You Should Know: Photo Licensing Agreements on Social Networks

By Jon Heinrich

For example, did you know that your Google + profile image will be downloaded to all the smartphones that download your contact info? I didn't either.

Dear Google, I like your services, I even drafted this post in Google docs, so I’m into it. Just don’t be that guy.

When Google + launched it’s beta version a few months ago, I decided to research  what kind of licensing rights users were signing away when posting photos on Google +.  In addition to scoping out the shot for personal empowerment as a photographer, I also wondered: as a brand, what kind of copyright considerations should you consider before launching a user generated content (UGC) campaign?

Long story short, you shouldn’t post any photos you don’t ever want to see on the front page of some other website, as Google + grabs worldwide rights in perpetuity to use and sub-license your photos. As an artist, I find it alarming that Google would be so brazen to just grab the IP of everyone who participates in their show. By doing so, Google is basically creating a huge royalty-free database of sub-licensable images that they can do whatever they want with, whenever and however they want, forever.

For context and comparison’s sake, I’ve outlined and explained a few licensing agreements from some major social networks:

Facebook:

“You grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (“IP License”). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.”

Tumblr:
“Subscriber shall own all Subscriber Content that Subscriber contributes to the Site, but hereby grants and agrees to grant Tumblr a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, transferable right and license (with the right to sublicense), to use, copy, cache, publish, display, distribute, modify, create derivative works and store such Subscriber Content and to allow others to do so (“Content License”) in order to provide the Services”

Google +:
“By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services.

You agree that this license includes a right for Google to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals with whom Google has relationships for the provision of syndicated services, and to use such Content in connection with the provision of those services.

You understand that Google, in performing the required technical steps to provide the Services to our users, may (a) transmit or distribute your Content over various public networks and in various media; and (b) make such changes to your Content as are necessary to conform and adapt that Content to the technical requirements of connecting networks, devices, services or media. You agree that this license shall permit Google to take these actions.”

However, there is a grey area because they also say:
“11.1 …This license is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services and may be revoked for certain Services as defined in the Additional Terms of those Services.”

What it means: Facebook can use your photos as long as you have them posted up, but they cannot sell or license them to third parties or do whatever they want with them in perpetuity. With Google + and Tumblr, however, they own the rights of your photos whether you still have your images up or not.

Mark Zuckerburg posted a response to the outcry over the terms of service, where he explained: “Our philosophy is that people own their information and control who they share it with. When a person shares information on Facebook, they first need to grant Facebook a license to use that information so that we can show it to the other people they’ve asked us to share it with. Without this license, we couldn’t help people share that information.”

What does this mean for brands?

From a brand perspective, this licensing is something to consider and pay attention to. If you are running a campaign culling UGC and user involvement, remember that unless you have specific fine print, you don’t have rights to the content either. If your users are active on social media sites, it’s safe to say that they’ve accepted the fact that they have given up their licensing rights to Facebook, but keep in mind that there might be the slight off chance that someone will learn about the fine print for the first time and get annoyed.

Take a look at one example of a brand that addressed this issue. Beer brand Stella Artois worked in additional language that ensures they can use UGC images and content freely in the future without penalization. This is smart on their behalf, but as a user, would you want to sign this?

“By submitting Content to this site, you: … (b) grant Anheuser-Busch an unlimited, perpetual, royalty-free, sub-licensable, transferable and irrevocable license to use, modify, or adapt the Content for any purpose whatsoever, including but not limited to incorporating the submission into content copyrighted by Anheuser-Busch, whether or not such Anheuser-Busch content is commercial in nature…”

Personally, I think if more people read the fine print, there’d be less photos being shared on popular social networks and UGC campaigns.  Let’s face it though – in the grand scheme of things, social networks command our attention and focus. If you aim to impress friends and garner user involvement and UGC, post away! As an artist and photographer, if your goal is to promote your own fine art photography with the intention of later selling those photos, be forewarned that those images could very well be used, regardless of your consent, feelings, and creative ownership.  Keep in mind that once you upload an image, granting any of these social networks non-exclusive use, you can no longer license that same image for exclusive use with anyone else.

While there is certainly a benefit in getting your photography out there and shared through social media, just remember: uploader, beware!

  • Jon H

    Another update to add, here’s what the Hipstamatic peeps sent my friend Brigitte regarding rights on their products.

    “The only place where Synthetic has any rights to images are those submitted to our contests. And those rights are outlined in the contest rules. 

