Tuesday, August 29, 2023

How Copyright Law Applies to Social Media: Demystifying Copyright for User-Generated Content

 The rise of social media has allowed everyday internet users to become creators - sharing photos, videos, GIFs, and more across platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. This explosion of user-generated content raises interesting questions around copyright law. Who owns the copyright on that viral meme you shared? What are the rules around using clips from YouTube videos in your own content? How strictly do platforms enforce copyright? This article will break down how copyright law applies to social media content.

The Basics of Copyright Law

Before diving into social media specifics, let's review some copyright basics. Copyright law protects original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium. For content to be protected by copyright, it must be:

  1. An original work - this means not copied from others and involving at least a minimal amount of creativity.
  2. Fixed in a tangible form - for digital content, this simply means it's stored on a physical medium like a computer, phone, or server.
  3. A qualifying type of work - copyright covers literary works, musical works, dramatic works, pictorial or graphic works, audiovisual works, sound recordings, architectural works, and more.

The copyright holder has exclusive rights, including reproduction, distribution, public display, public performance, and derivative works based on the original. Copyright arises automatically when a work is created - there is no need to register a copyright to benefit from protections. However, registration provides additional benefits, like the ability to sue for infringement.

What is Protected by Copyright?

To summarize, copyright protects:

  • Literary works - books, blog posts, articles, poems, news stories, etc.
  • Musical works - songs, instrumental music, lyrics, scores, etc.
  • Dramatic works - plays, musicals, operas, choreography, scripts, etc.
  • Pictorial and graphic works - artwork, drawings, illustrations, photographs, etc.
  • Motion pictures and audiovisual works - movies, TV shows, online videos, etc.
  • Sound recordings - recorded songs, albums, audiobooks, podcasts, etc.
  • Architectural works - building designs, technical drawings, models, etc.

Nearly any creative work recorded in a fixed format is protected. Social media content consistently falls into these copyright categories.

Copyright Basics on Social Media

Social media introduces some unique factors that affect how copyright law applies:

  • User as creator - Ordinary social media users generating posts are creating potentially copyrightable works. The user holds the copyright, not the platform.
  • Platform terms - Social networks have terms and conditions governing acceptable use of their services. These may allow the platform certain usage rights.
  • Digital transmission - Sharing content online could implicate copyright's distribution and public display rights.
  • Derivative works - Social posts can incorporate existing works, raising derivative work questions. Even memes and remixes can be derivative.
  • Length - Social media content tends to be short-form. Copyright still applies, but fair use defenses may be stronger with less copying.
  • Enforcement - Platforms use a mix of human review and automation to monitor copyright issues at scale. Enforcement can be inconsistent.

Let's explore some of the major copyright issues that come up with different types of social media content.

Copyright and Photos on Social Media

Photo copyright depends on who created the image. For original photos you shoot, you hold the copyright. But for images created by others, you need to determine if the image is copyrighted and if you have the usage rights.

Many images and stock photos found online are copyrighted. Reposting or sharing these images without permission could infringe copyright. Some sites like Unsplash offer public domain or Creative Commons-licensed images that permit reuse.

Personal Photos

Even non-professional photos posted by friends or family members likely hold copyright protections. While some informal sharing among friends may be tolerated, reposting others' personal photos more publicly without permission raises copyright risks.

Always get the photographer's permission before reposting or resharing personal images on social media. Don't assume that because an image is already posted publicly, it's okay to reuse without consent. Personal uses among friends are very different from broader public distribution.

Copyright Considerations for Videos on Social Media

Videos receive the same copyright protections as other content. Posting an entire YouTube video to Facebook or downloading a TikTok video and uploading it to Instagram both potentially violate the copyright holder's exclusive distribution and public display rights.

Fair use does allow limited reuse of copyrighted videos for purposes like commentary, criticism, education, etc. But fair use is decided case-by-case based on the specific facts. There are no hard-and-fast rules for how much of a video clip is permitted under fair use. In general, the less you use - both quantitatively and qualitatively - the stronger your fair use claim will be.

Remixing Video Content

What about remixing video content into something new? Even if you add commentary, criticism, or humor, incorporating large portions of copyrighted videos requires permission to avoid infringement. The more transformative your remix is, and the less of the original it uses, the stronger your fair use case becomes. But the line remains subjective. When in doubt, get permission from the rights holder or limit your use to very small clips.

