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Sarah E. White

U.S. Olympic Committee Says Ravelympics Must Change Its Name

By June 21, 2012

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The United States Olympic Committee, the nonprofit group that helps to train and otherwise support amateur athletes in the United States, has sent a cease and desist letter to the founders of Ravelry telling them they can't use the name Ravelympics for their stitching challenge that has knitters and crocheters working on a specific project while they watch the Games.

The theory is that Ravelympics violates the trademark of the USOC and that pairing up a knitting marathon and an actual marathon "tends to denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games" and "is disrespectful to our country's finest athletes and fails to recognize or appreciate their hard work." Those quotes are from the letter, from Brett Hirsch, a clerk in the USOC's general counsel's office. (You can read the letter in full on Gawker, or at Ravelry.)

Hirsh says the athletes "have usually spent the better part of their entire lives training for the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games and represent their country in a sport that means everything to them," and tying a crafty pursuit to their athletic endeavors apparently makes them somehow less awesome. Leaving aside the fact that many knitters have spent the better part of our lives learning our craft, and that, while it may not mean everything to us, it certainly is important to us. Knitting, crocheting and places like Ravelry allow us to come together in a spirit of camaraderie and appreciation of the feats that we can do with sticks and string, just as the Olympics allows athletes to come together in appreciation and respect of what their bodies can do.

My favorite part of the letter may be where he says "The Olympic Games represent ideals that go beyond sport to encompass culture and education, tolerance and respect, world peace and harmony."

Someone should tell him knitting is culture.

Knitters are educated enough to know that the Ravelympics aren't sponsored or approved of in any way by the USOC or any other part of the Olympics. They've been going on for many, many Games (since before Ravelry, even, when the Yarn Harlot started them and they were called the Knitting Olympics, but I guess that was OK because Stephanie Pearl-McPhee lives in Canada, where they aren't afraid of dilution of trademarks). The tolerance and respect he talks about clearly don't extend to the general counsel's office, or they would understand that the Ravelympics are a fun way to get people engaged in both fiber arts and watching the Olympics, which this letter has motivated a few million people to be a little less likely to do.

Casey at Ravelry says the worst that might happen is that the Ravelympics will have to change its name, something that is being talked about on the message boards right now. There's also a section on how to contact the USOC and sponsors of the US Olympic Team should you want to make your feelings known (other than here, where I hope you'll share as well!). You can also contact the USOC on Facebook or Twitter, and as I write this #ravelympics is a trending term on Facebook, so the issue is clearly getting some attention.

The letter also pointed out some patterns that infringe on USOC trademarks (don't tell them I have an Olympic Rings project, too!); so far they are all still listed on the site.

So, what do you think about all this? Does the USOC have a point, or does it just need to get a sense of whimsy? If they wanted world peace, the way to get it was not to piss off a bunch of people with pointy sticks and computers. Let's hear it!

Update I: The USOC issued an "apology" saying that the letter sent to Ravelry was a "standard-form cease and desist letter" not meant to speak specifically to or to offend knitters. It didn't sound very boilerplate to me. And it says nothing to confirm that knitting does not, in fact, denigrate the athletes, though it does suggest that we make stuff for the team. I'm guessing they won't get too many takers on that one. We'll see how it continues to unfold...

Update II: My colleague N.S. Gill couldn't resist poking a little fun at the USOC along with me, posting a piece called "What Would Zeus Say?" She writes: "After all, the U.S. Olympic committee isn't even made up of his heroic offspring, nor is it part of the same cultural group that once upon a time honored him with games known as Olympic." So they're risking the wrath of the king of the gods as well as that of the knitters? Good luck with that!

Update III: Stephanie-Pearl McPhee posted her thoughts on the issue on her blog, saying that she wished she didn't have to but people were getting so upset about it she felt she had to. She explains that trademark holders have to go after everyone who violates their intellectual property or they lose the right to go after anyone (to which I say, as I did in the comments below, that I still don't think any reasonable person would be confused about the Olympics vs. the Ravelympics). She says she understands the hurt feelings but we really aren't the same as Olympians.

Being a knitter is very, very wonderful, and I happen to think that it's important, and really transformational in a lot of people's lives, and that a lot of people (myself included) have made a really significant commitment to it's importance in their life - a commitment that might feel a lot like being an elite athlete, but we're not.  Let me say that again really carefully. 
We are not like elite athletes.  We are really great, but we are not the same as they are.

That's true, but I'm not sure that was the point, either. I don't begin to compare myself to an Olympian, but I think the language the original letter used -- no matter if it wasn't intended that way -- made a lot of knitters feel like the USOC was saying we're for culture, education, tolerance and respect and you, by virtue of using our name for your thing, are clearly against those things. Which is in no way true. I'm not saying we should boycott the Olympics, either, but I still think it was worth spending a day pointing out the flaws (and the funny) in their argument. Agree? Disagree? I'd still love to hear your thoughts.

