Business Law Legal Topics Social Media

Copyright Law in the World of Social Media

Social media — including Facebook and Twitter — has quickly become part of our daily lives. User generated content (UGC), including images, video, audio, and text, are uploaded everyday without thought as to whether it is protected under copyright law. But some are starting to ask questions on the limits of copyright in social media. Is a single “tweet” on Twitter entitled to protection? If not, what about a string of compiled tweets?

Although copyrighting tweets is unlikely, a lot of UGC mixes new and existing content, which may be either in the public domain or copyright protected, and uses it as building blocks to efficiently create new and potentially valuable works that may be shared instantaneously. Two legal principles of copyright law create interesting challenges for social media: (1) Copyright protection vests automatically in the author when the work is “fixed in a tangible medium” (17 USC §102(a)), i.e., no formalities such as notice, registration, or publication are required to obtain basic protection; and (2) assignments or an exclusive license of rights must be signed and in writing (17 USC §102(a)). 

To avoid legal hurdles and the wrath of end users, most social media services simply take a nonexclusive license on UGC. For example, users who submit comments on social media services actually fix their work in a tangible medium when they click “submit” or “share.” For social media services, drafting an effective end-user license agreement and obtaining clear assent to its terms are big challenges. Anytime users submit any content to a social media website, whether a large social networking site or a personal blog, the website must be careful to secure by license from the user the rights it needs to operate on a daily basis. As discussed in it’s recent “advisory,” the Pillsbury law firm stresses that everyone should read and understand terms of service and end user license agreements.

For a discussion of liability for copyright infringement and best practices for social media services to avoid liability, check out Art Neill‘s article Social Media and the Law: Here Comes Everybody! in the Spring 2010 issue of the California Business Law Practitioner. On copyright infringement on the internet generally, see Internet Law and Practice in California §§1.12-1.22 (Cal CEB 2004) and California Business Litigation §§9.49-9.55C (Cal CEB 2002).

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