Social Media Marketing Copyright Rules for Businesses – Small Business Trends

If you use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media marketing tools to promote your business (and who doesn’t these days?), then you know there are social media etiquette rules that your business should follow.

Break the rules, and your marketing results will plummet.

But did you know there are also copyright rules for social media that your business needs to follow if you want to stay out of expensive legal trouble?

Unfortunately, copyright law gets a bad rap. Spend some time reading through tweets in the #copyright hashtag on Twitter, and you’ll see one angry tweet after another from people whose YouTube videos got taken down due to copyright complaints.

Yes, copyright laws do need to be updated to better address the digital world that we live in today (the U.S. Copyright Law hasn’t been revised since 1976), but whether or not you agree with the law, you have to follow it.

With that in mind, here are some tips to help you follow the most basic copyright rules when you promote your business online and engage with people through social media marketing.

1. Assume Your Use is Not Covered by Fair Use

Fair use is a sticky, cloudy, messy, confusing, insert similar adjectives of your choice, slope. Fair use was created to allow limited use of a copyrighted work for reasonable purposes without having to actually get the owner’s permission to use it. Fair use doesn’t mean free use.

There is a four-part test that is typically used to determine if use is fair use or not. Ask yourself these four questions before you deem your use of someone else’s creativity to be fair use because not only might the owner disagree with you, the law might disagree, too:

Be careful because even the four-part test can get a bit muddied and subjective when it’s interpreted in real-life situations. This is a lesson that many bloggers have learned the hard way over the years when they received the Getty Images Demand Letter.

2. Make Sure You Own It (or Have Permission to Use It) before You Publish It

Owner and author (or creator) are not the same thing, and the difference between owner and author can mean the difference between your getting into big and expensive trouble or not.

Your business owns creative works that your employees create while working for your company. Your business does not own creative works that freelancers and other contractors create for you unless you have a Work-Made-For-Hire-Agreement in place with them that identifies you as the owner.

Furthermore, your business is not the owner of creative works that you license from the respective owners. For example, if you purchase an image through a stock photo website to use on your blog, you’ve been given permission to use it in very specific ways through a licensing agreement. Read that agreement thoroughly so you don’t violate the terms!

3. Don’t Fight the DMCA, Understand It and Abide by It

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) provides a safe harbor to online service providers (including Web hosts and social media sites) so their liability is limited if one of their users publishes content that is a copyright infringement. Under the DMCA, online service providers must take down content that could violate a copyright when the copyright owner sends a take-down request.

This is what’s happening to all of those YouTube users who are complaining on Twitter, but what they don’t understand — and as a business owner, what you must understand — is that there is a process to respond to the take-down request if you believe you have not infringed on someone else’s copyright. If there wasn’t an infringement, then by all means, you should respond.

Additionally, if someone publishes your content or other creative work without your permission, then you have the right to send a DMCA Take-Down Request to the online service provider too. It’s your responsibility to police and enforce your copyrights.

4. Beware of Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that was created to provide creators of original works an easier way to give others permission to use their original creative work than the U.S. Copyright Law allows. But there are problems with Creative Commons, and those problems can be very expensive to your business.

Most importantly, if you use an image or creative work with a Creative Commons license on it, the person who applied that license might not actually be the copyright owner. That means the Creative Commons license is meaningless and you could be infringing on the owner’s copyright if you use it in your social media marketing.

Furthermore, the Creative Commons organization absolves itself of any problems you might have with its licenses in the future within its terms of use. If something goes wrong, you’re on your own, and since Creative Commons has no legal significance, it won’t help you in a legal battle.

5. Get Federal Copyright Registration for Your Creative Work

You become the copyright owner of your work when it’s fixed in a tangible medium (assuming it’s copyrightable), but when your work is federally registered, you can enforce your rights under federal copyright laws. No, you don’t have to register your work to own the copyright, but doing so turns your rights into federal statutory rights, which means your rights are enforced under federal law statute — the copyright law passed by Congress.

As a copyright owner, you get a bundle of exclusive rights to reproduce your work, distribute copies of your work, prepare derivative works from your original work, perform your work, and display your work. Even if you don’t think your creative work has value today, it has tremendous potential value, and your business could lose money if someone else uses it without your permission.

By obtaining federal copyright registration for your work within 90 days of first publication (or the first time it was made available to the public), you can collect fees and damages without having to prove actual damages. This is a huge benefit to your business!

The Takeaway

Breaking copyright rules can be a very costly mistake that you don’t want to have to pay for with your time or money. It’s your responsibility to understand and comply with the law.

If you pay someone (an employee, contractor, or social media company) to handle your social media marketing activities, make sure they understand copyright laws and are following them because ultimately, your business will be held responsible for any mistakes.

Social Media Photo via Shutterstock


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