First some background for the non-knitters...
For those of you that aren't into knitting and all yarn related matters, there is this website called Ravelry. It's a huge (2 million strong and growing) global online community. It's part personal notebook where you can track patterns, projects, and yarn, part resource of patterns and information, and part community with groups and forums devoted to every topic you can imagine. People who like to knit baby hats? People who go to such and such local yarn store? People who like shelter dogs? People who had babies in April 2011? There are groups and forums for all (and many many more). (For more information on the online power of Ravelry, see this article from Slate.)
So anywho, Ravelry received a nastygram from the United States Olympic Committee, written by a law student/ summer law clerk. See the full text here.
I'm not going to go line by line through the letter. I agree with the intent behind the letter and the legal justifications. They have some valid points, and have every right (and obligation) to defend their trademarks. An owner of a trademark has to go out and prosecute those who infringe, because failure to do so means that eventually your mark is completely worthless. For instance, if I decided to market a sugary energy drink this summer and called it Olympic Energy in a white can with a small graphic that looked similar, but the same, as the Olympic rings, there would clearly be confusion. People might think that it is sanctioned by the USOC and that purchasing the beverage supports athletes. And apparently, the USOC has broad rights over the term Olympics and related marks in the US. I think it's a bit trickier about their claims over words ending in -lympics, but the point is still arguable and valid and I'm not expert on that.
The problem, and the start of this firestorm, was really in the tone of what we now know is apparently their standard cease and desist form letter. The letter did not seem to reflect the actual facts of the situation. A more experienced writer (who wasn't using a poorly crafted form letter) could have written something a bit less condescending that reflected the actual facts. The USOC should recognize (and encourage) that the ultimate net result of the Ravelympics is to bring more (and new) audience to the USOC's broadcasts and advertisers (because don't you know that sugary beverages and fast food are exactly how Olympic athletes fuel themselves for the Games?)
Reading through the letter. I think you can actually see the tides turning and pitchforks being gathered about here:
"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."Denigrates? Disrespectful? Geez. So, as tends to happen on the interwebs people got inflamed. And in the matter of 24 hours, you could see the proverbial snowball gaining momentum as it rolled down the hill and hit the USOC. People over-reacted and went over board, and not all of them were being ironic.
The knitters, a surprisingly very active cohort of internet users, quickly found the author on Twitter. I feel sorry that the poor summer intern drew this assignment, but perhaps he will learn a lesson about tone. They flooded the USOC's Facebook page (seriously, you should read some of the posts.) My favorite comment: "I was going to knit while watching the Olympics. Now I'm just going to knit."
Paging Mr. Colbert....
When I read the letter to Rykert on Wednesday, he thought it was the set up for a story on The Colbert Report (People Who Are Destroying America segment). And apparently others thought the same thing. There's a Twitter campaign afloat summoning Stephen Colbert to action (#ravelympics). Let's knit him socks, because clearly knitters are trying to destroy the Olympics.
Just say your sorry...
By the mid-day yesterday, the USOC had issued an "apology." And I use quotes, because well, it seemed a bit dismissive:
- "Hey, sorry you were offended.
- "Knitters? We love knitters. Some of our best friends are knitters so we obviously weren't trying to offend knitters."
- "Spend your precious time and skills to knit us some cool stuff and maybe we can salvage this PR nightmare."
Really they were saying please stop with the tweets and the Facebook comments, because you are making us look really bad. At some point it got picked up by NPR. (And The Atlantic, and the NY Times)
Can't we all just get along...
Quickly realizing that the apology was bad, and that the USOC was running a clinic in how not to handle a social media firestorm, they came out with their second apology. Needless to say, Patrick Sandusky (PR guru for the USOC) had a rough day. In my mind, the USOC is trying. They've now acknowledged that the letter they sent was insensitive and condescending. There's nothing they can really do related to the trademark issue. They made a mistake, and I don't think it was intentional, and now they've apologized. So I know a lot of knitters/crocheters still have their panties in a bunch, but frankly I think it's time to put down the pitchforks. You can still knit while watching the Olympics, and the organized events on Ravelry can continue. The name might have to change. It's ok. If you want to boycott the Olympics, you can probably find more egregious reasons.
I still want Stephen Colbert to take up the story, because it's funny. You just can't make this kind of comedic gold up if you tried. You can't. It highlights the uber-litigious parts of this country that I despise. And I'm a lawyer.
I'll still watch the Olympics. I'll be irritated that I already know who won the events thanks to social media. I'll be irritated that most of the Olympic coverage focuses on Bob Costas' human interest stories and commercial after commercial for McDonalds and Coke and that I don't know what channel CNBC is. But I'll still watch. And I may even knit.
Moral of the story...
Ultimately, there's a lesson to be learned here: Don't mess with knitters and (crochet) hookers.