Thursday, 17 January 2013

Social Media: Whose Photo Is It Anyway?

Slightly off topic for this blog but 'educational' nonetheless; there has recently been a flurry of legal interest in photographs posted by individuals to social media sites and what the sites then permit others to do with them. A pet project of mine was to produce a reasonable summary of the terms of a number of the most popular ones last year for work, as so many people were asking me what could happen to their content on the sites by virtue of posting it. Sites such as Facebook (and more recently, Instagram) have discovered to their detriment that they cannot change their terms on a whim to force users to assign copyright of content which they have created themselves; this type of 'rights-grab' is unacceptable in the digital world, mostly because no-one wants to see a photograph that they have taken being used as an advert for telecommunications or similar without their knowledge.

But what happens when a newspaper wants to use a photograph posted to a social media site to report on a breaking story? We live in the age of the visual, which means that images are highly sought after to depict events as they unfold. In a US judgment just announced this week, we have the culmination of a case which has taken 2 years to process. Daniel Morel, a photographer, was in Haiti at the time of the earthquake and took some iconic photographs of the devastation. He then posted them to his TwitPic account. Another individual, Lisandro Suero, copied the images and posted them to his TwitPic account. Both Morel and Suero were contacted by several press agencies, but it was Agence France Presse (AFP) who used the images (crediting Suero as the photographer) and transmitted them to Getty Images for further licensing to CNN and CBS. Morel sued for copyright infringement and the terms of TwitPic and Twitter were examined in court. The judge found that AFP could not claim to be a partner or affiliate of either social network, nor was it a sub-licensee, and had therefore infringed Morel's copyright. The ruling this week has limited the damages payable to Morel but is seen as a victory for photographers who post their work to social media sites.

In a similar fashion, the terms for social media have been upheld in the UK, with an interim judgment (paras 42-44) stating that Facebook's terms and conditions do not automatically give a newspaper the right to publish photographs posted to Facebook by a user. In RocknRoll v News Group Newspapers Ltd, a heady mix of privacy and copyright do battle against freedom of expression, with the judge stating that if this case was purely a commercial one (i.e. with no privacy implications) then damages would be an appropriate remedy for the individual who would lose out as a result of the infringement. But because the individual (Mr RocknRoll) is depicted in photos (for which he has subsequently had copyright assigned to him) which he would rather not have published for fear of damage to his reputation / relationship, the judge has placed an injunction on the press from publishing those photos for the time being. Case law has shown that in exceptional circumstances where the public interest is high (e.g. where there is evidence of criminal activity), newspapers can publish photographs without permission and not suffer the consequences of copyright infringement.  

Rather encouragingly, this article in The Guardian today suggests that media outlets recognise users' rights in the content they post and that most newspapers seek permission to publish before doing so. This offers users who happen to be 'in the right place at the right time' an opportunity to commercialise their photos, although I have a lot of respect for the Twitter user mentioned in the article who refused to make money from his photographs of yesterday's tragic helicopter crash in London.

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