Copyright and Memes

Memes that remix copyrighted works like TV shows, movies, or photos could qualify as derivative works. Even humor and parody memes usually need permission from the underlying works' copyright holders to avoid infringement. Companies have become more aggressive about enforcing their copyrights in viral meme content.

However, minimal use of a copyrighted work in a meme may qualify as fair use, especially where the meme comments on or parodies the original work. Memes that transform the underlying work with significant creative changes have a stronger fair use case.

Meme Best Practices

To stay on the safe side:

  • Use only small portions of copyrighted materials in memes or remixes
  • Focus on transformative parody, commentary, or criticism
  • Cite the original creator and don't claim ownership
  • Remove memes that rights holders request you take down
  • Avoid commercial uses without getting licenses

In general, the more you transform a work and the less you copy without permission, the lower your copyright risk.

GIF Copyright Issues on Social Media

GIFs face the same copyright issues as videos. If the GIF captures copyrighted content like sports highlights or movie/TV clips without permission, it infringes on the content owner's rights. Livestreams of major events can also be protected by copyright, preventing unauthorized GIF usage.

As with other content, transformative GIFs that significantly remix and edit copyrighted materials have a stronger fair use argument due to their creativity. But in general, an unauthorized GIF of a copyrighted video remains risky without the rights holder's permission.

Fair Use and GIFs

When creating GIFs, focus on capturing short segments or singular moments rather than extended clips - this helps bolster fair use claims. Also avoid using key memorable segments that would compete with the copyright holder's market. And as always, transformative use strengthens your case.

Text Content and Copyright on Social Media

Text posts, tweets, captions, comments, and other text-based user content receive standard copyright protection. Wholesale copying and distributing another user's text post would infringe on their reproduction and distribution rights.

Creators and brands sometimes run into issues with their blog or social media text content being reposted without permission. Watermarks, disabling right-click copying, and other technical measures may reduce copying. And social platforms use duplicate content detection to identify potentially copied text. But ultimately, text copyright issues tend to rely heavily on enforcement via takedown notices rather than technical protections.

Unique Text Content

When creating your own text content, ensure it is wholly original and not copied from others. Avoid closely paraphrasing other content. You can safely cite limited short quotes with proper attribution, but don't overuse quotes. Link back to sources where applicable. Your social media text should be an original work.

Music Copyright and Social Media

Uploading full songs or lengthy music clips typically requires licenses from rights holders like publishers and PROs. Platforms may remove posts with unauthorized music based on copyright detection algorithms or complaints.

Short clips of songs - especially used in a transformative context like commentary or remixes - have a stronger fair use case due to limited quantitative usage. However, music rightsholders often take an aggressive stance even on brief unauthorized uses. The line for fair use with music remains murky.

Music Licensing

If your goal is to share music creatively, look into affordable sync and other licenses. Services like Soundstripe, Artlist, and Storyblocks offer high-quality tracks with budget-friendly licensing included. There are also creative commons music options to explore. Don't rely solely on fair use for sharing songs or long clips.

How Social Platforms Enforce Copyright

Different social platforms take varied approaches to copyright enforcement:


  • Provides rights holders with Content ID matching tool to easily find unauthorized usage and either block or monetize it.
  • Also accepts DMCA takedown requests.
  • Rigorous enforcement, sometimes overzealous.


  • Relies heavily on rights holders submitting DMCA takedown requests.
  • Limited proactive enforcement beyond restrictions on livestreaming copyrighted content like sports.
  • More flexible on fan remixes and memes.


  • Uses automatic copyright violation detection on videos and DMCA takedown process for other content.
  • Focuses heavily on visual content like photos and videos.


  • Proactively screens content uploads against copyrighted materials using fingerprinting and other tools.
  • Also accepts takedown notices.
  • Moderately strict enforcement.


  • Primarily responds reactively to DMCA takedown notices.
  • Limited proactive enforcement beyond media policy restrictions on sharing unauthorized sports streams.


  • Scan uploads during posting for potential copyright infringement.
  • Enforce through account suspensions after multiple violations rather than removing individual pieces of content.

