What Community Managers Need to Know About Copyrights

*This wouldn’t be a proper blog post about legal “watchouts” if I didn’t include a disclaimer. The following post includes best practices, suggestions and my own interpretation of the laws.  I am not an attorney – just a cautious social media marketer.  Consult your brand’s legal team for specific guidelines and processes for your online communities.*

Pumping out quality content for your communities is one of the most rewarding, creative and fun activities in the life of a community manager.  It’s natural, and even a best practice – to take inspiration from the things happening around you – trending topics, pop culture, breaking news, industry news and events, and even other brands.

But, there are “rules” for brands using social media that do not apply to the average citizen, media outlets and bloggers. One treacherous area for social media marketers is the use of third-party copyrights without permission.

Freedom of Speech?

For US-based businesses, this liberty doesn’t apply. Everything you say as a brand is a commercial. You wouldn’t say something, if it didn’t in some way help you meet a goal. The FTC further enforced this notion in March 2013 when it updated the .com disclosure document to apply to forms of social media.

Common Third-Party Copyrights

As a savvy marketer, you’re probably already familiar with copyrights.  But, it can’t hurt to refresh your memory.  Some examples of the most common third-party copyrights are:

  • Images of People
  • Images owned by other people & brands
  • Music, Songs, Lyrics
  • Books, Literary Works
  • Videos, Movies
  • Songs, Movies and Show Titles
  • Anything that is trademarked

What is NOT a Copyright?

  • Works in the public domain, which would include intellectual property whose rights are expired, such as a sonnet by Shakespeare.
  • Words, names, slogans or short phrases, blank forms, works that are not original, and government works. Examples include the popular expression, “attagirl!” or a government building code.

Lastly, don’t look for the absence of the © symbol as a license to use the content – works do not have to have © to be copyrighted.

What’s Copyright Infringement Exactly?

Copying or displaying copyrighted material without owner’s permission – Ex: sharing a copyrighted photo. Think of it as the business version of plagiarism.

It also includes:

  • the knowledge of infringement
  • the distribution of a product used to infringe

Who’s At Risk?

  • The brand uploading the material
  • In some cases, those who facilitate the upload/download
  • Agencies or vendors who provide the material
  • Those that have the ability to supervise direct infringement and receives direct financial interest  from infringement

The key takeaway: Any time a brand uses another’s copyrights for their own marketing purposes, they are at risk for copyright infringement. Take for example, this meme of Dos Equis’ The Most Interesting Man in the World.

Dos Equis Meme

Source: Troll.me

Had a brand used this meme in a Facebook post without permission from the copyright owner, that brand could be penalized. Copyright violations often carry hefty fines, so, ironically, the subject of copyrights isn’t at all an irrelevant legal concept.

Yet, it’s easy to find real examples from brands, which are likely all too familiar with copyrights themselves, that use a third-party’s copyrighted material in their social media channels. Take Denny’s use of this popular “Imminent Ned” meme from Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones Dennys Post

Technically, Denny’s should obtain permission from the copyright holder before using this image. Which they very well may have done.

Having a basic understanding of copyrights can keep you out of hot water. The world of copyrights is complicated and varies by state and country. But, having a basic understanding of third-party copyrights creates boundaries in which to operate safely. As a result, your content creation process may become more deliberate or arduous, but you now have guardrails to help you play within the (legal) lines.

Stay safe out there!

Other Helpful Resources:

Understanding Image Copyright, Social Media Today

5 legal issues to consider when planning a sweepstakes

Updated FTC guidelines – What It Means for Marketers

Updated FTC Guidelines Impact on Influencer Marketing

Can You tweet That? Social Media and the Law

Pinterest Copyright Problem and How it May Hurt Brands

Ignite Social Media