On February 13th, 2020, the above tweet was posted to the account @SirLariato. The tweet reveals that the user’s far more popular account @MrLARIATO had been suspended by Twitter after receiving copyright strikes from FiteTV for utilizing footage from New Japan’s recent The New Beginning in Osaka event.
The @MrLARIATO account might be familiar to you as a wrestling fan. Even if you’re only casually involved in the online wrestling community, you’re likely to have come across his work as a GIF creator on Twitter. Along with accounts like @tde_wrestling, @MrLARIATO really led the charge of capturing spots and moments from professional wrestling events in the easy to digest, easy to share form of the GIF.
Over the years, @MrLARIATO has created GIFs for a wide variety of wrestling content ranging from modern day New Japan, the King’s Road All Japan classics from the 90s, various independent promotions across the world, lucha libre, old British wrestling. Most any form of notable pro wrestling has found its way onto his account.
And now, for the time being at least, that’s gone.
Despite being the most prominent case of this, @MrLARIATO is only one of a whole slew of content creators who received copyright strikes from FiteTV across multiple platforms including Twitter and YouTube. Longtime wrestling YouTuber Rassslin’ Rantin’ had a video taken down despite utilizing only still images from the show–a common practice that has typically been untouched by YouTube’s content ID flagging system. Friend of the blog and the channel Tyler-Kun Williams, for example, had videos of him discussing NJPW The New Beginning in Osaka struck down from his channel.
As someone who has followed YouTube content creators for most of their life as well as being a YouTube content creator myself, this is a story as old as time. Channels that utilize copyrighted material have long struggled with YouTube’s content ID system and the difficulty that creators face when attempting to appeal these claims. As far back as the late 2000s, I have memories of channels like the Nostalgia Critic or the Angry Video Game Nerd having their material taken down from YouTube as a result of copyright strikes. Similar problems seem to crop up every few years as the system continues to change and evolve, bringing with it new sets of problems each time.
Even within just the wrestling YouTube sphere, the loss of channels like Showbuckle and Real Neat Puro remains fresh in the mind. Both channels really led the way in the 2010s for English language New Japan video essays that gained so much traction and popularity that they would occasionally be named on New Japan commentary. Some time in 2018, both channels had their material purged as both primarily used footage from New Japan shows as the b-roll for voiceover commentary. It doesn’t exactly seem like coincidence that soon after, New Japan would roll out an English dedicated YouTube channel that contained content breaking down histories in a style similar to that of both Real Neat Puro and Showbuckle.
As someone who creates content in this space, I’m hyperaware of the risks of using copyrighted footage. My video essays are built almost entirely on copyrighted footage from the wrestling promotions that I discuss. One of my favorite videos I’ve ever created for YouTube is currently blocked from being viewed because of copyright claims from the WWE. The lack of both WWE and New Japan content on my channel is not an accident. Historically, these two companies have been the strictest enforcers of their copyright online.
In times like this, it is common for myself and similar content creators to defend their use of copyrighted footage under the principles of Fair Use. Fair use is a principle in copyright law that allows creator to utilize copyrighted material in certain scenarios. Specifically, fair use protects the use of copyrighted material for the purposes of commentary and criticism. While at first glance, this might seem like one could use any amount of copyrighted footage and material as long as they provide some commentary and opinions on the material, there are actually further factors that decide whether something falls under fair use.
These factors include 1) the transformative nature of the work in question; 2) the effect of the use upon the potential market; and 3) the amount of copyrighted material being used. The first and second of the factors boil down to whether a creator’s work that utilizes copyrighted material has a separate purpose from the original copyrighted work that does not cause damage to the potential profits of the copyright owner. The third factor essentially boils down to the less copyrighted material you use, the better.
In the case of Tyler-Kun Williams, for example, he argues that his livestream falls under fair use under all three factors. In his reaction video to Minoru Suzuki vs. Jon Moxley, he used brief clips from the match in between extended sections of himself on camera discussing his reaction to the material. In this example, Williams transforms the material by making the primary focus of the video being his own reactions and insights. This appeals to an entirely different market purpose than the actual New Japan event itself as the experience of watching Williams’ video can not act as a substitution for seeing the event itself. No one who wants to see Jon Moxley vs. Minoru Suzuki could watch Williams’ video as a replacement for that experience.
On my own channel, I often worry about eventual copyright strikes because when it comes to fair use, I fly much closer to the sun than someone like Williams. For one, I use much more footage than Williams as none of my videos feature original on-camera material. Practically every second of my most successful video essays utilizes copyrighted wrestling footage. Secondly, although one could definitely argue that all my videos fall under protections for commentary and criticism, there is an argument to be made that the more detailed spot for spot match breakdowns might not be a transformative enough use of the footage. It’s likely why this news about @MrLARIATO and the various other online wrestling creators has stuck in my head so much.