Best Practices for Social Media Users

What does this mean for everyday social media users looking to avoid copyright headaches? Here are some best practices:

  • Avoid reposting others' content in full without permission. Small clips, screenshots, and excerpts are safer.
  • Attribute others' content you reference and link to the original source where possible.
  • Assume all videos, songs, and images have copyright protections unless specifically noted otherwise.
  • Carefully consider fair use rights - transformative use in commentary, criticism, etc. Strengthens claims.
  • Don't rely on informal permissions from friends/family to publicly repost their content. Get formal approval where possible.
  • Watch for red flags like sudden views spikes on old posts. This can indicate your content is going viral in an infringing manner.
  • Submit DMCA takedown notices if your work appears without permission. Know the formal process and your rights.
  • Consult an attorney about any proposed commercial usage of copyrighted materials. Don't take legal advice from social platforms.

Concluding Thoughts on Copyright and Social Media

Copyright law remains complex when applied to social media content. There are rarely firm right or wrong answers - often just shades of gray and uncertain fair use boundaries. For ordinary users, the key is exercising caution, avoiding commercial uses of unlicensed materials, and finding ways to create transformative content.

Of course, copyright exists to encourage creativity and incentivize creators, not merely restrict use. Even professional social media creators and brands can often find ways to thoughtfully incorporate copyrighted materials through licenses or fair use. As always, the more unique you can make a work, and the less you copy without permission, the better.

On platforms like YouTube, it helps knowing specific policies and using dispute processes if you believe your content was removed unfairly. There are paths to push for fair use and defend free expression - it just takes persistence and understanding the system. With some care and common sense, it's entirely possible to create social media content legally and avoid copyright pitfalls. The law leaves plenty of room for creativity.

Hopefully this overview dispels some of the mystery around social media and copyright. While the law grapples to keep pace with ever-evolving technology, there are ways for users to share freely without infringing on others' rights. Being informed helps you safely navigate the boundary between creativity and infringement.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some examples of copyright violations on social media?

Uploading a full movie or TV episode, sharing an entire music album, reposting a news article in full, and using a photo without permission are clear examples of copyright infringement. Any unauthorized sharing of substantial portions of copyrighted works violates exclusive rights granted to authors and rights holders. Even posting short clips or screenshots can infringe on reproduction, distribution, and display rights in some cases. Users should be mindful of only disseminating small portions of copyrighted content without permission. De minimis uses may qualify as fair use, but the line is subjective. In general, the less you share without authorization, the lower your infringement risk.

Can I use copyrighted materials in memes and remixes?

The ability to utilize copyrighted content in memes and remixes falls into a gray area of fair use. Minimal and very transformative uses may qualify, but there is always inherent risk anytime you incorporate others' copyrighted works without permission. Memes often utilize only small portions of images or videos for parody or commentary, which strengthens fair use claims when applying the statutory four factors test. However, rights holders frequently take aggressive stances against unauthorized derivative uses. Significant commercial memes and remixes certainly require licensing to avoid infringement. For noncommercial user-generated content, judges and juries tend to be more receptive to fair use defenses if the new work is highly transformative and does not negatively impact the market for the original. But uncertainty remains. Whenever possible, only include as little unlicensed copyrighted material as necessary to accomplish your creative purpose.

Does copyright apply to TikTok videos?

Absolutely. An original TikTok video comprising a user's own music, performance, editing, etc. constitutes copyrightable subject matter just like any other social media post. Reposting or reusing clips requires permission from the content creator. The author possesses exclusive rights that others cannot infringe upon without authorization or a valid fair use purpose. However, fair use may possibly allow brief excerpts to be incorporated for purposes such as commentary or critique. But full reposts of a TikTok video clearly violate the author's distribution and public display rights. The brevity of TikTok videos (up to 3 minutes) does not preclude copyright protections. But fair use defenses may be stronger when only a tiny portion of a very short work is utilized without permission.

What if I credit the copyright owner when I share their content?

Providing credit or attribution to the copyright holder does not override the need to obtain permission for usage of protected material. The exclusive rights granted under copyright law do not include exceptions for credited use. Rights holders may allow some informal attribution-required sharing among individuals, but any broader publication requires authorization. Some content creators appreciate credit as a professional courtesy, but it does not constitute formal permission or negate infringement liabilities. Licenses to use copyrighted materials typically clarify permissions and proper attribution procedures. However, attribution alone is insufficient. Rights holders can enforce takedowns regardless.

