The "Real" Owners of Your Social Media Photos

From capturing those unforgettable life moments to tracking your weight loss goals with fellow dieters – the 21st Century social media craze has truly redefined what it means to share one’s photographs with other Internet users. Today, sharing photographs has become a social media phenomenon in which Internet users have embraced such websites as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter to “like, comment, comment, hashtag” and otherwise share their personal photographs with the online community. But what exactly do you agree to when you post your photos online?

As small and often hidden the fine print may be, once you track it down you will find that your photos are, in many respects, far from “yours” once you post them on a social media website. Pursuant to copyright law, social media websites are quick to assert that the creator of a photograph has the exclusive right to display, copy, use, produce, and distribute such photographs. See 17 U.S.C.A. § 106 (West). Based upon their terms and conditions, however, users who post their photographs on such websites are, in effect, granting these companies a license to use their photographs in any way the company desires.

Facebook, for instance, states in its terms and conditions that a user “specifically grants Facebook with a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, wordwide license” to any photos posted on or in connection with Facebook. Similarly, Instagram[1] declares in its terms that, while it does not claim ownership of your photos, users effectively grant to Instagram “a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use” of photos posted shared via Instagram.”

 Interestingly, Twitter not only states that a user’s photos “may be syndicated, broadcast, distributed, or published” by its partners” – Twitter further declares that, if Twitter utilizes a user’s photos in any of the aforementioned ways, and such user does not have the right to those photos, the user may be held liable and Twitter will not be responsible or liable for its own use of a user’s photos.

So, what is the takeaway? Well, the digital age has really just begun, and the Internet will continue to provide a platform for which users may share their photos with others. So continue to share, comment, and hashtag to your heart’s content – but tread lightly, as in the mere click of the “post” button on what you believe to be “your page” and “your friends” may lead your photos to be shared and/or commercially exploited without any legal recourse whatsoever.

[1]Facebook has recently acquisitioned Instagram in 2013.

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