Thanks to the wonders of the web, you can get your content up and in front of an audience of millions in seconds—but that doesn’t necessarily mean you still own that photo of your dog once it is live. Signing the terms and conditions on your favorite social networks could mean signing away the rights to that video of your kid’s birthday party, or that sweet snapshot you took on vacation. So here’s what you need to know about copyright on the web, and how posting to your favorite social networks affects your ownership of what you’re posting.
How copyright on the web works
The good news is that copyright is, in essence, very simple: When you create something, from a poem to a painting, you own the copyright on it automatically. There are no forms to fill in and no claims to make (though if you think it might be worth millions in the future, it’s a good idea to get some kind of proof that you are the original creator of the work).
That applies to the web too, so—broadly speaking—when you put something up online, it belongs to you and you can take steps if someone tries to pass off your work as theirs.
As per the US Copyright Office, this instant copyright applies to “original works of ownership”, including novels, movies, songs, and architecture. You can’t copyright facts, or ideas, or systems, although you can sometimes copyright the way they are expressed. If you’ve got a revolutionary new app idea, maybe take legal advice before publishing the details on your Facebook page.
How other people can use your work is where the issue starts to get a bit more complicated, because of fair use: It lets other people copy parts of what you’ve done, up to a rather vague and unspecified point, in order to comment on or develop it. It’s the reason snippets of song lyrics can be quoted in an album review.
We won’t go too far down the rabbit hole of fair use though—here we’re focusing on who owns the content you post to the web, and at the most basic level, you do. Crucially though, it also depends on the platform you use to post whatever you’re posting, and for that you need to carefully check the terms and conditions of the platforms in question.
Terms and conditions
Do you still own the copyright on the vacation photos you post to Facebook? Yes, you do. But by transferring them to Facebook’s servers, or indeed any other social network or platform, you give away a license to reuse those pictures for various purposes, and you won’t get a dime back.
For Facebook, it’s a “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license”, for Twitter it’s a “worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense)“, and for Instagram it’s a “a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sublicensable, worldwide license”. As you can see, the complex language being used is more or less the same across all these networks.
If those terms sound vague, they’re supposed to—they essentially give the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram legal breathing space to work the way they want to. That means Facebook can post one of your pictures in the news feed, or Twitter can let someone retweet your photo, or Instagram can display one of your posts in a hashtag search, without paying you or infringing your copyright.
As boredom-inducing as it might be, it’s important to check the terms and conditions for every platform you post on, plus the terms and conditions for any connected apps or services you’re using on top, which will usually have rules of their own. In almost every case, you keep the copyright, unless you give it away through some specific licensing like Creative Commons 0.
How your content can get used
The copyright, then, almost always stays with you. However, that doesn’t mean you always have control over how your photos, videos, and other types of content get used, thanks to those licenses you agree to whenever you sign up for a new service.
On the whole, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other similar services just want to be able to use your posts across the platform without any legal hassle, but crucially they also reserve the right to sublicense the same deal to whomever they choose.
Sometimes that’s fine—you want to use IFTTT to copy over your Facebook photos to Twitter—but it leaves a gray area where you can’t always be sure how your content is getting licensed and sublicensed out on the web. Third-party companies plugging into the API of a social network may not be as ethical as you’d like them to be.
Does it mean the big networks can potentially license out your content to other places, for free? Yes. Would that actually happen? Very probably not. Not only are these platforms beholden to their privacy policies, as we mentioned before—so Facebook won’t sublicense private photos of your toddler to a stock photo service—the user backlash that would accompany such a move isn’t worth whatever revenue might come in.
Unfortunately we can’t give you hard and fast rules about how the big social platforms could license out your content, and even if we could, they would probably change tomorrow. As with data collection and user safety, you’re essentially trusting them to use your content responsibly, even if the copyright and ownership always stays with you.
Protecting your posts
We won’t go through every platform and site out there, but look in the terms and conditions and pay specific attention to the licenses you’re granting and any sublicensing that is allowed after that. If you really want to keep your essays, movies, and photos safe from misuse, then your best bet is to keep them offline, or host them on your own, paid-for, web hosting. You’re not granting anyone licenses to do anything then, besides store the content on servers and display it in response to a browser request.
Alternatively find a service with terms and conditions you are happy with. For example, Flickr falls under Yahoo’s terms of service, which focus exclusively on Yahoo’s services: Your pictures are licensed “solely for the purpose for which such Content was submitted or made available” and can’t be sublicensed out.
If you’re a writer, Medium’s terms of service are pretty straightforward, and only give the platform a license to host and display your digital scribblings, including “storing, displaying, reformatting, and distributing it”. You’re safe from sublicensing, though you can choose to publish your writings under a number of Creative Commons rules.
The answer of who owns your content is actually very simple: You do. What you need to be wary of are the licenses you’re granting to platforms to use your copyrighted material, in line with their privacy policies and terms and conditions.