GIFs are just the latest in a long list of restrictions imposed by the Olympics committee. The media is also barred from using the Olympics logo in header images, while nonsponsor brands are prohibited from associating themselves with the Olympics on social media by using hashtags like #Rio2016 and #TeamUSA. Even words like "Olympian" and "Go for the Gold" would get them in trouble. The reasoning is to avoid brand confusion as well as to dodge so-called ambush marketing, whereby a brand can draw attention away from the official sponsors. While that's important to advertisers, it doesn't really affect individuals like you and me -- we're still free to use Olympic hashtags with abandon.
GIF of McKayla Maroney's vault during the 2012 Olympics
The problem with the GIF ban, however, is that it is indeed about us. By making it harder to spread Olympic cheer with GIFs and Vines, they're actually reducing the amount of positive press attention they would otherwise receive. The truth is, the less viral content there is, the less likely it'll get circulated. It won't appear as often in the press and the story will reach fewer people. Think back to the 2012 Olympics and how much more engaging and interesting the stories were when GIFs were allowed. They allow the media to highlight important moments in a way that still photos never can.
Plus, it's not like watching a six-second clip of Michael Phelps doing a flip turn in the pool is going to stop people from checking out the actual race. If anything, it's actually free advertising. In addition, NBC does post 10-second video clips of certain sporting events on Olympic-specific Snapchat channels -- like one of Aly Raisman sticking her landing on the vault. So the concern that social-media clips would deter people from watching the actual event seems to ring hollow. Of course, these Snapchat clips are interspersed with advertising, which is why these official short clips are OK. This way they're making as much money as possible.
The IOC isn't the only sports entity to clamp down on social media sharing. Last year, Twitter suspended the accounts of Deadspin and SB Nation due to copyright claims by the NFL, the Big 12, the SEC and the UFC for sharing GIFs of associated sports events. FIFA doesn't allow Vines and GIFs of the World Cup, and the Premier League has threatened fans with lawsuits when they've posted GIFs. Though these rights-holders do have the power to send off DMCA takedown notices, copyright laws are murky when it comes to GIFs, which could fall under fair use. "Courts are much more likely to find fair use when it's transformative," said Andy Sellars, an attorney at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, in a recent interview with the Poynter Institute. "Most cases with GIFs, this would tend to be OK."
"Fair use is about recontextualizing," said Patricia Aufderheide, a founder of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University's School of Communication. If the GIF is for poking fun at something or used for commentary, then it's easier to claim that it's fair use. Otherwise, it's not so clear-cut. "You can't make any blanket statements," she said.
In my view, the use of GIFs is so widespread that trying to stop its propagation is pointless. Even with the media ban on GIFs and Vines, the public can obviously still create and share these clips on their own (we've reached out to the IOC to hear what its response would be if the public were to create GIFs and have yet to hear back). The press is also already starting to figure out creative ways to thwart the ban, like creating GIFs of infographics and illustrations rather than of the actual event. Why not just lift the ban in the first place?
The Olympics has already embraced virtual reality in its chase for viewership and a desire to keep up with media trends. It should embrace GIFs too.