Business + Marketing

How to Protect Your Photos on Social Media

May 9, 2019

By Aaron M. Arce Stark

Photo © Ethan Yang Photography

You are hired by a client to photograph their wedding. The client posts the pictures in a large Facebook wedding group, with no watermark or proper credit to you. Thousands of potential customers are seeing your beautifully crafted and carefully edited images and commenting wildly about how good it is, but none of them know who you are or that you took the photos.

How do you prevent this from happening in the first place, or at least put yourself into a strong position to react once it has happened? The answer is fairly simple, and something that most photographers already have in their contracts: an extremely limited usage rights provision. 

When you state in your contracts how the client may use the images, you should state very clearly that a) you own the copyright, b) the client may use the image only for personal purposes and never commercial purposes, c) the client may not alter the image, and most importantly, d) the image must always include proper credit.

Your contract can also include a liquidated damages provision that states in the event of a breach the client will owe you a certain amount of money. When you see that your client has posted the image to a huge Facebook group, you can simply contact them, tell them that such an uncredited posting is a violation of your contract, and unless they go back to their post and edit it to give you proper credit, you will sue them and be entitled to at least the liquidated damages, and potentially your attorney’s fees. This will hopefully get your client to edit the post swiftly. 

But let’s say the client moves out of the country or becomes judgment-proof. You can attempt to contact the moderators of the group, and maybe they will edit the post to give you proper credit. But what if they refuse? You can still get the picture taken down by sending a Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice. 

In essence, the DMCA allows large content-posting platforms, like Facebook or Instagram, to escape liability when their users post infringing content, but only so long as they follow the DMCA rules. And the DMCA requires platforms to immediately take down potentially infringing content if they receive a notice stating clearly that this content is infringing, until the matter is legally resolved. 

If you send Facebook itself a DMCA takedown notice stating that you own the copyright to this image, then the image will be taken down. This doesn’t really solve your problem, unfortunately; you were getting a lot of attention if not the proper credit, but now you’re not getting any attention at all. But at least by taking down the photo, you can exert some control over your image. You could even repost it to the group with the proper credit, although you may not get the same viral attention as the original post. 

So what rights does Facebook itself have over your images? The answer, in this case, is both quite a lot and none at all. Facebook, for example, states that by posting content to its platform, you give it a “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, and worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate and create derivative works of your content.”

You still own any images that you post on Facebook (and since Instagram is owned by Facebook, their terms are the same), and you can terminate Facebook’s license over your images by just deleting them, but so long as you have an image up on a social media platform, that platform can use it in pretty much any way it wants, including sublicensing the image to a third party. You could, theoretically, post a selfie on Tuesday and see it on a billboard for Apple on Wednesday, because Facebook has the right to sublicense any image you post. 

But the trick is hidden in plain sight. Yes, you give Facebook a broad license when you post images. But you didn’t post that image on the wedding group, your client did, and your client didn’t have the right to post it without proper credit. Because your client didn’t have the right, Facebook doesn’t have the right. 

What if your contract did not include specific and limited use provisions, stating expressly that you retained the copyright and that the client could only use the image in limited ways, for personal purposes, and only with proper credit? What if instead you sold the copyright to your client outright? Or what if your contract didn’t include a requirement for proper credit, and only stated that the client could use it for personal purposes? You would be in a much, much harsher position.

If you sold the copyright outright, you would have very little or no ability to remove the photo, because your client would now be the owner and could use it however they please. And if you didn’t include an express credit requirement, the client would have been within her rights to post the image on a Facebook wedding group.

Though if the client isn’t trying to make money off the group or the photo, it would be hard to convince a court that the client had used the photo for commercial purposes, despite the fact that you are losing a ton of potential customers. The whole issue can turn on the smallest provisions of a contract. 

Aaron M. Arce Stark is a lawyer for artists and entrepreneurs. Learn more about his law firm, Stark.Law LLC.

This article is for informational purposes only. Contact a lawyer for legal advice.

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