In 2017, an estimated 2.5 billion people will use social media, uploading roughly 300 million photos per day to Facebook alone. The volume of user generated content posted to social media is unprecedented, with many unaware of the legal implications online activity has on their intellectual property rights.

What people don’t realise, is that although they might technically retain the ownership of their uploaded content, social media platforms are largely permitted to do whatever they like with content uploaded onto their sites, including using, sharing and selling their users’ work.

In Australia, original material such as text, photos, images, video, and audio are protected under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). The Act defines the legally enforceable rights of creators of artistic and creative works, and applies nationally. Generally, the author or creator of a work is the copyright owner, with the exclusive rights to control the reproduction or display of the work, and the exclusive right to profit from the work.

Copyright owners can of course grant licences to allow others to use or profit from their work. Ordinarily, copyright owners grant licences to business associates for a benefit or commercial gain. Granting a licence is usually a carefully negotiated and considered transaction. In contrast, the users of social media platforms are often completely unaware that by signing up for a social media account, they are granting broad licences to the platforms to allow them to use their work, effectively losing their exclusive rights to control and profit from their work. Read on to find out how.

Licences hidden inside most terms of use

The use of a social networking platform is ultimately a contractual relationship between the user and the platform. When a user creates an account with a social platform, they must agree to a ‘Terms of Use’ policy, which represent the terms of the contract.

While variations exist, popular platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn all follow a common framework. While user terms typically state that users remain the owners of the content they share, by agreeing to the terms, users usually grant the platform a non-exclusive, royalty free, transferrable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use content shared on the platform.

Effectively this means that once a user’s content is uploaded to social media, the user loses exclusive control over his/her content.

Mine, or theirs?

So, after agreeing to the terms of use, who has rights in a social media post – you, the media platform, or the general public?

My rights – Users of platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin and Snapchat technically retain ownership in the content that they share, although as we have seen, they’re no longer in exclusive control of their content.

Their rights – Social media platforms typically receive broad-reaching licences to use, share change and profit from user content shared on the platform. This means for example that they are free to reuse your holiday snaps in their advertisements, repost your opinions, or even sell your content or sub-licence the use your content to third parties.

Generally, deleting your post or your account will effectively revoke this licence, however, if the content has already been shared by the platform or other users it becomes difficult to enforce your rights.

It is also important to consider the realities of social media use. Once your content is out there, it is extremely easy for others to download, edit and share your work. Other platform users do not have any licence rights in your work, so the taking of user content by other users is technically copyright infringement. However, the difficulty of identifying perpetrators, coupled with the sheer volume of ‘infringement’ in the form of sharing, re-posting and re-use that goes on day to day, means that it is difficult to enforce your rights effectively.

What can you do?

Ultimately, posting content to social media platforms leads unavoidably to the compromise of your exclusive rights, and runs the risk of copyright infringement by other social media users. Users who choose to share content such as audio, images and video must be aware of the ways in which their rights can be limited, and ensure they take steps to protect their work where appropriate.

Top tips for protecting your content online:

  • Read the terms of use closely before registering and posting content to a social media platform;
  • Ensure your account’s privacy settings are tailored to your needs – limiting the number of people who can view your profile can help protect your content, while a public profile will carry more risk of copyright infringement;
  • Use watermarks to indicate to other platform users that you own the rights in your work;
  • If you are worried about your content being shared or re-used, deleting that content may be sufficient to terminate the licence; and
  • Social media is not appropriate to share any sensitive or valuable content you have created – there are many other less risky ways to promote and share your work.

Generally, social media represents a powerful tool which may be harnessed to help promote business ventures, advertise, or simply keep in touch. However, businesses and individuals must be aware of the risks of intellectual property infringement when posting content to social media platforms.