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Plagiarism and the 2020 Olympics Logo

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The Olympics logos are developed and promoted far in advance of the actual event. July 24, 2015, exactly five years before the opening ceremony of the 2020 Olympic games, its logo was unveiled to the world.

2020 Summer Olympics Logo.

And, almost immediately, allegations of plagiarism arose.

The background

The 2020 Tokyo logo was designed by Kenjiro Sano, a highly-regarded graphic designer in Japan. French designer Olivier Debie claims that Sano’s logo is too similar to his own logo design created for Belgium’s Théâtre de Liège — even down to the typeface used.

Debie’s logo design is not registered as a trademark, yet has been in use since 2013. This little legal loophole, that the theatre’s logo was not officially trademarked, is being used by the organizing committee to justify the use of Sano’s logo design. Sano claims he had never before seen the theatre’s logo, and would never copy someone else’s work.

Meanwhile, many passionate citizens of Japan have voiced a desire to simply go back to the interim logo that was used until Tokyo was confirmed as the host city and the final logo revealed. The interim logo, featuring a colorful cherry blossom wreath, strikes many as being more representative of Japanese culture, and more aesthetically pleasing.

Whether or not Debi decides to take legal action against Sano or the Olympic Committee remains to be seen. As well, we wait to see if Sano’s logo will remain the official 2020 Olympics symbol or be replaced by something less controversial.

The lesson?

There is a lesson to be learned on both ends. First, if you have something worth protecting, protect it. Secondly, do your due diligence to try and avoid claims of plagiarism before they can even be thrown your way! Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Allegations of plagiarism can be tricky, and in this case, the issue was exacerbated by two unfortunate factors:

  1. There was no legal protection of copyright. I am not a lawyer, and have no desire to dabble in international copyright law. So I cannot speak much to the legal arguments in this case. All I can say is this: while common law copyright protection is available in the United States, it seems a shame that this doesn’t appear to apply in Debi’s case. That is why I recommend if you are serious about protecting your brand, register your logo with the federal government, and even internationally if you have to.
  2. The double-edged sword of simplicity. While I generally maintain that simple is better in design, the risk of something being too simple is that it may also be unoriginal or difficult to claim ownership of. The 2020 Olympic logo and the Théâtre de Liège logo are both simple compilations of basic geometric shapes. The similarity of the two could very well be a mere coincidence  — great design minds thinking alike… yet look at the trouble it’s caused.

So what now?

Recently another Japanese graphic designer has proposed and released his own alternate design on Twitter (@vivakankan), which I love. Personally, I’d be happy to see this replace the current logo. Hey, 2020 is still five years away… fingers crossed!

Proposed alternate logo design for 2020 Olympics (source).

Update, September 2, 2015: The controversy was too much, I suppose. After other allegations of plagiarism by Sano came to light, his Olympics logo has now been pulled. You can read more about the decision on

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Nyla Smith

Nyla is a Graphic Designer, Web Designer, Front-End Web Developer and Consultant with over 15 years of experience. She is the owner of n-Vision Designs, LLC in Hampton Roads, Virginia, which exists to provide marketing support and brand consulting to small- and medium-sized businesses needing creative solutions. Contact Nyla if you'd like to discuss your next creative project. She can usually be bribed to a meeting with a cup of green tea and an oatmeal cookie.

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