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Law School Case Brief

San Francisco Arts & Ath., Inc. v. United States Olympic Comm. - 483 U.S. 522, 107 S. Ct. 2971 (1987)

Rule:

The restrictions of § 110 of the Amateur Sports Act, 36 U.S.C.S. § 380, are not broader than Congress reasonably could have determined to be necessary to further these interests. Section 110 primarily applies to all uses of the word "Olympic" to induce the sale of goods or services. Although the Lanham Act protects only against confusing uses, Congress' judgment respecting a certain word is not so limited. Congress reasonably could conclude that most commercial uses of the Olympic words and symbols are likely to be confusing. It also could determine that unauthorized uses, even if not confusing, nevertheless may harm the United States Olympic Committee by lessening the distinctiveness and thus the commercial value of the marks.

Facts:

Section 110 of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, 36 U.S.C.S. § 380, provides that, without the consent of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), certain commercial and promotional uses of the word "Olympic" were subject to a civil action by the USOC for the trademark infringement "remedies" as provided in the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C.S. §§ 1051 et seq. Petitioner San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc. (SFAA), a nonprofit California corporation, originally sought to incorporate under the name "Golden Gate Olympic Association," but was told by the California Department of Corporations that the word "Olympic" could not appear in a corporate title.  After its incorporation in 1981, the SFAA nevertheless began to promote the "Gay Olympic Games" using those words on its letterheads and mailings and in local newspapers. The SFAA later claimed that its use of the word "Olympic" was intended to make a political statement about the status of homosexuals in society. Although the USOC requested the SFAA to discontinue the word "Olympic" in its description of the planned games, the SFAA continued to use the word, and the USOC brought suit against the SFAA and its president in the federal district court, which eventually granted the USOC summary judgment and a permanent injunction against the SFAA's use of the word "Olympic." On appeal, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed with respect to the grant of summary judgment and the injunction, expressing the view that § 110 granted the USOC exclusive use of the word "Olympic" without a requirement that the USOC prove that the unauthorized use was confusing, and without regard to the Lanham Act's statutory defenses for unauthorized use of a trademark. Moreover, the appellate court held that the USOC was not a governmental actor bound by the constraints of the United States Constitution, for the purposes of a claim of discriminatory enforcement based upon the equal protection component of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, and the USOC's property right in the word "Olympic" could be protected without violating the First Amendment to the Constitution. The SFAA petitioned for certiorari review.

Issue:

  1. Did § 110 of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 only grant the USOC typical trademark protection?
  2. Did the First Amendment prohibit Congress from granting exclusive use absent a requirement that the USOC prove that unauthorized use was likely to cause confusion?

Answer:

1) No. 2) No.

Conclusion:

On certiorari, the United States Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the language and legislative history of § 110 indicated that Congress intended to provide the USOC with exclusive control of the use of the word "Olympic" without regard to whether an unauthorized use of the word tended to cause confusion, and § 110 did not incorporate the statutory trademark defenses available under the Lanham Act. Moreover, the First Amendment did not prohibit Congress, in § 110, from granting the USOC exclusive rights in the word "Olympic"--despite a claim that "Olympic" was a generic word that could not gain trademark protection under the Lanham Act because the history of the origins and associations of the word "Olympic" demonstrated that Congress could reasonably conclude that the commercial and promotional value of the word "Olympic" was the product of the USOC's own talents and energy. The Court further averred that the First Amendment did not prohibit Congress, in 110, from granting the USOC the authority to prohibit certain commercial and promotional uses of the word "Olympic" without the requirement that the USOC prove that such an unauthorized use of the word was likely to cause confusion. According to the Court, the enforcement by the USOC, under § 110, of the USOC's rights in the word "Olympic" did not constitute discriminatory enforcement in violation of the equal protection component of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, because the USOC was not a governmental actor to whom the prohibitions of the Constitution applied, and the USOC's enforcement efforts could not be viewed as governmental action on the ground that the United States Government was a joint participant in the USOC's efforts.

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