3 things to understand about social media and copyright


When you share content on social media, do you stop to think about copyright? No, not many do. Social media and copyright is such a complex area that most people just turn a blind eye and look away. But at what cost?

Whatever your business, social media platforms provide a fantastic opportunity for you to share your work and ideas with a large and far reaching audience.

Chances are, you are already elbows deep in using social media, but do you really understand what you have gotten yourself into when you sign up to using social media? I mean, where does copyright ownership sit? Do you still own the copyright? What rights to the social media platforms have over your content? What rights do other people have to modify, share or alter your work?

At the simplest level, social media is all about content sharing, either as words, pictures or moving images. This content is then posted, shared, liked, reposted, regrammed and tweeted about and in the initial throes of social media passion, little thought is given to the content thrown around. You know, like who owns the copyright, what are your responsibilities and what are your rights when your content gets turned into a meme or cut and pasted into someone else’s profile?

There are essentially three types of content that happens on social media; original, curated or user generated, let’s take a look at these:

  1. Original content – this is content that is created by you such as images, blog posts, videos, graphics, cartoons, music files etc. As the creator of the content, you own the copyright.
  2. Curated content – this is other people’s content that you want to share with your audience, such as industry articles, images, shared links etc. Someone else created the content, and they own the copyright.
  3. User generated content – this is content that your community creates and puts onto your social media platforms such as comments, images, shared links etc. Someone else created the content, and they may or may not own the copyright as they could be sharing someone else’s content as part of their own.

To make sure you are playing by the rules and also protecting the integrity of your own content,  it is vital that you understand 3 key areas related to social media and copyright.

1. Copyright

Copyright law is complex, and far beyond the scope of this post, however in basic terms copyright ownership is something that is automatically attributed to the creator of a piece of content (unless it is created as an employee for the employer, or is a commissioned film or sound recording), at no cost. What this means is you are covered if you create the content going onto your platforms, and permission to make amendments, adapt, reproduce or copy another person’s content must be sought from the copyright owner (you) before it can occur.  This sounds simple right, as does the fact that social media is protected by copyright law, however where it gets complicated is understanding what claims to copyright you are giving up when you start publishing your original content to social media sites – and what this can mean down the track. Full copyright ‘rights’ are diluted when you agree to sell ownership of a piece of work or licence it to somebody else for use, and this is essentially what you are doing when you sign up to and start posting your work on social media platforms – you are licensing your content. Therefore it’s imperative you understand what you are signing up to which you will find in the platforms’ terms of use.

2. Terms of use

Each social media platform have ‘terms of use’, which you agree to when you open an account. Remember when you ticked the box, saying you agreed to them? These terms of use are legally binding contracts and they are treated exactly like any contract in the ‘real world’. Unfortunately, it is a small percentage of businesses or individuals that read this fine print, understand what they mean or communicate them across the business; even though it is vital you understand what you are signing up to.

Within these terms of use is a licensing agreement you commit to, and this agreement is between you, the user, and the platform. This is exactly the same if you are creating a personal or business account, which is important to remember as the agreement to terms of use lie between the user and the platform – it does not extend to be between users. I will get back to this in a moment.

So, the licensing agreements of social media platform are generally worldwide, loyalty free, non-exclusive licences (length of time can vary but they usually extend to when you shut the account down and when the last person to share your content dies, seriously) and under these agreements, you are giving the platform permission to publish and store your content. Copyright ownership however still sits with you, but you are essentially giving permission for other users, such as your friends and the broader community, as well as the site itself, to use your content. And, this is where I get to the point above –  what this means is that your content can be used in different contexts through adaptations, derivations or even commercially, as long as it is in line with the platform’s terms of use. And these terms of use may not be in line with your expectations or internal terms of use, as all the platform cares about is if other users have contravened their terms of use, not yours.

If you are hyperventilating right now, here’s a handy list of the terms of use for the big platforms (accessed May 5th 2015).

For those not hyperventilating, I bet you are sitting back saying, everything’s fine, I have a creative commons agreement slapped on my content..well, I’m glad you said that.

3. Creative Commons

Creative commons is a fantastic way of managing your content and third party use. Creative commons is a licensing system of varying degrees, but ultimately it is based on you allowing controlled third party use of your shared content (you can check out the licenses here). Ultimately you can control how someone uses your work, whether they can adapt it, how they should attribute it or in what context it can be used, which is fantastic for online management, but to really make this work for you, you need to ensure that your creative commons license takes into account both the present and the future as it is non-revocable. That’s right, you can’t take it back and make it go away, which according the Australian Copyright Council means a creative commons license slapped on your work now could remove your ability to exclusively license the same work in a separate arrangement down the line. If this has got you panicking, you can find out more about Creative Commons here, but what I am trying to say is, make sure you are protecting your most valuable content up front and not after the fact.

What is the lesson here?

Well, fundamentally if you are using social media and you are in any way concerned about the copyright of your content, and how it can be used online, get your head around the platforms you are using – now. The simplest solution is to not post any of your material online, however in this digital day and age, this will severly limit you ability to take your business and brand to market.

So understand the platforms you are using, or want to use and be strategic about what you post online.

Want to dive deeper into this topic, information for this post was resourced by reading information supplied by the following companies:

Australian Copyright Council

Clayton Utz

Arts Law Centre of Australia




About Zena Churchill

Zena Churchill is a Director at Max & Buddy Consulting. She has worked in senior level business roles across national and multinational corporations, as well as being a small business owner. Zena is a strategic thinker and brings a practical, straight-forward approach to marketing and social media. She has a passion for training & development running practical business workshops for small business. Zena is a Certified Practising Marketer (AMI), sometimes tutors in Marketing at the University of Wollongong and is a Senior Consultant with Trinity P3.

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