Photo Sharing: Who’s Pic is it Anyway?

This week Jeff Cormier posted an excellent piece at Next Web about content ownership at various photo sharing sites. After investigating, Jeff found that some photo sharing sites don’t assure that you and you alone own the content. In fact, some Terms of Service state that while you own the photos, your posting them gives license to the photo sharing site to possibly exploit them for commercial purposes.

According to Jeff’s research several of these sites (there are notable exceptions) have a ToS which basically says that if you use the service, you are giving them permission to use the content for commercial gain. Even if the content is deleted by you and no longer viewable the service may still retain license to that content and it might be perpetual.

Sigh, old Willy was right about lawyers.

In fact, Twitpic has signed an agreement wit the WENN news agency to sell media photos posted by celebrities on Twitter. They don’t just want to possibly sell the photos. They also want to make sure you can’t use other’s photos hosted on the service unless you pay for it.

Check out what the CEO of WENN had to say about that:

“There has been much unauthorised use of Twitpic images which we shall be addressing without delay. The belief by some that any photo posted on Twitter is available at no cost is completely wrong but now as result of this new arrangement, anyone wishing to publish celebrity photos posted on Twitter via TwitPic will be able to do so legitimately via WENN.”

Somewhere a room full of lawyers is busily writing up cease and desist letters.

Terms of Service are not written to be easily read by normal humans, but by and for lawyers (I’m skipping the obvious joke here). Trying to read most of them is a lot like trying to swim ten lengths of a pool filed with chocolate pudding. However, aside from having someone such as Jeff do the leg work for you and post about it, the only way you can be sure is to check the ToS to see what the policy is.

I’m certain you can see the potential issues of concern when it comes to your personal photos. I certainly wouldn’t want any photo sharing site trying to profit from a photo I was responsible for and I definitely wouldn’t want them claiming any kind of ownership over personal photos. That’s unlikely, but it could happen if for example, you or a relative become a cause celeb or perhaps have some brush with fame. I’ve seen plenty of news casts and print papers use photos from Facebook pages and other sources.

If you’re using a photo hosting site for your company or personal blog or sharing photos on Twitter which may be related to your work or even just casual photos of your coworkers, this could possibly come back to bite you.

The possibility may be remote, but as social media gains more and more reach, it’s likely this kind of issue will come up more often. And of course, you won’t know it’s a disaster until the anvil actually drops on your head.

If you are using a Twitter app via your smartphone, that app may automatically choose the sharing service for your photo or video. If so, then you are likely subject to that service’s ToS. So, going out for some drunken karaoke with the board of directors and posting the video might end up being a CLM (Career Limiting Move).

The best possible thing you can do is err on the side of caution when sharing content such as photos. Social encourages us to share, but it’s up to us to act as the first line of defense for our personal and professional privacy and security. If your responsible for social media policy (you do have a policy right?), then you might want to develop and distribute some rules regarding what kind (if any) of photos employees may or may not share.

Posting those wild picks from the office party could end up a ticking time bomb if the wrong person takes advantage of it.