Do you share images in your social media marketing?

Won­der­ing if you’re vio­lat­ing copy­right laws?

With a bit of infor­ma­tion, you can learn to pro­tect your­self and your busi­ness from a copy­right infringe­ment law­suit.

#1: Understand Copyright Basics

You don’t need to read a law book, but know­ing a few copy­right basics will go a long way in help­ing you use images legal­ly (and pro­tect­ing your own con­tent). So much mis­in­for­ma­tion about copy­right is out there; how­ev­er, under­stand­ing these key points will put you ahead of the game.

  • Copy­right is a des­ig­na­tion giv­en to cre­ative works that you put into the world in a “fixed form,” mean­ing the minute you type that blog post or put that pho­to on Insta­gram, you’re pro­tect­ed.
  • Copy­right cov­ers a vari­ety of cat­e­gories, includ­ing lit­er­ary works (books, poet­ry, arti­cles); per­form­ing arts (music, lyrics); visu­al arts (art­work, jew­el­ry, pho­tos); dig­i­tal con­tent (web­sites, blogs); motion pic­tures (movies, tele­vi­sion, videos); and pho­tographs (com­mer­cial, per­son­al, por­trait).
  • Copy­right pro­tec­tion is auto­mat­ic, mean­ing the work is pre­sumed to be yours. Although many peo­ple use the copy­right sym­bol © as a way of say­ing, “Hey, this stuff is all mine!”, the sym­bol is no longer legal­ly required.
  • With this pro­tec­tion, you get cer­tain rights. For exam­ple, no one else can use your work with­out per­mis­sion.
  • If you want the abil­i­ty to sue for copy­right infringe­ment (if some­one steals your work), you need to reg­is­ter the work with the U.S.

So, for exam­ple, if you pub­lish con­tent on Feb­ru­ary 1 and infringe­ment occurs on March 1, you still have until the end of April to reg­is­ter and be able to take legal action against the March infringe­ment. How­ev­er, once that 90 days from pub­li­ca­tion pass­es, you would not be able to bring an action against that March infringe­ment.

For an easy way to think about copy­right pro­tec­tion, remem­ber this: If you didn’t cre­ate it, you may not be able to use it (even if you give the work’s cre­ator cred­it).

#2: Read the Terms for Your Social Media Platforms

Is it okay to retweet? Sure. Is it okay to repin images on Pin­ter­est? Maybe. Is it okay to repost on Insta­gram? Some­times.

Remem­ber that all social media plat­forms have dif­fer­ent rules and take big steps to pro­tect them­selves and their users. To know what is or isn’t accept­able for each plat­form, find a com­fort­able spot and read each platform’s Terms of Service/Use/Conditions.

For exam­ple, on Pin­ter­est, you’re allowed to repin oth­er images on Pin­ter­est (mean­ing, you can’t copy to anoth­er plat­form). How­ev­er, if the image you’re repin­ning appears on Pin­ter­est with­out per­mis­sion from the author, you could be com­mit­ting copy­right infringe­ment because you’re “sole­ly respon­si­ble” for any­thing you post.

What this looks like: Sal­ly posts an awe­some pic­ture of choco­late cake on her blog, but she isn’t on Pin­ter­est. Emi­ly real­ly likes the pic­ture and posts it on her Pin­ter­est account with her recipe. Jen­nifer repins it on her board of desserts. Both Emi­ly and Jen­nifer may be liable to Sal­ly for copy­right infringe­ment, even though Jen­nifer didn’t know she was doing it.

What to do? Check the source of the orig­i­nal pin to make sure the author and that pic­ture are on Pin­ter­est.

Remem­ber, take time to read the terms for each plat­form and under­stand what’s allowed and what isn’t. Doing this could save you a lot of heartaches, time, and mon­ey in the future!

#3: Choose the Right License When Using Stock Images

If you use stock images, you often have choic­es about what type of license you have for using the image. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, the more expen­sive the license, the more you can do with the image. When you use a stock art ser­vice like iStock, make sure the license you choose allows how you’re using the image.

