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You publish your latest social media post, your followers begin liking and commenting and soon, new followers come pouring in. In other words, it's every social media influencer's dream.
But then someone takes your post and uses it as their own without ever asking permission. Now you're left wondering what you can do, whether you truly own your content and how you can protect your intellectual property rights.
If you were active on social media in the 2010s, then you probably remember a scandal involving Instagram, its right to sell photos and a whole lot of angry users.
Here's a quick refresher: In December 2012, Instagram updated its terms of service. Shortly afterward, The New York Times reported on a particularly concerning excerpt:
"To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you."
Translation? If Instagram wanted to sell users' photos to advertisers, then it was going to, without ever sharing the profits with whoever took and uploaded the picture.
The backlash was both immediate and uproarious. Instagram was quick to backpedal, and in less than a single day, had removed the offending portion of its terms.
While this wasn't the first time a social media platform had raised questions about intellectual property (IP) rights and made users wonder who really owned their content, it was one of the most impactful.
At a time when Instagram was only two years old and its parent company Facebook had filed to become a public company just months prior, the message was clear: Users wanted to retain ownership of their content, and they weren't going to put up with platforms trying to take it away.
And as such a high-profile controversy, it undoubtedly influenced the terms and conditions of many other social media platforms.
So, do you own your social media posts or not? Fortunately, the answer is now "yes."
Today, Instagram's stance on the issue is clear:
You own all your original photos and videos, and advertisers don’t have the right to use your original work.
Other social media platforms have followed suit, undoubtedly with Instagram's very public controversy in mind.
Here are the intellectual property (IP) rights policies of some of the largest and most popular social media platforms:
Many of those platforms also stipulate that users grant them a license to use their content to promote and improve their services. However, none of them claim ownership over users' content, nor do they reserve the right to sell it to advertisers.
If you're a social media influencer, that means that the content you upload is still yours, but you're likely giving the platform permission to use it.
Regardless of which social media platform you're using, you own your content — the platform you're on doesn't.
But how can you protect your intellectual property rights from other users?
That's where copyrights, trademarks and patents come in. And while they might sound complicated, the differences between each one are fairly straightforward:
For social media influencers, copyrights and trademarks are typically the most relevant forms of protection.
Since social media content is intellectual property, it's already copyrighted by default.
This means that when you upload original content to a social media platform, you already own the copyright for it. Yep, it's that easy — there's no paperwork to file, and there are no fees to pay.
And since we're thankfully well past the early days of social media, most platforms provide an easy way to report a copyright infringement if someone steals your content.
Here's what you'll need to do to report copyright infringement on major platforms:
Just keep in mind that copyright on social media goes both ways — if you use someone else's copyrighted material (even inadvertently, such as if you have a copyrighted song playing in the background of your video), you might have to remove or alter your content accordingly.
Some social media influencers may go through their whole career without filing a trademark. But if you use a unique logo, handle or brand name that you want to protect, then it may be worth applying for one.
A trademark can be any word, phrase, symbol, design, or a combination of these things that identifies your goods or services. It’s how customers recognize you in the marketplace and distinguish you from your competitors.
You can't, however, trademark anything that is deceptive, generic, purely ornamental or only consists of your name.
For example, if you're a social media influencer and are known by your legal name (let's say, Alicia Brown), you probably won't get the government's approval to file a trademark for the brand name Alicia Brown.
But if you sell merch to your followers under a unique brand name (say, Sweetheart Apparel by Alicia), you're likely to have more success trademarking that.
Similarly, although you may not be able to trademark your social media handle, it's possible you could file a trademark for your one-of-a-kind brand logo.
Interested in getting a trademark for yourself? While you can file one on your own, you might consider using a trademark research and registration service to simplify the process and avoid getting rejected.
Once your trademark is official, other businesses in your field will be prohibited from using it. And if you do spot someone using it, the wisest course of action is often to simply ask them to stop. And if that doesn't work, it's time to get in touch with a licensed trademark attorney.
As we mentioned above, intellectual property rights go both ways. And if you want to protect yourself from a tarnished reputation (or worse, a trademark lawsuit), you'll need to consider how you can avoid using other people's copyrighted and trademarked material on social media.
These are some of the best tactics for steering clear of IP issues:
By always doing your due diligence and adhering to those guidelines, you'll be able to sidestep countless IP issues.
As a social media influencer, your content is your livelihood (or at least part of it). So, it's up to you to understand how intellectual property rights work on social media and how it affects you.
Luckily, you don't have to be an IP lawyer or trademark expert to learn how to protect your content from theft (and avoid infringing on other people's, too). All you need are the right facts and tools at your disposal, and you can keep your intellectual property safe and sound.
Carrie Buchholz-Powers is a Colorado-based writer who’s been creating content since 2013. From digital marketing to ecommerce to land conservation, she has experience in a wide range of fields and loves learning about them all. Carrie is fond of history, animals and beauty in equal measure. In her free time, she enjoys knitting, playing video games and exploring Colorado's prairies and mountains with her husband.
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