There's probably a certain amount of trouble you can get up to with five hula hoops and some sports bras, but you wouldn't expect it to involve copyright infringement.
Julie Swayne, owner of JJ's Lingerie in the British town of Melton Mowbray, believed she was showing Olympic spirit when she allowed her shop assistant to design a window display of five coloured plastic hoops draped around mannequins wearing sports bras. The display was meant to celebrate the Olympic torch relay that was soon to pass through Melton Mowbray, a town more famous for its pork pies than corporate branding disputes.
The day after the "Olympic" rings went up in the window, trading standards officers came into the shop and informed staff that they had trespassed on the copyright. Then the enforcers waited until the shop assistant dismantled the whole display.
As Ms. Swayne and other business owners around the country are learning, it's easy to get your fingers burned while celebrating the torch and the upcoming Summer Games. The London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), eager to protect the exclusivity of its sponsors' affiliation with the Olympic brand, is displaying gold-metal energy chasing down anyone – including proud British boosters of the event – who infringes on their brand identity.
"It was disheartening, really," said Ms. Swayne in an interview from her shop. "We had put in all this time and effort. It was just a way of celebrating the Olympics and the torch."
Businesses, meanwhile, are being encouraged to support the Games, which begin on July 27 – just in ways that don't involve the rings, the mascots, the logos, or indeed the phrase "Higher, Faster, Stronger." All of those are protected by copyright, and with its sponsors monitoring from one side and the International Olympic Committee from another, LOCOG is policing its trademarks with tenacity.
Even athletes are governed by a code of conduct that prohibits them from using the 2012 Olympic logo in tweets or blogs (they can use the word "Olympics," but only in a non-commercial context). Games officials see this as necessary enforcement, in line with tougher enforcement in place at World Cup events and recent Olympics, such as the Winter Games in Vancouver.
As LOCOG explains on its website: "To ensure we maintain both the emotional and commercial value of the brand, we need to carefully control its use and prevent its unauthorized exploitation."
Thanks to an act passed by the British government in 2006, one year after London secured the Olympics in a heated battle with Paris, businesses that are not official sponsors are not allowed to use certain words or phrases that might tie them to the Games. A pub, for example, cannot put a sign outside using the phrase "London 2012" and is restricted in its use of these words: summer, medals, sponsor, silver, gold and bronze. The proscribed language is available only to official sponsors, such as Samsung, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and Visa.
The Olympic rings themselves are protected by another copyright law. That's the case even if they're made out of tissue paper and cardboard, as florist Lisa Cross discovered to her dismay. With the torch relay about to pass through her town, Stoke-on-Trent, Ms. Cross created a sports-themed display for her shop, La Rose Florists. There were plinths adorned with medals, gold torches with tissue-paper flames and five interlocking cardboard rings.
Soon after she'd put them up, trading standards officers, who work for the local council, came in to her shop and told her to take them down. "I was quite angry, because I wasn't making any money out of it," Ms. Cross said. "I thought: 'What am I doing wrong? I'm just trying to support the country.' "
Some observers think the heavy-handedness of LOCOG's policies may backfire.
"They seem to me to be losing sight of what brand management is about. Brand management isn't about policing," said Francesca Dall'Olmo Riley, a marketing specialist at Kingston University in London. "Yes, it's important for a brand to enforce these sorts of copyrights and to be consistent, but on the other hand they need to create positive brand associations. That's not happening."
Prof. Dall'Olmo Riley pointed to the kerfuffle over purchasing tickets to the Olympics. Visa cards were the only method of payment accepted. Earlier this month, another controversy arose over the credit-card company, a top-tier Games sponsor, when it was revealed that cash machines at Olympic venues that take MasterCard were being removed, and replaced with ones that only accept Visa.
It's not only in shop windows and in games venues that copyright is being enforced: social media is another competitive arena. When the activist group Spacehijackers ("the Official Protesters of the London 2012 Olympic Games") changed its Twitter avatar to the official 2012 logo, LOCOG complained to the micro-blogging site. Twitter shut the Spacehijackers account, although the activists where allowed back once they'd dropped the logo. The controversy had gained them hundreds of new followers.
Both Ms. Swayne, the lingerie-seller, and Ms. Cross, the florist, insisted that a visit from the brand police wasn't going to dampen their enjoyment of the Olympics. In fact, Ms. Swayne, who has tickets to watch basketball in London, is already planning a new window display: five interlocked J's, painted in the Olympic colours, draped with sports bras. "I don't think anyone can take offence at that."