Copyrighted images – what content can you legally use on social media?

You might see an image and think, that would look perfect on your social accounts. Maybe it speaks for you or your brand. Or, perhaps you just love the creator’s work. However, that image came from somewhere. Who owns it? Can you use it without permission?

Above is an easy cheat sheet that explains when you can and can’t use images. It breaks it down, making it easy to understand and iron out any grey areas. As you can see, we ourselves have used someone else’s image by sharing this chart. However, you’ll notice we always include the credit of the original source within our blog posts. This is key to using an image not created by you. The image was intended to be seen across the internet, hence it being uploaded to an article. However, it is always best when sharing it to let your readers know who created it.

When it comes to using someone’s images in a commercial situation, you always need to gain permission from the original content creator. The laws on social media are similar to copyright laws for all other situations. However, social media does always get a little messier. It’s all about sharing across platforms and therefore there are blurred lines between how and when to share other’s content. If it doesn’t belong to you, it is technically copyrighted by someone else. However, there are ways you can still use images that haven’t been taken or created by you.

Instagram states “Under Instagram’s Terms of Use and Community Guidelines you can only post content to Instagram that doesn’t violate someone else’s intellectual property rights.”

Ways to use non-original content on social platforms

There are ways you can use other people’s work within your social accounts without stealing it. It’s often largely about credit over monetary value across socials. If a creator has worked hard on something, it’s only right you give them the correct credit. Passing something off as your own is never ok, no matter what service you’re using.

Sharing images

We share images all the time to our Instagram story. This isn’t to steal anyone’s work, but instead to give it another platform. When we share posts from other creators, we’re showing our appreciation and giving our views on their work. It’s always as a way to share content with our followers that we believe will add value to their feeds.

The same goes for all social platforms; retweeting, sharing or pinning content all helps the original creator. In that situation, it’s very unlikely a creative will have any concerns with you sharing their work. Their name is featured in it, so is their account(s). By sharing it to your platform, they could grow their own audience which is a huge bonus. It costs them nothing and is positive advertising. This is of course, providing you keep things positive.

We’d never encourage sharing work, only to be negative because this isn’t necessary. If you don’t like content, leave it be. There is never a need to badmouth it to your followers. These actions won’t be accessible if a creative has turned permissions off within their account. So, if they don’t want to have their content shared, they can choose not to. Sharing is included within social platforms as an option, so ensure that’s how you’re spreading it. Don’t download it to upload it to your own account.

Remixes, or duets

On platforms like TikTok especially, duets and remixes have become really popular. They allow you to adapt or add to the content already published. You can put your own spin on things and make the content fit your identity. Again, these features are built into social platforms. So, if a creator doesn’t want their work being altered, they can ensure remixes and duets are turned off for their posts.

Therefore, if you’re able to remix a video posted to various platforms, the creator has allowed it. Which means, they’ve given their permission, and you do not need to ask for it. You can go in and remix their work, sharing it to your account. The original creator will be informed any time someone duets or remixes their work. They will be notified and can head straight to the post to see what you’ve created. It’s a brilliant way of networking.

Copyright free image sites

There are many websites that provide images free to use. You don’t need to pay anything for the work and using the images won’t get you in any form of trouble. These are copyright free image sites. There are so many to choose from, so you’ll always be able to find what you need. Simply look up copyright free images within your preferred search engine. From there you can browse thousands of photos or videos that can be used.

Be sure to check how the images can be used though. Some websites won’t allow you to use their content for commercial reasons. So, you won’t be able to use them within your company marketing or branding. It might be that you can use them on socials, but you have to be conscious about how you’re using them. However, each image will specify its terms, so you don’t need to panic that you’ll be using something you shouldn’t.

Consequences for using copyright content on social media

Being caught using someone’s work isn’t game over as such. It won’t be that your account will be shut down, and you’ll lose everything you’ve worked for. Nor will they immediately take you to court and demand money. Accidents happen, and often it’s a genuine mistake or oversight, so you’ll simply be asked to remove it. If of course you’ve been informed you’re wrongly using someone’s work and refuse to remove it, then things can progress from there.

You’ll typically be sent a cease-and-desist letter if you’re caught infringing someone’s work. This is from a lawyer and will inform you it needs to be removed. It could be the case that you are asked here to pay a fee. If it has got to the point where there are lawyers involved then it’s going to cost someone, and therefore you’ll likely be charged. This is more likely to happen to someone who has a larger following and therefore has potentially financially gained through using the work.

As a smaller creator, it’s likely after the work is removed, and you offer an apology – it won’t go further than this. But, making money from someone’s images could result in a lawsuit, especially if you don’t comply. If infringing is something you do often, you’ll likely find your account gets blocked or removed as you’re regularly breaking rules. Instagram states “If you repeatedly post content that infringes someone else’s intellectual property rights, such as copyrights or trademarks, your account may be disabled or your Page removed under Instagram’s repeat infringer policy.”

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