You keep using that word…

You keep using that word…

den·i·grate/ˈdeniˌgrāt/ Verb: Criticize unfairly; disparage: “there is a tendency to denigrate the poor”.
Synonyms: blacken – slander – defame – vilify – asperse – malign

Today, Ravelry.com’s code monkey, the talented Casey Forbes, posted a letter he received from the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). In this letter, Casey was told that Ravelry could no longer use the word “Ravelympics” to describe the act of Ravelry users simultaneously knitting, crocheting, and spinning items during the 2012 Olympic Games in London. A clerk, writing on behalf of the USOC’s legal team, stated that “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 USOC, under the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, holds the exclusive right to use the term Olympic, Olympiad, etc. in the United States, with a few notable exceptions:

(A) such use is not combined with any of the intellectual properties referenced in subsection (a) or (c) of this section;

Subsection (a) defines those intellectual properties as:

(1) the name “United States Olympic Committee”;
(2) the symbol of the International Olympic Committee, consisting of 5 interlocking rings, the symbol of the International Paralympic Committee, consisting of 3 TaiGeuks, or the symbol of the Pan-American Sports Organization, consisting of a torch surrounded by concentric rings;
(3) the emblem of the corporation, consisting of an escutcheon having a blue chief and vertically extending red and white bars on the base with 5 interlocking rings displayed on the chief; and
(4) the words “Olympic”, “Olympiad”, “Citius Altius Fortius”, “Paralympic”, “Paralympiad”, “Pan-American”, “America Espirito Sport Fraternite”, or any combination of those words.

Subsection (c) says:

the corporation may file a civil action against a person for the remedies provided in the Act of July 5, 1946 (15 U.S.C. 1051 et seq.) (popularly known as the Trademark Act of 1946) if the person, without the consent of the corporation, uses for the purpose of trade, to induce the sale of any goods or services, or to promote any theatrical exhibition, athletic performance, or competition…the words described in subsection (a)(4) of this section, or any combination or simulation of those words tending to cause confusion or mistake, to deceive, or to falsely suggest a connection with the corporation or any Olympic, Paralympic, or Pan-American Games activity

Leaving aside, for now, the issue of whether or not engaging in fiber crafts while watching television actually, in some way, denigrates the work of those being filmed, let’s look at the actual phrasing of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978. It was this act that led the USOC to win its case against the Gay Olympics (which was then renamed the Gay Games).

First, there’s the issue of what the Ravelympics is. At its core, the Ravelympics is a worldwide knit-along. It starts at the same time as the opening ceremony, and ends at the finish of the closing ceremonies. The purpose is to challenge yourself. It’s not a performance, an athletic event, it’s not a theatrical exhibition. There are no sales or services involved. It’s fiber artists, working simultaneously, to challenge themselves. It is not affiliated with the Olympics, nor does it pretend to be. In fact, the Ravelympics group page clearly states that it is a subsection of Ravelry which, by definition, is not affiliated with the Olympics or the USOC.

Next, there is the issue of language. The Act doesn’t state that parts of “the words “Olympic”, “Olympiad”, “Citius Altius Fortius”, “Paralympic”, “Paralympiad”, “Pan-American”, “America Espirito Sport Fraternite”” couldn’t be used, it says the words themselves, or combinations of them, can’t be used.

It seems, therefore, to me, that this letter is without merit. Obviously, the clerk writing it has other ideas (poor dear, he’s come under such fire today, and likely makes a pittance). Let us now tackle those ideas.

First, that knitting is, somehow, not a feat of skill

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(knitchickmelly‘s Lyra)

Look at that and tell me that you could pick up needles & yarn and just do that. You can’t. You could no more, never touching needles before, make that any more than you could swim even half as fast as Michael Phelps, if you’d never been in a pool before. Knitting like that takes skill, practice, training, patience, dedication, and a little bit of luck. For the USOC to say that knitting, crocheting, or spinning, denigrates athletes is to say that those crafts somehow require no skill of their own. It also sets up a logical fallacy, the zero-sum argument.

Skill is not a zero-sum equation. Swimming, running, biking, shooting, jumping, etc. on an Olympic level takes training, perseverance, dedication, luck, and a whole LOT of money. But you know what else takes all those things? Getting a medical degree & becoming a neurosurgeon. Getting a law degree & becoming a US Supreme Court Justice. Sandra Day O’Connor’s achievements aren’t diluted or denigrated by the US Beach Volleyball team’s medal-winning performance in 2008.

It says a lot about what our society values when artisans and crafters are accused of lowering the dignity of the Olympics by engaging in those crafts while watching the Olympics. It says that, somehow, the skills required to make something like this (with sticks)

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(Hedonknitstic’s TARDIS afghan)
are less valued than the (measurably enormous, let’s be fair and honest here) skills it takes to throw a stick or jump over a stick or paddle a boat with sticks.

I doubt Ravelry is going to win this one, simply because the USOC has a legal team, deep pockets, and a history of forcing companies and businesses that should be exempt to change their name (such as cafés in Washington with Olympic in their name, which of course references the geography of the state). I just wish that it didn’t have to be this way, that the USOC could realize that the tens of thousands of people participating in the Ravelympics means tens of thousands of people watching the Olympics, together, challenging themselves and each other, coming together in a spirit of worldwide unity and learning.

Instead, once again, it’s jocks picking on artists. And that, frankly, sucks.

4 Responses »

  1. This is actually less about jocks vs. artists or anti-knitting bias than it is about the ridiculous way trademark law works. The USOC *has* to defend its trademark against the Ravelympics or the USOC will lose control of the mark. There’s no “fair use” loophole as with copyright.

  2. I could see them having to defend it if it were called the Ravelry Olympics or if they were the Knitting Olympics (there is actually a Candadian blogger who started the Knitting Olympics to coincide with viewing the winter games in 2006, but she’s Canadian so the USOC has no place to tell her to stop). But you can’t trademark *part* of a word. That’s like Reebok going after a chicken-themed restaurant with Bok in its name, saying they cheapen the brand somehow. Having a worldwide (let’s not forget that Ravelry is *international*) viewing party at which the participants create handmade goods, using sticks & string no more cheapens the Olympic games than Bok Bokkington’s Chicken Emporium holding a fun run to raise money for cancer would cheapen Reebok shoes.

    • Actually, trademarks *do* include parts of words, if that part is sufficient to imply a reference to the trademark as a whole. It isn’t about whether it’s the whole word or only part of it. It’s about whether the potentially infringing use might *dilute* (not necessarily “cheapen”) the existing trademark. So trademark owners have to be ridiculously vigilant, *but* the mark only applies within a particular business field.

      Your example of Reebok going after a chicken restaurant is wrong, because Reebok isn’t in the food business. But Reebok damn well *would* go after any other shoe manufacturer who tried to incorporate “bok” into a company or product name.

      There is no way to understand “-lympics” as anything other than a clear reference to the Olympics. In this instance, the suffix is used to identify an event analogous to (and even putatively associated with) the Olympics themselves. It infringes, no brainer.

      The fact that this is the law is what sucks, more than USOC’s letter. Any similarity or association at all, whether it’s use of part of the word, rhyming, even a similar font or color scheme, is likely to attract a C&D letter if there’s even a hint of potential dilution.

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