Do Olympic rings bind art?

It didn't take long for Vancouver artists to start spoofing the 2010 Winter Olympics. Within days of the unveiling of Illanaaq, the happy inukshuk, two graphic designers sent their parodies to the Straight. Vancouver artist Craig Calvert redesigned the logo as Pac-Man, a hockey goalie, and Terrence from South Park.

Don Strom picked on Illanaaq, too. "A lot of people didn't like the process for choosing the logo," Strom explained to the Georgia Straight. "When they chose the logo, I felt a disconnect from it. I wish they wouldn't have chosen Inuit art, and it didn't seem right that an Inuit person didn't create it. For my cartoon, I used the Voice of Fire [a painting by American abstract artist Barnett Newman, controversially acquired by the National Gallery of Canada for $1.8 million in 1991] in place of the inukshuk, with the words Vancouver 2010 below. I felt a similar disconnect between the two events."

Both Calvert and Strom did their jobs as artists: they parodied a cultural symbol to encourage viewers to reconsider its meaning. It sounds innocuous, but in fact, it may be illegal.

A memo on VANOC's Web site,, explains the restrictions on unauthorized use of Olympic symbols, including the rings, the torch, and other images. Trademarked words and phrases include Olympics, Olympiad, Olympian, Vancouver 2010, Canada 2010, 2010 Games, Countdown to 2010, and even the number 2010 itself.

The memo warns that unauthorized use of words or symbols that may be confused with the Olympic brand, on "Web sites, signage, written materials or merchandise", can result in "legal action in order to protect the Olympic Brand. This could include court orders for the seizure of unauthorized merchandise and the payment of damages."

In Canada, the Olympic brand is protected by the 1976 Olympic Act. It allows any Canadian Olympics to establish-through the trademark-"the foundation for a vast expansion of marketing programs aimed at...'self-financing the games'," according to the 2002 book Selling the Five Rings: The International Olympic Committee and the Rise of Olympic Commercialism (University of Utah Press). Olympic organizing committees can raise funds by allowing companies to buy the right to use Olympic symbols on marketing materials, and to buy into the games as principal sponsors.

VANOC's memo warns that "Any unauthorized use of the Olympic Brand threatens VANOC's ability to establish a successful sponsorship program and raise funds necessary to host and stage the 2010 Winter Games....Any deficit [generated by the 2010 Olympics] will be the responsibility of the Province of British Columbia."

In other words, the Olympics is going to cost a lot, and VANOC depends on corporations such as Rona to bail out taxpayers who may otherwise get stuck with the bill. So don't screw with the rings' image.

Before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Australian art lawyer Sally McCausland grew concerned that Olympic trademark law limits the freedom of artists. "The legislation potentially gives the AOC [Australian Olympic Committee]...the power to prohibit protest art incorporating Olympic insignia on a range of articles including t-shirts and perhaps even billboard posters," she wrote in the journal Art+Law. As an example, McCausland related that an artist had "distributed free t-shirts on behalf of Animal Liberation Tasmania. The t-shirts carried a design 'depicting a hen in a cage with five eggs....' SOCOG [the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games] sought and obtained an injunction restraining any further reproduction or sale of the design, and delivery up of all the remaining t-shirts. The fact that the t-shirts were distributed free for 'donations' was not a defence."

Canada is not Australia, so the judgment isn't a precedent in this country. However, a duplicate case has not been tried in Canada. We don't know how protest art-or any other kind of art that reflects the Olympic brand-would be viewed by our courts. As fair comment? Or worthy of a fine and seizure of materials?

To an SFU social-movement historian, these questions just affirm what he already believes about the Olympics. "There's been a transition from ugly politicism to ugly corporatism," Mark Leier told the Straight. He explained that in 1896, the modern Olympics started because France wanted to regain its national pride after losing the Franco-Prussian war. Since then, the games have been used politically by the Nazis, and by both sides during the Cold War. "What's different now is the large interest by the corporate sector; sports entertainment and sporting goods have become big business. The Olympics is a commodity like any other. It's sold through advertising and TV rights."

Leier warned that this is bad news for artists. No one will argue that artists can criticize governments, he explained. Using trademark laws, however, corporations can effectively curtail public criticism-as they did with the McLibel lawsuit in Britain.

Echoing his comments was Vancouver blogger Jill Hayhurst. In December, she berated VANOC for cracking down on a Summerland coffee company owner who sold bags of "Olympic Dreams" coffee to raise money for a local skier to attend the 2006 Olympics. Hayhurst also alluded to the Denman Street Olympia Pizza debacle, in which VANOC tried to force the 15-year-old company to change its name and signage, because it contained the five rings and the torch.

But until a Canadian artist pushes the boundaries of the fine border between fair comment and Olympic trademark law, Leier said we won't know exactly what's legal and what isn't.