Trademark protection gone wrong, U.S. Olympic Committee edition

Lynne Kiesling

The U.S. Olympic Committee is starting to beat the drum for the London 2012 Olympics, 36 days to go! But their long-standing aggressive enforcement of their “Olympic” trademark has alienated an unlikely group of potential Olympics fans and TV viewers: knitters.

Yes, knitters (of which I am one). At the knitting social network Ravelry, we celebrate the achievement, hard work, dedication, skill, and passion of athletes by competing ourselves in “Ravelympics”, a good-natured competition to complete difficult projects in a limited time (during the Olympics), complete as many projects as possible, challenge ourselves to learn a new skill, etc.

The U.S. Olympic Committee objects that the name “Ravelympics” violates their trademark, which covers the name “Olympics” and the five-ring logo. If I recall correctly, Ravelry removed graphics with the five rings after the summer olympics (sorry, that should say Summer OlympicsTM) four years ago. So the remaining question is the name “Ravelympics”.

According to the cease and desist order delivered to Ravelry earlier this week, repeated in this Gawker article on the conflict (you have to register as a member to join Ravelry forums), the U.S. Olympic Committee thinks that “Ravelympics” violates their trademark on the use of the name “Olympic”, which the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a few years ago in what I consider an overly-broad application of trademark. That’s the legal question.

But the USOC attorney’s letter is likely to wreak more reputation and economic damage than they anticipated, because in the body of the letter the attorney states

The athletes of Team USA 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. For many, the Olympics represent the pinnacle of their sporting career. Over more than a century, the Olympic Games have brought athletes around the world together to compete in an event that has come to mean much more than just a competition between the world’s best athletes. The Olympic Games represent ideals that go beyond sport to encompass culture and education, tolerance and respect, world peace and harmony.

The USOC is responsible for preserving the Olympic Movement and its ideals within the United States. Part of that responsibility is to ensure that Olympic trademarks, imagery and terminology are protected and given the appropriate respect. We believe using the name “Ravelympics” for a competition that involves an afghan marathon, scarf hockey and sweater triathlon, among others, tends to denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games. In a sense, it is disrespectful to our country’s finest athletes and fails to recognize or appreciate their hard work.

“… denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games.” Hold that phrase in your mind while we talk about the economics. On its face, even a non-knitter can see how insulting these two paragraphs are, how little understanding they show of the skill, hard work, dedication, time, and passion involved in knitting something like this:

Although the USOC is cloaking itself simultaneously in its legal rights as trademark holder and its “lofty ideals”, it is doing so as a business decision, because its brand is one of the ways it attracts sponsors (such as Visa) and outfitters (such as Nike and Ralph Lauren). So let’s look at the economics here.

If knitting were simply a quaint pastime pursued by a handful of elderly women, as is the stereotype, then the USOC will not incur much cost from angering such a small market. But 1 in 3 Americans knits, and Ravelry has 2 million (yes, 2 million) members from around the world, with a substantial share of their membership in the US. That’s a lot of people to piss off 36 days before your flagship event. And lots of those knitters have spouses, partners, friends, family, with whom they will share this event through word of mouth. All of these people are potential consumers of TV coverage and of sponsor products. The tone and attitude the USOC is taking may at the margin make these people less likely to watch the OlympicsTM, or less likely to watch coverage other than specific events. In any case, the tone and attitude of this letter has diminished the reputation and tarnished the USOC brand in a larger market than they realized.

Second, social media changes this calculation and the possible impact and awareness of this story. This story really became public yesterday, and now there are hundreds and hundreds of tweets to USOC objecting to their actions. Here are a few:

Had planned to watch @USOlympic games with my 3 children, but now we will watch anything but. #Ravelympics

You know, even if they can take the name #Ravelympics away, @USOlympic still owes us an apology for saying we “denigrate” athletes.

Really, @USOlympic? You do realize that Ravelympics was an homage to you & the athletes. So much for showing Olympics love.

