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Unauthorized use of photo lawsuits on the rise – station social media now targeted

Broadcasters take note – a recent string of lawsuits involving the use of photographs on station social media points out a serious concern for stations, going beyond copyright issues arising from using unauthorized photos on station websites.

Typically, photographers are filing lawsuits against stations alleging that a photographer’s work has been used without permission.

Attorney David Oxenford with TAB Associate member law firm Wilkinson Barker Knauer wrote about the issue in August and again in late 2015.

Oxenford said that what makes these recent suits noteworthy is that they involve not just the unauthorized use of a photograph on a station’s website, but the use of photos in social media posts including tweets on Twitter and posts on Facebook. 

It seems like common sense not to use something without permission, but Oxenford cautions that stations are doing so without regard for who may actually have rights to a photo.

“Just because someone posts a picture on the Internet, even on a social media or photo sharing site, does not give others the right to exploit that photo, especially on a digital site of a commercial business,” Oxenford said. 

“Posting on a social media site may give the social media site owner the right to exploit posted content consistent with their terms of use, but the person who created the content does not give up their underlying copyright in any creative work to third parties.”

He notes a recent New Jersey case in which a newspaper sued a cable news network because one of its on-air staff used the newspaper’s well-known 9-11 photo as the staffer’s Facebook page profile picture.

The staffer had not secured permission to do so.

Yes, social media sites were created to share content, but Oxenford notes that it is “usually content to which the person sharing it owns the rights (e.g. vacation photos) or arguably material that is used with some degree of commentary or criticism where a fair use defense is possible.

Stations interested in learning more about the legal concept of “fair use” as it applies to copyrighted material should read Oxenford’s 2014 post on the topic.

“It is clear that taking a picture and posting it on a business social media feed without permission is likely to raise the hackles of a copyright owner who discovers it – as it uses their creative work for no compensation whatsoever,” Oxenford said.

What’s a station to do?

Do it yourself or make a “stock” investment.

“Take your own photos and use them on your sites and in your social media is one easy answer – and many broadcasters, including radio broadcasters, have tasked their employees with taking photos of station and community events that can build up a library of images for the station to use,” Oxenford said. 

He notes there are many stock photo services where, for a reasonable monthly subscription fee, a station can get the rights to a whole catalog of photographs to use on the station’s business sites. 

“A few dollars now to subscribe to one of these services can save lots of headache (and even more dollars) later on,” Oxenford said.

Questions? Contact TAB's Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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