5 Critical Social Media Marketing Copyright Rules

Whether you’re a social media marketing professional or a business owner active on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and so on to promote your business, there are critical copyright rules that you need to understand.

The problem for most people is the complexity of copyright law. In fact, the ability of copyright law to effectively address the realities of today’s digital world is a key subject in many debates. Whether you agree with the law or not, until comprehensive changes are made to it, you have to work within the current framework of the U.S. Copyright Law.

Here are five critical copyright rules that everyone who uses social media to promote a business needs to understand and follow in order to protect their work (and stay out of legal trouble):

1. Federal Registration Matters

Copyright protection for creative works is automatically granted through common law, but when those works are federally registered, the owner’s rights under federal copyright laws can be enforced.

A copyright is an expression of an idea that is fixed in a tangible medium resulting from the author’s (or “creator’s”) creativity and effort. Protection of that work is automatic from the moment it is fixed in that tangible medium (like a painting, a piece of computer code, or a book).

Creators don’t have to secure federal copyright registration for their work, but doing so will help them enforce their rights under the law if they need to stop someone from using their work without permission or to file a lawsuit in the future. Under current copyright law, copyright rights begin as “common law” rights, or unregistered rights.  While these are valid and provide legal protection, they are not sufficient if a copyright owner needs to enforce their rights in court.  In fact, it’s not until the owner of a work secures federal registration for their work that the owner’s rights turn into enforceable rights, or “statutory” rights, which can be enforced in federal courts pursuant to federal statute (the copyright law passed by Congress).

This distinction is really important for five reasons. In simplest terms, federal copyright law gives rights to owners that allow them greater control over their protected works, including:

  1. The exclusive right to reproduce the work
  2. The exclusive right to distribute copies of the work
  3. The exclusive right to prepare derivative works from the original work
  4. The exclusive right to perform the work
  5. The exclusive right to display the work

Warning: Only one of these fives rights needs to be violated for a copyright owner to pursue enforcement action against you.

2. Author and Owner are Not the Same

Original works that you create for your employer are owned by the employer (including the copyright), but original works that you create for clients while you’re working for them as their consultant or freelancer are owned by you. The only exception is if you signed a “work made for hire” agreement or expressly communicate that the work you create for clients is owned by the clients. Otherwise, you own both the work and the copyright in it.

When it comes to copyrights, author and owner are not necessarily the same thing. The author is the creator of the original expression of a work. The author is also the owner unless he or she does one of the following three things:

  1. Assigns the copyright in writing to a third party (e.g., the author of a book might assign the copyright to the publisher)
  2. Agrees in writing to prepare the work as a “work made for hire” for which he or she was paid by a person or entity who commissioned the work.
  3. Prepares the work as part of his or her employment.

Warning: Make sure you understand your role as owner or author and use the works that you create legally based on that role.

3. Fair Use Does Not Equal Free Use

Linking to a source is attribution, not fair use. To avoid getting into trouble, make sure the text and visual components of your social media content don’t violate copyright laws. This applies to social media and blogs as much as it does to books, movies, ads, and so on.

Fair use is one of the most confusing parts of copyright law. The fair use doctrine was created to allow only limited and reasonable uses of copyrighted work without securing the owner’s permission. As social media and user-generated content exploded online, confusion around fair use skyrocketed.

Whether or not a use is considered “fair” based on the law depends on a four-part test:

  1. What is the purpose and character of the use?
  2. What is the nature of the copyrighted work?
  3. What amount and portion of the work was used compared to the whole?
  4. What is the effect of the use of the work on the potential market or value of the copyrighted work?

Social media marketing has become more visual than ever with a flood of images, videos, and infographics shared, published, and republished every day. However, if the content isn’t original to you (or your client), be careful!

Warning: Make sure you get permission to use another person or entity’s images, use royalty free images that you purchased from a reliable source like BigStockPhotos.com, use images that are in the public domain, or use images that have appropriate Creative Commons licenses applied to them (being certain to heed the warnings about images with Creative Commons licenses).

4. Understand the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “Safe Harbor” Provisions

If the content you publish violates another person or entity’s copyright, the online service provider (i.e., the company hosting your blog or the social media site you’re using) can take your content down, which is exactly what happened a few years ago to the Star Wars Action News Facebook Page

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) limits the liability of internet service providers (ISPs) for some copyright infringements by third parties (i.e., provides a “safe harbor”). The DMCA has a specific process to “take down” content that might violate a copyright as long as the ISPs take action to remove (or disable access to) infringing content when the copyright owner sends a take-down request.

Warning: Steer clear of the DMCA—unless you’re initiating the take down request.

5. Social Media Marketing Requires Responsibility

Whether you’re a full-time or extremely part-time social media marketer, it is your responsibility to understand copyright laws and make sure you’re following them in all of your activities. Don’t risk tarnishing your brand (or your client’s brand) by misusing copyrighted materials.

As a social media marketer, you have a duty to follow the law in carrying out your responsibilities. And if you manage a team that uses social media for marketing purposes, they have the same duty. Train them and hold them accountable for following the law, too.

Warning: Your brand reputation and your business growth could depend on your willingness to learn and follow the law. Every social media marketer is responsible for doing what’s right.