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A GIF can make or break a social media post or marketing email, driving your audience to laugh, groan, and/or share your content with their own followers.

But that’s not all it can do. It can also get you sued.

Adweek reported Pizza Hut’s social media team repurposed a popular video of a TikTok user sampling kombucha for the first time, posting the video in a tweet about whether the pizza brand would launch a new pie. The TikTok user called out Pizza Hut on Twitter, and the hungry vultures of the Twitterverse quickly fell upon the brand’s social piracy. Pizza Hut deleted the tweet and did not respond to Adweek’s request for commentary.

The Adweek article provides a great primer for how brands (and PR agencies) should approach the use of GIFs (and any other images that don’t fall under fair use) on social media.

Basically, if an image, meme, video or GIF was created by and appears to belong to someone else, a lawyer Adweek interviewed recommends getting permission from the copyright holder of the underlying original content; the creator of the GIF; and (emphasis mine) the person or people shown in the GIF.

Brands need to worry about complying with this more than regular people, the lawyer said: If I share someone else’s GIF/image/video on my personal Twitter account, the content creator is unlikely to lawyer up and come after me (and probably will just be pleased their content is reaching a wider audience).

But if I share someone else’s GIF on my client’s Twitter account, with a marketing message promoting my client’s product or service, then I could be opening the door to – at the very least – bad publicity in the form of the content creator excoriating me on Twitter, or – in the worst case – legal action. There’s no specific judicial precedent for this, but the possibility exists.

The lawyer in the Adweek article preaches caution when using GIFs and similar content – saying specifically that he advises against it, but acknowledges “that is not really practical [or] realistic in this day and age, when brands are communicating with their customers via GIFs and memes.” He recommends searching for GIFs through the social platform (Facebook, Twitter) itself, as content available on sites like Giphy is generally fair game.

Brands also need to remember that everyone and anyone can be an influencer these days, and influencers now expect to be paid. If you do reach out to a content creator to use their GIF, meme or video, expect to pony up some cash in exchange for permission.

In a world where everything is searchable and hash-taggable, and content created in seconds can go viral for days, these questions of ownership and fair use will continue to crop up. Brands need to be aware of the implications of repurposing or reusing others’ content – because even something that seems like a harmless way to connect with your audience can backfire.

Mary Beth Nevulis

Author Mary Beth Nevulis

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