This question keeps coming up time and again. When you post a photo, a status update, or anything else on social media, who owns the copyright? Is Facebook or Twitter free to do whatever it wants with your picture? Let’s answer them once and for all.
Who Owns the Copyrights on Photo, Video, and Text?
Whoever originally captured the photo or video, or whoever originally said the text. In simple terms, if it’s an original status, photo, or video by you, you own the copyrights to it.
If you are posting someone else’s photo or video online, you don’t own the copyrights to it. It has to be something you created.
In fact, to be on the safe side, you should copyright your photos online.
Copyright Is Not the Same as Publishing License
This is a major distinction we all need to understand. Copyright is about ownership. It gives you ownership over something you created.
With this ownership, you are now free to decide where and how the copyrighted work is published (online or offline). You can publish it yourself, or you can give others the license to publish it. Go to Copyright.gov to understand all of this better.
And that’s what social networks exploit. While you own the copyright to your text, photo, or video, they gain substantial and far-reaching licenses to where and how your work can be published.
So What Can Social Networks Do?
When you signed up for any social network, you agreed to certain terms of services. You probably didn’t read those in detail, but they were important for this aspect.
For example, take Facebook’s terms of service:
The short explanation of this is that you granted Facebook the authority to do almost whatever it wants with your photo. You’ll find similar terms of services for Instagram, Twitter, and others.
In fact, Twitter includes specific language to let your tweets be reproduced in other media. If a site is embedding tweets that include your photos, that’s fair game.
What Does “Non-Exclusive, Transferable, Sub-Licensable, Royalty-Free” Mean?
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social networks use similar legalese in their terms of service. A common set of words you will find is “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free.” Let’s break it down to understand it.
- Non-Exclusive: You can still license this image to others for a fee. So if you have a high-resolution version to sell the photo online, go right ahead.
- Transferable: This license that you’re giving Facebook? You just said Facebook can transfer it to others. This is where things get scary for the copyright holder, along with the next word.
- Sub-Licensable: Oh, sneaky devils. Instagram can not only transfer their own license of your photo, but also sell a sub-license of it.
- Royalty-Free: And even if Twitter sells it, you don’t get a penny. You see, you gave it to them free of royalties.
In other words, these social networks can pretty much do whatever they want with your photos, videos, and text.
Do You Need to Post a Disclaimer to Stop Facebook?
Nope. For any original work, you own the copyrights already, plain and simple. And Facebook is free to do whatever it wants from the aforementioned rights.
It’s one of the most common misconceptions about Facebook. It’s useless to copy-paste a disclaimer notice that says something like, “I do not give Facebook or any entities associated with Facebook permission to use my pictures, information, or posts, both past and future. By this statement, I give notice to Facebook it is strictly forbidden to disclose, copy, distribute, or take any other action against me.”
When you clicked “Agree” on Facebook’s terms and services while signing up for the social network, you waived any such rights. To renegotiate these terms, you need to actually negotiate with Facebook’s lawyers. A silly little post like that isn’t legally valid.
What Do I Do?
Don’t panic. It sounds scary, but it’s not that bad.
Most of this legalese is a way for the social networks to cover themselves from frivolous lawsuits. If you didn’t give the above permissions, something as small as showing your likes on a friend’s timeline could become libel.
It also gives Twitter and Facebook cover for the smaller things, like a newspaper quoting President Trump’s tweets. It won’t be something he sues for, but it’s all about protecting the company’s backside.
Does This Mean Newspapers and Others Can Use My Stuff?
This is where things get interesting. There is a landmark case about newspapers and photo agencies publishing a photo from Twitter, Agence France Presse v. Morel.
Morel was a photographer covering the Haitian earthquake. Some of his photos ended up on Twitter, and someone else put them online without crediting him. AFP and Getty Images (which act as news and photo agencies for media outlets) published these photos, which in turn were printed worldwide. Morel sued AFP and Getty Images.
Eventually, the judge ruled in favor of Morel. The verdict made it clear that AFP and Getty did one thing wrong. AFP and Getty did not seek Morel’s permission/license to publish or republish the photos. It did not matter that AFP sourced the images from a second party who posted them online.
In essence, permission is key. If your original work is commercially sold or used elsewhere without your permission, you might have a case. That’s why you will often find reporters and bloggers seeking permission to repost material they see online.
That said, things are a bit different with art. In the case of artist Richard Prince, the courts consider what he did to be “fair use”.
I received a National Endowment For The Arts in 1985. pic.twitter.com/6eyXQ1Gxqf
— Richard Prince (@RichardPrince4) March 18, 2017
Prince took screenshots of Instagram photos with added commentary. The overall work was considered art, even if Prince didn’t take the photo or write the caption in it. Read the full explanation of the fascinating case if you’re interested in this.
As of now, “fair use” is a grey area. Social media and copyrights is an evolving scenario, and it’ll largely be treated on a case-by-case basis.
But most most lawyers agree that it’s safer for news organizations to ask permission first, or otherwise take down photos and media if the copyright holder tells them to.
Don’t Worry About Copyrights, Worry About the Rest
The bottomline is that when it comes to the photos, videos, and text you create on social networks, you own it. Don’t worry about how the social network uses it. To be doubly sure, copyright them online. If a third party uses it commercially without your permission, tell them to stop, or see a lawyer.
What you do need to worry about is what you say online. Did you know you can be sued for your tweets and posts? That’s a much scarier scenario of how someone uses your online photos and words.
Image Credit: LisaA85/Depositphotos