Unlicensed products: A not-so-golden opportunity

As usual, the weeks leading up to the Olympics were accompanied by an increased demand for products associated with the Olympic games. Many businesses sought to meet this demand by offering shirts, hats, flags and other products proudly displaying—or, in some cases, subtly inferring—the buyer’s support of Olympic athletes. Other businesses that aren’t ordinarily in the business of selling such products will nevertheless allude to the Olympics when selling or advertising unrelated products and services.

Understandably, many companies might be tempted to take advantage of the increased demand for products associated with a popular event, such as the Olympics or the Super Bowl, by producing and selling products or services that allude to the event, but are not licensed by the owner of the associated intellectual property. The idea of merely suggesting identity with a particular team by incorporating or displaying team colors, altered team logos, or team catch phrases might seem like a great way to cash in on the trend without paying the costs associated with licensing a product or officially sponsoring an event. It’s not. Any time you attempt to profit by associating your product or business with a famous team or event, you run the risk of violating a variety of state and federal intellectual property laws. This risk is particularly high where marquee events, such as the Olympics, are involved. The increased publicity associated with these events is often attended by an increased attempt to crack down on knockoff and unlicensed goods.

The bottom line is that the costs associated with defending a legal action brought by a multi-national organization with high-value intellectual property will vastly outweigh any savings that could be garnered from circumventing the licensing process. So before you refer to an athlete, team, or athletic event in connection with your products or services, talk to an attorney. In licensing it’s easier—and cheaper—to obtain permission than to beg forgiveness.