It’s easy to post a photo to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. After all, millions of people do it every day. But not many people know that, by doing so, they could be granting those companies permission to use those images for free and in any way those sites see fit. Even if you personally delete or remove photos from Facebook or Twitter, for instance, those companies still have access to your photos. And it is possible for Facebook and Twitter to license and make money off of those images. It all depends on the Terms of Service, the little-read fine print that people agree to when they sign up.
Although social media sites have the ability to gain rights to our personal images, the opposite is true for individuals, according to Andrew Ozete, an attorney and partner at Bamberger, Foreman, Oswald, and Hahn LLP. If you were to copy and paste an image that does not belong to you from the Internet and post it on your Facebook page, for instance, you would be breaking copyright law for that image.
Ozete says some people take images they don’t pay for from Google or other search engines because it may be easy to do, and they are unaware that they may be breaking the law by not paying for those images.
The federal Copyright Act enacted by Congress automatically covers any creative “work” that has been created and fixed in a tangible medium on or after Jan. 1, 1978. This describes literature, music, photos, architectural works — anything with a modicum of creativity that is written or recorded so others may perceive it. If you or your business are infringing on copyrighted materials, the general statutory damages awarded by the court range anywhere from $750 to $30,000 per work. But if the copyright infringement is considered willful, one can be charged up to $150,000 per work.
Ozete advises businesses to refrain from using images that do not belong to them. “It is important to note that if a business is using these copyrighted materials commercially or in commerce, they will be more likely to draw a complaint,” Ozete says. Businesses should only use images and materials that they own or have obtained the rights to. That generally means the business will need to create the images and materials itself, commission the production of the same in a written work-for-hire agreement, or obtain stock materials under appropriate license from a stock photography company.