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Sports site's Twitter account suspended after NFL complains about GIFs

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The NFL reignited a contentious debate today around copyright, fair use, and the explosive use of social media platforms to talk about and watch viral sports footage. Twitter suspended the account belonging to sports media organization Deadspin this afternoon after what appears to be alleged copyright violations related to the sharing of NFL GIFs.

At some point in the afternoon today, Deadspin's main Twitter account went dark, but around 8PM ET Deadspin's account was reinstated without explanation. The response on Twitter was immediate, with some speculating that the Deadspin suspension could be related to the sharing of a deleted tweet from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, with others pointed the figure at the MLB. Deadspin owner Gawker Media's social media strategist, Terron Moore, confirmed to journalists on Twitter that it was in fact the NFL, which sent a dozen and a half takedown notices over the course of 45 minutes related to GIFs.

Twitter said it does not comment on individual accounts, but forwarded standard takedown notices it issues on behalf of the NFL. Those notices say, "As you may be aware, the NFL owns and/or controls the worldwide rights to license intellectual property of the NFL and its Member Clubs, including, but not limited to, moving images and other audio/video content featuring NFL game action and/or other NFL programming (collectively, "NFL Content"), and the copyrights in and to the NFL Content."

The NFL ultimately released a statement regarding the Deadspin suspension, saying it filed complaints with Twitter but did not request that Twitter suspend the account. "The NFL sent routine notices as part of its copyright enforcement program requesting that Twitter disable links to more than a dozen pirated NFL game videos and highlights that violate the NFL’s copyrights," the league said in its statement. "We did not request that any Twitter account be suspended."

An account belonging to SB Nation dedicated to tweeting out GIFs of sports highlights was also suspended earlier on Sunday, but that suspension was related to college football GIFs using footage from third party rights holder XOS Digital.

"SB Nation received an email from Twitter notifying us that the @SBNationGIF account had been suspended, due to a DMCA notice Twitter received related to several gifs and vines sent from the @SBNationGIF account, which contained content from college football game broadcasts," the company said in statement. "We are working with Twitter to resolve the issue and restore the account. All other SB Nation accounts are in good standing. We take copyright infringement issues seriously and always try to keep our use of unlicensed third party footage within the bounds of fair use." (SB Nation's parent company, Vox Media, also owns The Verge.)

The suspensions are part of an ongoing debate over the use of sports footage on Twitter, which has ebbed and flowed with large-scale sporting events like the 2014 FIFA World Cup and this year's Super Bowl. Twitter struck a deal with the NFL in August to bring more in-game highlights and copyright-protected video to Twitter's platform. The decision was in part a response to increasing use among fans of Twitter's own properties — live streaming app Periscope and looping video platform Vine — to share snippets of sports broadcasts.

That NFL deal was also a victory for Twitter's business side, which has been on the hunt for more revenue-growing initiatives. Notably, Twitter CFO Anthony Noto, who joined the company in July 2014, held the position of CFO at the NFL from 2008 to 2010 before taking a gig at Goldman Sachs.

Twitter CFO Anthony Noto held the same position at the NFL

In the last few months, Twitter has begun clarifying what is and isn't permitted on its platform, worrying activists and others who use Twitter as a platform for free expression. In August, the company shut off access to a network of sites known as Politwoops that archived deleted tweets from politicians around the world. Twitter cited its lack of distinction between politicians and regular users, saying at the time, "Imagine how nerve-racking — terrifying, even — tweeting would be if it was immutable and irrevocable? No one user is more deserving of that ability than another. Indeed, deleting a tweet is an expression of the user’s voice."

Jack Dorsey, who assumed the role of permanent Twitter CEO last week, is in a tough spot. He's tasked with maintaining the core philosophy of Twitter as a platform for free speech while attempting to remedy Twitter's lack of user growth and revenue potential, both of which led to the resignation of his predecessor, Dick Costolo, back in June. On the day he assumed the CEO role, Dorsey reiterated his company's values in a tweet that read, "Twitter stands for freedom of expression. We stand for speaking truth to power. And we stand for empowering dialogue."

Update at 9:04PM ET: Clarified that SB Nation suspension was not related to takedown notices from the NFL.

Update at 12:23PM ET, Tuesday, October 13: Added comment from Twitter and SB Nation, as well as clarification around Twitter's decision to suspend Deadline.