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'Olympic' trademark leaves businesses in a bind

Shopkeepers who use the word may get a call from the U.S. Olympic Committee, which owns the exclusive rights.

October 16, 2009|Jeremy Gorner

CHICAGO — The Olympics movement has passed over Chicago, but it has left a lasting and unpleasant mark on George Tsoukas' business.

He has owned a butcher shop for about 40 years. But a year or two ago, Olympic Meat Packers Inc. had to be renamed Olympia Meat Packers Inc. because federal law gives the U.S. Olympic Committee a trademark on the word "Olympic."

Tsoukas, whose family is Greek, says he sometimes forgets and answers the phone with the old name.

"My customers, they hang up on me and they think it's a different business," he says. "I'm so used to 'Olympic Meat' . . . and it's so hard for me to remember 'Olympia.' "

The USOC enforces its exclusive rights to the word Olympic under the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act of 1998. The law includes a clause explaining that businesses using the word Olympic before Sept. 21, 1950, are unaffected by the law.

"It's our heritage. It's our tradition," said Tsoukas' son, Nick, who manages the shop. "It comes from ancient Greece. . . . So I feel kind of like they're taking that away from us. . . . I was really surprised that they were calling, and they demanded that we change our name."

USOC spokeswoman Lindsay DeWall Hogan said the group depended on sponsors to generate revenue, and if American businesses were allowed to use the word Olympic without supporting the Olympic movement, the USOC's partnership with its sponsors would be worth less. Without that revenue, Hogan said, the United States would be unable to field an Olympic team every two years.

Usually, she said, when the USOC enforces its rights against a business using Olympic, it's because someone has brought that matter to the committee's attention. She said allegations of infringement had come from Olympic athletes, sponsors, fans and the public.

Michael Atkins, a Seattle trademark attorney who has advised small businesses in their tangles with the USOC, said the Olympic group should pick and choose its battles more carefully.

"It's just not fair that the USOC can be casual about its demands when it has such a large impact on the business that has to change its name," Atkins said.

Charna Halpern, founder of the comedy club iO Theater, which has locations in Chicago and Los Angeles, said the USOC told her several years ago that her original business name, Improv Olympic Theater, was causing confusion.

"Nobody was coming here to learn the javelin throw or the discus throw," said Halpern, whose theater helped launch the careers of such celebrities as Amy Poehler, Mike Myers and Stephen Colbert. "Nobody came here thinking they were seeing the Olympics."

But to avoid a lawsuit, Halpern changed the theater's name to iO.

A Chicago trademark lawyer, David Donoghue, suggested that new businesses do a trademark search to avoid such problems.

But Nick Tsoukas said there was another way he and his father could have avoided letting a word synonymous with their Greek heritage cause problems.

"The ancient Greeks should've trademarked the name," he joked.

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jgorner@tribune.com

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