Which brings us right back to @MrLARIATO.
In my honest opinion, one which does not hold any real power or legal bearing whatsoever, @MrLARIATO’s GIFs aren’t protected under fair use. Most of @MrLARIATO’s GIFs came with a brief caption in the accompanying tweet that typically only described the contents of the GIF usually with a brief descriptor of quality (ie “A great moonsault”) as the only additional commentary being made. From my perspective, @MrLARIATO doesn’t transform the material at all. The volume with which he GIFs and posts material from each show also makes a decent case for overstepping onto the wrestling promotion’s initial audience.
Again, I have no actual sway or power here. Only a judge can make a final decision on what is or isn’t fair use but from where I stand, @MrLARIATO’s highlight GIFs don’t match my understanding of fair use. From that perspective, FiteTV would be well within their rights to protect their footage and move against @MrLARIATO.
But there is a bigger question at play here.
Does it actually matter if @MrLARIATO’s GIFs are fair use?
While from my perspective @MrLARIATO doesn’t transform the purpose of the footage he uses, a much more pertinent question is how do those GIFs actually affect the market. While there certainly exists a very valid argument that @MrLARIATO’s content has the potential to harm FiteTV’s potential sales (especially since the GIFs show off the highlights of each match, the most important parts of the product), it’s fair to say that his GIFs could also have the opposite effect.
There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence online to suggest that people discovered certain wrestlers and promotions via @MrLARIATO’s GIFs. That fandom and connection could then translate into seeking out complete matches, following the wrestlers involved, and then turn into actual sales for full events, DVDs, streaming services, you name it. In many ways, @MrLARIATO put out highlights that acted as free advertisements for the wrestling he captured.
And this isn’t just a sentiment voiced by fans and followers of @MrLARIATO either. Multiple wrestlers and promoters have gone on the record to support @MrLARIATO in the wake of his suspension. Tweets from major independent companies have claimed that @MrLARIATO’s content exposed their products to much wider audiences which in turn increased their financial success.
Tweets like those from the official AAW and GCW accounts show that promoters acknowledge the effect that GIF-makes can have on their business. Chris Brookes’ tweet above outlines this line of thought as well. The more eyes on your product, the better. In a business where significance and relevance are so fleeting, a viral tweet can do a lot to boost the profile a promotion or wrestler. Think about how much mileage Ospreay and Ricochet got from the GIFs of their Best of the Super Junior match or how Jordan Oliver and Blake Christian became a major talking point recently because of their match in GCW. At their most viral, these GIFs have a major effect on the wrestling business–which promotions succeed, which wrestlers get booked.
In fact, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that GIF creators like @MrLARIATO and the culture that they’ve inadvertently fostered has also affected not just the way that pro wrestling is distributed and advertised but also how it gets created. With the proliferation of wrestling GIFs, more and more wrestling has trended towards creating spots and moments that can best fit that medium.
Now while wrestling in general trends towards faster, flashier styles just as a rule, I’d venture to say that the rise of social media and GIF-makers have helped speed this trend along. This is especially important on the international independent wrestling scene as individual wrestlers try to create a buzz and brand behind their name that makes them worth booking by various promoters all across the globe. When people retweet Jordan Oliver and Blake Christian doing their spotty counter wrestling exchanges at a GCW event, it puts value behind both Oliver and Christian’s names that make them much more attractive to promoters.
On the positive side of things, this culture has led to the rise of creativity and ambition from pro wrestlers. Independent wrestlers continue to push their athletic capabilities to create visually dazzling offense that catches the eye and all the retweets. At its worst, it leads to a focus on spotfests over everything. Matches being built around GIF-able spots that forget the connective tissue and emotional weight that simply can’t be translated in a few seconds of footage.
While it may sound like this is purely an indie pro wrestling problem, I actually think that the WWE are some of the worst abusers of this particular culture. Think of how Keith Lee’s push has been built around creating GIF-able moments that WWE themselves spread and meme to death on their social media. The insular nature of the WWE content creating machine strips the joy of organically discovered gems of wrestling footage and turns it into an overbearing attempt to constantly “make moments.” I’ve talked about how upsetting this can be at its worst before so I won’t go on too much about it here.
If there’s anything I hope you’ve gathered from the scrambled thoughts I’ve laid out here today is that this seemingly small piece of the wrestling world actually has a much larger effect than at first glance. The suspension of @MrLARIATO’s account incites such passionate feelings from people as it highlights the divide between what is legally right and what people perceive to be right for the wrestling culture. And for better or worse, in big ways and small, intentional or not, @MrLARIATO and GIF-makers in general have played a part in shaping the online fan culture of professional wrestling which in turn has affected how those within the wrestling industry engages with its fans. Much like one of his GIFs, what you see at first glance is really only a piece of the puzzle.