Can I share book or article excerpts on social media?

Under certain conditions, brief quotations included for purposes such as commentary or critique may qualify as fair use. There is no strict length limit, but longer passages create more infringement risk. Fair use evaluations consider the nature and purpose of your use, amount used, effect on the copyright owner’s market, and other factors. While posting full chapters or articles clearly violates copyright, short relevant excerpts cited appropriately may be deemed permissible in some contexts. For example, a book reviewer quoting a paragraph with critique likely falls under fair use. But reposting sizeable portions just to avoid paying for the work would not pass scrutiny. Context matters greatly. When in doubt, keep excerpts short, add value through commentary, and link to the original work.

What happens if I get a copyright violation notice?

Receiving a DMCA takedown request or platform notice for copyright infringement means promptly removing the identified content. If you feel the notice was submitted in error or that you have a valid fair use defense, you can file a counter-notice explaining your reasoning. However, platforms will comply with initial notices unless a court intervenes on the counter-notice. Repeated violations across multiple pieces of content can lead to strikes, suspended accounts, litigation, or other repercussions. So carefully consider whether you have strong fair use grounds before contesting a notice. Infringing activity that appears willful and ongoing may result in harsher penalties. In most cases, promptly complying with takedown notices then carefully evaluating your content practices going forward remains the wisest approach. But the system does allow for protecting fair use rights against overly aggressive allegations if you understand the proper processes.

Am I allowed to link to copyrighted content?

In general, linking to lawfully published copyrighted content does not inherently violate rights. However, linking with the specific intent to facilitate unauthorized access to infringing materials may incur liability. For example, links clearly designed to enable downloads of pirated media could contribute to infringement. But standard links that just acknowledge an original source without promoting circumvention of access controls would qualify as fair use. Rights holders sometimes overreach in demanding removal of any links to their content. But context matters greatly. Links shared among individuals for commentary purposes tend to receive more legal protection than those aimed at traffic boosting. Avoid framing links in ways that encourage accessing unauthorized copies or downloads. Ultimately, normal links to legitimately posted content, without incentivizing infringement, do not violate copyright.

Can I livestream music concerts on social media?

Livestreaming significant portions of a music concert generally requires licenses from multiple rights holders involved in the performance. This includes the musicians, composers, publishers, etc. Certain platforms have deals with major labels and publishers to allow live concert streaming, but individual users broadcasting independently risk infringement. Short clips of performances may qualify as fair use, but extended streamed footage likely violates copyrights. Rights holders aggressively enforce unauthorized concert streaming, so lengthy broadcasts should be avoided without explicit permissions secured in advance. Live events involve many overlapping rights, so clearing all the necessary licenses poses challenges for users wanting to share concert footage publicly online. Proceed with extreme caution given the legal complexities.

Who owns the copyright on social media content I create?

For original content like posts, videos, images, etc. that you author yourself and share on social media, you own the copyright as creator rather than the platform. The social media site's Terms of Service often do secure certain usage rights to user content, but you retain the underlying copyright ownership. You grant the platform a license to display and distribute your content, but this is not a complete transfer of copyright. Rights revert fully back to you if you delete the content from their service. However, any third-party content incorporated in your posts may still raise infringement issues if reposted elsewhere. Always check Terms of Service to understand content ownership and licensed uses. But users' own original creations belong to them as copyrighted works, despite being shared via social media services.

What are the penalties for copyright infringement?

Copyright law provides several civil remedies for infringement, including monetary damages, disgorging of profits, injunctions, and recovery of legal costs. Courts may award damages based on losses or a copyright owner's lost licensing fees. Willful infringement can trigger statutory damages up to $150,000 per work infringed. Criminal charges are also possible for willful piracy done for commercial gain, potentially involving multi-year prison sentences. Realistically, individual social media users typically face account suspension, content takedowns, and cease and desist orders for minor infringements. But large-scale piracy could prompt legal action. While penalties try to be proportional, copyright misuse still carries serious risks. Avoid any unauthorized use of significant protected materials on social platforms or elsewhere.