With just days to go until the International Olympic Committee (IOC) deadline for 2024 Olympic bid cities to submit the first set of formal bid application documents, the IOC is flexing its muscle to control Internet domain names that may relate to those bids, and others in the future.
The IOC and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) last November filed a federal grievance against Southern California resident Stephen Frayne and his Texas-based company CityPure to recover “hundreds of domain names matching possible Olympic bid or host cities and years, in four year intervals for future Summer Olympic Games.”
Frayne is being accused of cybersquatting, trademark infringement and other violations related to the U.S. Lanham Act.
The six pages of domains exhibited in the complaint are far-ranging including some connected with current 2024 bids such as la2024.org, la2024.com and rome2024.com; many more associated with future potential bids such as paris2028.org and rome2028.org and most significantly one related to an Olympics already being organized – tokyo2020.com. Many of these domains were registered by Frayne almost 14 years ago and include city/year combinations as far in the future as 2040.
The complaint states “as a result of the Olympic Plaintiffs’ consistent use and registration of Olympic City/Year names as trademarks, and their extensive investment in developing the goodwill associated with the Olympic Games, these names—and the Olympic City/Year naming pattern itself—are widely recognized by the public as identifiers of the IOC, the National Olympic Committees, and the Olympic Movement.”
That’s quite a broad stroke that would presumably entitle the IOC to an infinite number of domains connected to future trademarks under the assumption that the Olympics are the only organization that convenes regularly scheduled events.
Yet Frayne, who is not new to litigation with the USOC over domain names, believes he is being targeted in a manner that infringes his U.S. First Amendment constitutional right to free speech.
Frayne and USOC Battle Over Chicago2016.com
In 2009 Frayne battled the USOC over his registered domain chicago2016.com while it was believed the U.S. city was favorite to host the 2016 Olympic Games. But immediately following Chicago’s surprise first ballot defeat, USOC officials agreed to allow Frayne to retain use of the domain for his own purposes, as long as he did not profit commercially from USOC goodwill.
During the run-up to the bid election Frayne used chicago2016.com to foster a “balanced discussion” about a Chicago Olympics and offered analysis from third-party sports professionals and economists, as well as hosting an off-line “blue-ribbon” panel to discuss the bid.
He plans to do the same with domains for other Olympic bids and upcoming Games, and he admits his work will be for-profit. While, he says, the Websites will offer economic analysis during bid, organization and post-Games periods for up to a total of 12 years – he planned to support his business and generate revenue from the site near Games time by offering related services such as brokering accommodation arrangements and offering a ticket resale market. He’ll also sell advertisements.
Frayne told GamesBids.com “that investment in a healthy, informed democracy requires either sponsorship or operating revenue or both.”
“CityPure will only participate in revenue streams the Court declares acceptable within the bounds of United States law,” he said.
It’s because of those plans, the IOC contends, that Frayne has breached his agreement made regarding the chicago2016.com case.
A Necessary Watchdog
Last year an organization created NoBostonOlympics.com, a site designed to organize opposition against an Olympic bid from the city the USOC initially nominated. It apparently worked as Boston’s bid backed out under mounting pressure before the application deadline. The USOC selected Los Angeles in its place.
NoBostonOlympics.com is a name that infringes on IOC and USOC trademarks because it contains the word Olympic, yet there is no record of a suit filed against the organization. The value of the information provided by the site could be deemed beneficial to many citizens of the city, and as expression protected by freedom of speech laws.
But Frayne doesn’t consider his work to be bid opposition, he believes there is room for an experienced and unbiased source that fills the gap between the IOC and the likes of NoBostonOlympics, so that citizens can make informed decisions about a bid process that may be new to them, especially in the case of a referendum. Call it a watchdog organization.
Frayne had previously registered boston2024.com and boston2024.org, both which are included in the complaint.
The USOC declined to comment on this case – a spokesperson responded to say it is a policy not to discuss matters under litigation. But IOC spokesperson Benjamin Seeley made it clear to GamesBids.com in December that Frayne’s domains were the only ones being litigated.