Had no idea tht challengng myslf while watchng Olympians challenge themslvs ws disrespectful to spirit of the games. @usolympic

Dear @usolympic, I am both knitter and triathlete. Both require work, skill, dedication, grit. Your denigration of knitting dishonors USOC.

(That last one is mine, naturally.) The activity is the same over at the USOC’s Facebook page, where hundreds and hundreds of knitters are criticizing the USOC in their “recommendation” section (oh the irony of the forms of social media …).

Technology and social media exacerbate this kind of misstep and miscalculation and increase its potential cost, because if stories like this go viral they go beyond the initially affected population. And here’s another irony in the economics: USOC is aggressive in enforcing its trademark because it has to make money to support athletes, and having a strong brand is a way to attract corporate sponsors in the absence of taxpayer funding of athletic training. But if their trademark enforcement angers a large enough group of well-meaning consumers who are riffing off of the OlympicsTM name to honor the athletes and the inspiration they provide, what happens when those consumers use social media to communicate to the sponsors how angry they are and how much less likely they are to purchase their products? That’s what’s happening on Twitter right now at the #Ravelympics hashtag.

Another celebrity knitter!

Lynne Kiesling

Back in March I mentioned that one of my favorite Steelers from the 1970s, Randy Grossman, is also a knitter. Now I find out via this New York Times article that actor John Glover, who is currently on Broadway in Waiting For Godot, is also a knitter!

The picture of him accompanying the story is absolutely priceless, and is worth clicking through even without reading the story.

Former Steeler, now knitter

Lynne Kiesling

As a child growing up in Pittsburgh in the mid-1970s, I couldn’t help being a sports fan, including football. One of my favorite Steelers from the mid-70s was tight end Randy Grossman. Agile, fast, and a joy to watch.

Imagine my joy now as I find out that he is a fellow knitter!

Though Grossman’s mother, Florence, is an accomplished knitter and her skills have inspired him to push forward his with the craft, his foray into knitting came about from his daughter, Sarah. When Sarah participated in a knitting program while attending the Waldorf School of Pittsburgh, she started progressing as a better and better knitter and “she wanted to show me how to do it,” Grossman said. As a way to appease his daughter, he tried it and found it to be quite rewarding.

Now knitting on a consistent basis, Grossman decided to hold a class geared specifically toward teaching men the nuances of the craft with Sarah as his special assistant.

If you click through to the article you’ll see a great picture of Grossman knitting, and wearing a fantastic sweater that I’m sure he made. Stuff like this really makes me love life. Really.

A sheepy, woolly weekend, and some economics of it

Lynne Kiesling

I spent the weekend with two friends at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, the second largest sheep-based livestock and fiber festival in the U.S. It’s an overwhelming combination of county fair (complete with fair food), livestock show, livestock market, and fiber festival. It’s all about turning this


into this


And yes, I was as ecstatically happy as I look in the picture. Total hog heaven, or sheep heaven, to be more accurate.

Much of our chit-chat during the day involved the economics of this industry, as both of my friends who accompanied me are economists (and one is also a knitter). One reason why this event and others like it are so popular is that they provide access to small-batch, hand-dyed yarns that are not widely commercially available. For example, in the above picture I’m standing in front of the fabulous, wonderful offerings from Brooks Farm (and I dropped some serious cash there, as you can see from the pile in my arms). They only sell at festivals and online, not through bricks-and-mortar stores.

The growth of the Internet, and of online social communities for knitters through blogs and Ravelry, a sort-of Facebook for knitters, has increased the demand for such distinctive fibers. Folks like Brooks Farm have seen their businesses grow as more people become aware of their products. The evidence of this connection was very apparent at Maryland Sheep & Wool.

