UFC Women’s Bantamweight champion Ronda ‘Rowdy’ Rousey‘s last fight ended in 34 seconds. The two before that ended in 16 seconds and 14 seconds respectively, one by knock out and the other by submission. The brevity and ‘wow’ factor of those bouts made them the perfect ingredients for animated GIFs which then spread across the internet through social media and image sharing websites like Imgur and Tumblr. But is it legal to create and share these seemingly harmless GIFs?
Ronda Rousey v Bethe Correia UFC 190 picture from Shutterstock
While the UFC is diligent in taking down clips of its copyrighted fights on YouTube and torrent websites, I’ve seen all those short Rousey bouts over and over again on the internet as GIFs. I didn’t hesitate to share them with my friends, along with “reaction GIFs” containing snippets of famous movies which perfectly encapsulated my awe over her glorious wins. The files are generally small in size, making them easier to share than a streamed video clip which can take an eternity to load (also known as ‘buffering hell’).
Why would I even think twice about doing it? GIFs are all over the web and some media outlets even use them to tell the news. Even if they are taken from copyrighted material, these animated files are usually of low quality and contain no audio. The overlaying of captions in the animations themselves make them look different from the original as well.
So is it legal to make and propagate GIFs of copyrighted content on the internet?
“The answer is that it’s a complicated and unresolved issue,” Michael Williams, intellectual property lawyer at Gilbert + Tolbin, said. “The practical rules around GIFs that use video content are still evolving but some copyright owners have started to enforce their rights over video content replicated in GIFs.”
An example of this is the English Premier League which have started to crackdown on fans posting unofficial videos of soccer goals online through social media and, yes, GIFs. No legal action has been taken against GIF sharers yet and Williams doesn’t know of any rights holder suing specifically over this short animated format.
But it’s a mistake to treat GIFs differently to other digital video formats and copyright is attached to video files, he said. If you replicate enough of a copyrighted video file and share it then you’re infringing copyright.
“GIFs don’t sit in a separate bucket to other copyright videos even without the sound,” Williams said. “The test for infringement is whether you’ve taken a substantial part of it.”
Ronda Rousey v Bethe Correia UFC 190 face-off picture from Shutterstock
Rumour has it that if you take less than 10 per cent then you’re not infringing on any copyright. Sorry to burst your bubble, but that’s just a myth.
The key word here is “substantial”. What constitutes as substantial? For movies, if a scene is deemed a crucial part of the film, even if it’s five seconds, it’s still covered under copyright laws. Same with a goal scoring clip in a soccer game. In other words, it’s the ‘money shot’.
“If you take the Ronda Rousey fight, as an example, the whole thing lasted 34 seconds. If the whole fight was reposted in GIF form that’s going to be a copyright infringement,” Williams said.
It can be enough if an important part of a movie or video has been taken in a GIF. Williams pointed to the scene in Jerry Maguire where Tom Cruise shouts “Show me the money!”, a staple reaction GIF that has been used for many years.
“It’s not difficult for the rights holder of that movie to sue if they choose to do so,” he said.
Some GIF makers might argue that if you modified a video clip enough as a GIF, under the Fair Use doctrine you’ve used it for a limited and “transformative” purpose so it falls outside of copyright laws. Unfortunately, the Fair Use defence doesn’t fly in Australia, according to Williams. Fair Use is really more applicable in the US (and a small number of other countries) and even the word “transformative” runs into problems in the US, because it’s so damn vague. Stanford University noted that “millions of dollars in legal fees have been spent attempting to define what qualifies fair use.”
As for GIF sharers, be mindful that even sharing a link to a GIF from a movie that’s hosted on some distant third-party network still counts as a copyright infringement. This includes sharing the link privately to a friend over email.
It’s important to preface that just because it’s illegal to share copyrighted video content through GIFs doesn’t mean you’ll have lawyers knocking at your door. As mentioned, even Williams hasn’t heard of anybody being taken to court over copyright violations with GIFs yet, but it’s still good to know the legalities surrounding this topic since rights holders are becoming increasingly aware of videos being shared in this format.
It’s entirely up to you whether you want to risk making and sharing GIFs of copyright content. All I’m going to say is that I’ll continue to trawl through Imgur for my GIF fix.