Trademark Law and Practice, Pages 79–89

San Francisco Arts & Athletics v. U.S. Olympic Committee

Supreme Court of the United States, 1987


Petitioner planned to host an event it called the "Gay Olympic Games," which imitated and promoted itself as a rival to the actual Olympic games, and to sell corresponding merchandise. As the Amateur Sports Acts granted respondent the right to prohibit certain commercial and promotional uses of the word "Olympic" and corresponding symbols, its director wrote to petitioner, requesting that it terminate its use of the word. Petitioner at first agreed, but then reneged on its agreement and resumed use of the word. Respondent then brought suit to enjoin petitioner's use.

Procedural History:

The district court granted a temporary restraining order and then a preliminary injunction.

Plaintiff's Argument:

"Olympic" is a generic word which could not have protection under the Lanham Act and the First Amendment prohibits Congress from granting exclusive use of a word without proof its likely to cause confusion.


Can Congress grant a trademark that is enforceable even when unlikely to cause confusion?


National protection of trademarks is desirable to foster competition and maintain the quality of goods. Respondent's trademark is special in that it does not need to be shown likely to cause confusion and in that the normal statutory defenses are not available in defense against it.

"Olympic" is not a random generic word which Congress granted a trademark. It did so in compliance with the IOC Charter. The word is still in extensive use by respondent and has, as a result of respondent's efforts, gained a secondary meaning and "has become distinctive of [respondent's] goods in commerce". Because Congress could have concluded this and granted respondent the right as a result, it certainly falls within constitutional bounds.

While incidental to the primary purpose, the law allows prohibiting use of the name even in noncommercial contexts. This does not stop petitioner from communicating its message without using the word however. Allowing anyone to use the name could lessen the distinctiveness and therefore value of respondent's trademark. It is quite foreseeable that one could mistakenly think that respondent sponsored petitioner's event, which petitioner clearly sought to exploit. It clearly sought to capitalize from copying the Olympic games quite extensively.

The Fifth Amendment does not apply because respondent's enforcement of its trademark is not a government decision.


Yes, Congress was allowed to grant such a trademark. Affirmed.

Dissenting Opinions:

  • O'Connor: Respondent and the United States are joint participants in requiring petitioner to remove the word and thus it should be reversed to determine petitioners' claim of discriminatory enforcement.

  • Brennan: Because the government gave respondent so many powers, it must be considered a government actor and be subjected to Fifth Amendment limitations. This is not just allowing the restriction of some noncommercial speech to further a government interest. The statute is so broad that it covers a large amount of noncommercial speech. Even ignoring this, petitioner has a freedom of expression.

    The act restricts speech too much when a normal trademark would have fulfilled the government's purpose. In trying to give it more powers, it was made unconstitutional. It both infringes constitutionally protected speech by not including the Lanham Act's defenses and applies to noncommercial uses. Allowing the government to allow respondent to enforce its trademark against an expressive event hinders petitioner's message and poses a significant risk of suppressing ideas.