Social Media Copyright and Fair Use Rules to Know

Photo by Giammarco on Unsplash

It’s so easy to grab music, sounds or images on social media and reuse them. TikTok even encourages it. So is it ok for brands to do the same things individuals can do? The short answer is no. As you use social media platforms to build your brand, you shouldn’t overlook the legal consequences that might arise.

Please note: We are not lawyers and this is not legal advice.

Fair Use in the Social Media Age

It’s a no-brainer that you shouldn’t use other people’s intellectual work without a fair use exemption or the owners’ permission. With the growing popularity of social media, one question that crosses the mind is how to post content created by third-party users within the limits of fair use.

The fair use doctrine is part of the Copyright Act. It’s meant to limit the scope of copyright using an equitable rule of reason. Under the Copyright Act, the fair use of copyrighted work, including through the reproduction of copies for news reporting, scholarship, teaching, or criticism, doesn’t count as infringement. However, if you’re using the content for commercial purposes, it falls outside the realm of fair use.

As with most issues surrounding copyright infringement, social media platforms are bound by the fair use doctrine. It’s particularly easy for owners to find that their work is getting distributed without their permission. If you’re copying someone else’s work without their prior permission and it doesn’t constitute fair use, there’ll be repercussions.

TL/DR #1: If you’re using content for commercial purposes, you lose your fair use exemption.

How to Avoid Copyright Lawsuits

Using other people’s content can get you sued, more so if you’re a brand. Avoiding liability entails being smart about what you post on social media and how you post it. The best way to avoid copyright lawsuits is by asking for permission to use the original creator’s work. Sometimes, all you need to do to get that permission is by messaging the creator to inform them of your intent.

You may even want to sign a formal agreement authorizing your use of copyrighted content. Besides seeking permission, it’s advisable to embed posts on your blog or website. This entails more than merely attributing or linking, since it provides the actual original post. Moreover, you should ask social media users for permission before using their work and be careful about embedding social media posts and images.

Social media teams should consider using platforms such as Flickr and, where they can find copyright-free images with licenses for editorial and commercial use. Using such images for your social media posts saves you from expensive copyright lawsuits. And, of course, you can always take your pictures and use them in your social media posts.

As you use different social media platforms to promote your brand and connect with the target audience, your social media team should understand the platforms’ terms of service. Violating these terms, even inadvertently, comes with the risk of lawsuits. It pays to understand the fair use laws of all your social media platforms. Also, ensure your company’s social media policy is clear and that the content you post isn’t trademarked or copyrighted.

TL/DR #2: Ask for permission, embed or share the entire post or use copyright-free content. 

Can Brands Use the TikTok Music Everyone is Using?

All the music available in the TikTok Sound library is legal to use in your posts because it’s licensed. However, this doesn’t mean you can use the TikTok music everyone else is using, especially for commercial purposes. In this case, you may get banned by TikTok, or the labels that own the copyright to the music can sue you.

Use Instagram if you want to incorporate licensed music clips into your social media content. Instagram’s Stories music sticker allows you to add songs from the platform’s extensive library to your content. You can then share the content on your other social media platforms without legal ramifications.

TL/DR #3: No, brands cannot use any sound they want on TikTok or Reels. Use those in platform libraries that are licensed for brand use or royalty-free music sites.

Sharing Your Products Can Get You Sued

Brand endorsement is everything in today’s social media age. Seeing a celebrity using your product is a huge endorsement, but you can’t share it from your brand page. A case in point is when Katherine Heigl sued for over $6 million in damages when a pharmacy posted a picture of her leaving their outlet.

Your brand should also avoid using a meme with a celebrity in it because the misappropriation of resemblance can get charged for commercial use. Memes are fun and can help you spread your brand message, but only use them if you have the necessary permissions.

TL/DR #4: Using a celebrity’s image in brand marketing is just asking to be sued, even in a popular meme. 

Reposting Content Without Owners’ Permission

Likewise, if another brand shares something without attribution, you should avoid sharing it also. Reposting marketing images without permission could see you facing copyright lawsuits. The appearance of content on social media platforms doesn’t translate into a blanket license for other social media users to repost it at will, more so brands.

TL/DR #5: Get permission before resharing, even if it’s user generated content. 

Using Songs in Your Social Media Content

A common misconception is that brands can use any song in their social media content as long as it is shorter than 15 seconds. There’s no such rule because fair use only applies to the non-commercial use of copyrighted content. Although the percentage of work cited comes into play as far as the fair use doctrine is concerned, the so-called 15-second limit doesn’t exist.

You can use songs that are in the public domain without any restrictions. That happens because the copyright to these songs has expired after many years. Similarly, some social media teams think they can use user-generated content provided they tag the creators.

However, that’s a misconception because the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) stipulates that everything published online gets automatically copyrighted by the creators. This includes videos, images, written text, and music. Using them without the creator’s permission amounts to copyright infringement.

TL/DR #6: There is no “15-second rule” for fair use of music by brands on social media. 

Elevate Your Social Media Presence Without Risking Lawsuits

Social media is a minefield that needs to be navigated carefully, especially for brands. The easiest way to avoid expensive lawsuits is partnering with a social media agency that knows its way around copyright infringement and trademarks.

At Ignite Social Media, we pride ourselves on being the pioneer social media-focused digital marketing agency in the US. We’re dedicated to helping our clients execute their social media strategies safely by delivering unmatched services that drive real value. Request a proposal today to get started.

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