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The Jubilee, the Olympics and the Commons

Britain is in the grip of two twin obsessions this spring, the Queen’s diamond jubilee, and the London Olympics. I’m not that excited about either of them myself, but I do find them interesting as cultural phenomena, especially the differences between them.

One of the most marked differences between the two is that one is a festival of the commons, and the other is a corporate event. It’s something of a case study in the theory of the commons.

For the Queen’s jubilee, communities around the country are being encouraged to celebrate any way they like. In High Town, my little part of Luton, the local residents association are organising a street party. (I’ll be in the cafe, helping children make paper crowns) Anyone is able to make and sell jubilee merchandise, and I suspect there shall be red white and blue cupcakes aplenty.

The Jubilee has inspired all kinds of creative endeavours from Britain’s designers and artists, and also our marketing departments.  Every company in the land seems to have a strained Jubilee marketing campaign of some kind. Outside the office is a billboard for a brand of Mexican food, declaring their tacos to be ‘jubilicious’. The queen doesn’t protect her likeness, so anyone is welcome to do this. You can reproduce her face on a mug or a tea towel, or draw or paint caricatures of her, even rude ones. (She doesn’t have to be so generous. The Diana estate is much more restrictive in how and where people can portray her.) All the icons and imagery of the Jubilee – our royal heritage, the national anthem, the Union Jack, are all commons – they belong to all of us.

This is a real contrast to the Olympics, which do not belong to us. It belongs to the IOC, along with the Olympic rings and even the phrase London Olympics. In case you’re in any doubt, here’s the Olympic charter:

The Olympic Games are the exclusive property of the IOC which owns all rights and
data relating thereto, in particular, and without limitation, all rights relating to their
organisation, exploitation, broadcasting, recording, representation, reproduction,
access and dissemination in any form and by any means or mechanism whatsoever,
whether now existing or developed in the future.

There are plenty of ways that you can participate in the Olympics, from the torch parade to opening ceremony parties. I’ve even seen posters up at the train station encouraging me to grow yellow flowers in my front garden to will our athletes to go for gold. So you can take part, but don’t get carried away. You can’t use any of the imagery without permission. If you wish to profit from it in any way you will have to pay handsomely for the privilege, like Coca Cola and McDonalds. Put up an Olympics themes display in shop window, and the brand inquisition will descend on you and demand that you take it down, as some have already discovered.

No creative marketing either- even hinting at the games is verboten. “Businesses must not undertake or produce any PR, promotions, adverts, products, special offers, websites, or other promotional media which are Games-themed as these will inevitably create an association with the Games” say the brand guidelines. There are plenty of cultural events as part of the Olympics, but only official ones. The kind of spontaneous and irreverent playfulness that the Jubilee has inspired isn’t really encouraged. Where you do get it, it’s satirical or in protest, like Charlie Brooker declaring himself the sole official tweeter of the games. Or since we had a Banksy for the Jubilee the other week, here’s one for the Olympics.

Obviously the IOC wants to protect its identity, but if they want to live up to their ambitions as a institution that celebrates universal human values, they could learn a thing or two from the Jubilee and release the Olympics into the commons.

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