Legal Issues With Using GIFs in Legal Blog Posts and Social Media

Law firms with even a basic social media presence know that using animated GIFs is a great way to attract attention. The moving picture draws the eyes of other users on sites like Twitter and Facebook, and offers a chance to show off your firm’s personality by making pop culture references and making light of current legal issues.

But is it even legal to use GIFs on your firm’s social media or in legal blog posts?

Your Firm Speaks in Commercial Speech

The first thing to remember about all marketing statements from your law firm are almost certainly going to be considered commercial speech. After all, the whole purpose behind marketing your firm online is to get more clients, more business, and more income.

As such, the statements you make online—including when you use animated GIFs—can get you in trouble if they infringe on someone else’s copyright.

Most GIFs are Copyrighted by Major Companies

Unfortunately, the vast majority of GIFs—or, at least, the vast majority of the GIFs that you might want to use—come from TV shows or movies made by major corporations with huge legal teams that scour the internet for unauthorized use of their content.

While most people can use GIFs without violating these copyrights, that ability comes from fair use law. Because most GIFs are short—rarely more than a couple of seconds long—they don’t portray a substantial portion of the shows they come from and don’t challenge the source material’s market.

Using GIFs for commercial speech, though, drastically (but does not completely) undercut your firm’s ability to use copyrighted material under fair use law.

Attribution Only Goes So Far

A huge source of confusion with using GIFs is that, unlike with sites that host images for use, GIFs rarely come with prominent terms for further use. While images licenses will usually say, often quite clearly, whether you can use it for commercial purposes or if you need to provide an attribution, GIFs tend not to. Worse, GIFs are used by so many people online and spread so rapidly that relying on one person’s terms of use does not necessarily mean that you are abiding by the original requirements.

Finally, even if you could protect yourself and your firm from copyright liability by properly attributing a GIF, doing so on social media is not easy.

More Problems: Public Figures and Trademarks

To add another layer of complexity to the issue, you can also face liability for using GIFs that depict public figures and trademarks without their authorization.

Again, because so many popular GIFs come from movies or TV shows, the people depicted in them are often celebrities who have certain rights of publicity. Using a GIF that features famous actors—as most do—runs the risk of receiving a cease and desist letter from the celebrity’s agent.

These problems are not just contained to public figures. Trademarks and other organizations who put out video content can also take aim at a GIF your firm posted in an attempt to protect their image or product. For example, FIFA, the major soccer organization, is notorious for its zero-tolerance policy towards the unauthorized use of videos or GIFs of its games.

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