On Sunday, NRG Stadium in Houston will host more than 70,000 football fans for Super Bowl LI. Pre-game events have already drawn thousands of people to the city. Those attending the big game will pay up to $6,000 per ticket, but the millions of viewers watching from home will, arguably, have a much better seat. The vantage point of your sofa will give you many perks: commentary, replays, fun commercials, and better food to name a few. Many fans will capture game video with the hopes of turning a fantastic play or a memorable touchdown celebration into a GIF for all the world to see on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. For its part, the NFL strongly discourages the use of its images, so for those of you hoping to create the next viral meme, let the law be your guide.
The NFL is notoriously protective of its brand. All text, images, photographs, video, audio, and graphics are tightly controlled, and any use of the NFL's content must comply with the NFL.com Terms and Conditions Agreement. Nonetheless, ripping images or video from television broadcasts is a popular way to create the GIFs and other graphic memes that fill our news feeds, and football replays are some of the most widely shared.
When news outlets use GIFs to enhance a story, they often rely on the fair use defense, but legal experts question the plausibility of such claims. Ricardo Bilton, Staff Writer at Digiday.com, describes the legal murkiness of sports highlight GIFs, saying that fair use may not apply. When publishers rip video highlights and repost them unaltered online, those content providers reap the benefits of increased ad revenue. However, as the popular websites, Deadspin and SB Nation, found out, fair use has its limits, and legislation such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act can be invoked to support claims of copyright infringement.
Those who appropriate content without paying the rebroadcasting fees that sports leagues, including the NFL, typically require must be careful. As long as the new content is "derivative of the original and does not create economic competition for copyright holders," the NFL will evaluate it on a case-by-case basis.
As for the armchair quarterback and amateur image manipulator, the same rules apply. Remixing and repurposing content to parody or critique your favorite plays of the game follows the spirit of fair use. Unless the NFL sends you a takedown notice, your GIF of the game-winning catch, modified for new utility and meaning with no intent to profit, is probably safe. May the best GIFs go viral and may the best team win.