Content ownership on Facebook: Three rules for brands

In this guest post, blogger and digital creative Laura McWhinnie shares her frustration at Facebook page administrators who steal other people’s content

What started out as an annoyance was now bordering on anger. I read the message again. “Just so you know, any picture uploaded on Facebook gives us the right to have a non-exclusive royalty-free license for it and everybody can use it.”

A few hours before, a friend had come across an image that I had created specifically for my blog’s Facebook branding being used on a blog and their Facebook brand page. I sent them a pretty standard message explaining that I own the creative and that they needed to remove it.

always summer

Reproduced with permission

They responded immediately. “We found this image on Pinterest and just love the line, and we post everything we like.” No kidding you like it – I like it too, that’s why it’s my tagline and why I’ve paid thousands of dollars to trademark it. I kindly explained that just because they like it, doesn’t mean they have the right to use it as if it were their own.

I asked them once again to remove the image and expected that to be that.

Then came the message that tipped me over the edge – that they weren’t going to remove it because they believed they had the right to use any picture uploaded to Facebook or Pinterest.

To make matters worse, they ended their justification with, “Maybe just be happy that people like what you are doing instead of being so angry. It will make life much easier! Live love life.” and littered the message with red love hearts. I wasn’t angry before, but I certainly was now.

In Facebook’s terms of service (Statement of Rights and Responsibilities), under the ‘Protecting Other People’s Rights’ section, the first rule is clear, “You will not post content or take any action on Facebook that infringes or violates someone else’s rights or otherwise violates the law.”

I get that not everyone is an expert on social media ethics, and I get that people are not necessarily setting out to intentionally break Facebook’s copyright infringement laws. But as an administrator of a brand page, whether it’s your own or someone else’s, it’s your responsibility to act ethically – not just on Facebook, but across the internet as a whole.

The fact that this blog wanted to argue with me about the ownership of something I had created from scratch left me dumbfounded. I came up with the tagline, paid to have it trademarked, ran into the middle of a road in LA to get the shot, and hired a creative to design the lock-up.

The arrogance of these people was frightening and got me thinking. How many other brands and online publications don’t understand content ownership?

If you’re a digital native and have a general understanding of what’s right and wrong, most of this will come second nature. But surprisingly, not many brands stick to these three simple rules on Facebook:

 1. Seek permission before posting photos that aren’t your own.

If you don’t have permission to post a photo, don’t use it. Facebook has a strict intellectual property policy that can result in the permanent removal of Facebook pages. Last year, popular pop-culture website The Cool Hunter found this out the hard way. After repeatedly infringing the rights of others by using images they did not own or have permission to use, Facebook disabled their page along with all of its content and their 788,000 fans.

While it’s argued that Facebook appears to have a dysfunctional copyright infringement claims system, they take the rights of content owners seriously and aim to protect their intellectual property. If you want to post a third party’s content direct to your brand’s wall, seek permission first. If you’re showing it in a positive light and crediting them properly, they’ll most likely welcome the exposure. It’s also a good way to get your brand known by other content creators.

 2. Credit people and other brands properly.

If you’re administrating your business’ page yourself, it’s your responsibility to understand the basic functionality of Facebook. Hashtags are for Twitter; so don’t even think about using them on Facebook to integrate usernames. If you’re crediting someone or another brand on Facebook (who are also on Facebook), don’t just type their name out without linking to their page. Not only does it show you don’t understand the platform, you are potentially damaging relationships.

3. Don’t copy posts off other brand pages.

But it came off the internet – that makes it fair game right? Wrong. Just because they didn’t create the content from scratch, doesn’t mean you should post it. They found it, credited its original origin through either a link or acknowledgement, and wrote a compelling post around it – they may have even purchased the image they’re using. If you think the same post could work on your own brand page, share it from theirs – don’t repost it as if it were your own.

Plus, if you’re in a similar market, there’s a good chance you share fans. Posting the same thing after them is not a good look and will affect your brand’s credibility. Sharing content on Facebook is also a great way to build strategic social partnerships with other likeminded brands, and can expose you to their audience of fans.

Laura McWhinnie is a digital creative at Mark, M&C Saatchi’s digital, direct and data business and runs her own blog This Island Life.


  1. Anon
    11 Apr 13
    1:12 pm

  2. Bit fear mongering isn’t it? Do you have any other examples besides from Cool Hunter who have had their page removed for posting infringing content?

