Understanding Online Photo Rights [GUIDE]

By Honey Comer

The internet is the ultimate tool for connecting and sharing, so it isn't surprising to see individuals and brands publishing loads of content to social media platforms every day.  Imagery, in particular, has gained increasing importance in the social space, with wall posts, pins, and insta-pics being rapidly exchanged.  But what are the inherent risks with all of this sharing?  For one, you may end up inadvertently misusing someone else’s intellectual property.  Example:  Did you know that the wildly popular “Texts from Hillary” Tumblr stemmed from the unauthorized use of an iconic photo?  Luckily, that story had an amicable ending, but it was a major roll of the dice.  So how do social media marketers do their jobs while navigating these complicated legal waters?  Taking the step to familiarize yourself with a few basics can save you trouble down the line (no law degree required).

1)      Ask Permission – Step one!  This one seems like a no-brainer, but it can be tempting to try and slip a screenshot under the radar when you're in a pinch.  Don’t!  Most agencies have the ability to find and identify stolen content.  In fact, some of the technology is sophisticated enough to accurately distinguish between two images taken at the same moment, by two different photographers standing side-by-side.  It may take some extra digging to find the source of the photo or music you’d like to use, but it's a protection well worth the effort.

Tip: Many agencies offer free research, so take advantage if you’re spinning your wheels.  The people working in these roles are familiar with extensive asset catalogs and can often point you in the right direction, even if the content isn't theirs.

2)      Understand Editorial vs. Commercial Use – This is probably the most important thing to establish up-front when asking permission to use an artist’s work and the two are not created equal.  Editorial uses are journalistic, and aim to inform or educate their audience.  Commercial uses, by contrast, are aimed at selling a product at the end of the day.  Traditionally, this meant advertising but the lines have become blurrier as brands increasingly step into the role of digital publishers, creating engaging content for their customers.

Best practice: Clearly communicate your plans to the copyright holder up-front and get their assessment.  Find out if you will need to get the permission of the model or subject of the image.  You should also ask if your blog or magazine falls into a middle-of-the-road category known as “custom publishing.”

3)      Don’t Forget Sharing – We all want our content to be engaging enough to be shared, but keep in mind that licensed material may not be covered for those additional uses.  Make sure you understand the terms of your license before posting or pinning content that you don’t own outright.  This includes user generated content!

4)      Credit, Credit, Credit – Artists will be the first to tell you that “credit” (while lovely) doesn't pay the bills.  With that being said, it’s extremely important to attribute, and let your fans and followers know who gave you your inspiration.  Make sure to take the extra step and find the original source rather than a secondary party.

5)      Consult an expert – As social media rapidly evolves, so do the complex legalities of intellectual property.  Take the infamous Oscars selfie, which recently made us all more aware of who is pressing the shutter [source].  When in doubt, check with your internal counsel for the best and most specific advice.