Copyright and Social Media


Today’s Question: I am part of a photography organization that recommends we post our photos for visibility. I’m always concerned in doing so I will forfeit the rights to my photography. Who actually owns the photography that we post on Facebook and Instagram?

Tim’s Quick Answer: When sharing on Facebook or Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) you still retain the copyright to your photos and other content you share. However, you are also giving these services the right to make use of your content with no compensation to you. Therefore, you’ll need to balance the potential benefit with the potential risks. That said, I do find it worthwhile to share my photos on these services.

More Detail: Most online services have terms and conditions that are somewhat similar. In general, you retain the copyright to your own content, but you also provide a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferrable right to use or license your content with no compensation to you.

First, let’s consider the pragmatic issue at play here. When you share a photo on Instagram, for example, the whole point is that anyone in the world can view (and like) your photos. They can also follow you, so they are more likely to see future content in the future. This type of sharing represents the publication of your photos anywhere in the world for anyone to see. That type of publishing requires your permission as the copyright holder.

In other words, Instagram couldn’t make your photos visible to others if you didn’t provide very broad licensing terms to Instagram.

However, it is altogether possible that Instagram (or other online sharing services) could then profit from your photos. Since you are providing a very broad license in exchange for the ability to share your photos on their platform, Instagram could theoretically take advantage of those terms in ways you would not be happy with.

For example, it is conceivable that Instagram could start a stock photography licensing service and make money licensing your photos to others. Instagram could profit from this arrangement, with absolutely no compensation to you.

At least for now (as far as I know) this sort of activity isn’t happening right now. But it could. So you need to decide if the value of sharing your photos online is greater than the potential risks involved.

Personally, I enjoy sharing my photos with others, and believe that sharing my photos benefits my business. For example, when I post photos I’ve captured in locations where I lead photo workshops, I get inquiries about joining me for a future photo workshop. So, I feel the benefits of sharing my photos are more important than the potential risks involved with the terms of use for services such as Instagram.

Naturally, each photographer will need to make these decisions for themselves, and I encourage reading the (very long) terms of service in detail to make sure you’re comfortable with the decision you make.

And if you decide you’d like to be involved in the Instagram community, be sure to follow me. You can find me with user name @timgreyphoto, or view (and like) my photos by visiting the Instagram website here: