Rarely has so much fuss been made over five little dolls. Within a day of a being unveiled as mascots for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the cartoon-inspired caricatures of a fish, a panda, a Tibetan antelope, a swallow and the Olympic flame were emblazoned on products ranging from fluffy toys to bags, pens, and badges.
It is estimated that franchised products for Beijing 2008, many of which feature the mascots, will generate a profits of US$300 million, accounting for about 10% of the total takings for the event. There is no shortage of salesmen – large and small – planning to capitalize on people’s demand for their own piece of the Olympic story.
Official Olympic partner Coca-Cola immediately joined the commercial blitz by launching more than 1.6 million special cans bearing the mascots’ faces in 21 Chinese cities. "They are selling extremely well," said Xie Hong, a spokesperson for the company’s China operation.
Eyeing a share of the profits, a host of entrepreneurs also swooped to cash in on the five dolls – and, unlike Coca Cola, they were not willing to pay millions of dollars to have their activities sanctioned by the Games organizers.
Craftsmen in Ji’nan, capital of east China’s Shandong province, made four mascot sculptures; a businessman in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, displayed posters of the dolls outside his porridge store; mascot stickers went on sale in Zhengzhou, Henan province. The predictable offering of fake dolls and commemorative coins surfaced in Beijing, while images of the smiling mascots even started appearing on mobile phone accessories and lottery cards.
The illegal money-ranking efforts also extended into the dotcom world as unauthorized mascot products started being sold via the Internet. It wasn’t long before BBS forums featured remodeled versions of the five mascots, the original faces replaced with famous ones ranging from TV singing contest winners "Super Girls" to Japanese cartoon character "Crayon Shinchan".
The organizing committee for Beijing 2008, BOCOG, is informed of 370 cases of unauthorized use of Olympic symbols every year. But the actual number could be 10 times higher, largely due to small scale operators, such as those listed above, who simply slip through the net. Given that 70-80% of officially sanctioned products are expected to be sold in Olympic year, illegal use of the symbols will only rise as the market is flooded with pirated products. For the organizers, a drawn-out war has begun.
"It’s like a game of cat and mouse," Liu Yan, deputy director of BOCOG’s legal department, told AP. "If there are a lot of cats about, the mice won’t dare come out."
With this in mind, in addition to registering the copyright and trademark of the mascots in most countries and regions, BOCOG has vowed to work with industrial and commercial bureaus and customs to crack down the infringements. Efforts are also being made to publicize IPR regulations to reduce what officials describe as infringement due to ignorance of the law rather than deliberately illegal activity.
As infringements continue to emerge, though, there is widespread skepticism as to how successful the authorities can be in cracking down on Olympic piracy in the world’s largest production base for pirated goods. Beijing 2008 is supposed to showcase the spirit of sporting competition, but it may also be a public demonstration of the host nation’s inability to enforce intellectual property rights.