Just because you paid $11.99 for a stock art pho­to doesn’t mean you can use it how­ev­er you want. Many licens­es lim­it the pur­chas­er to per­son­al use only, online media only (ver­sus print), or a cer­tain num­ber of uses.

If you’re a design­er or you use stock art to cre­ate images for oth­ers, make sure you have the license to do so. Some­times you may need to make sure your cus­tomer buys the license direct­ly from the com­pa­ny.

On the web­site where you pur­chased the image, look for license guide­lines in the foot­er. Or you can always reach out and ask the com­pa­ny if your license per­mits your intend­ed use of a pic­ture.

#4: Get Permission From the Image Creator

Bot­tom line: If you’re ques­tion­ing whether to use an image or video, ask! In today’s online world, most peo­ple are prob­a­bly hap­py to give you per­mis­sion to use their image, pro­vid­ed you give them cred­it.

Take Insta­gram, for exam­ple. Did you know that repost­ing is actu­al­ly in vio­la­tion of Insta­gram Terms? But (and it’s a big but), giv­en the plat­form and how it works, 99% of users are okay with (and like!) repost­ing that includes the good eti­quette of link­ing back to their pro­files.

How­ev­er, say some­one is among the 1% who don’t want their con­tent repost­ed. If that per­son finds peo­ple are doing it with­out their per­mis­sion, they can file a report with Insta­gram or poten­tial­ly sue for copy­right infringe­ment.

Just a word of warn­ing: Some pho­tog­ra­phers and attor­neys are on the hunt for peo­ple infring­ing copy­right. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, with copy­right infringe­ment, you can’t claim you didn’t know what you were doing, and are like­ly on the hook for dam­ages under the statute. How­ev­er, most are hap­py to set­tle out of court with a nice pay­out. I’ve heard of a pic­ture of a pick­le cost­ing some­one more than $5,000.

When in doubt, ask. “Bet­ter safe than sor­ry” is a great mot­to when think­ing about whether you’re using images and videos legal­ly.

#5: Don’t Assume Fair Use Applies to Your Use of Someone Else’s Image

The term fair use gets thrown around a lot, but what does it mean? Well, it can be an excep­tion to the exclu­sive rights a copy­right own­er has over their work. The Fair Use doc­trine was cre­at­ed to allow for cer­tain use of images and con­tent as long as that use doesn’t impede the author’s rights.

Usu­al­ly, fair use applies to com­ment, crit­i­cism, or par­o­dy; how­ev­er, peo­ple have a lot of mis­con­cep­tions about when fair use does and doesn’t apply.

You can’t claim fair use by sim­ply giv­ing attri­bu­tion to the author. Fair use and attri­bu­tion aren’t relat­ed. Fair use is about how some­one is using con­tent and it’s one of those wishy-washy gray areas where lawyers often say, “It depends.” Courts use a four-fac­tor test to deter­mine whether fair use is in play:

  • The pur­pose and char­ac­ter of the use (whether it’s for com­mer­cial or nonprofit/education pur­pos­es). The more on the side of edu­ca­tion, the more like­ly it’s fair use.
  • The nature of the work.
  • The amount of the work used com­pared to the whole work (mean­ing, was it a para­graph from a book or was it the entire book?).
  • Effect on the mar­ket or val­ue of the work.

An exam­ple of fair use would be using a snap­shot of Marie For­leo or Gary Vayn­er­chuk in a webi­nar you’re doing about online mar­ket­ing. But you can’t nec­es­sar­i­ly take an episode of Marie’s TV/video show and post it on your web­site, claim­ing edu­ca­tion and fair use. The whole point is to bal­ance copy­right pro­tec­tion with the public’s inter­est. So ask your­self, what am I using the work for and am I using a lot of it?


The truth is that using images on social media and for online busi­ness these days is tricky. As is often the case, the law is behind the times and may take a while to catch up. But if you can keep these five tips in mind as you use images on social media, you’ll be way ahead of the curve. Edu­cat­ing your­self about copy­right, social media plat­form terms, and image licens­es will go a long way in pro­tect­ing you.

Note: Noth­ing in this arti­cle is intend­ed to be legal advice and is for edu­ca­tion­al pur­pos­es only.