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North Face target of Olympic lawsuit

VANCOUVER - The Canadian Olympic Committee is suing clothing maker The North Face, alleging the apparel company infringed on Olympic trademarks and attempted to mislead consumers into believing it is officially connected to the Games.

The lawsuit, filed in British Columbia, is the latest case to focus on allegations of so-called "ambush marketing," a term the International Olympic Committee uses to describe the practice of companies exploiting the brand without paying to be an official sponsor.

The North Face is not an Olympic sponsor.

The case, which names the Canadian arm of VF Corp., The North Face's parent company, focuses on a line of clothing originally known as the Villagewear Collection. It was later renamed the International Collection in response to complaints from the Canadian Olympic Committee.

The product line features items such as jackets, toques and bags adorned with the colours and flags of various countries. For example, the Canadian-themed items are red and white and feature the Maple Leaf.

Several items were emblazoned with "RU/14," which the Olympic Committee's lawsuit says is an obvious reference to Russia and the 2014 Sochi Games, while others featured "2.7.14," an apparent reference to the date of this week's opening ceremonies, says the statement of claim.

The Olympic committee's lawsuit says some items were identified in marketing materials with names such as "Men's Sochi Full Zip Hoodie" and a company catalogue said the product line "captures the international spirit of the Olympic Games."

The original name of the product line, the Villagewear Collection, was an obvious reference to the athletes' village, the lawsuit claims.

"The plaintiff ... brings this action to address the defendant's wrongful conduct calculated to mislead Canadian consumers and other persons into believing (wrongly) that the defendant is an official sponsor or supporter of the Canadian Olympic Team," says the statement of claim, filed Tuesday in B.C. Supreme Court.

The lawsuit says the Olympic committee warned The North Face about its concerns on multiple occasions. While the company rebranded the line as the International Collection, it otherwise did not comply with demands, the lawsuit says.

The committee is asking for an injunction to force The North Face to stop its marketing practices, as well as unspecified damages.

The allegations in the statement of claim have not been tested in court.

A spokeswoman said the company has never claimed to be an official Olympic sponsor.

"The North Face has been a long-standing supporter of the freeskiing movement but we are not an official sponsor of the Canadian Olympic Committee or Team Canada and never indicated we were," Ann Krcik said in an email.

"We do not agree with the (Canadian Olympic Committee's) claims and we are disappointed they have taken this action."

The International Olympic Committee and its smaller national counterparts are fiercely protective of the Olympic brand, in some instances turning to the courts to fend off alleged trademark violations.

In Canada, Olympic trademarks enjoy special protection under a federal law known as the Olympic and Paralympic Marks Act. The law was introduced in advance of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics but remains in place.

The Vancouver Olympic organizing committee, known as VANOC, chastised several companies in the lead-up to the 2010 Games.

When Lululemon launched a line of clothing that cheekily referred to an unidentified "cool sporting event" taking place in B.C., VANOC said it "expected better sportsmanship from a local Canadian company," but declined to take legal action.

The organizing committee also complained about a Scotiabank ad campaign encouraging Canadians to "show your colours," while it told Manitoba-based telecommunications company MTS Allstream not to run ads featuring speed skater Cindy Klassen during the 17 days of the Olympics.

A chat service for gay and bisexual men revealed in 2009 that the Canadian Olympic Committee was challenging its attempt to register its logo. The Olympic committee claimed the logo resembled illustrations used to depict Olympic events in the 1970s.

When the story became public, the Olympic committee said it would drop its objection.

In 2004, the Canadian Olympic Committee launched a high-profile battle to force the Olympia Pizza and Pasta Restaurant in Vancouver to remove signs that featured the Olympic rings and torch. The restaurant owner vowed to defy the Olympic committee's demand, and the signage remains in place today.

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