The Saga of the Disappeared Baby Yoda Gifs
If a character becomes a meme, but there are no GIFs of it, did it ever really go viral? That’s the question now facing the very adorable creature the Internet has named “Baby Yoda.”
In mid-November of 2019, culture behemoth Disney launched its new streaming service, Disney +, with an exclusive Star Wars show. That show, The Mandalorian, gifted upon the world a tiny green elf with no name and no species. Due to clearly being a baby of the same race as the infamous Yoda, the creature was instantly monikered “Baby Yoda.” Baby Yoda is cute. Baby Yoda is so cute that its co-star, famous moviemaker and infamous weirdo Werner Herzog, called it “heartbreakingly beautiful.”
And when a thing is beloved by the Internet, we make GIFs. And one of the major platforms for making and sharing GIFs is Giphy. It allows you to create and upload GIFs to its library. Giphy is also integrated into Twitter, where you can search and share a GIF right from the compose window. You can integrate Giphy into other applications, too. Slack, for example, is compatible with Giphy.
The culture site Vulture was apparently using Giphy for its intended purpose—making and sharing GIFs—when staff writer Kathryn VanArendork shared on Twitter that all of the site’s Baby Yoda GIFs had been “removed from giphy for copyright reasons.” VanArendork added that Disney had claimed copyright infringement, but it’s unclear if Giphy took it down based on a DMCA claim if Giphy simply exercised its discretion to avoid a fight with the litigious behemoth that is Disney. In the former situation, Vulture could send a counter-notice and get the content restored. In the latter, as with videos that are blocked or taken down under YouTube’s Content ID system, what happens next is really up to the business preferences of the platform.
An added layer of hilarity to this is that at least two articles predating this situation (one written by the same person writing this entry in the Takedown Hall of Shame) have used Star Wars GIFs as examples of situations where GIFs would be fair use, and therefore would not be an infringement of copyright. For one thing, GIFs are usually a few seconds of looped animation, which doesn’t replace watching the actual show. On the contrary, they are often free marketing for the show.
Online speakers use GIFs as reactions, as commentary, as simply part of our broader cultural language. They imbue these clips with new meaning by placing them in a new context to express a new message. In legal terms, the common uses of GIFs are “transformative,” and are favored by the law of fair use. To use another Star Wars example, responding to someone’s bad news with the Darth Vader “Nooooo” GIF is less related to that moment’s meaning within Star Wars and more related to the context we, as a culture, have given it. In the movie, it is meant to be a dramatic and emotional moment. When you see that GIF now, the meaning is “this is a melodramatic overreaction to a piece of information.” The meme meaning has transformed those few seconds of media. Similarly, if someone were to use the following GIFs to tell Disney they were being overbearing bullies and that their aggression would backfire, that would be a transformative message building upon the defiant moments of these heroes of the Star Wars saga defying the cruel Empire. Padmé and Obi-Wan weren't criticizing Disney, but you can invoke the cultural and emotional connotation of those moments in crafting your own message.
Likewise, you could compare Disney to Star Wars character with a GIF. For example, the moment shown below isn't of a character meant to be Disney, but the criticism inherent in the use of the GIF adds weight to your message.
It is an overreach for Disney to claim that the Baby Yoda GIFs are copyright infringement. If Giphy took them down not because of a DMCA complaint, but because of fear of litigation, or a need to keep Disney happy, then Giphy is failing its users. Either way, this isn’t how copyright and fair use are supposed to work.