Friday, June 22, 2012

Ravelympics insanity

Well, I might as well weigh in on this, too. :)

Don't know what I'm talking about? Well, the ****storm all started when the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) sent Ravelry a cease-and-desist letter regarding the Ravelympics. The idea was that their "Olympics" trademark had been violated by a) the name "Ravelympics" and b) patterns available via Ravelry which used the Olympics rings logo.

Reaction from the knitting/crocheting community to just the trademark infringement issue ranged from "they have the right to defend their trademark" to "big nasty corporation attacking harmless knitters, how dare they".

I myself am on the "they have the right to defend their trademark" end of the spectrum. The Yarn Harlot's blog on the subject explained it well: trademark law is such that you have to defend it, whether you want to or not, if you want your trademark rights to stand. So whether you're a big, nasty entity who loves siccing its lawyers on people; or your staff is 100% nice and hates having to ask people to change their doesn't matter, you will have to send a cease-and-desist letter. Whether "Ravelympics" really is a trademark infringement? Well, I thought that was pretty sketchy, but this blog post by a lawyer quoting a past decision by the US Supreme Court gives the impression that, as ridiculous as it is, the USOC would probably win if Ravelry ever wanted to take this case to court. (Sucks, and probably speaks to America's fear of the IOC rather than any concerns about justice or law, but there it is.)

However, although some people were (and still are) mad about the trademark issue, there was actually a much larger and infuriating issue at play. What really had pretty much everybody up in arms was the WAY the cease-and-desist letter was worded. It accused the Ravelympics of being disrespectful to Olympic athletes and denigrating to the spirit of the Olympic Games. Which of course is a) totally untrue, which is obvious to anyone who has even the most basic concept of what the Ravelympics is; b) unnecessarily insulting; and c) incredibly unprofessional. Yet there it was, in an official legal communication from the USOC.

This was the USOC's first mistake. As many pointed out during the resulting furor, there is a big difference between a C&D letter which says, "Hey, we noticed you're doing this thing which we believe infringes on our trademark for these reasons, and although we think your thing is really cool we have to ask you to not bring our name and logo into it. How about renaming it?" and one which says, "Hey, we noticed you're doing this thing which not only infringes on our trademark for these reasons, but also denigrates and disrespects us."

And when you send such a letter to a social media website with over two million users, hey, guess what? THE INTERNET FINDS OUT ABOUT IT. Result: you end up looking like a complete douche, not just for being mean, but for being stupid enough to think you could get away with being mean. (And for extra stupid points, consider the fact that the USOC/IOC reputation isn't exactly stellar to begin with, what with its history of arrogance and scandals and whatnot.)

Well, it didn't take the USOC long to realise that something was amiss. :) The influx of calls, emails, tweets, Facebook comments, etc. evidently made an impression, because they fairly quickly officially issued what they called an "apology".

Alas, it was not actually an apology at all.

Here is what the apology should have conveyed:

"You're right, our C&D letter was insulting and we should have worded it very differently. We apologize about that. We do still have an obligation to protect our trademark, but we take back what we said about denigration and disrespect and we're looking into changing our internal processes so that nobody gets a letter like that ever again."

Here is what the apology actually conveyed:

"We didn't do anything wrong because that's our standard C&D letter. But we'll apologize anyway. Also, we'll condescend to accept free handknitted items from you."

Can you say 'PR fail'? Can you say 'digging yourself in deeper'?

There were three main problems with this "apology" that were instantly recognized:

  1. It wasn't really an apology at all. If you apologize for something you did but in the same breath defend what you did as being perfectly okay, THAT IS NOT AN APOLOGY.
  2. It appeared to be a blatant lie. Nobody was buying the "that's our standard C&D letter" line, because no one could believe that a company would insert an unprofessional and insulting paragraph about disrespect and denigration into a boilerplate C&D letter. And no one likes being lied to, especially (as this seemed to be) so obviously.
  3. The whole "to show you how sorry we are, why don't you send us free stuff" thing heaped so much insult onto injury, it was to laugh. That was probably the worst PR mistake of all and made the USOC look not only arrogant, but stupid.

Needless to say, the response to USOC after this was even more angry. And not just angry, but contemptuous, because the general feeling was that the USOC must be staffed by tremendously idiotic people if they thought that putting out that kind of statement would actually help their image.

Mere hours and many more angry communications to the USOC later, a revision to the statement was made, this time with a genuine apology for the insensitive terms used in the original C&D letter, and an acknowledgement that the Ravelympics do not intend to denigrate or disrespect the Olympics.

So yay! Problem #1 solved.

Unfortunately, a few problems remain.

Firstly, it was discovered that the 'denigrate and disrespect' paragraph actually IS part of the USOC's standard C&D letter, because someone trawling the Internet managed to find the C&D letter the USOC had sent to the Redneck Olympics, which contains the same paragraph (but with Redneck Olympics context, of course). Frankly, I don't know whether that makes things better or worse. Yes, it means that the first 'apology' didn't actually contain a lie, which is good. It also means that the law clerk who drew up the C&D letter wasn't editorializing in an insultingly mean way, and that's good too. However, it does mean that the USOC's standards for communication include unprofessional and unnecessary insults...and that's bad. Really bad, actually. Sadly, the revised apology didn't include a commitment to looking into revising that. Such a commitment would be very nice to have.

Secondly, the revised apology didn't include any acknowledgement that the USOC had showed some rather unmitigated gall in asking for free handknits. A general, "We clearly handled this whole situation badly" sort of message would have worked.

But the fact that a genuine apology for the initial C&D letter has been issued is definitely good. We managed to take the US-freakin'-OC down a peg or two. That's pretty huge. Maybe they'll even hire a crack team of social media experts so that they don't come across looking like idiots again.

We are yarncrafters. Fear us.

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