What do the Pope, Donald Trump, and Theresa May have in common?

Within the last week, all three have (amongst others) received a public slap on the wrist from a – fake and now suspended – ‘@Official_Rule40’ twitter account after tweeting good luck messages to Olympic athletes, allegedly in breach of “Olympic guidelines”.

Last week, His Holiness tweeted:

“Good luck to the athletes at #Rio2016! May you always be messengers of goodwill and true sporting spirit”

only to receive an automated response from @Official_Rule40:

“@Pontifex please refrain from using #Rio2016 protected terms. As a global brand you are in violation of official Olympic guidelines.”

Trump, May, The White House, and numerous others have received similar reprimands from the unofficial twitter account.

Why has @Official_Rule40 been the focus of so much debate?

The joke twitter account has caused much amusement but, as the saying goes, behind every joke is a grain of truth.  Rule 40 is an historic battleground between the IOC, athletes, and sponsors, and the fake twitter account has set the scene for this year’s debate.

The issue is essentially this: To protect the investment of official Olympic rightsholders who have shelled out hundreds of millions for the privilege (90% of which is reinvested into the Games according to the IOC), the IOC uses two key tools.

First, it polices use of its registered trade marks and other intellectual property.  Its list of protected terms includes the obvious (“Olympic” and “Olympic Games”) and, arguably, the not-so-obvious ‘Oympic-related’ terms (“Rio”, “Summer”, “Effort”, “Performance”).  A brand using any of these to partake in the Olympic hype, and grab the attention of the massive Olympic audiences, risks an infringement (though brands have found increasingly inventive and sophisticated ways to toe this line).

Second, the IOC uses Rule 40 to police use of athletes’ names and images for a limited period either side of the Game via Rule 40. This effectively prevents athlete sponsors from referring to their athletes during the Games, unless (following a relaxation of the rule this year) they have obtained prior approval from the relevant national Olympic association (though it is the athlete that takes the punishment for this).

The IOC’s relaxation in approach should be an opportunity for all: greater social media engagement with fewer resources required from the IOC to police infringements. But the questions for brands and athletes remain: where is the line between engagement and infringement?  Can I congratulate an athlete?  Can I thank my sponsor?  Can I even mention Rio?

(For a more detailed look at what the IOC’s relaxation means, see here)