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The real Olympians

Keep watching these trademark cases; you’ll see a disquieting pattern that reaches ever closer to home.

The Washington capital city of Olympia has had, as its leading newspaper since 1860, the Olympian – a logical choice for a name, since that also is what residents of the town are called. (And other things as well.) The paper has had several owners over the years, and when the most recent, McClatchy Newspapers, bought it in 2006, it decided formally to trademark the name, filing paperwork with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

This would seem to be uncontroversial. “Olympian” refers to a local business whose name is drawn from the community, and it has very long standing. The perversity of our trademark laws (regular readers will know we’ve been here before) will out, though: The U.S. Olympic Committee is challenging the trademark. The newspaper’s name, in place longer than the modern-times Olympic games have been (those date to 1896), “tends to cause confusion or mistake, to deceive, and to falsely suggest a connection.” Or so say the lawyers.

Why not just demand in court while they’re at it that the whole city of Olympia change its name as well?

Actually, this has been predicted, for a long time now. Former Washington Senator Slade Gorton crafted into federal law an exception for words relating to “Olympic” when applied to businesses and communities in the western Washington area. The Olympian quoted him as telling the Senate in 1998, “It is only fair that the USOC not be able to interfere with this use. Although there are relatively few instances in which the USOC, crying ‘mine, mine, mine’ has gone after any of the thousands of businesses in Washington state that use the word ‘Olympic,’ the attitude that the USOC has displayed in these few instances demand correction.”

That special exception may give the Olympian newspaper a break. But the law as a larger thing still deserves a much closer look.

Note McClatchy purchase date corrected.

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One Comment

  1. fortboise fortboise October 5, 2009

    Still, “the Peninsula formerly known as Olympic” has a certain je ne sais quoi about it.

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