Can Social Media Sites Use Your Content in Ads?

By George Khoury, Esq. on January 17, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

You probably don't realize that you've been paying for social media all this time that you thought it was free. No, you haven't been charged on a monthly basis. Instead, if you post pictures, videos, or any other content, you've been selling social media sites limited licenses to use your photos, and content, pretty much anyway they see fit. That's right, your favorite funny face profile pic could be emblazoned on an IRL (in real life) billboard next to a caption to sell the latest in fast acting laxatives.

While it is highly unlikely that any large social media site would go that far, most of their terms of service would allow them to. Generally, by agreeing to the terms of most social media sites, including photo sharing sites, users grant sites the right to use their photos for any purpose, including advertising, and even for re-licensing. This all means you might not be able to sue if you find out one of your photos got used unbeknownst to you.

A copyright is basically the legal right for a person to sell, reproduce, or publish, their creative work exclusively. So generally, if a business uses another person's photograph, for example, without getting permission, they have violated that person's copyrights and can be liable for monetary damages. The law regarding copyrights on photographs is relatively simple. The person who took the photo owns the copyright unless:

  • The photo is taken as part of an employee's job
  • An independent photographer is hired on a "made for hire" basis
  • The photographer sells the rights

When you post your photo on social media sites, typically, you are not losing your copyrights (there may be exceptions, so beware). However, most terms of service will specifically delineate what rights the site has over your content, including your photos.

Take Facebook as an example. Their terms of use specifically allow them the right to sub-license your photos, "royalty-free" and "worldwide" (see 2.1). This means that for as long as your photos remain on Facebook, they can charge a fee for third party businesses to use your photos. However, thankfully, Facebook promises to discontinue use once you remove the photo or content.

The big takeaway: Be careful about what photos you post on social media, and what rights you are giving up by doing so.

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