Content ownership on social media sites
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Content ownership on social media sites

Content ownership on social media sites

The ownership status of content on social media sites is unlikely to be at the forefront of the average user’s thinking, particularly as the social media environment thrives on the swift exchange and replication of information and opinions.  Furthermore, the lengthy terms and conditions on sites such as Facebook and Twitter give a fairly confused picture as to who exactly owns content posted on those sites.   The central inconsistency is that while the terms will tend to state that the user owns the copyright in any original content that they post, those same terms also allow the site to take a very wide-ranging, worldwide and royalty-free licence to transfer and sub-licence that content as it wishes. Consequently, this is an area of law that is in the process of development and consolidation.

In January 2010, a professional photographer named Daniel Morel posted on Twitter some photos that he had taken of the Haiti earthquake, which were later found by Agence France Presse (AFP) and distributed to the Getty database, as a result of which some of the photos were published in The Washington Post. AFP and Getty were eventually fined $1.22m for copyright infringement; AFP’s defence argument that the images were “freely available” on Twitter was unsuccessful; the judge took the view that while Twitter’s Terms of Service granted a sub-licence for non-commercial use of others’ content, they did not grant a sub-licence for such clearly commercial use as AFP and Getty were making of the content.

Interestingly, when a similar event occurred more recently in the UK (several newspapers published photos, taken from Twitter, of the Vauxhall helicopter crash in London in January 2013), the London Evening Standard responded immediately to a complaint from the photographer with a full apology and an assurance that the photographer would be paid.

This is perhaps one of the better examples of the way in which new codes of behaviour may become established as a result of the constant testing of the new law of the internet.

Ownership of content on company social media sites

Similar questions of ownership have arisen in relation to the ownership of content where social media accounts are maintained in the course of employment.  This question is particularly pertinent in the context of the standard restriction on employees taking business contacts with them when they cease employment. The question therefore of who owns the Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn account – employer or employee? – is one that should be addressed carefully from the outset of the employment. Employers should consider setting out clear guidelines either in their employment contracts or through a company social media policy, which should cover measures such as:

  • making it clear that the relevant social media account is being set up for business purposes;
  • registering the social media account using the company’s email address;
  • prohibiting the employee from copying contacts made during the employment;
  • requiring departing employees to:

– give back their usernames and passwords: and

– delete all social media connections made during and as a result of their employment


For further advice and assistance, please contact VICTORIA@VLTLEGAL.CO.UK or 07887 810020 for a free consultation.