  3. Good Moron
    11 Apr 13
    1:14 pm

  4. I’ve found Facebook to be very helpful when removing copyright / trademark material – they removed all content within 48 hours and even shut down the offending page.

    Twitter on the other hand acknowledged the request but never acted on it – the offending account made some minor changes which they wrongly thought would get them off the hook.

    I could feel my blood pressure rising reading the first half of this post! It is like people who take a photo off Pinterest for their blog and credit it to Pinterest!

  5. Damo
    11 Apr 13
    1:28 pm

  6. Is it always summer somewhere?

  7. Annabelle Drumm
    11 Apr 13
    1:29 pm

  8. Laura, would you be better to scare the blog owner with a lawyers letter on their trade mark infringing?

  9. JosieK
    11 Apr 13
    1:33 pm

  10. Interesting. I feel for your plight and I think it is going to get progressively more difficult to enforce copyright as new generations of users grow up with social media tools.

    I always share original posts from FB, but I also grab photos and ideas I like for my Pinterest boards (talking personal use here). Wherever possible, I pin directly from a web page, but if I can’t I make it a point to ensure attribution to wherever it originated. However, while I personally feel that it would be wrong to share somebody’s work without appropriate attribution, it would never occur to me to ask for permission before using it (again for personal use – obviously, if I’m running something for a company page, I jump through all appropriate hoops).

    I have have a couple of pins that I repinned removed by Pinterest – they send a lovely email explaining why, but don’t tell you which pin was removed – but not any of the ones I have originated.

  11. Andrew Duffy
    11 Apr 13
    1:38 pm

  12. Reminds me of the Burberry/Bogart fight late last year.

    I can understand your frustration. And it doesn’t make it right, but these days this kind of infringement comes with the territory of publishing online. The copyright is also much more of a grey area if the blog considers itself to be providing ‘news’.

  13. John Curtin
    11 Apr 13
    1:45 pm

  14. The chances of anything actually happening is zero – .00001%

    Facebook are continuting to let “share and win”, “tagging comps” etc on the site and won’t do anything about it whereas if you advertise with them you have to deal with bots clicking on your ads and spammers (promoted posts etc)

  15. Surfer
    11 Apr 13
    1:48 pm

  16. Interesting piece and some good points. You lost me when you claimed to have “come up” with the phrase. Taking a well worn phrase usually linked with nomadic surfers chasing the sun around the globe and trademarking it is smart but don’t try and claim you created the phrase.

  17. Macman
    11 Apr 13
    1:58 pm

  18. Great article. Stealing other people’s property is simply – stealing.

    Theft of people’s talent, time, expenses and effort.

    If it was in print, action is fast and sure – the web should not be different.

    Hope you get a lot of support

  19. Lash
    11 Apr 13
    2:13 pm

  20. I can actually only laugh about the author of this article, what do you expect? I like the girls answer “Maybe just be happy that people like what you are doing instead of being so angry. It will make life much easier! Live love life.”
    Your pic is a typical pinterest, inspirational quote, facebook picture…. Its not showing a brand :) In fact I just re-pinned it :)

    I understand there is other “real” issues but YOURs I find amusing :)

  21. Janelle
    11 Apr 13
    2:22 pm

  22. This is more complicated than Laura makes it out to be.

    What if I was to share her image with hundreds of thousands of people and she was to receive notoriety because of it? I am sure that would change her views.

    I also pose the question that once an image has been shared thousands of times, how do you find the original owner of the image to credit them?

    Also, if seeking compensation, who do you punish for sharing it? Everyone or the person who originally shared the image without permission?

    Murky waters if you ask me.

  23. Jack Bruce
    11 Apr 13
    2:32 pm

  24. Trademark the line “because it always summer somewhere” ? I don’t think so…..that wouldn’t pass

  25. James
    11 Apr 13
    2:41 pm

  26. A great article. The Cool Hunter example srung to mind immediately and I was wondering if you’d mention it.
    There are so many of these pages though. One could argue that they enhance Facebook user’s experience on the platform, which may be why FB does not remove them all. Obviously that doesn’t make it OK to infringe upon other’s rights.

