According to an email I received today from Strafford CLE Webinars, “The number of active monthly users [of social media] worldwide are staggering–Pinterest (265 million), Instagram (one billion), Twitter (330 million), YouTube (2 billion), Facebook (2.4 billion), and WhatsApp (1.5 billion)–and increasing. Social media users are sharing, tweeting, pinning, and posting a variety of intellectual property, including pictures, videos, articles, and more, often without the permission of the owner.”
It’s a problem. What’s a copyright owner to do?
Copyright law gives the copyright owner the right to certain restrictions on the use of their works of authorship. 17 USC 106 says:
Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following:
(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;
(2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
(3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
(4) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;
(5) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and
(6) in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.
If anyone other than the copyright owner does any of these things without the permission of the copyright owner, that person is infringing and is liable to the copyright owner under 17 USC 501 et seq.
“Reproduction” includes copying and pasting from and to social media. That would be infringement. Infringement, under 17 USC 106, is actionable. Infringers can get themselves sued … for some pretty hefty sums.
However, 17 USC 107 codifies a concept called “fair use.” It says:
Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—
(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.
Fair use is the grayest of all gray areas of the law. The finding literally can spin on the whim of a judge. As to those who use social media to infringe, in 17 USC 107(4) lies the kicker that argues against the prosecution of copyright infringement for all those copied-and-pasted videos, graphics, works of art, musical numbers, old movies, text, and other works of authorship against anyone and everyone who has infringed the copyright holder’s rights. All that copying and pasting gets the copyright holder’s name and samples of their work out there, often virally. The market for the copyright holder’s work therefore expands far beyond the original reach of the work or the rights holder, which, de facto, has a positive “…effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.”
These days, there are authors (and I use that as a term of art, not necessarily just as the author of text) who put their work up on Facebook, YouTube, InstaGram, wherever in an effort to cause the work to go viral. The work can only do that if the author does not squish the sharing of the work. The marketing effect of copy-and-paste is huge and growing. However, that effect can backfire; a work can be copied in very high resolution and the recipient of the copied work can then use that copy just as s/he would the original. That could kill the market for the work.
So how does the copyright holder balance the wonders of viral marketing vs. the deleterious effect of too much copy-and-paste?
I tell my clients:
- PUT A WATERMARK ON YOUR SHARED WORK in such a place that no one can remove that watermark without destroying the work. That makes it MUCH less desirable to copy and paste, yet the image on the internet retains the character of the original image
- PUT A COPYRIGHT NOTICE ON YOUR SHARED WORK. Just do it. Copyright attaches the instant a work is affixed in a tangible medium. Give the world notice of that fact.
- REGISTER YOUR WORKS WITH THE US COPYRIGHT OFFICE BEFORE YOU SHARE IT. It’s cheap. Just do it.
Or the copyright holder can donate the work to the public domain. If this is what the author wants to do, p with abandon … and consider any copyright in any posted work abandoned. Nothing wrong with that, and it saves all the angst and pain of not being able to enforce your unregistered copyright (you can’t enforce your unregistered copyright in the USA).
The choice of how to proceed varies with each author … and it is, after all, the author’s choice.