How to Determine the Copyright Status of Visual Elements for Social Marketing

By Krista Neher

Using visual content such as images and videos in your social media marketing creates a number of concerns about adhering to copyright law. Here are some issues to be aware of when you’re using images and videos online.

Business owners can’t simply search for images online and use any images they find. The owner or creator of an image holds the copyright to that image automatically. A business that uses a copyrighted image without permission may end up in legal trouble.

When you search for images to use for social media marketing, be sure that you have the proper permission to use the image legally.

You can also purchase the non-exclusive rights to use an image in your marketing to promote your business. Both free and paid sites provide businesses with licenses to use images commercially. Paid image sites generally have better selections, higher quality, and fewer restrictions than the free photography options.

Images and videos: Embedding versus uploading

One thing that blurs the use of copyright on the web is the difference between embedding and uploading an image or a video. Though some debate still exists in this area, in most instances, images and videos may be embedded on a site without violating the copyright, but they cannot be uploaded.

When an image or a video is embedded into your website, the source content is hosted on another site but is displayed on your site.

Suppose that someone at www.mashable.com writes an article about Facebook marketing, accompanied by a photo. To add the photo to the website, Mashable uploads the photo, and it is hosted on Mashable’s servers. Then a few weeks later, as you’re writing an article about Facebook marketing on your blog, you want to use the Facebook marketing photo from Mashable.

You cannot simply download the Mashable photo to your computer and upload it to your blog post. Mashable owns the copyright to the photo it used, and you can’t simply reuse the photo, even if you give proper credit.

You can, however, embed the photo from Mashable into your blog so that the image is displayed. When a photo or video is embedded, it continues to be hosted on Mashable’s servers, and you’re simply displaying its photo on your website.

The difference between embedding the photo and downloading the photo is subtle because, in both cases, the photo is displayed on your website. In downloading and uploading the photo, you’re hosting the image on your web servers and using the copyrighted image for your marketing purposes. If you embed the photo, you’re displaying the photo on your website but not copying, downloading, or reproducing it.

The bottom line: Embedding photos lets you use photos from other websites; however without proper permission, you cannot upload those same images to your website.

How to avoid legal issues when taking your own photos and videos

When you use your own images and videos online, you have to consider a few issues. Because a business’s use of images and videos on social media is considered marketing, specific rules apply to the commercial use of images and videos. Consider the items described in this list:

  • Model releases: When you take a photo of a person (even if that person is an employee or a customer), you may need to secure a model release — a form, signed by the person in the image or video, that allows the business to use the content for marketing purposes.

    A model release isn’t required in every situation; however, if you’re planning to use images of people, be sure to discuss this issue with your lawyer.

  • Property releases: A property release may be required for images that include private property. For example, if you plan to create a video to promote your business and the video takes place in a Starbucks store, you may need a property release from Starbucks to show its store. When taking photos and videos on private property, determine whether a property release is important.

  • Trademarked logos or items: When creating content to use for your business, consider whether your photo or video includes trademarks or logos from other companies.

    You may have noticed, in certain TV reality shows, that the labels on products are blurred out; that’s because the use of other logos or trademarks to promote a business may require special permission. If you’re planning to use other business logos or trademarks in your content, check with your lawyer about the potential implications.

  • Other copyrighted materials: When creating your own photos or videos, avoid including other copyrighted materials in your content. For example, if you’re creating a video to market your business, do not use copyrighted music in it. Whenever you use any content (photos, music, or video footage, for example) that was created by someone else, be sure that you have the appropriate permissions.

Consult an attorney to find out more about how all these legal issues impact your business.