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NFL Continues to Tighten Its Grip on Social Media Content

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on October 19, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Most sports leagues might be excited to see a GIF or Vine of an awesome play go viral -- after all, that's like free advertising for your product, right? But most sports leagues aren't the NFL, and last week the media behemoth took further steps to protect its trademark on even the smallest snippets of game action.

Under the NFL's new social media policy, its own teams can be fined for posting its own video of games on social media, and are barred from using streaming apps like Facebook Live and Periscope to stream in-stadium footage. And violations of the new rules could quickly lead to six-digit fines. Here's a look.

League First, Teams Second

So what's specifically against the rules? Individual teams are prohibited from posting in-game footage to their official social media accounts without league approval. While teams are limited to posting only footage that the NFL has first added to an internal server for the teams to access, the league has assured teams it will put more content on the server than ever before.

The NFL's social media chief, Tom Brady (not that Tom Brady, the other one), told Yahoo! Finance that the new policy will "allow teams to do much more than before," even with teams needing to wait on league approval or posting before passing on game content. Although Brady said this social media policy is less restrictive than previous iterations, the league can't be completely hands-off, even with its member teams. "If we allowed the clubs, and ourselves, to put every single bit out there, there could end up being a lot of noise."

More cynical observers could look at the policy as just the latest incremental move in the league's quest to own, and sell, every piece of the game as possible. Around this time last year, Twitter suspended two accounts, presumably for posting short gifs of NFL game action. That episode raised questions of trademark infringement, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, free speech, and fair use laws, but without any legal resolution.

And it's unlikely any confrontation will happen in this case, either. The league is comprised of the member teams, and while a team's social media team might chafe under the new content handcuffs, teams probably won't be suing the league to stream game highlights before the league can. But the questions remain regarding just how much of a football game, if not all of it, the NFL can own and commodify, and whether fair use laws would still apply.

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