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Who Owns Your Social Media Content - Legally?

Updated: 3 days ago

Social Media

Most businesses, whether micro or megacorp, use social media to promote their products or services. Charities, freelancers and especially influencers and content creators also heavily rely on social media for getting their messages out. Social media has the power to start conversations, transform reputations, spread information, launch campaigns, sell products and inspire. So influential is social media, that it is heavily utilised by businesses and some people have made it into their profession. Yet, there is something very fragile about these astronomical networks that begs us to ask - who actually owns your social media content?

You Own Your Social Media Content

Anything that you create and post on social media is owned by you.

In the UK, copyright protection is automatic. Your work is owned by you as soon as you put ‘pen to paper’ without any need to register or pay any fees. Copyright is an intellectual property right and protects:

  • Literary work

  • Art

  • Performance

  • Sound and music

  • Film and television

  • Broadcasting

  • Software

  • Design

  • Online content

The content you create, as long as you have not formally agreed to assign over the copyright, belongs to you. This includes any original work you post on facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and other social media platforms. As such, you may pursue legal action against anyone who infringes on your copyrighted material, especially if it is being used for commercial purposes.

However, due to the large volume of content and how fast it travels, you always take a risk when you post online that your content will be copied. Even though it’s illegal for anyone to breach your copyright, it can be difficult to take action. Especially since you may not even be made aware that your content has been used.

Copyright infringement on your online content applies when:

  • Your content is used without your consent and without giving you credit

  • Your content has been used with your permission but without giving you credit when this has been part of the agreement

It is worth noting though that most leading social media platforms include a clause in their terms of use that grants them a license to use your work. This does not sign over the ownership but can mean the platform has the right to redistribute your content should it wish to do so. This depends of course on the specific terms of use set out by the social media platform so make sure you read through and understand them if you’re using social media to share original and valued content, especially if you’re using it for business purposes.

Image Copyright On Social Media

The most common victims of copyright infringement on social media are photographers and artists. Since social media has become increasingly visual, users are regularly sourcing images, especially for use on Instagram. As a photographer or artist, your images are the backbone of your business and have monetary value or potential monetary value. Therefore, no organisation or person has the right to use your work without your written permission.

Furthermore, in terms of image copyright, it is worth knowing that it is the photographer and not the subject of the photograph who owns the rights to the image. Hence the outcome of the infamous monkey selfie copyright dispute, where a photographer lost the legal copyright to an image of a monkey because the monkey had taken the photograph itself. This was a US case, but those same principles of copyright ownership of a photo apply here in the UK.

Getting Permission To Use Someone Else’s Content On Social Media

Whether or not the content has been posted on social media or has been made available elsewhere, you do not have permission to use it even if you give the originator credit. Therefore, when using images, text or video content from anyone else’s account you must first obtain permission.

This does not necessarily need to be secured in a formal contract. In many cases, a direct message to the creator requesting permission to repost their work will suffice - so long as they agree of course. Many social media users will utilise this to gain followers and increase their online profile. Hence, the creator will usually request clear credit for the work and a link back to their chosen site is included.

Getting permission to use content for commercial purposes, however, is a little more complex. For instance, if you want to use an illustration created by someone else and print this on merchandise you intend to distribute, then a formal contract should be drawn up. Even if you do not intend to make money from this endeavour.

If you’re planning to use someone else’s content for commercial or promotional purposes (even if it’s for a good cause) then you’ll need to come to a formal written agreement (which will contain an IP licence or an assignment). This may involve paying an upfront fee for use of the content, coming to a commission-based arrangement or even a business partnership.

These contracts can be complex and are best handled by a commercial lawyer who can ensure both parties are being treated fairly and that, should there be a disagreement further down the line, the contract properly protects your interests.

Content Ownership And Business

If your business outsources social media creation to an agency or freelancer then you should ensure you own the rights to the work. This is commonly covered in the terms of business or terms and conditions when you enter into a formal working relationship. The licensing of content is also commonly agreed upon in contracts with content creators, photographers, copywriters, illustrators and design agencies. As the business paying for and soliciting the work, you should be granted a license to use and profit from any content created on your behalf. Yet, written permission is still required.

You may also wish to include a clause that content created for your company may not be used elsewhere without your permission or that the content creator may not disclose you publicly as a client. This is especially important for organisations and persons who do not wish to disclose the originator of the content. For instance, when a person hires a ghostwriter.

Top Tips For Protecting Your Copyright On Social Media

If you are creating content and sharing it on social media then yes, you still retain the rights to your content. Despite this, you are still risking your work being copied. Taking action when this happens can be costly and time-consuming but there are ways to reduce the risks of your copyright being infringed upon. Here are a few ways of protecting your social media content:

Consider using a watermark

This works especially well for illustrations, photographs and graphics. A watermark should not dominate an image but good watermarks should be difficult to remove and can therefore protect your images from being used without your permission. However, watermarks can detract from the image itself so it’s worth considering whether potentially protecting your image is worth diluting its effectiveness online.

Consider using a disclaimer

Disclaimers may not put off malicious content thieves but a reminder can serve to inform or remind most users that your content is your intellectual property. Furthermore, if you wish to grow your profile through others sharing your content you may wish to inform users that they may do so as long as they credit, tag you and/or link back to your website or profile.

Top Tips For Ensuring Your Businesses Social Media Does Not Infringe Copyright

It’s important to ensure your business is compliant on social media. The best way to do this is to create a social media policy with guidelines for posting. Your social media policy can then also be shared with employees in your organisation who may post on your behalf, as well as any social media managers you may outsource to. Need help with your social media policy? Get in touch today.

Here are some other top tips to ensure you’re not breaching anyone else’s copyright on social media:

Don’t rely on Google Images

It can be tempting to browse Google Images for the right visual to go with your social media posts. However, Google Images is not a photo stock website and therefore, even if you are a Google account holder, you do not have an automatic license to use images you find on the search engine. You would therefore be better off using purchased stock images or a publishing tool, such as Canva.

Give proper credit

Most social media users want their content to be shared and promoted. However, they will need to be given creator credit. On some social media platforms, this is best done through reposting or retweeting the original material. What is important is that you do not post in a way that makes it appear you are the creator of the post. It is also not considered enough to simply tag the originator, you should state the photo or content credit clearly within the post and ensure a link back to the creator is included.

What Can I Do If My Social Media Copyright Is Infringed?

If your copyright has been infringed then please get in touch with me at Aubergine Legal. I can help you both to protect your intellectual property and to take action if your content has been used without your permission.

Get in touch with me for the following intellectual property legal assistance:

  • Strategy advice on IP portfolio

  • Advice on branding protection

  • Trade mark registrations and enforcement of rights against infringers

  • Cease and desist letters

  • Domain name issues

  • Copyright queries

  • Preliminary patent advice

  • Design rights

  • Database rights

  • Software IP issues

  • Licensing and assignments of intellectual property rights

  • Review of IP clauses in commercial contracts


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