Throughout August and September, fans and athletes around the globe are enjoying one of the World's biggest sporting events; the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

However, as well as being the pinnacle of athletic competition, the Olympics are also in some ways a festival of intellectual property (IP) protection. Robust IP rights underlie the Olympics on every level and are vital in protecting the integrity and harnessing the commercial value of the Olympic brand, as well as encouraging the innovations that allow the Games to be experienced by billons of viewers worldwide.

Protecting the Olympic brand

The IP associated with the Olympics, including trademarks and broadcasting rights, is held by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the non-profit organisation ultimately responsible for organising the summer and winter Olympics. Revenue generated through the exploitation of these IP assets is then redistributed across the "Olympic Movement" (the collection of international sports federations, national Olympic committees and Olympic organising committees that contribute to the Olympics). It is therefore no exaggeration to say that without proper IP protection, the Olympic Games simply would not be possible.

The Olympic symbol of five interconnected rings (the "Olympic Rings") is one of the most recognisable global symbols. In fact, the prestige and uniqueness of the Olympic Rings is such that they are protected by their own bespoke treaty – the 1981 Nairobi Treaty on the Protection of the Olympic Symbol – which obliges signatories to "prohibit by appropriate measures" the use of the symbol for commercial purposes unless authorised to do so by the IOC.

The IOC has also registered the Olympic Rings as a trademark through the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). This allows the IOC to control how the symbol is commercially exploited, whether through the Olympic Partner Programme of major corporate sponsors or licensing agreements for the production of merchandise.

Similarly, host cities usually register trademarks when they apply as a candidate to host the Games – and Tokyo 2020 is no different. Trademark protection for the Tokyo 2020 logo allows the Japanese Olympic Committee to commercialise the Tokyo Games and prevent knock-off goods or services which attempt to profit from the goodwill associated with the Olympics.

Sports broadcasting in the digital age

By far the most valuable Olympic IP asset, though, is broadcasting rights, which make up around 73% of IOC revenue. The 2016 Rio Olympics reached a global TV audience of approximately 3.2 billion, as well as 1.3 billion unique digital users who clocked up 4.4 billion video views.

It is estimated that the Tokyo Games will generate around 9,000 hours of content over the course of 17 days – an increase of 30% on the Rio Games. The Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), a company established by the IOC, is responsible for producing this content, with national broadcasters and media organisations such as the BBC then paying considerable sums for the exclusive right to provide the content in their own territories. In the UK, broadcasts are protected by copyright under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 for a period of 50 years from the end of the year in which the broadcast was first made, which means they cannot be reproduced without permission during this period.

Many innovative broadcasting technologies are being deployed at Tokyo 2020 for the first time. The OBS, in conjunction with Chinese tech giant Alibaba, have developed an innovative cloud platform which will allow international broadcasters to operate remotely. This will help to reduce covid-associated risks by removing the need for many broadcasting staff to travel to Japan en masse. Additionally, OBS content will be natively produced in ultra-high definition 4K for the first time.

Moreover, much of this content will include footage gathered from cutting-edge, patent-protected technologies developed by private companies. Viewers are by now already familiar with 'Hawkeye', the pioneering ball-tracking technology used in tennis and football, and fans of water polo and synchronised swimming have enjoyed shots from 'Twinscam', which allows activity in the pool to be viewed above and below surface level simultaneously, since London 2012.

There are many more, less obvious image capture and sound technologies at work in the Olympics which make the global broadcast of such a large event possible, including sensors, image processing and data transfer technologies. The IOC will pay the patent-holding companies for the right to use these technologies in Olympic events and broadcasts, thereby rewarding and incentivising further innovation.

The importance of Olympic IP

The Olympics is a festival of athletic competition and a symbol of international unity through sport which is intended to be enjoyed by a massive global audience. However, in order to sustain itself and deliver on these objectives, the IOC must protect the uniqueness, value and excellence of the Olympics through robust IP protection.

If you require advice on any of the issues discussed in this blog, please do not hesitate to contact our team.


Andy Nolan


Ben O'Docherty

Trainee solicitor