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Prevent unauthorized use of material you share on social networks

Anyone can send unlicensed users a takedown notice, but the only way to collect damages for a violation of your copyright on the images, videos, and other items you post is to register them with your friendly local copyright office.

Pinterest copyright-infringement reporting form
Pinterest provides a simple form to use when reporting material on the site that violates your copyright. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

"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.

Electronic Copyright Office site
The US Copyright Office's eCO site lets you apply for a copyright for your creations quickly and less expensively. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

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...

Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, Google, and Facebook all claim unlimited licenses to the images and text you post on the sites. The terms of use of the sites use surprisingly similar wording to describe their licenses. For example, here's how YouTube's terms of service explains it:

(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:

Instagram does not claim ownership of any Content that you post on or through the Service. Instead, you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post on or through the Service, subject to the Service's Privacy Policy.

The Instagram privacy policy describes how the service shares your data with third parties, with and without your explicit consent. As you might expect, the YouTube and Instagram license terms are very similar to those of their respective owners, Google and Facebook.

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.

Instagram copyright-infringement report form
Instagram's copyright-infringement report form requires that you provide links to the infringing material and a description of the work. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Google provides a troubleshooter for removing infringing material from its various services, as well as an online form for reporting image-copyright violations.

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.