    Otherwise, everyone owns their own images (including those from Hipstamatic Disposable, IncrediBooth and SwankoLab and any of those images that are uploaded to the cloud). ”
    Hipstamatic: I’m a big fan, thank you for not swiping my IP, Love, Jon

  • Colby Brown

    I really dislike articles like this that do not show the full picture…

    Atleast when it comes to Google+, these are the two most important lines from the Google TOS agreement:“11.1 You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. (for remainder see #3 below)”and“This license is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services and may be revoked for certain Services as defined in the Additional Terms of those Services”The reality is that every time Google has used one of my images to promote Google+ or even link to my account, they have contacted me and I have signed a release. Scare tactics is getting old with so called “Tech journalism”….

  • Colby Brown

    not sure why the comment did not retain paragraph editing…got to love Disqus

  • Jon H

    Hi Colby,

    Thanks for bringing more clarity to the picture.  Glad to hear Google has reached out to use your images for promotional use, I checked out what I believe to be your website and you have some brilliant work.

    My point in putting this blog post together was not in the sense of hardened tech journalism, but rather as an education piece pointing out the fine print that applies to photo licensing rights.  True, it does say the purpose of the license is to allow G+ to distribute the images.  But speaking as a former photo agent, I would never let one my my clients sign an agreement including the words “a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute…” There is no reason to put in such all-encompassing language and I felt the need to educate the community.  

    Thank you for shedding even more light on the subject,

    Jon

  • Jon H

    With the recent rise of Pinterest I wanted to add some resources to this post to continue to bring awareness to copyright issues around photography in social media.  This article does a good job of explaining the ins and outs of the Pinterest language.  (http://www.businessinsider.com/pinterest-copyright-issues-lawyer-2012-2?utm_source=twbutton&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=sai)

    If you don’t have time to read it, the short story is summed up in the title of the article:

    A Lawyer Who Is Also A Photographer Just Deleted All Her Pinterest Boards Out Of Fear

    “Pinterest’s Terms of Use:

    “YOU ACKNOWLEDGE AND AGREE THAT, TO THE MAXIMUM EXTENT PERMITTED BY LAW, THE ENTIRE RISK ARISING OUT OF YOUR ACCESS TO AND USE OF THE SITE, APPLICATION, SERVICES AND SITE CONTENT REMAINS WITH YOU.”

    So Pinterest puts ALL potential legal involvement on its users:

    “You agree to defend, indemnify, and hold Cold Brew Labs, its officers, directors, employees and agents, harmless from and against any claims, liabilities, damages, losses, and expenses, including, without limitation, reasonable legal and accounting fees, arising out of or in any way connected with (i) your access to or use of the Site, Application, Services or Site Content, (ii) your Member Content, or (iii) your violation of these Terms.”

    So if you post an illegal image, the photographer can sue you and Pinterest for copyright violation and the cost of both of those lawyers falls on you.  Yuck.

    May the social troubadour beware!

  • Jon H

    With the recent rise of Pinterest I wanted to add some resources to this post to continue to bring awareness to copyright issues around photography in social media.  This article does a good job of explaining the ins and outs of the Pinterest language. 
    http://www.businessinsider.com/pinterest-copyright-issues-lawyer-2012-2?utm_source=twbutton&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=sai

    If you don’t have time to read it, the short story is this:

    A Lawyer Who Is Also A Photographer Just Deleted All Her Pinterest Boards Out Of Fear

    “Pinterest’s Terms of Use:

    “YOU ACKNOWLEDGE AND AGREE THAT, TO THE MAXIMUM EXTENT PERMITTED BY LAW, THE ENTIRE RISK ARISING OUT OF YOUR ACCESS TO AND USE OF THE SITE, APPLICATION, SERVICES AND SITE CONTENT REMAINS WITH YOU.”

    So Pinterest puts all potential legal involvement on its users:

    “You agree to defend, indemnify, and hold Cold Brew Labs, its officers, directors, employees and agents, harmless from and against any claims, liabilities, damages, losses, and expenses, including, without limitation, reasonable legal and accounting fees, arising out of or in any way connected with (i) your access to or use of the Site, Application, Services or Site Content, (ii) your Member Content, or (iii) your violation of these Terms.”

    So if you post an illegal image, the photographer can sue you and Pinterest for copyright violation and the cost of both of those lawyers falls on you.  Yuck.

    May the social troubadour beware!