the necessary focus group research will be met by a new tax on published use of the words ‘free’, ‘world’, ‘hell’ and ‘handcart’.
Adam Banks’ novel, Janet and John Go for Yellow at the Warm Season Hellenic Sporting Trials in England’s Capital During the Twelfth Year of the Third Millennium, Incidentally, is available to pre-order.