Minn. Company Takes on U.S. Olympic Committee in Battle Over Hashtags on Social Media

August 04, 2016 11:25 PM

A local company is taking on the U.S. Olympic Committee over the right to free speech on social media.

Zerorez, a carpet-cleaning company in the Twin Cities, has filed a lawsuit in federal court asking a judge to clarify how trademark rules apply to small businesses that want to use social media to congratulate local Olympic athletes.


Anyone who uses social media is familiar with hashtags, or the # sign. But if you're a small business and you send out a message using #RIO2016 or #TEAMUSA, you could get a cease-and-desist letter and the threat of a lawsuit from the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The USOC claims businesses that are not official Olympic sponsors can't post on social media using several Olympic-related terms that are trademarked.

"We believe it's overreaching and trademark bullying," Attorney Aaron Hall from the Jux Law Firm, which represents Zerorez, said. "It's an effort to chill free speech regarding the Olympic brand."

Michael Kaplan is the owner of Zerorez and he says business is good. Like any small business owner, he understands exposure is a good thing.

"Our business is a big advocate of social media," said Michael Kaplan, the owner of Zerorez.

Hall says the U.S. Olympic Committee is overreaching by banning and censoring all businesses that are not Olympic sponsors from talking about the Olympics.

"It was concerning and it seemed like an overreach," Kaplan said. 

"They've gone as far to say, 'You can't mention the Olympians. You can't talk about the results. You can't use the word "Olympics."' And, in our view, there's a great distinction between pretending to be an Olympic sponsor and merely talking about the Olympics on social media," Hall said.

He says Zerorez believes that when Congress wrote the law years ago, it never intended it to be used to chill the free speech of businesses on social media. Social media didn't even exist back then.

"We don't deny that there is a problem with some companies deceptively acting like they are associated with the Olympics," Hall said. "That's a real problem. But we're not talking about that here. We're talking about small businesses that want to wish good luck. In fact, the United States Olympic Committee has exactly said, 'You cannot wish Olympians good luck if you are a private business.'"

"If they only allow their core sponsors to talk about it it gives them that much more umph to get money in the door," said Kate-Madonna Hindes, who owns a communication firm.

"We're not the golden arches, the big burger company but we're not trying to be, but we feel there is a threat to businesses of all sizes," Kaplan said. 

Now Kaplan wants clarification why, and he's doing so in the form of a lawsuit.

"The Olympics is shutting down access to the conversation," Kaplan said. 

But this isn't the first time a big event is showing off it's power. Kate-Madonna Hindes owns a communication firm and says this happened with the Super Bowl. She sees some good and in it because it brings out creativity.

"We're not just simply jumping on a hashtag anymore to use it, it makes people think more strategically about the marketing they're putting out," Kate-Madonna Hindes said. 

But there's also the bad.

"It leaves brands out of a very important conversation," Kate-Madonna Hindes said. 

Individuals are still allowed to use these hashtags, it's only for corporations and businesses. If they continue to post, they'll receive a takedown request, and could face legal action if they don't comply. 

We emailed the U.S. Olympic Committee for comment on the lawsuit but have not heard back. We will continue to follow the story when a judge makes a decision.


Kevin Doran & Brett Hoffland

Copyright 2016 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company