  27. Yvonne Adele
    11 Apr 13
    2:45 pm

  28. Anon – you’ve missed the point, no? You’re saying you don’t buy into the argument because there are not enough examples presented to show that Facebook would shut your page down? How about common respect of other people’s creations?
    I administer 5 brand pages for clients and we are constantly scouring the web for interesting images to help make our posts more engaging. Sometimes we don’t ask permission but we never ever fail to credit and link to the original source. We will often let the original source know we’ve used and credited their images and we always find they are happy to have the exposure.
    Laura you have every right to be angry. It is one thing for someone to use the image because they loved it and they’re not up to speed with copyright issues, but it’s downright WRONG for them not to remove it once they were informed of the situation and asked to remove it.

  29. Dave B
    11 Apr 13
    2:54 pm

  30. Nice one, MCW

  31. Social mocial
    11 Apr 13
    3:02 pm

  32. I run a village community facebook page and often upload my photo’s taken of the local area (landmarks, landscapes, characters around town etc) one of our Facebook subscribers continually uses our images as his own profile pic or background image on Facebook, without attributing it to us. We let that pass as it is personal and we feel flattered. However, if a company / brand or organisation used one of our images for commercial purposes I would be all over them like a rash (unless they credited us, or of course shared our facebook page to harness our images…) There are a few blurred lines for sure. I do think that the younger generation coming through, who have never bought a newspaper, or a CD, nor waited days before their photographs were developed etc do not really understand where the lines blur at all…

    It is the wild west to some degree on Facebook and to some, if not a large degree, Facebook needs to be more responsible as a publishing platform, in reacting to reported pages far sooner. I guess it is hard with the amount of content continually being uploaded though (under statement…)

    The content revolution is in full swing!

  33. betty boo
    11 Apr 13
    3:47 pm

  34. @Yvonne Adele – are you serious? If you are looking after brand pages on facebook you have to use original content – or content you have approval for. You can’t use content that you don’t have permission for against a business/brand. Talk about lazy! If you want interesting and engaging content then go and create it. I’d be firing you if you were running a corporate page for a brand and you stole content!

  35. Yvonne Adele
    11 Apr 13
    4:37 pm

  36. Ha! dear betty boo – my clients are super happy with it all and we are super respectful to anyone’s content we share. I’d be firing anyone who hides their identity when posting. It’s like you don’t really mean it.

  37. Corrina
    11 Apr 13
    4:47 pm

  38. Eugh. @Lash – you can’t be serious (certainly your overuse of emoticons indicates that you don’t wish to be taken seriously anyway). The response from the copyright infringer is just so damn immature and totally misses the point. It is truly frightening how many unprofessional people managing social media accounts on behalf of brands – cheap resources I guess. We educate our clients about content dos and don’ts, but when they see so many other brands cutting corners and/or flaunting the rules, many feel inclined to do the same thing – it’s often quicker, easier and costs less money than doing it the right way. We blogged about the Cool Hunter page closure recently too .To be honest, Cool Hunter never claimed the content was its own so I think it was a raw deal. Murky times in copyright land.

  39. Steven B
    11 Apr 13
    7:00 pm

  40. If I caught any of my agencies stealing content I would terminate the agreement @Yvonne sorry but that’s really lazy and you need to brush up on copyright law me thinks.

  41. Good Moron
    11 Apr 13
    7:17 pm

  42. If anyone wants to see the majesty of the law in action, just use/provide someone with a Getty Image without permission.

  43. Betty Boo
    11 Apr 13
    7:27 pm

  44. @Yvonne Adele you make copyright infringement happen. Ask around!

  45. Klare L
    11 Apr 13
    11:42 pm

  46. What’s so wrong with being cross platform? I use hashtags to post images all over the place. I like the multi platform approach.

  47. Lethal
    12 Apr 13
    3:16 am

  48. “I came up with the tag line”? I don’t think so. Interesting article though.

  49. James A
    12 Apr 13
    5:51 pm

  50. The Australian Copyright Council is the go-to organisation for this kind of stuff:

    Nicely timed, they’re running a series of copyright seminars very soon covering:
    • Copyright Essentials
    • Websites & Social Media
    • Clearing Copyright Material
    • Copyright for Advertising, Digital & Media Agencies
    • Copyright for Visual Artists & Photographers

    I’ve been to the seminars and you’d be surprised how much misinformation there is on copyright (including news aggregators, threat of legal action, licensing, extent of IP ownership etc.).

    Highly recommended.