I also enjoyed watching the feeder lamb auction, in which individual breeders (many of whom I saw were young, about 12-16) display a sheared lamb, and the auctioneer facilitates a single-price, ascending, open-outcry English auction. These lambs were going for around $150-200, which is high relative to the overall market average for feeder lambs in the U.S. markets. High quality, local lamb, some of which I had for lunch, and it was glorious.

The KP Icelandic Saga

Lynne Kiesling

I enjoyed our visit, although I don’t think I could have afforded to stay much longer! Even a Swedish gentleman sitting with us at the conference gala dinner said that Swedes think Iceland is expensive, and that’s saying something!

This is my favorite picture of downtown Reykjavik (taken from the top of the cathedral), because it shows the variety of colors in the houses:


And this is the fantastically colored water out at Blue Lagoon, a mineral hot spring tourist destination situated adjacent to a geothermal power plant (combining two of my interests!):


The ISNIE conference was also quite interesting, although with fewer electricity papers than in the past. The paper from which I learned the most and that I found the most thought-provoking was “Copyleft Licensing and Software Development” by Alessandra Rossi and Massimo D’Antoni from the University of Siena. They analyze important differences in incentive structure and in reasons to choose the GPL license or the BSD license; the paper draft has more details on the model, the hypotheses, and their insights. Very interesting.

After the cut is a picture and some discussion of the souvenirs I bought from my trip; knitting-related, of course!

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The Financial Risk Associated With Inducing Yarn Frenzy in Knitters

Lynne Kiesling

There’s this really great outfit called Blue Moon Fiber Arts that makes some of the most gorgeous hand-dyed yarn for knitting that you can imagine; gorgeous yarn born out of the vision of one woman. I bought my first Blue Moon yarn, a variegated rayon in amazing shades of olive, a year and a half ago at Knit Purl in Portland, Oregon (a very nice and friendly store). Over the past year, lots of knitters around the world have fallen under the power of Socks that Rock, variegated sock yarn from Blue Moon. Indeed, I myself have a large skein of Socks that Rock, in the Cobblestone Country colorway. As soon as I’m done with the bamboo socks I’m making for the KP Spouse, I’ll be making these for myself.

Blue Moon runs a Rockin’ Sock Club in which you can sign up to receive a bi-monthly fix of Socks that Rock yarn for a year, among other goodies. Like so many other hobbies that appeal to fetishists, things like this sock club for this coveted yarn produced a frenzy, so much so that … Blue Moon’s bank closed its accounts and refunded all of the money to sock club members because they were convinced that Blue Moon was running a scam!

Is this the Patriot Act and the Bank Secrecy Act run amok, or just incompetent bank implementation of said regulation? It is certainly poor customer service!

For the Reader’s Digest condensed version check out this Yarn Harlot post and this post at January One. Just to give you a sense of how big a frenzy this yarn/club have produced, note the almost 200 comments on the Yarn Harlot post about the “scam”.

Note also Mr. Dubner’s notes on this event at Freakonomics. His wife’s been bitten by the bug too; will we soon be reading Freakonomics posts about how comfortable his homemade socks are? And he does comment that

Levitt’s sister runs Yarnzilla, an online and brick-and-mortar knitting emporium; and my wife has recently become a knitting zealot enthusiast. (I am always intrigued that so many people have embraced menial tasks — knitting, cooking, gardening, e.g. — as high-end hobbies, but that is a whole ‘nother story.)

I’d like to read that post, please, because it intrigues me too.

What I did over Christmas vacation

Lynne Kiesling

Woman does not live by economics alone (although sometimes I come pretty close!). I made this sweater:


This is the popular Rogue hoodie, which lots of folks have been knitting over the past two years. I started this in October, and finished it on New Year’s Day.

Yes, it was a lot of work, and for you economist non-knitters, this is a good pattern to illustrate the extent to which knitting truly is a mathematics hobby. Lots of axial and radial symmetry, and spatial logic.

Plus it’s beautiful and comfortable!

More pictures, taken on a gorgeous winter day in Chicago, after the fold.

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