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Why the EPL crackdown on Vines is bad news for sports fans

During the World Cup, FIFA (along with ESPN and Univision) started going after numerous social media users who were creating Vines and GIFs of the event. Now that the Premier League season has officially begun, the folks across the pond will be indulging in the same behavior.

It was bound to happen. The English Premier League announced Friday that it plans to crack down.

“You can understand that fans see something, they can capture it, they can share it, but ultimately it is against the law,” the league’s director of communications, Dan Johnson, told the BBC.

“It’s a breach of copyright and we would discourage fans from doing it,” he added. “We’re developing technologies like GIF crawlers, Vine crawlers, working with Twitter to look to curtail this kind of activity. I know it sounds as if we’re killjoys but we have to protect our intellectual property.”

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Is it really “against the law”? Is it actually a “breach of copyright”? Here’s what we suspect Johnson is referring to, straight from the league’s 2014-15 Handbook:

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But why are these measures even necessary?

Media conglomerate News Corp UK & Ireland, Ltd., which owns The Sun and The Times, bought the rights to online and mobile highlights back in January 2013. Nineteen months later, the league is deciding to put its foot down.

Enter the Sun’s deputy head of sport, Dean Scoggins.

“It’s important to underline that it’s illegal to do this, we’ve obviously signed a very big deal with the Premier League to be a rights holder and to show it, we’ve got legal teams talking with them about what we can do,” he said.

If this crackdown is actually enforced, it could profoundly affect the way you watch not just the Premier League, but the four major sports in North America. Before we get to that, let’s tackle the biggest question here: How seriously will it actually be carried out?

The “crawlers” Johnson mentioned are essentially programs that detect file formats like GIFs and Vine videos. When they find something that matches their content, they can automatically have the content removed from a site or social network. That first requires the cooperation of the site itself.

If companies like Twitter, Vine and Reddit give in to the league, these crawlers would certainly wipe out some of the media content uploaded by fans. But it wouldn’t eliminate all of it. As someone who has experience in the video editing world, I’ll just say that professional editors have tricks up their sleeves to get around this kind of thing. Look no further than Major League Baseball, for example.

Everybody knows MLB’s “express written consent” policy. It’s been in place for years, but was largely a punchline until the advent of smartphones, GIFs and social media. Only when people started making GIFs, and now Vines, using MLB original content did the league begin to crack down by removing some of the unofficial content uploaded to blogs and the like. But because of the sheer amount of unauthorized content being created, they haven’t been able to get rid of everything.

That could be a problem for the EPL media police, too. There’s just too much content being uploaded during every match for the crawlers to catch it all.

So, what impact will this have on fans who also watch American football, baseball, basketball, or hockey?

While a statement like this is most alarming for EPL fans, it shouldn’t be taken lightly by fans of North American leagues. Even if it appears to do very little, it has already set a precedent. A major professional league is taking a very public stance on the issue, opening the door for other leagues to do the same. Sure, it’s impossible to fully enforce, and the league’s legal standing is murky.  But simply by coming out against it, this allows other leagues to cite precedent and makes it more likely that they’ll follow suit.

If the crackdown is successful, that’s even more reason for rival leagues to do the same. Pro sports leagues are in constant competition with each other, and they often mimic one another’s policies in order to stay competitive.

This vow isn’t really a surprising development, considering there’s a lucrative rights deal involved. There’s an investment to protect. The game has changed, and this is essentially just a response to the popularity of Vine.

But the EPL simply doesn’t understand the value of free publicity.

Look at the NBA. It’s now a truly global game for many reasons, and one major factor is how tolerant the league is when it comes to sharing online media. This is a league that freely allows users to upload clips to YouTube, Reddit, Vine, Twitter and Facebook. The NBA gets it. It understands how people consume news and highlights now. It’s making nearly $1 billion in the current TV contract with ESPN and TNT. So why not open things up online and promote your product for free? Your key demographic gets exposed to the game and you still have more than enough revenue coming in from broadcast partners and corporate sponsors to thrive as a business.

This is why it’s so hard to understand why the EPL would opt for an exclusive online rights deal. Last season, the league and News Corp had an agreement, yet they still allowed online media to be shared and created at will. What was wrong with that arrangement?

Now, what we’ll have is a single corporate entity controlling all of the content and prohibiting users from doing it themselves. Competition is good for business. It benefits everyone. It’s what capitalism is all about. But more importantly, limiting the content distribution to one source hampers creativity and stunts the growth of the game.

So what’s the solution?

If the EPL doesn’t want to go completely liberal like the NBA, it should at least look at how MLB has adapted. Official MLB Twitter accounts now create and embed their own GIFs and Vines. Sure, they’re not the best quality, but it’s the principle. They finally get it. They still go after some bloggers who frequently upload videos, but most of their content is embeddable and available on the official site. Meanwhile, fans are still creating and sharing the content with only rare instances of blow-back from the league.

The EPL would do well to compromise here. Start an EPL Advanced Media department. Start producing and sharing your own content. Show your fans that you know how they watch your game. If the league goes forward with its plan to crack down, it will be biting the hand that feeds it. The crusade will just be seen as an affront to the fans.

This is bound to make waves in England, and soon enough, the ripples will be felt on the other side of the pond.

Josh Gold-Smith

About Josh Gold-Smith

Josh is a staff writer and the resident video editor for Awful Announcing. He is also a news editor at theScore, based in Toronto. GIF has a hard G, Bridgeport Sound doesn't exist, and the jury's still out on #Vineghazi

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