  51. Obviously a dinosaur
    12 Apr 13
    9:39 pm

  52. Forgive me but I’m not getting how anyone can be peeved about the use of their images and apparently unique (as claimed) literary prose etc when sites like Pinterest specifically seem to exist for absolutely no other reason than messing in the murky waters of copyright and stolen ideas… Put it out there and someone’s going to find it and use it for whatever reason and since when does having glowing and featured “personal” Pinterest pages full of other people’s pictures and ideas suddenly become “ok” in copyright terms. I may be a dinosaur but I work and live in this digital world and it seems to me that unless you’ve got a coca cola sized legal team ready and able to jump in on your case… The individual small fry is… Fried. Just my ancient opinion of course.

  53. Obviously a dinosaur
    13 Apr 13
    12:01 am

  54. Oh and btw Laura I’m pretty sure I’ve took the very same picture of those palms at least 30 years ago as has every other California tourist 😉

  55. Honestly though...
    13 Apr 13
    11:03 pm

  56. What about the images used on Laura’s facebook page? Throwing stones in tropical glass houses much?

  57. Social Media Wanker
    14 Apr 13
    9:10 pm

  58. The real story in all this is that, by not mentioning how awfully dull and lacking in value or meaning the piece of creative is, we’ve all managed to get caught up in an argument over copyright rather than the underlying issue that tells how thoroughly awful, pointless and, most importantly, worthless, creating images for “engagement” on social media is.

    It’s always summer somewhere (I hope you forgive my use of your trademark – but who cares since it’s valid use), some picture of something somewhere that may indicate the notion of being iconic rather than actually being iconic… or in any way, shape or form, original… And this is for your personal blog? Are you the one in the bikinis?

    Here’s a better strategy: a tumblr of you in bikinis. It’d get heaps more traffic and the audience would be genuinely “engaged” by the “original” content. You’re welcome.

  59. Laura M
    15 Apr 13
    12:16 am

  60. @HonestlyThough Most of the images on my FB page are mine, the ones that aren’t I have permission to use :)


  61. James
    15 Apr 13
    3:26 pm

  62. almost every comment above ripping into this articles some like an uninformed, outdated, ad wanker, nonsense. You wonder why the traditional ad agency is struggling with the digital space, the model has changed and you are all on short career timelines… suck shit!

  63. john hollands
    15 Apr 13
    4:07 pm

  64. It ain’t just dog food and whatever brands…

    Someone started a “Hottest Girls of the North Shore” group on Facebook.

    As profile image, they took (stole) a photo of my daughter from her FB.

    Far from being flattered, she was outraged. She contacted Facebook, gave them a blast like she learned from her mother and they pretty quickly removed the image.

    I was pleased to hear of their responsiveness.

    And it further illustrates the fact different people feel differently. I can hear some of the uglies out there saying “Jeez, I’d be flattered if it was me, I’d be stoked”. And so they might be. But if you are a truly DDG* then you WON’T be stoked.

    *DDG=Drop Dead Gorgeous

  65. Brand Panda
    16 Apr 13
    11:54 am

  66. I always find it distasteful when the news uses FB photos of people. They might be teens who died, or ‘criminal Mums’. Do they need permission to use those photos @john hollands?

  67. Rhys Edwards
    17 Apr 13
    10:02 am

  68. Australian copyright law is archaic and outdated.
    I’m not going to let any of my brands be the first to go to court for copyright infringement, but I sure do hope that a technologically-savvy judge is presiding over the case and the brand has killer legal team.

    Precedent must be set and for the creation and curation of content in Australia to grow, it must be set in favour of the user.

  69. john hollands
    17 Apr 13
    10:32 am

  70. @Brand Panda
    I would say they do need permission – if only because the use is in a different medium.

    However they would argue it’s in the public interest for news.

    It would be interesting to hear argument on the expectation of privacy on FB. As best I recollect, privacy torts are being reviewed
    and are the oldest in common law.

    I also think Facebook’s policy could be challenged: it is illegal in most places to remove or give away soneone’s rights – including the person giving them away themselves.

    That is, you cannot legally give away or assign rights which the law confers on you.

    “THEY” can’t do it to you and “YOU” can’t do it to you.

    Hence, feel confortable signing any indemnity… you can’t ‘forgive’ negligence in advance, so jump on that dodgy roller coaster!