• Aleksandra Nowicka

How to use and share someone else’s content on social media. Legal basis and best practices

by Paulina Piątek, attorney at law with specialisation in IT & Digital Law

In the world of memes, #goals, and #inspo it is sometimes easy to forget that behind each drawing, photo, and poem stands a content creator whose copyright needs to be respected. It is a common misconception that works published on the Internet, especially on social media, may be freely used by anybody without the authorisation of the right owner. From this article you will learn the general rules of international copyright law, as well as a few practical tips for compliance.

What is copyright and what does it protect?

As the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) explains: “Copyright (or author’s right) is a legal term used to describe the rights that creators have over their literary and artistic works. Works covered by copyright range from books, music, paintings, sculpture, and films, to computer programs, databases, advertisements, maps, and technical drawings.” Full lists and specific definitions of copyright protected works can be found in legislation of different countries. Usually, copyright protection depends on the level of creativity and artistic contribution of the author to the creation of a certain work. For the purposes of the Internet and social media it is best to assume that most drawings, photographs, and other works out there are subject to protection.

The international legal framework

To better understand the complicated nature of copyright law, one should bear in mind that these regulations are territorial. In other words, each country can have different regulations, and in order to protect one’s work internationally, as well as to ensure compliance with relevant legal requirements, proper research must be done.

This is somewhat easier with those countries who are party to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. Adopted in 1886, the act provides all creators with tools and legal basis to control the use of their works by others. It lays down basic principles of copyright protection, as well as minimum standards of protection across all Contracting States. Subject to certain reservations, limitations or exceptions, the right to translate, adapt, publish and copy, are among others, exclusive rights of authorisation and, as such, must be recognised and respected by others. The full list of contracting parties to the Berne Convention is available here: https://www.wipo.int/treaties/en/ShowResults.jsp?treaty_id=15.

When looking for rules of copyright protection outside the States of Berne Convention, one should do the research and make sure that they comply with the relevant legal requirements in specific countries. The WIPO website provides comprehensive databases and tools, such as this one: https://www.wipo.int/directory/en/, to help with the search.

What to do?

Even though the scope of copyright protection may vary from case to case, it is better to be safe than sorry. Having established that most of the content we see and share on the Internet is copyright protected, it is important to remember a few practical tips for how to use and share someone else’s art online.

1. Ask for permission and credit

Found some beautiful abstract graphics that would make great background for your Instagram Stories? Or maybe your new blog post could use a boost from those fun photos off Pinterest? It is crucial to remember, that crediting the author and source will not suffice. Moreover, an annotation saying “source: Internet” or “author: unknown” also does not do the trick. No matter if you want to share something online, modify it, or use for personal or commercial purposes, the safest thing to do is to simply ask the author for permission. This can be easily done via DM or email. Make sure to describe what you plan to do with the work, and to ask if you can do it free of charge. If you are not able to find the original source, refrain from using it at all.

2. Built-in sharing options

In some cases, it is not necessary to ask for permission to share someone else’s art. If the author posted their work on a social media platform with a built-in sharing option and did not disable it in their account’s privacy settings, every other user of that platform should be able to easily share it to their feed. It is important to remember, however, that only sharing via a “share” button is allowed. Sharing options are strictly regulated by each platform’s terms of service and are built with the creator’s copyright in mind. Each time a post is shared, the creator gets notified and the shared post directs all viewers straight to the source – the author of the original post. This also allows the artist to monitor the actual reach of their work on each social media platform.

In any case, one should refrain from downloading someone else’s content and posting it as their own without the author’s permission, even if they credit the author and link to the original source. Downloading to a device and posting it back on the Internet may lead to a violation of the author’s right to copy and to decide where and how to publish their work. The same rule applies to any modifications of the original, with a few exceptions, such as parody, which is a topic for a separate article.

3. Stock art

Fortunately for those Internet users who lack an artistic flair, there are many online “art banks”, where artists share their work for others to use for a fee, or free of charge. They contain millions of graphics, photos, videos, and music that users can copy, modify and share without major restrictions, and usually without the obligation to credit the author and source. Before using one of those, it is important to read the terms of use and the license terms of each stock website, to find out the rules and to comply with them.

4. Public domain

Last but not least – use public domain works. As Richard Stim explains: “The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.” Usually, works arrive in the public domain because the copyright has expired, which in most cases happens 50 to 70 years after the author’s death. Due to the fact that the copyright durations vary by country, some research is in order. There are many websites and search engines that only contain works in the public domain. Some of them can be found here: https://www.moma.co.uk/public-domain-images/. Public domain works can be used without restrictions, both for private and commercial purposes.

Paulina Piątek is a qualified attorney at law specializing in IT & Digital Law. You can find more info about her, along with many more useful articles on her website.

In case of any further questions, you can also find Paulina on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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