Reading the Fine Print: Who Owns What on Popular Websites

​​Q:         Facebook changed its terms of service in January 2015. How does this affect me?
A:        Most terms impacting the average user have not changed. Facebook has tried to simplify the language and has introduced a guide ("Privacy Basics") to help users with privacy settings. The new terms explain more about how Facebook uses your information (such as your location) with its family of companies and advertisers. But be cautioned: your control over information you provide is limited.
 
Q:        I took a funny photo and posted it to Facebook. Now it's being used for a local company's billboard ad. Is that legal?
A:        Probably not. 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 even secrets are now being broadcast to the world through popular social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Most site users don't read the "terms of service" to learn what rights they have and what rights they may have given to website owners. If you read the terms of service, you may discover that you have granted these sites the right to license your photos to others without having to compensate you. Even if they have a right to do this according to the terms of service, they may not have done so. Most sites will offer to help you reach the person who appropriated your picture without your permission.
 
Q:        What permission did I give Facebook?
A:        You may have given permission for a "non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use … content you post," which essentially allows Facebook to distribute your information for free to other users and to Facebook's business partners, who develop games and advertisements you might see on the pages. These various users can reformat or modify your material for use with their systems. If you have an image or video that you may want to sell, it would be wise not to post it on a site where you have granted permission to use your material without paying you for it.
 
Q:        If my privacy settings only allow pictures and videos to be shared with close friends, will they be protected from use by strangers?
A:        Not necessarily. For example, if the privacy setting of one of your friends allows public sharing, then your information also may be shared with the public. One key point of Facebook's terms is that its license with you ends only when you delete your account. If you see that something of yours was shared without your permission after you closed your account, that could be a violation of the Facebook agreement.
 
Q:        Can social media sites remove things I post or remove something if I object to the posting?
A:        Google, Facebook and Twitter reserve the right to remove content, as do many other service providers. Facebook has expanded the list of content it has the right to remove. This now includes content that is "hate speech, threatening, or pornographic, incites violence or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence." Following deadly attacks in France incited by satirical cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammad, the Turkish government asked Facebook to block content that depicted Mohammed disparagingly. The company agreed. Most social media sites also warn you to be careful about believing what you read and see on the sites. Twitter says, "We do not endorse, support, represent or guarantee the completeness, truthfulness, accuracy, or reliability of any content or communications." 

Q:        Can a social site post be used against me in a legal proceeding?
A:        Possibly. Parties have successfully used information gathered from social media sites in court.  In a 2010 American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers survey, 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 using social networks to investigate crimes and the American Bar Association endorses the right of trial lawyers to use the social media content of potential jurors to determine whether to select a person as a juror.
 
Q:        Can I sue a social media site if someone posts an untrue or hateful statement about me?
A:        Yes, but you probably won't win your case. Most social media sites include "terms of use" language that says the sites are not responsible for what others post. Also, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which governs most of the conduct of website hosts regarding posted comments, 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." This means that, although you may be able to sue the person making the comments, you cannot hold responsible the owners of the site where the comments were posted.
 
4/13/2015

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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