"Going viral" is a sure sign of success for a video, image, or other post to a Web sharing service. But what happens when someone starts making money from the unauthorized use of your creation?
You establish your copyright on the material you create the moment you publish it. The simplest approach to enforcing your copyright on your creations is to send the infringing party a cease-and-desist notice. That's usually all that is required to have the item removed from the offending site.
However, if you seek to recover damages for the unauthorized use of your copyrighted material, you first need to register your copyright with the US Copyright Office or the equivalent agency in your country.
(British residents will find information about protecting their copyrights on the UK Intellectual Property Office site.)
The Copyright Office's Electronic Copyright Office (eCO) is intended to streamline the copyright-application process. In addition to lowering the filing fee to $35 for a basic claim (a standard copyright filing costs $65), the eCO site promises faster processing of your application, the ability to upload some "deposits" directly, and nearly 24/7 access. You can even track the status of your application on the site.
As part of your application, you must provide the Copyright Office with a copy of the work you wish to register, whether via upload on the site or by mailing a hard copy to the office. The eCO system supports uploads of dozens of image, video, text, and other file types, including GIF, JPEG, bitmap, PNG, and TIFF for images, and AVI, MOV, MPEG, SWF, and WMV for video.
The site's uploader times out after 30 minutes, so if you're submitting a large file and/or you're using a slow connection, you can compress it before you upload. The service supports the CAB, RAR, and ZIP compression formats.
If you'd rather register your copyright the old-fashioned way, the eCO site provides instructions and printable forms for submitting via snail mail your literary writings, visual arts, performing arts, sound recordings, and "single serials," which are items intended to be published in a series.
You own your own work, but...
(You) retain all of your ownership rights in your Content. However, by submitting Content to YouTube, you hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content in connection with the Service and YouTube's (and its successors' and affiliates') business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the Service (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels. You also hereby grant each user of the Service a non-exclusive license to access your Content through the Service, and to use, reproduce, distribute, display and perform such Content as permitted through the functionality of the Service and under these Terms of Service.
And this is how Instagram describes its license to your content on the site:
All five of the popular sharing sites offer their customers tools for protecting their copyrighted material from unauthorized use. For instance, Instagram provides online forms you can use to report a claim of intellectual property infringement, another for reporting copyright infringement, and yet another for reporting a violation or infringement.
Pinterest's terms of service are refreshingly straightforward, particularly in comparison with those of other sharing sites. Still, the service grants itself an unlimited license to the material you post on the site.
In addition to providing information about the service's copyright policy, the Pinterest terms of service include a complaint form for reporting violations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It also explains how to file a counter-notice if you believe a copyright claim made against you is unwarranted.
Note that the terms of service for each of the sites make it clear that users bear all liability for damages resulting from their use of the services. Also, their license to use your material applies even after you've removed the items from your account and after you close the account.
Distinguishing fair use from a copyright violation
Not every use of someone else's copyrighted material constitutes infringement. As explained in an uncredited article on the Nolo legal site, non-commercial use and use that is intended to benefit the public is often deemed fair use of another's copyrighted material.
Also considered when determining fair use is whether you're simply copying and reusing the material, or using it to create something new, such as a parody or a literary criticism. Note that you can't be excused from an infringement charge simply by crediting the author or creator of the copyrighted work.
Nolo legal editor Richard Stim offers a comprehensive Copyright Overview on the Stanford University Libraries site. The Electronic Frontier Foundation explains the ins and outs of intellectual property liability for bloggers, including the benefits of applying for a Creative Commons license.
There are also some technical steps you can take to protect your copyrighted works from being used without authorization. As Ashley Poland describes on the Houston Chronicle site, these include displaying the copyright notice prominently on the page (not just in small type at the bottom), and using scripts that block right-click and copy-paste operations.