- Learning the ins and outs of copyright law can help you avoid lawsuits as you post content or otherwise promote your business on social media.
- You’ll need the original content creator’s explicit permission before posting their images or content on your social accounts.
- Use royalty-free resources or create your own social media content to stay compliant with copyright law.
- This article is for business owners and social media managers who want to avoid trouble with copyright law on social media.
Social media is an environment rich with opportunities for small businesses to connect with users, share content and convert customers. However, as the internet and social media have evolved, hard rules on content ownership and copyrights have taken a back seat to progress.
Copyright can be a tricky minefield to navigate, but paying attention to it is critical to avoid public backlash and legal consequences. We’ll share advice on avoiding infringing on intellectual property when promoting your business on social media.
Why copyright matters in the age of social media
Today, small business owners must understand copyright and image usage laws to protect themselves from online embarrassment or potentially expensive litigation. For example, once a user uploads a photo, it’s automatically copyrighted. Copying and posting that image could expose your business to significant legal risks.
“Copyright exists once you have an original work of authorship fixed in any tangible medium,” explained Ruth Carter, an internet attorney and authority on online copyright law involving blog posts, image usage and trademarks. “Tangible mediums” include social platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
For example, a New York federal judge ruled that news organizations that embedded tweets containing an individual’s picture of football star Tom Brady had violated the Copyright Act. The original photographer initially posted the pic to Snapchat, where it went viral and was then uploaded to Twitter.
Carter, author of a book on copyright law in blogging called The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to Get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed, explains that businesses must understand that copyright infringement is a form of theft.
“There is bad information out there that tells business owners, lawyers [and other] people that they can use anything they find on the internet as long as they give an attribution and a link back to the original,” Carter said. “That’s wrong.”
To protect your business’s intellectual property, registering and trademarking your brand name – a straightforward three-step process – is the first move.
What constitutes infringement
Ryan Vacca, a professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a member of the school’s Franklin Pierce Center for Intellectual Property, said copyright law’s goal is to protect original creative expression – and images fall under this protection.
“For most pieces of creative work, it easily satisfies the minimally creative standard if – assuming they didn’t rip it off from somebody else – the original creator is going to have some copyright protection in that image,” Vacca explained.
Typical ways businesses may unwittingly infringe on copyright law include the following:
- Downloading and posting images from the internet: If you download an image and post it on your website, blog post or social media, you’re likely committing copyright infringement. Your content strategy can’t include copying images or user-generated content without the creator’s permission. This can constitute infringement, even if you link to their website or the original post. In fact, linking to the source and giving attribution often notifies them that their work has been copied.
- Taking images from another company: In addition to directly downloading and posting someone’s work, copyright infringement can occur when you take an image from another company, such as an image-hosting business like Getty. Some small business owners think such a large company won’t concern itself with a minor offense, but this can be a reckless assumption. Getty has been known to send bills to sites without Getty subscriptions that feature its images.
Copyright infringement and liability
The only person who can hold a business or individual accountable for copyright infringement is the work’s original creator. If you download or copy an image and the creator doesn’t notice, doesn’t care or decides not to act, you may not have to worry. But relying on flying under the radar is not a good practice, as you’re exposing yourself to serious risks.
According to Vacca, if the original creator registers their work in a timely fashion with the copyright office, the maximum penalty for copyright infringement is $150,000 per work. This cost doesn’t include legal and attorneys fees.
The litigation process is expensive, and the original creator could elect for quicker, less expensive alternatives like sending a cease and desist letter, sending a bill for their work, or using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to send a takedown notice.
Creative works are automatically protected by copyright the second they’re put into a medium of expression. Using obscure content won’t necessarily protect your business from being sued.
How to prevent copyright infringement on social media
Not infringing on copyrights while using social media for business requires vigilance. Unless you do your due diligence, you could wind up using someone else’s content and facing the consequences.
Here are image-use best practices businesses should follow when posting images and videos on social media.
- Always ask permission when using images on social media. Avoiding liability means being smart about how and what you post online. The best way to protect your business is to ask permission from the content’s original creator. Asking permission can be as straightforward as messaging the creator. However, experts advise having a formal agreement signed by both parties.
- Link to the content you use on social media. In addition to asking for – and receiving – permission to use user-generated social media content, consider embedding the creator’s original post on your website or blog. This practice goes beyond linking and attributing by providing the actual original post.
- Find royalty-free content for your social media posts. Besides asking for permission, the best thing business owners can do is take advantage of websites like Creative Commons or Flickr to find free-to-use images where a license for commercial or editorial use is clearly established. Using these images ensures that your business is posting content legally.
- Create your own social media content. Avoid copyright trouble by generating your own original content, taking your own photos and showcasing your unique viewpoint. Express your individuality to stand out from the competition and gain a reputation for original expression. You can create evergreen content that stands the test of time and post timely content and images that express your business’s unique perspective and help define your brand.
Understanding online business laws is crucial for small companies. For example, e-commerce merchants can’t infringe on other entities’ trademarks or patents, and businesses can’t make false claims about products and services.
Be vigilant with the content you use on social media
The best way to protect your business from copyright infringement litigation is by asking permission from original content creators before using their work, using free-to-use images online and creating your own content.
Copyright infringement and liability can be murky territory. Visit the U.S. Copyright Office online to learn more about intellectual property infringement and protect your business from unintentional violations. Despite the ease of copying and pasting what seems to be freely available content on the internet, copyright infringement is a form of theft.
Isaiah Atkins contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.
Editor’s Note: This is not legal advice. If you need legal advice, we recommend you contact a lawyer directly.