social media copyright

Almost every week, we write about some legal issue that arises in digital and social media – many times talking about the traditional media company that did something that they shouldn’t have done in the online world, and ended up with some legal issues as a result. Two weeks ago, I conducted a webinar, hosted by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters and co-sponsored by over 20 other state broadcast associations, where I tried to highlight some of the many legal issues that can be traps for the unwary. Issues we discussed included copyright and trademark issues, a reminder about the FTC sponsorship identification rules for online media, FCC captioning obligations, privacy implications, as well as discussions about the patent issues that have arisen with the use of software and hardware that makes the digital transmission of content possible. Slides from that presentation are available here and, for the full webinar, a YouTube video of the entire presentation is available below which can be reviewed when you have some spare time over this upcoming holiday or at any other time that you want to catch up on your legal obligations.

Some of the specific issues that we talked about are familiar to readers of this blog. We discussed the many issues with taking photographs and other content found on the Internet and repurposing them to your own website without getting permission from the content’s creator (see our articles here and here). Similar issues have arisen when TV stations have taken YouTube videos and played them on their TV stations without getting permission from the creator. Music issues arise all the time, especially in producing online videos and creating digital content like podcasts, as your usual music licenses from ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, GMR and SoundExchange don’t cover the reproduction and distribution rights involved when content is copied or downloaded rather than live-streamed (see our article here). The presentation also cautioned companies to be careful about trying to rely on “fair use” as there are no hard and fast rules on when a use of copyrighted materials without permission is in fact fair (see our articles here and here on that subject).

Similarly, there are many other potential pitfalls for digital media companies. We’ve written about some of the FTC rules on requiring sponsorship identification on sponsored digital content – even tweets and Facebook posts (see our articles here and here). Plus, there are always issues about privacy and security of personal information that sites collect – and particularly strict rules for content directed to children. And, as many stations found out when a company asserted patent infringement claims about digital music storage systems used by most radio stations (see our articles here and here), patent issues can also arise in connection with any companies use of digital media.
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In recent weeks, we have continued to see copyright lawsuits against broadcasters filed by photographers who allege that their photos have been used without permission.  This spate of lawsuits has not been confined to filings against broadcast companies – even the Donald Trump campaign has reportedly been sued recently for his son’s tweet of a picture of a bowl of Skittles in his now-famous tweet comparing Syrian refugees to the candy treats.  We have written about this issue before (see for instance our posts here and here), but what makes these issues worth writing about again is that several of the recent suits involve not just the unauthorized use of a photograph on a station’s website, but the use of photos in social media posts including tweets on Twitter and posts on Facebook.  Is this really an issue?

It certainly is a concern, especially for commercial businesses.  As we have written before, just because someone posts a picture on the Internet, even on a social media or photo sharing site, does not give others the right to exploit that photo, especially on a digital site of a commercial business.  Posting on a social media site may give the social media site owner the right to exploit posted content consistent with their terms of use, but the person who created the content does not give up their underlying copyright in any creative work to third parties.  The Skittles suit represents an instance of a photographer using copyright law to enforce these rights, apparently as he did not agree with the political sentiment expressed by the tweet in which the photo was used.  But not too long ago, there was significant publicity about a lawsuit, now reportedly settled, about a New Jersey newspaper suing a cable news network because one of its personalities used a well-known 9-11 photo from the paper as the profile picture on that personality’s Facebook page – without first securing permission.  But isn’t that what these social media sites are for – sharing content?
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