On the word blacklist: Olympics, Super Bowl, CES

When intellectual-property restrictions run amok: why I'd prefer we didn't even have to cover "the big game," the "global athletic competition," and the "trade show for electronic consumer goods."

Molly Wood Former Executive Editor
Molly Wood was an executive editor at CNET, author of the Molly Rants blog, and host of the tech show, Always On. When she's not enraging fanboys of all stripes, she can be found offering tech opinions on CBS and elsewhere, and offering opinions on everything else to anyone who will listen.
Molly Wood
4 min read

Wow, it's been a busy month for major news events! I hope you didn't miss all CNET's great coverage of the 2010 trade show for electronic consumer goods and devices, held back in January.

And on Sunday, our publisher, CBS, will air a fabulous contest between two teams engaged in a (hopefully) thrilling game of gridiron football. And the opening festivities of the quadrennial snow season international athletic competition will have you glued to your seat on February 12!

Insert imaginary Olympic rings here.

Don't know what I'm talking about? That's the point. Welcome, friends, to the way the good folks at the National Football League, the International Olympic Committee, and the Consumer Electronics Association would prefer that we refer respectively to the Super Bowl, CES, and the Olympics, if those references are anything other than the strictest possible news terms. And even then, they'd like big-time control over what we say and how we say it.

Yep, this time of year always means one thing for editorial organizations: a torrent of rules regarding all the ways you can and can't refer to these events. Mostly "can't."

Did you know, for example, that you can't use the trademarked term "Super Bowl" in any promotional or marketing context, i.e., "best recipes for your Super Bowl party," or "best HDTVs for watching the Super Bowl"? You can't even make reference to "Super Sunday."

Never mind that such promotional and marketing terms promote not only your recipes or HDTVs, but also the event itself. It's verboten, if you haven't actually licensed the use of the term. So look for lots of references from us and everyone else to things like, "the big game" (especially CNET, even though--and actually because--our parent company is CBS, official broadcaster of the, uh, big game).

Actually, we can use the term "big game" only thanks to the equally litigious efforts of Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, which pitched a monster hissy fit when the NFL tried, in 2006, to trademark the term "Big Game," in addition to all the other words it wants to own.

Football-branding overlords, do you want us to refer to the event at all? Ever? Frankly, the more often I'm exposed to the NFL's complete, money-grubbing madness with respect to trademark ("Who Dat?" Really?), the less I want anything to do with the organization, as a journalist or a fan.

But let's not only pick on the NFL. The good people who run the Olympics have draconian trademark rules down to a well-honed science. From their guidelines to reporters:

  • You cannot use an image of the Olympic logo larger than 1.2x1.2 inches or without explicit permission, and that logo can't appear within almost 6 inches of any other trademark, logo, or slogan.

  • Web site operators are required to prevent users from copying, downloading, or saving the logo; if you right-click an Olympics logo on a site, the site's owners are required to deliver a pop-up copyright notice along the lines of, "don't even think about it."
  • OK, and this is where it gets really good. When it comes to your site or domain:

  • The Web site, and its domain name and URLs for Web site pages, must not include any of the following or similar Olympic-related terms: Olympics, Paralympic, 2010, Games, Winter Games, Vancouver, Canada, Team (in English, French or any other language)."
  • Let that sink in for a second. The IOC is claiming that "2010," "Games," "Vancouver," "Canada," and "Team" (Team!) are covered by its Olympics-related trademarks. Rules for media are somewhat relaxed: we could, for example, use a custom URL to point to event-specific coverage, such as http://cnet.com/olympics or http://cnet.com/2010. (How generous.) That's only for the duration of the games, of course. But we couldn't say "http://cnetteam.com," if there were Olympics coverage on the page, because...uh. Team. Pardon my language, but bite me, IOC.

    And that brings us to CES. No, seriously, even CES has jumped on the word blacklist bandwagon. The Consumer Electronics Association, which is, in fact, a partner of CNET, sent out its style guide for preferred usage back in January, noting, among other logo and usage restrictions, that CES has now become its own trademarked brand that journalists should no longer spell out CES as "Consumer Electronics Show."

    That's right. Let the ignorant among you figure out what CES stands for. On first reference, we are instructed to refer to the show as the 2010 International CES®, but, we're generously reminded, remaining references to the "2010 International CES" do not need the ® mark. Uh huh. My RSI flares up just thinking about it.

    All this ownership of words certainly does make it hard to be a writer. And it makes me wonder this one thing: has the NFL/IOC/CEA considered the possibility that if writing about their events gets sufficiently difficult, we might just...stop?

    I know that's wishful thinking, but let's carry all this control to its logical end, just for fun. After all, you can only remain a household word as long as households are allowed to use the word.