Update IV: The USOC amended its "apology" to include an actual apology. In part it says "we sincerely regret the use of insensitive terms in relation to the actions of a group that was clearly not intending to denigrate or disrespect the Olympic Movement." Well, that's a little better.


June 21, 2012 at 11:35 am
(1) Esther says:

Seriously? They have time to go after stuff like that?

Yeah, I get that they need to protect their brand–blah, blah, blah. But, like you said, this is about a bunch of people with pointy STICKS ;)

IMHO, they should leave ‘em alone.

June 21, 2012 at 11:37 am
(2) Carrie says:

How ridiculous is this? Ravelry is holding an event that brings people together to WATCH the Olympics — and the USOC has a problem with this?

I also wonder if they can carry through with any legal challenges here. Surely they don’t have a copyright on the word “Olympics.”

So much for peace and harmony.

June 21, 2012 at 11:49 am
(3) amy lane says:

Silly. Silly and divisive. This whole thing was begun and maintained in the spirit of self-improvement and banding together. Just because we’re not doing it athletically doesn’t mean the spirit wasn’t the same.

June 21, 2012 at 12:12 pm
(4) Jen says:

Why can’t we just all get along?

June 21, 2012 at 1:59 pm
(5) Brandy says:

An event meant to engender a feeling of inclusion and support for our representative atheletes, being attacked because someone’s afraid they’re not getting all their pennies. Pitiful. They’re supposed to support the spirit of the competition. Not be mean-spirited and divisive. Just my opinion, though.

June 21, 2012 at 4:32 pm
(6) Jennifer says:

The weird thing is, apparently they DO have a copyright or some legal doodah saying that yes, the only people that can say “Olympics” are people they allowed to do that, i.e. sponsors and the Special Olympics. Knitters are, alas, screwed.

June 21, 2012 at 7:24 pm
(7) Amanda says:

How ridiculous! The same thing happened years ago with the academic competition now known as “Odyssey of the Mind.” It used to be Olympics of the Mind until the USOC took it on. I had the same feeling of outrage about that. Why should athletes be disassociated from other talented people in other arenas? The implication is that only these athletes are good enough to be worthy of the word “Olympic” is so insulting.

June 21, 2012 at 9:02 pm
(8) knitting says:

I understand that Olympics is a trademark, but I thought part of the standard for a copyright violation was that the average person would be confused by the violator giving the impression that two things were related. I don’t think anyone things Ravelypics is actually part of the Olympics.

June 21, 2012 at 9:24 pm
(9) Megan Romer - World Music says:

The first time I realized that this year was an Olympic year was when the Ravelympics popped up in some of my Rav groups. Um, Olympics! THEY’RE DOING YOUR MARKETING FOR YOU. Chill!

June 21, 2012 at 10:00 pm
(10) Lisa says:

Actually, I agree with you. I think the request to change the name of the Ravelympics is petty, but likely legally valid (“The Ravelry Games” has a nice ring to it). The problem, as far as I am concerned, was the insulting, denigrating, language used, followed by that poor excuse for an apology. I also think that they did better with the second apology and that now is the time to call it a win and walk away.

June 24, 2012 at 9:27 pm
(11) cwelling says:

In response to Carrie, they may or may not have a copyright, but they certainly have a trademark, which is the symbol under which they carry on their trade. Infringement is only those uses of similar-sounding or looking items which, to an unknowing viewer, could reasonably cause confusion as to the source or product under the mark.

In other words, knitters violate the trademark if anyone outside either organization would think that the knitters were the Olympics. Normally this type of infringement occurs when a holder fears that a consumer would purchase an item or service from the competition, believing it to be from the mark holder. In this case, that would be ridiculous, of course.

June 28, 2012 at 4:08 pm
(12) Kai opaka says:

I don’t think the second “apology” is very good either. It’s nicer but it still implys that we denegrate the olypics, we just don’t mean too! Also, the USOC doesn’t hold a regular trademark, Congress had to inact a special law just for them, but it still works like a trademark.

July 27, 2012 at 11:47 am
(13) lyn lewis says:

there are ‘job’s worth’ characters worldwide it seems.

get a life Olympic Commit-twitties!

KNit on folks!

August 8, 2012 at 6:37 am
(14) Chrissi says:

they have the same problem here in the Uk- we’re not even allowed to have Olympic themed shop displays in case we infringe their stuff- as if it would devalue it – there are even people going round checking that we don’t – a cafe near the site had to change it’s name and apparently a pub has to cover it’s sign up as it is owned by a brewery who isn’t one of the sponsors- a butcher who had rings of sausages in his window in the shape of the rings had to take them out- and a lady who had cupcakes with it on had to get rid of them as well it’s crazy as we should be celebrating them, not being scared to.

April 15, 2013 at 10:54 pm
(15) addie says:

Good, I cannot stand Ravelry!

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