In today's world, you can post content online and within seconds millions of potential users can see your post. If you are posting a photo online, like a social media account, you may not 100% own that photo. Many social media websites have terms and conditions, that a lot of people do not necessarily read. When you create your account, you may be agreeing to handing over the rights of that photo or video. Here is a refresher on copyrights for the internet and how your ownership changes with social networks.

Copyright and the Web

In simple terms when you create something, a song, painting, video, etc, you are the copyright owner. This happens automatically, without the need to fill out forms or make any claims. If you believe what you create has potential to make millions, then you will want obtain some documentation to prove you are the creator of said work. This also applies to stuff you post on the web.

According to the US Copyright Office:

Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. 

Copyright does not protect:

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries
  • Works that are not fixed in a tangible form (such as a choreographic work that has not been notated or recorded or an improvisational speech that has not been written down)
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans
  • Familiar symbols or designs
  • Mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring
  • Mere listings of ingredients or contents

In short, if you have a revolutionary idea, seek legal counsel before you start talking and posting online about it.

One loop hole with copyright is fair use. Fair use allows others to use copyrighted material in certain cases, like:

  • Criticism
  • Comment
  • News reporting
  • Teaching
  • Scholarship
  • Research

Fair use a huge grey area, something we will not dive into any further for this article. The point of this article is to provide you with a low level understanding of who owns the content you are posting online. Now that you know the basics, lets look at how terms and conditions can modify those basics on certain platforms.

The Terms and Conditions of Social Media

Thanks to the terms and conditions, once you upload those photos to the Facebook servers, you have given them a license to reuse those photos however they like. You will not earn any money from that license. The same is true for the majority of all social network. Below are some word heavy excepts from the terms and conditions of various platforms:

  • Facebook
    • non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license
  • Twitter
    • worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sub-license)
  • Instagram
    • non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sublicensable, worldwide license

As you can see, the terms are all about the same. They are also vague purposefully. Being vague gives Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook substantially more legal grey areas to work with. At the same time, that large grey area allows retweets to occur on Twitter, or Facebook to post photos to a persons news feed, and your photo showing up in a hashtag search. And these companies can do so without the need to pay you or the worry of copyright infringement.

We will stress that those terms do not negate your copyright to your photos, or videos, or etc. If a photo you post on Instagram shows up on a website, and you did not grant permission to, then you can pursue legal actions. Now remember, most social platforms's privacy policies promise to not allow your content to be seen by anyone, unless you grant that person permission.

It is worth noting that if you connect a platform to another website or service, there is a separate terms and conditions clause you will be agreeing to. The important thing to remember is that most will still state you keep the copyright to your content. The only way you lose your copyright is through licensing like Creative Commons 0

How Content You Post Can Be Used

Services like IFTTT are able to do things like copy tagged Facebook photos to Twitter because of the terms and conditions you grant to Facebook, IFTTT, and Twitter. Many third party companies will use the API's for a social platform to provide you with expanded features. The problem is figuring out the licensing and sub-licensing of your content to third party platforms. In fact some of these companies are not as ethical with your data as you would like them to be.

In theory, big platforms can potentially license your content to other platforms, for free. They have not done that yet and probably will not. The privacy policies put in place by these platforms helps protect your photos from being sub-licensed out to stock photo services and such.

In the end, we are all trusting these platforms with our data and the safety of that data. The copyright for your content always belong to you, but we all agreed these platforms can more or less do whatever they want with that content. And those terms and conditions can change, sometimes without the need of any legal notice.

How to Protect Your Content

Going through every platform available on the web would be an exhausting read. The best advice we can provide is to read the terms and conditions for any website or service you sign up for. Pay attention to the areas that talk about the licensing and sub-licensing you are granting the service. If there is something you do not want being shared, it is best to keep it offline. Or you could create your own service to host that content, but that is a whole other article.

Only use a service who's terms and conditions you are comfortable with. Some services will not sub-license out your content, like Yahoo's Flickr. Another services, Medium, has a clear clause on your content. Your content is only available for display on Medium's website. There are no sub-licensing issues, unless your choose to publich your work under any of the Creative Commons rules.

In the end, you own your content. And you need to be mindful of the licenses you grant to platforms and services on the internet.