Public Interest Advocacy

Social Media Copyright Hoaxes, Warnings and Policies

In recent times, many Facebook users have posted a message to their accounts purporting to reclaim ownership in the copyright in their Facebook content. Variations of this message have floated around for years, but the latest looks something like this:

“In response to the new Facebook guidelines, I hereby declare that my copyright is attached to all of my personal details, illustrations, comics, paintings, professional photos and videos, etc. (as a result of the Berner Convention). For commercial use of the above my written consent is needed at all times!”

For reasons I will explain momentarily, this message is totally pointless and legally irrelevant. But it does serve as a ripe opportunity to discuss some basics of copyright law, how it applies to social media, and what to expect from Facebook's copyright policy.

The owner of any creative content is the author. In the case of your individual Facebook account, you own the content of the posts you write and the photos you take, and your friends own the content of what they post to your page. If you post a photograph taken by a friend, your friend typically owns that photograph. Things get trickier with corporate or nonprofit Facebook accounts. An organization typically owns the content posted by its employees under the work for hire doctrine.

When that content gets posted or uploaded to Facebook, the ownership does not change. You still own the photographs you took, and your organization still owns the content of the messages its employees posted. In other words, ownership of content does not change hands just because it is uploaded to social media.

What does happen when you upload content is that you grant that social media company permission to use the content. More specifically, you grant Facebook a non-exclusive, transferable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use your content. You agreed to that when you signed up for an account, and your ongoing use of the social media service, whether that’s Facebook or any other type of social media, means that you continue to agree to their terms of service. Nothing you say or post to your account overrides that.

So, the bottom line is that nothing you post on Facebook has any effect on copyright ownership, nor does it have any effect on the license you grant Facebook to use your content. If you don’t want to grant Facebook a license to use your content, don’t post it.

Oh, and there’s no such thing as the “Berner” Convention.

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