The USOC v. Ravelry: Denigration, Indeed

21 June 2012

I write here not to question the validity of the United States Olympic Committee’s trademark of the term “Olympics” or variants thereof. The US court system decided years ago that they are allowed to hold a trademark on a term that has existed for thousands of years. As such, the USOC has a right to defend their trademark from inappropriate use.

I write here today to discuss how a standard cease and desist scenario with a clear right and wrong is now turning into a PR nightmare for the USOC.

Ravelry, the largest yarn craft community online, has hosts a yearly event called the Ravelympics. Knitters and crocheters compete to finish challenging projects–in quantity or technical difficulty–for a two week period that coincides with the Olympic games. This year’s planning was well underway when the USOC had a legal clerk send what was supposed to be a standard cease and desist letter to Ravelry over the phrase “Ravelympics.”

It was not a standard cease and desist letter.

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.

The letter explains how hard it is to be an Olympian before shooting out the “denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games” line. In context, that means this legal clerk said knitters and crocheters are not skilled, have no training, and have not worked hard their entire lives to learn how to do elaborate feats of yarn art in a ridiculously short period of time.

ravelympics The USOC v. Ravelry: Denigration, Indeed

Apparently, knitting while watching the Olympics is a personal insult to every athlete in the world.

The outrage came fast and furious. Ravelry members began a twitter campaign (#Ravelympics) and have been tweeting at the legal clerk for the better part of a day.

The simple solution would be an apology for attacking the integrity and skills of a group of crafters who wanted to take on an extra challenge while watching the Olympics. Technically, the USOC tried to do that.

The letter sent to the organizers of the Ravelympics was a standard-form cease and desist letter that explained why we need to protect our trademarks in legal terms. Rest assured, as an organization that has many passionate knitters, we never intended to make this a personal attack on the knitting community or to suggest that knitters are not supportive of Team USA.

We apologize for any insult and appreciate your support. We embrace hand-crafted American goods as we currently have the Annin Flagmakers of New Jersey stitching a custom-made American flag to accompany our team to the Olympic Games in London. To show our support of the Ravelry community, we would welcome any handmade items that you would like to create to travel with, and motivate, our team at the 2012 Games.

Something has gone haywire here with internal communications. I highly doubt that the USOC’s standard cease and desist letter claims that the local barber shop with the Olympic rings on their window “[denigrates] the true nature of the Olympic Games.” I very much doubt that the USOC chooses to insult the integrity and skill of anyone who violates their trademark and would equally insult a school with an Olympics day, a library holding an Olympics-themed readathon, or a television station airing a parody Olympics episode of their show.

Perhaps most insulting of all is the effort to patch over the issue by saying they will “welcome any handmade items” that these terrible, horrible, not very good crafters who “[disrespect]…our country’s finest athletes and [fails] to recognize or appreciate their hard work.” So yesterday, knitters and crocheters were bad people mocking the Olympics. Today, they’re welcome supporters who have the privilege of giving away free things to a not for profit sponsored by McDonalds and Coca Cola. Right. That adds up.

I hope that the USOC will find a way to fix this PR mistake before it turns into a far bigger mess. I’m somehow doubting that will happen. It appears they may just be the latest company/organization to learn the hard way that the Internet is forever and you can’t rewrite history when anyone can access the insult-riddled letter that started the bad press.

Maybe they can start by apologizing for customizing that C&D letter to insult knitters and crocheters. The only other option is doubling down and claiming that, no really, they accuse everyone of insulting the hard work of the athletes who dares to use an ancient term without a licensing deal. I’m sure that will go over well with the elementary school field days and summer craft programs around the country.


Wow. Turns out the whole “denigrate” nonsense is in their standard cease and desist letter. So is including examples of “denigrating” content.

So, does that mean it’s time to double down?


Since the initial posting at 2:30 this afternoon, the USOC issued another apology on their Facebook page (that you can’t link to).

As a follow-up to our previous statement on this subject, we would again like to apologize to the members of the Ravelry community. While we stand by our obligation to protect the marks and terms associated with the Olympic and Paralympic Movements in the United States, 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. We hope you’ll accept this apology and continue to support the Olympic Games.

Remember, their C&D letter was written to stress that anything Ravelry members ever did was nothing compared to the hours their dedicated athletes spent in pursuit of competition. Their form letter chooses to address a trademark concern with insults and shaming rather than address a cut and dry trademark concern.

And again, there is a complete flip flop here. Yesterday, Ravelry members were bad people, mocking the US Olympians by daring to associate “ympics” with yarn work. Today, they’re asking for donations of free stuff to go where their massive corporate contributions. If you can’t see the cognitive disconnect between the two opinions, you’re being willfully obtuse.

The apology should have been delivered the first time around. Instead, they chose to spin it to say that Ravelry was mad that they were called on trademark violations, which wasn’t the issue.

My sincere apologies for not being able to update this post the minute the new apology was posted on a Facebook page I do not follow.

Thoughts? Speak your mind. Just remember, there’s an uptick in lawyers trying to sue people for discussing IPR cases. Love to hear from you.