He added “when feasible to do so, domain names are protected as far as possible in advance including in anticipation of a possible candidature.”
The IOC’s 2024 Candidature Process documents explicitly explain that the IOC will help secure applicable Internet domain names on the bid city’s behalf.
Yet according to a GamesBids.com investigation, hundreds of similar City/Year domains are registered to non-Olympic entities, including some related to current Games being organized and many to past Games where trademarks are clearly established. In a few cases the registrants’ clear goals are to profit solely from Olympic-generated goodwill. None of these domains are being litigated.
Olympic Domains For Sale
On July 31, 2015 Beijing was elected to host the 2022 Olympic Winter Games after more than two years of campaigning, but it appears that no attempts have yet been made by the IOC to secure three key domains despite their connections to U.S. based registries. Immediately after Beijing was confirmed to host the Games you would have had to part with $99,995 to buy beijing2022.org – it said so right on a broker facilitated home page that offered the domain for sale. It seemed there were no immediate takers and the price subsequently dropped on the U.S. based Afternic Website market to $25,000.
Both beijing2022.org and beijing2022.net were registered only in 2015 while beijing2022.com, appearing to host a personal blog, was registered in 2008 during the Beijing Summer Games.
Many domain variations representing current 2024 bid cities Budapest, Los Angeles, Paris and Rome are registered by non-Olympic parties other than Frayne and they too are not under litigation.
Rome2024.org and roma2024.com, both registered to Gustavo Valbuena of Spain, resolve to a blog site decorated with Olympic logos and references, where in a recent post the author claims he is facilitating a forum for free speech surrounding Rome’s bid, and invites comments. To date there are none.
But in an earlier post the author boasts “from the all 45 Olympic games held until now, betweeen [sic] Olympic Summer games and Winter Games, I own 38 domains.”
Then, he offers “I have received mails asking me if I am willing to sale [sic] only one domain or the whole collection, my answer has always be that all domains are available individually or as a whole.”
Requests for clarification from Valbuena were unanswered.
The IOC seems to be willing to overlook this clear infringement of existing trademarks of past Games for profit. Valbuena’s domains such as barcelona1992.com and saltlakecity2002.com link to a similar offer to sell.
But it makes sense that Frayne’s tokyo2020.com domain, relating to the Games scheduled to occur in just over four years, requires the immediate attention of the IOC – right? If so what about rio2016.net, a domain registered by a non-Olympic entity domiciled in the Bahamas that is currently displaying pay-per-click ads and is offered for sale? Those Games are now only seven months away, yet no litigation is in the works.
So why target only Frayne?
Frayne says he believes the IOC wants to keep his potential Olympic bid related domains close so that it can maintain greater control of the conversation. Citing the cases of NoBostonOlympics and the defeated Hamburg 2024 referendum last November, he believes the IOC feels vulnerable to open dialog about the bids, and to his proposed business model that was demonstrated before the Chicago 2016 election loss.
Nothing To Do With The Olympics
Frayne’s interest in the city/year pattern is simple, it’s the most logical choice, he says, to describe what his sites will offer. While in his case there is an intentional link to the Olympic Games – there are likely thousands of organizations that may want to use the same city/year pattern to support their own unrelated annual events.
Toronto has expressed interest in hosting the Olympic Games several times in recent decades and the city has failed in bids for the 1996 and 2008 editions – as well as opting out of the 2024 bid at the last minute. But were registrars of toronto2016.com trying to cash in on the Olympic brand on a Summer Games year? Not likely – the site is now in use to support the International Association of Gay Square Dance Clubs (IAGSDC) annual convention to be held in the city in 2016. It seems like a pattern for the organization too as they have already reserved PalmSprings2017.org and Philadelphia2019.com.
Later this month Toronto is set to host the National Basketball League’s (NBA) annual all-star game and trademarked logos featuring “Toronto 2016” are on posters, shirts and souvenirs everywhere. Being an annual event, is the New York based NBA entitled to all future city/year combinations in its jurisdiction? The professional basketball league didn’t go after the IAGSDC for the domain.
