Social Media Law: Ruling on Use of Twitter Photos

In one of the first social media cases to consider how materials made public by users on social media networks may be used by third parties, a U.S. district court judge in New York has ruled that two news organizations infringed a photojournalist’s copyright when they published images he had tweeted.

The case establishes one of the first legal precedents in the growing, but still greatly unchartered territory of “social media law.”

In their defense, the news organizations maintained that once the photographs appeared on Twitter they were freely available. According to the judge, the case turned on Twitter’s Terms of Service. While the judge did discuss Twitter Terms of Service as allowing the republishing and rebroadcasting of tweets in certain circumstances, the Terms of Service did not grant a license for third parties to remove photos from tweets and publish them for commercial purposes.

In addition to the particulars of this case, perhaps the biggest takeaway is a reminder and caution that just because something is available on the internet doesn’t mean you can use it. In general, whoever takes a photograph holds the copyright to it. Posting or uploading a photo to any form of social media does not mean it becomes public domain and usable for any purposes, including news.

Publishers and broadcasters should be cautious in using photographs found on social media, unless the specific Terms of Service for that platform grants that right, the copyright holder otherwise grants an expressed or implied license, or it can be demonstrated clearly as “Fair Use” under established Fair Use Doctrine.

Copyright 2013, Cynthia Thornton

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