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7 Responses to The USOC v. Ravelry: Denigration, Indeed

  1. RubyHeart on 21 June 2012 at 4:33 PM

    You wanted an apology. You got TWO apologies. Both seemed appropriately sincere to me. Even obsequious. If you think they don’t deserve your handicrafts — that, if you sent them, would be seen and appreciated by the entire world, as well as become cherished mementos for our athletes — then don’t send them. Accept the USOC’s effort to apologize and move on. Good heavens! Talk about much ado about nothing! Sheesh!

    • Robert on 21 June 2012 at 6:47 PM

      As of the time of this writing, there was one apology and it was hardly sincere. They updated with a better one that takes the actual concerns into consideration.

      It’s not really much ado about nothing. This is part of a growing trend of poorly worded C&D letters coming back to slap organizations in the face. I figured the story would be of interest to my readers. I’m sorry that legal bullying and poor rhetoric is of no interest to you.

      And I’m really sorry you can’t see how accusing Ravelry of denigrating the Olympic team yesterday with crafts is at odds with openly accepting donations of crafts. They weren’t good enough yesterday. Now they’re welcome to contribute. That’s a complete 180. Combined with the insensitive C&D letter and the initial apology that mentioned nothing about the substance of the complaints against the letter, it’s easy to see how their response seemed ungenuine.

      By the way, they still haven’t apologized. They’ve only acknowledged that maybe they might have upset some people with their rhetoric. That is, for a third time, blaming the people they accused of denigrating their organization for their choice of language.

    • Stephanie on 21 June 2012 at 8:44 PM

      Asking a knitter to make something for you FOR FREE is rude. Like asking a car mechanic to fix your car for free or asking a doctor to look at your itch. It (ahem) denigrates their hard work earning that skill.

    • cowgirlbetty on 24 June 2012 at 1:27 AM

      Ohhhh Ruby. I guess no one called you ungrateful when you asked for an expensive Christmas present, then complained it was the wrong color.

      I also guess you don’t know too many knitters. I am a marginal knitter on my best days. I spend some of time knitting, and only give items I knitted to people I believe will appreciate them.

      Many talented knitters and crocheters donate hours of time and effort to give away millions of objects to the homeless, people on chemotherapy, foster children, families overseas who’ve suffered from earthquakes and floods. They give these items because they know they will be appreciated by people around the world already.

      The USOC initially insulted the knitters and crocheters by accusing the knit-along as diluting the esteemed Olympic Brand. Then they pull a “I guess we can let you knit stuff for us for free, since you have nothing better to do and it will shut you up. Besides, you can pretend you are one of the cool kids–but don’t expect us to sit with you at lunch.”

      It was dumb, dumb, dumb. Some knitwear designers have a cult-like following, with men and women carrying around dog-eared copies of “Knitting Without Tears”, and the latest issue of “Brooklyn Tweed”.

      I think the knitting community understands copyrights need to be protected, and there isn’t a lot of wiggle room. You can’t expect a corporation from Coca-Cola to pay millions of dollars to be “proud sponsors” when you let another organization of two-million strong hold a knit-along for free.

      The whole letter is in bad taste. The first apology added even more fuel to the fire–if that were possible. Are knitter’s curing cancer by making sweaters? No, we aren’t. Neither is Michael Phelps when he breaks another world record. Art is for Art. Sport is for Sport. They make life that much more rich to live. The USOC is passionate about defending their brand and their athletes. Should Ravelry members be less so?

  2. Sandy R on 21 June 2012 at 4:35 PM

    The USOC has updated their apology letter on the team website. It does seem to address the negative comments. But this entire situation shoud be a wake up call to people who dont do their homework as far as their supposed adversaries go. We were in no way denegrating the Olympics and I think they now get it.

  3. Ysne58 on 21 June 2012 at 11:15 PM

    1. I’m not sure in my own mind that Ravelry’s event, Ravelympics, actually violates the trademarks granted by Congress.

    2. The insults in the letter were extremely unprofessional, degrading and downright defamatory.

    3. The head of that legal department deserves some kind of sanction from the Colorado state board that governs attorney (mis)conduct, both for the unprofessional contents of that letter, and for letting a law clerk sign it instead of a licensed attorney.

    4. I think it’s past the time when the world should be re-taking ownership of the words Olympic, Olympiad and reducing the power of the International Olympic Committee and all the baby offspring, including the USOC.

  4. Terry on 22 June 2012 at 1:20 AM

    An excellent assessment of the situation without all the emotion.

    What I have yet to see pointed out succinctly is why we knitter’s feel so insulted.

    An integral part but not a required part of the Ravelry event is participating WHILE watching the Olympics. The whole event amounts to a knitting centric, virtual Olympic tailgate party, it’s all in good fun and mostly very tongue in cheek but also it’s an opportunity to push ones skills and endurance. So by failing to research what the event is all about then claiming that the event denigrates the Olympics athletes the USOC is essentially telling a whole viewing demographic that their particular viewership denigrates the Olympics and isn’t wanted.

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