Of the hundreds of domains registered by Frayne that the IOC and USOC hope to have transferred into their control, here are an eclectic few – some registered years ago:
riyadh2028.com orlando2024.org newyork2040.com vegas2028.com
abudhabi2028.com la2028.com delhi2028.com taipei2036.com
durban2032.org seoul2036.com brisbane2028.com boston2028.com
And in Detroit, a city that has set the bar with seven previous bids for the Olympics, the U.S. Chapter Junior Chamber International (JCI) will host its national conference in 2016. When asked about a possible conflict that his detroit2016.org domain name may have had with the Olympics – JCI Vice President Adam Bonarek said “the idea that the IOC might try to trademark this type of domain name never even crossed my mind.”
“We are hosting a national conference for Junior Chamber International – USA in Detroit,” he said.
“It’s much easier to tell someone to go to detroit2016.org than to go to jci.cc/usa/detroit2016.”
In its legal complaint, the IOC seeks an order to have as many as 1,459 of registered even-numbered city/year domains transferred to its control. With no specific trademark or purpose for a majority of these, doesn’t this make the IOC a cybersquatter even as it claims the defendant is doing the same? Won’t this deprive other organizations that also follow the city/year pattern their chance to acquire an easy-to-find domain?
The IOC claims several precedents under which it was able to legally wrest control of infringing domains, in most cases because they incorporated “Olympic”, or a variation of the word, they deliberately deceived the public into believing a connection with the brand for unlawful financial gain, or they were simply offered for sale. In the complaint the IOC also points to a 2000 in rem lawsuit where it claims to have “successfully brought suit to cancel or recover nearly 1,800 Internet domain names.” But the GamesBids.com investigation revealed that many of those domains have since been re-registered by other non-Olympic entities for financial gain, and many of the “canceled” domains had simply expired before the court rendered a decision because legal action froze the accounts and they could not be renewed.
Court documents also point to Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (“UDRP”) proceedings where the IOC, under special circumstances, were given prior rights to city/year domain names due to its historical use of the pattern. That means any city/year trademark filed by the IOC could entitle the organization to retroactively claim rights to domain names registered and used by others several years earlier.
But Frayne contends his case is different, he said that IOC representatives had on multiple occasions offered to purchase domains from him and he refused to sell. Though his goal was to use the domains for his own business, he felt that the offers to purchase were a tactic to lure him into negotiations making him culpable of cybersquatting.
He’s convinced that the IOC’s actions are less about profiting from the goodwill of the Olympic brand, and more about the control of a share of the Olympic discussion.
How far are the courts willing to go to protect the prior rights of the IOC’s city/year domain name pattern that it seems to take for granted today? How will this decision impact other organizations that are less famous but also use the same naming pattern for their regularly scheduled events? And, is the IOC’s attempt to control these domains a means to help control the conversation, and an infringement against the right to freedom of speech?
Maybe it’s time for the IOC to loosen its dependence on the city/year format with respect to domain names considering it will require never ending legal battles to secure them all. Perhaps they’re already going down that road. Interestingly, the first two logos from bids for the 2024 Olympic Games that have been released highlight only the city name in bold where in the past the city/year combinations were featured. Under the city name in the emblems for both the Rome and Hamburg (before bowing out of the race) bids is the phrase “Candidate City Olympic Games 2024”. The city and year are now disconnected.
These logos were created under the direction of, then approved by the IOC – so it clear that this is a format that the IOC intended. Paris’ new logo is set to be released February 9 while Los Angeles and Budapest will likely unveil theirs by February 17 when the first set of bid books are submitted to the IOC.
If the IOC instead moved forward with a city/Olympics format, as in RioOlympics.com – the trademark would be clear and the prior rights issue would be irrelevant.
But for now, the IOC seems to want to control all even-numbered years – quite a trademark power play!
Frayne has until February 15 to file a response to the IOC’s complaint. He has yet to confirm his intended course of action.
[Disclosure: GamesBids.com owner was a party to the 2000 in rem action referenced in this report]