Cause for Concern: Intellectual Property Rights and Social Media

Social media can be a great tool to support marketing and customer service for your small business. Actively engage with your contacts online and off with the help of a free simple CRM like Base.


Social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, are being touted as a great way to network professionally and to generate business.

However, what you may not know is that, by agreeing to these sites’ Terms of Service, you essentially permit these platforms to use whatever you publish online and license that material for their own commercial benefit. Furthermore, you are not entitled to any royalties or other compensation for your efforts.

So, what happens if you’ve already tweeted about your invention idea or sent a LinkedIn publisher the first draft of your book?

Your Rights Under Current Intellectual Property (or IP) Law

On its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities Facebook proclaims “Your privacy is very important to us.” And that may be, but so is your content.

By agreeing to Facebook’s terms of service you also agree that for any content which has intellectual property rights that you post on the Zuckerberg express you give “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use.”

This means you give Facebook the right to transfer, license and use your content royalty-free – for NO MONEY. Not a big deal for grandma posting pics of her new grandkids but a huge deal for professional photographers trying to make money off their photos.

In lawyer speak, Facebook could conceivably – if they wanted to – sell all your content to a third-party and not pay you a dime.  And in fact that’s what has already happened. Take the case of the Smiths (a real couple mind you).

In 2009, a happily married man from Lynchburg, Va., was on his Facebook page when a curious ad appeared, according to’s Redtape Chronicles.

“Hey, Peter,” the Facebook ad read, “Hot singles are waiting for you!” Not only was Peter Smith married but the photo used in the ad was of HIS WIFE. A third-party application had mined Facebook’s data, collected a photo of Cheryl Smith and used it in its advertising. Cheryl, who runs blogged about her experience. Facebook eventually stopped the ad but didn’t LEGALLY have to.

The only thing stopping this from happening to you is Facebook’s good graces. Facebook said the ad was a violation of its terms of service and the offending ad was removed.

On April 14, 2010, the Library of Congress announced it would archive every public Tweet and make them available. That may sound great on the surface, but what if you’re an inventor and you Tweeted a pic of that widget that’s going to solve our energy problems? Twitter can sell that Tweetpic to anyone it wanted.

All social networks seem to have the same lawyers because their terms of service agreements do not favor you.

To protect your content as much as you can, be sure to do watermarked copyright symbols on content such as professional photos and slide presentations. You can also mark all written content that has a copyright with the copyright symbol when you post it. Taking this step will hopefully dissuade your IP recipients and third parties from infringing on your rights.

What If Your IP Is “Scooped”?

If you notice that your IP has been “scooped” and reposted without your authorization, take steps immediately to alert the person responsible. Hopefully, the perpetrator will comply with your request and no further action will be necessary. You can also alert the place where it is posted. Facebook, Google+, YouTube, Twitter and other social networks do give you an out if you think your IP rights have been violated.

If you file a complaint with them, they’ll look into it and in many cases the content will be removed. That’s how the Smith’s ad got pulled. But you have to prove that you own the content.  This means filing for copyrights, trademarks, registering work, etc. This, of course is an onerous burden for a small creative business. It puts all the responsibility of protecting your content onto your shoulders.

Of course, the person who posted your material may send a counter-notice to the service provider and state that, under the terms of fair use, he or she thinks that the material was taken down unfairly. Fair use is a legal defense stating that copyrighted material may be used for limited and “transformative” purpose without permission of the copyright holder. Should this happen, the service provider may put your material back online unless you file a lawsuit.

In the case of plagiarism, you may want to follow additional steps to fight digital plagiarism.

How to Instruct Your Employees

If you’re conducting training on social media use for new and current employees here are some easy guidelines to follow to help everyone steer clear of IP violations:

Post your own content. If you do this you only have to worry about battling social media giants for the right to use it.

Use free-use, public domain content. Not good at creating your own images? Then go check these open use image websites out:

When in doubt avoid using any image when you haven’t determined its copyright status. You could get caught like the copywriters at Webcopyplus who had to pay $4,000 for a photo they just grabbed from the web. “Well, frankly, we screwed up,” the website wrote about its costly boo-boo. “It’s an expensive lesson on copyright laws that we wish to share with other marketers, so you don’t make the same mistake.”

A short course on copyright and patent law also may be in order if your employees work in highly sensitive fields, such as software development, financial services or health care.

About Matt Powers

Matt Powers works as an Internet Marketer for Blue Soda Promo, a promotional marketing company based just outside Chicago. BSP prints company logos on tradeshow giveaways or imprints personalized messages for things like wedding favors or special events.  
This entry was posted in Marketing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *