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Reading the Fine Print: Who Owns What on Popular Websites

Q: I posted a funny picture I took to Facebook and now I see it’s being used on a billboard for a local company’s advertisement.  Is that legal?
 No. According to the law, the local company can’t use your photo for an ad without your permission. The 1976 Copyright Act gives you exclusive rights to original works including the rights to reproduce them, display them publicly and perform them in public whether or not you register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office.

However, photos, stories and secrets that people once shared only with close friends are now being broadcast to the world through social media sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other popular websites. Most site users don’t read the fine print of the “Terms of Service,” where you can find what rights you have and what rights you may have given to the Web site owners. Most popular Web sites, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, use similar “Terms of Service” user agreements. These terms will not make websites responsible for safeguarding material, such as the photo that was used without your permission, but most will offer a means of helping you reach the person who appropriated your picture.

Q: What permission did I give the social media site?
You may have given permission for a “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use … content you post” to a social media site such as Facebook. By giving this permission, you essentially allow them to distribute your information for free to other users and to their business partners, who develop the games and advertisements you might see on the pages. These other users can reformat or modify your material to work with their systems.

Q: If a social media user can reformat or modify my material, can I reformat or modify the Web site’s materials?
Social sites (such as Facebook or Google) typically say you cannot modify their systems, use their trademarked logos and slogans, or bypass any of the systems that protect their materials.

Q: Can social media sites take down things I post or will they remove something if I object to the posting?
 Google, Facebook and Twitter all have reserved the right to remove content, as do many other service providers. Facebook forbids you to post content that is “hateful, threatening, pornographic, or that contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.” In December 2009, Facebook took down the page of the man who punched Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy in the face at a political rally. The man’s page reportedly gained more than 100,000 fans in just 48 hours after the incident, and many posts made additional threats to the prime minister. 
The sites also warn you to be careful about what you read and see. Twitter says, “We do not endorse, support, represent or guarantee the completeness, truthfulness, accuracy, or reliability of any content or communications.”

Q: Can what I say on a social media site be used against me in a legal proceeding?
It depends on the circumstances, but many parties have successfully used information gathered from social media sites in court. In a survey released in February by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 81 percent of divorce lawyers said they have increased their use of social networking to gather evidence. The U.S. Department of Justice provides guidelines to law enforcement on how to use social networks to investigate crimes.

Q: Can I sue a social media site for untrue or hateful statements someone else says about me?
 If you choose to do that, it is unlikely you will win your case. Most sites include language in their “terms of use” that says the sites are not responsible for what others are posting. In addition, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 governs most of the conduct of website hosts regarding posted comments. The law says, “…no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Essentially, this means that, although you may be able to file a suit against the person making the comments, you cannot hold responsible the owners of the site where the comments were posted.


This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association.  It was prepared by Dan Trevas, a Columbus attorney and former news reporter for print and online news services. 

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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