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Social media and the copyright issue

The Internet, social media and the mass sharing of content online has opened up a range of issues on who owns what and who has permission to republish. The debate has implications for those who post on social media and also for businesses, which might be tempted to snatch an image or video they like for their own commercial purposes.

The BBC in the UK certainly put its foot into the stormy debate by claiming a right to use photos and videos posted on the Internet or on social media sites. The argument began when Andy Mabbett, an intrepid blogger and amateur photographer, took the BBC to task for using images without attribution from sites such as Twitter during the London riots and the terrorist attack in Oslo.

Quite astonishingly the BBC's first claimed that as Twitter is a social network platform available to most people who have a computer, “any content on it is not subject to the same copyright law as it is already in the public domain”.

This is quite a strange statement coming from a reputable media organisation, and it was amended somewhat after Mabbett criticised it on his

blog .

BBC social media editor Chris Hamilton responded that the original statement did not represent policy and that the broadcaster always attempts to contact the copyright holder when possible. The BBC would only use images (and presumably videos) without attribution or permission: “In exceptional situations, i.e. a major news story, where there is a strong public interest in making a photo available to a wide audience, we may seek clearance after we've first used it.” He also refers to the London riots and the Oslo attacks.

This justification does not satisfy Mabbett, myself and lots of other social media posters and professional photographers. I agree that an exceptional situation might justify “publish now, credit later”. But my definition of “exceptional” would be the revolution in Libya and other countries in turmoil, where it might be dangerous for a photographer to get to, or where those posting want to get their message out and there is an implied permission.

I find the BBC policy and weird definition of “public domain” completely self-serving. Unfortunately this justification, a dodge, has been used in the past by other media publications. Why would the BBC have a different policy for social media and the Internet than they would have if someone printed a booklet or photographs and started handing them out in the street for free? It's the “public domain” right? Wrong.

The statement could be used as an excuse for an organisation to not send out their journalists to cover a story. It is a policy that can be used as a cover for being lazy or negligent in not actively tracking down copyright holders. It can also be used as a cover to save money by not having to buy images from professional photographers.

Even if someone publishes on social media and it is available to all, as the BBC argues, that is their choice and their right. If they do not indicate they have given up copyright, then they still keep their rights and permission is required. It is not hard to track down the rights holder on such networks.

If the BBC is spending time scouring those networks for source material, then they have the time to make contact and get permission. Another issue that was not addressed, but should: news organisations should pay their usual rates for the use of images and videos taken by others and which they use for commercial gain (I know the BBC is a “public” broadcaster, but it should still pay).

The issue is complicated for those who post on Twitter or other networks such as TwitPic, Yfrog or Flickr, which have policies on the rights they have on using your images and how the media can use the content. For example, Twitter does have a guideline in place for the media to “ensure that Twitter users receive attribution”.

Other hosting sites are able to effectively resell the images they upload without paying the owners a cent. Twitpic is an example. The site claims you grant it a “worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable licence” to use posted content in any way it wants.

You should really read these policies to understand what you are giving away. If you want your images or other content to be used, then outline that you have given it a creative commons (creativecommons.org) licence or a variation. I use metadata information to stamp my images with my copyright and details on re-use.

It is your choice how you want your content used, but make sure it is your choice and not someone else assuming a right to re-use it.

This paper has a statement on copyright, and it is justified as you know you are posting directly to a media publication where you grant the Gazette an “irrevocable, royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual right and license to use, copy, modify, display, archive, distribute, reproduce and create derivative works” based on your content.

Send any comments to elamin.ahmed@gmail.com

Dramatic image: A masked youth pulls a burning garbage bin set on fire by rioters in Hackney, east London earlier this month. Pictures of the riots used by the BBC sparked a row over copyright.

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Published August 24, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated August 24, 2011 at 8:28 am)

Social media and the copyright issue

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