The IOC Wants to Ban GIFs of the Olympics, Which, Ha, Good Luck

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Photo: Lars Baron

The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro kick off tonight with opening ceremonies that will celebrate, from what I understand, hasty construction schedules and poop-filled water. You could watch the ceremony on NBC, on your television (like a caveman), or you can settle into what has become a pretty regular routine of catching the highlights on social media. Let others slog through the metaphorical poop-filled water of Olympic excess to find the moments of triumph.

But if you were planning on seeing GIFs or video clips online, you might want to temper those expectations. Official rules from the International Olympic Committee expressly prohibit them.

From the official rules for news organizations:

Additionally, the use of Olympic Material transformed into graphic animated formats such as animated GIFs (i.e. GIFV), GFY, WebM, or short video formats such as Vines and others, is expressly prohibited.

On the one hand, yes, the IOC is entirely within their rights to determine how the event they administrate and the trademarks they own are broadcast to the world.

On the other hand, lol that’s not how it works anymore.

Credentialed news organizations that need to play nice with the IOC in order to get access, benefits, and resources from them might go along with this, but the (hypothetical) guy who runs the (hypothetical) epicsportsgifs.tumblr.com doesn’t give a crap. This is because the internet moves much faster than the speed of intellectual-property law, and it is much better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. Viral Olympic moments come and go in a matter of hours, bursts of attention that flip from one clip to the next much faster than it takes to file a DMCA takedown notice, and a relative snap of the fingers compared to actual litigation.

Unless the IOC has a diligent monitoring system for identifying Olympic content — and maybe they do, because as far as I can tell, the IOC is run by alien bodysnatchers forever experiencing their first day on Earth, unfamiliar with how real people operate — GIFs and Vines are going to get out there regardless.

In the analog age, this type of ban was simple. But there are all sorts of thorny questions regarding safe harbor online. Big sites with millions of users like Facebook, Twitter, Vine, and YouTube are protected by “safe harbor” statutes, meaning that, in most cases, they aren’t responsible for what users post on their service. And then those sites allow their content to be embedded on other sites, which puts another layer of separation between the original content creator and its final location.

So, hypothetically, I could not produce a GIF of something happening at the Olympics, but is the IOC really going to come after me if I were to embed a GIF someone else posted on Twitter into one of my posts? On a technological level, it’s not being hosted by me, it’s being pulled from someone else’s server.

NBC currently has partnerships with Snapchat and Facebook to show highlights on their network, so those platforms might be more aggressive than usual in issuing takedowns. Twitter might offer a similar resources because of partnerships. But again, this is all after the fact: They can’t respond until someone posts something, and it goes viral enough to get flagged in their system.

Embedding content someone else created is the easiest way to use someone else’s work, in this case the IOC’s, and also the easiest way to avoid responsibility for disseminating it. At best, the IOC won’t really care. At worst, the committee and platforms will be playing the world’s most nihilistic game of Whac-A-Mole.