Who owns social media content?
What happens when I upload content to social media? In terms of ownership, almost certainly nothing. When you upload content (whether it’s a photograph, a video, or even text) to a platform you do so subject to its terms and conditions, but no major social media platform (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine) currently asks you to transfer ownership of that content to them. In fact, many of them explicitly say that you still own your content even after you upload it (after all, if it turned out to be illegal or otherwise problematic, they wouldn’t want to own it).
So what does happen to uploaded content? Well, instead of giving them ownership, almost all platforms will instead require a licence to use it. That licence will usually be free (after all, you’re using their service), worldwide (since the content is on the internet) and sub-licensable (so that they can give others a right to use it on the same terms). What exactly they can do with the content again depends on their terms and conditions, and also on what settings you select. So if you upload a photo to Facebook with settings that only make it available to your friends, Facebook does not have a licence to make that photo public.
What happens if I want to delete the content? Again, this depends on the relevant terms and conditions. Platforms generally won’t be able to instantly delete all its copies of your content, and other users may have shared your content. While most platforms don’t say that their licence is “irrevocable” or “perpetual”, once the content is uploaded, if other users share it using the platform it can prove difficult to completely remove it. Some platforms won’t even guarantee that they’ll delete all their copies of your content (Instagram for instance reserve the right to continue storing content you have removed, but state that it won’t be retrievable without a court order).
Can the platform delete my content? Absolutely. Any major platform will reserve the right to remove your content, especially if it doesn’t comply with their terms and conditions. If you don’t have your own copy, then your content may be lost forever. Indeed, Myspace (remember that?) angered many of its users by deleting old content when it updated its system.
Can other people use my content? This depends on how they want to use it, and (inevitably) on the terms and conditions of the platform you uploaded it. Remember how we said the licence you give the platform is sub-licensable? Well that generally includes other users sharing your content on that platform (so someone else re-tweeting your photo would not be infringing your copyright). However, it’s unlikely that a platform would give someone else greater rights in relation to your content. So if you see your selfie in an art gallery, it may very well infringe your rights.
What about sponsored content? If you sponsor someone to produce content (blogs or vlogs for example), remember you won’t automatically own this. You would need a separate agreement with them setting out your rights (such as a sponsorship agreement). The same rules on ownership as between you/the author of the sponsored content and the social media site still apply though.
Is there anything else I should be careful of? Good question. While we’ve focused so far on the platform’s terms and conditions, these might not be the only thing you’ve agreed to. For instance, if you submit content for a contest using social media, you may be subject to the terms and conditions of that contest. Those terms and conditions might grant further rights in your content to the contest organiser, or even provide for you to transfer ownership of the content to them.
What’s the lesson here? While you don’t lose ownership of your content when you upload it, you do give away a number of important rights (and even if the use of your content isn’t permitted, it can be very difficult to prevent it once you’ve clicked “upload”). As with everything you put on social media, it’s best to exercise caution.
You might also want to look at our post on ownership of LinkedIn connections.