No Joke: Canada Plans to Grant Ownership in Common Words

Brooklyn artist Heidi Cody once made an installation piece, “American Alphabet,” that listed all 26 letters of the alphabet as corporate logos. The letter “C” was brought to us by Campbell’s Soup, “P” was from Pez candy and “R” came from Reese’s Pieces. Cody’s work — part of the Illegal Art exhibit that toured the country several years ago — illustrated how governments, acting on behalf of corporations, are privatizing some of the most basic elements of our culture, even letters.

Now, in a case of life imitating art, the Canadian Parliament is on the verge of giving the International Olympic Committee the right to own several common words. Soon, the words “winter,” “gold,” “silver,” “medals,” “sponsor,” “games,” “21st,” “2010,” and “Vancouver” could be redefined as private property and assigned to the Vancouver Winter Olympics organizing committee. Public uses of those words would require the committee’s consent and payment of a fee.

The goal of the legislation is to protect the marketing revenues that the Olympics committee reaps from licensing the games. An airline that doesn’t pay a fee to become the Official Olympics Advertiser for that brand category would be prohibited from using the term “gold medal service” in their advertising. An athletic shoe maker or overnight delivery service could not refer to “the games” or “Vancouver 2010” without violating the Olympics’ intellectual property rights.

Under the law as drafted, journalists would be exempted, and the rights would expire at the end of the year 2010. This is apparently meant to be reassuring. What’s really galling is that the Olympic committee would be authorized to obtain a court injunction to enforce the law without meeting a traditional standard for trademark infringement, “undue harm.” Usage of the trademarked words would be enough.

My book Brand Name Bullies describes many instances of rogue corporations claiming words as their private property without the clear sanction of law. This time, the Canadian government itself (at the behest of the Olympics committee) might assign exclusive property rights in common words that have not even acquired a “secondary meaning” associated with a product or company. Our language itself is being taken private.

This whole episode is scary-hilarious, but I am not tempted to just laugh it off. I think we need some imaginative responses. Perhaps we should enact a law to define flag desecration as the use of our national flag or monument in advertising. We could urge athletes to protest the over-commercialization of “The Games” by uttering the name of a fictitious sponsor, say, “Viva the Commons,” in every interview they give. Maybe an athlete could spoof the faux-grandeur of the Olympics by wearing corporate logos all over his body during the opening ceremonies. Skiers could post a white card on their back: “Buy Ad Space Here.”

I suspect the Olympics committee already requires athletes, as a condition of participation, to sign contracts prohibiting such acts, just as the Academy Awards prohibits awardees from selling their Oscar statuettes lest they eventually end up as barroom trophies or eBay offerings. Still, some sort of protest is warranted. It’s time to confront the degradation of the Olympics through over-commecialization — and to stop bullying attempts to privatize and monetize our shared culture.