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Tips & Tricks

Is Social Media Destroying Copyright Protection? – Q&A

By Matthew Saville on October 25th 2013



These days we see more and more social media apps and communities popping up, such as the recently announced OKDOTHIS website / concept, a collaboration between photographer Jeremy Cowart and mobile app company Aloompa.  (It is an app for collaborating ideas (visual and otherwise) before and during the creative process, not just afterwards.  Like Pinterest, on crack?)  Anyways, we hear some of our fellow photographers get excited about these new things, while others complain about the deterioration of copyright protection as we know it.

So, which is it? Do the devices of social media aim to pound nails into  the coffins of anything original and creative, and make the concept of personal copyright and originality a thing of the past?  Or is social media just a new, ultimate way to share your creative images and thoughts that we simply haven’t quite figured out yet?


I can see where some people would “get controversial” about these types of social media services / tools / websites.  I gotta admit, the blur the lines between sharing / circulating, and stealing.  This is social media’s “bubble” at it’s finest. Kinda like the dot-com bubble, except hopefully with less of a “pop” before things level out.  Will creativity and originality die off?  Not really, but the bar will be raised.  This may be frustrating to those who are just barely mastering a few simple creative techniques at their own pace, but it is good news for anyone who is ready to embrace technology even a little bit, and think outside the box.  Ironically, just when you think you can’t possibly think outside the box any more, society will go and create a whole new box for people to “think inside of” for a while.  ;-)

First however, let’s be clear about the difference between actual theft, and simply sharing something that really inspires you.  If I post images on Facebook, I am basically conceding that others will re-post the images to their own Facebook wall, or maybe even on Twitter or Pinterest as an extension of Facebook.  And if your work is truly stunning, maybe a website (such as SLR Lounge, etc.) will “pick it up” and share it with their audience too.

To me, as long as credit is clearly given to the original creator, this is “fair game” in social media.  (Here at SLR Lounge, we always try to go the extra step and gain permission, too.)  You can debate the legality of “circulation versus theft”, but the bottom line is that if you post your content on social media, you need to be ready for at least a little bit of “circulation”.  Theft, of course, is entirely different.  If someone actually puts your image in their portfolio, or uses it for direct commercial resale, that is stealing.  Duh.  The same thing goes for general content / ideas.  If you steal, you should be caught.

[Rewind: If you’re gonna steal…No wait, how about just don’t steal?]

So, the question still needs an answer:  does social media mark the impending doom of personal copyright protection?  Not really, in my opinion.

Personally, I have a lot of faith in the survival of the respect  for (and enforcement of) people’s copyrights. The way I see it, yes we’re giving up a tiny bit, however we are also  gaining a whole lot more.

Facebook’s business model is proof of this-  I know of quite a few photographers who built their business from the ground up using Facebook social networking ONLY, without any paid advertising whatsoever.  Sure, by some copyright and image licensing standards you could say that these photographers had to forfeit a certain amount, maybe a few hundred dollars in potential sales / circulation licensing.  Maybe even a few thousand dollars in some cases of a photographer whose work “went viral” once or twice.  But do you have any idea what the same amount of visibility would have cost that photographer just ~25 years ago, in the form of traditional paid advertising?  Exponentially more. So, what are you going to do- charge every person who clicked “like” and circulated your content a few pennies?  No, you should be thanking them!

The real issue is in actual theft.  When another commercial entity steals your work and calls it their own, or uses it to promote their business, or even directly resells it in some cases.

The good news is, we as an industry don’t stand for that.  If we see someone truly stealing, and not just “circulating”, we bust them.  Often times, legal action results in fitting punishment / reward.  As rapidly as we come up with new ways to circulate our content, that just makes the internet a smaller and smaller world, which makes it more and more likely that you’ll find out about any theft.  Whereas just 20-30 years ago, you might have never found out about a copyright violation that could have earned you quite a pretty penny!

In my opinion the issues of theft and “grey area” circulation are simply a side effect that will always need to be dealt with as we increase the exposure of our images (and now even our ideas?) online. Whether or not you think it is a fair trade is up to you. You’re welcome to refuse to let your work circulate in social media, but I can guarantee you that many people who do this will miss opportunities for much greater success and recognition.

So yes, the internet is a beast that is creating a whole new world problems and grey areas.  But it till also always give you a fighting chance to protect yourself, as well as the opportunity to achieve great success that could have never been possible before…

As the saying goes, no rain, no rainbow!

social-media-benefits-for-photographers-650Stock Photo – Copyright Matthew Saville, 2005

Take care,
=Matthew Saville=

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Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. john Russell

    Matthew – I read your article with interest and agreed with most of it.
    I am however a little short on ‘faith’ when it comes to copyright issues. I would agree, that I think most individuals and most firms do respect copyright but some don’t and the T&C of the Social Media platforms also worries me.
    I have had some experience with a company using my images without permission. Even though it was a clear cut case, it took a considerable amount of time and angst before the situation was resolved. I believe this particular company was in it for the short haul and basically hung on for as long as possible reaping sales of the back of these images before going bust. It’s strange how a situation like that can take over your life.

    It was this copyright article that caught my eye and I have enjoyed the content on the site, which I have now bookmarked. So perhaps something good did come out of the whole experience after all.
    Kind regards

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    • Matthew Saville

      John, thanks for commenting. I do agree with you that there are certainly bad apples here and there in the bunch. We definitely need to remain vigilant, know our rights, and take action when necessary. However I believe that in the grand scheme of things, we shall benefit from social media much more than not. That is my main point here. :-)


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