A Mob of Angry Knitters Has Had It With the Olympics' Trademark Crackdowns

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 22 2012 3:52 PM

Mob of Angry Knitters Takes the Gold in Battle with U.S. Olympic Committee

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People knitting.

Photo by Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

A year ago, my colleague Farhad Manjoo wrote about “the best social network you’ve (probably) never heard of,” an online community for knitters called Ravelry. The knitters, though, aren’t purling away in total anonymity. At least one powerful group is watching their every cross-stitch. That group: the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Gawker’s Adrian Chen reports that USOC sent the social network a cease-and-desist letter upon learning of its plans to hold a third annual “Ravelympics,” a festival of knitting games that features events such as “scarf hockey” and “sweater triathlon.” According to the letter, the use of the name “Ravelympics” to describe such frivolous competitions “tends to denigrate the true nature of the Olympic Games.” In the interest of preserving the real Olympics’ pristine soul, USOC demanded that Ravelry refashion its competition as the “Ravelry Games.”

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But the Olympians picked the wrong people to needle. NPR’s news blog The Two-Way reports that outraged Ravelry members pelted the committee with emails, tweets, and comments on the U.S. Olympic Team’s Facebook page, decrying the letter’s insulting tone. They even tracked down the Twitter account of the hapless clerk who sent the cease-and-desist note. The backlash prompted Gawker’s Chen to liken the group to “Anonymous with pointy sticks.

That may be embroidering things a bit, but there’s no question the committee soon grasped the folly of putting itself on Ravelry’s wrong side. To mend relations, it apologized—twice—and NPR says its plans to take legal action have unraveled.

Let’s hope the Olympics’ stuffed shirts, from USOC to IOC to Locog, learn a lesson from this affair. From a doll-making grandma in Downham Market to a butcher in Dorset, the London Games’ overzealous intellectual property crackdowns—especially inappropriate for what’s being billed as “the first social media Olympics”—have become an ugly pattern. If such behavior persists, we’ll keep you in the loop.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.