Social media platforms get canny with copyright

Guest post by Mike Holderness.

What happens when a journalist decides to share some of their work with the world though one of those “social media” websites? A headache, first: if you want to be sure of retaining the rights that attend copyright, you’re enjoined to read some dense legalese.

The owners of the platforms have got canny. All the sites I checked – blogger.com, facebook.com, flickr.com, photobucket.com, picasaweb.com, twitpic.com and youtube.com – now say you retain all rights in works that you upload. This is not what I remember from a couple of years ago. I suspect the changes followed user outrage, and the suit and counter-suit between Daniel Morel and Agence France Presse over photos posted to Twitpic: see this report.

You may be familiar with the “you keep copyright BUT …” manoeuvre; these are similar. All require “a non-exclusive, transferable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any content that you post on or in connection with their service. Fair enough, up to a point: the point of uploading something is to let others see it. Now for the devilish detail. Facebook, Twitpic and Photobucket (owned by News International) drop in a mention that this licence is “sub-licensable”. Picasaweb (owned by Google) clearly “includes a right for Google to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals … for the provision of syndicated services”. Blogger, also owned by Google, does not.

Yahoo! as owner of Flickr, appears not to make sub-licensing a general condition. You can choose to allow licensing of photos through www.gettyimages.com/flickr – which is good … apart from wannabes undercutting professional photographers, which is a different discussion.

Twitpic now has you grant a licence to all users of their services to display your work “within the functionality of the service”. Photobucket has you grant users a licence to “make derivative works”, so I won’t be going there again.

All require that you give permission for them to modify your work: the lawyers probably justify that to allow thumbnailing photos, but that’s not what it says.

All say they won’t be responsible for anything. Flickr, Blogger and Twitpic have explicit clauses making you “indemnify” them – that is, agree to bear the full cost of any lawsuit resulting from what you upload.

Several services once earned opprobrium by stripping out “metadata” – the fields within an image file in which you can indicate ownership. I ran a few simple tests, and all now seem to preserve the basic “IPTC” information, except Facebook, which stripped out everything but copied the “copyright” line into the Facebook text database. Blogger stripped everything from a resized photo, but not the full-size version.

Picasaweb and Flickr now display an “all rights reserved” message alongside photos.

The conclusion? Building your own website to publish your work seems the only safe way to go. And, sorry, but you’ll still have to check the terms for yourself; they may well have changed since I looked on 30 September, and I deny all liability for missing anything.

Mike Holderness is the editor of the Freelance, the newsletter published by the London Freelance Branch of the NUJ. An earlier version of this piece appeared in the October issue.

About the Author