Don't Get Sued: A Quick Guide to Social Media and Copyright Law


Sure, you can – if you want to get sued. The social media world is growing, fast. And between shares, retweets and pins, it’s hard to tell when you’ve violated copyright law. As the court cases pile up, judges are still defining how old laws apply to new media, and things we posted without thinking a few years ago could get us in serious trouble now.

That’s why Balcom Agency invited Daxton “Chip” Stewart, Ph.D., LL.M., associate dean of the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at TCU, to conduct a lunch-and-learn seminar for our entire team on August 12. Here’s what we learned.

Social Media Law

What should social media managers or bloggers keep top-of-mind?

  • Right of Privacy: The First Amendment generally protects the publication of truthful facts, but only if the facts were uncovered by truthful means. No trespassing, illegal recordings or digging through medical records.
  • Right of Publicity: Celebrities have a right to control the use of their likeness, and even their name, for the sale of products. You may tweet a photo of a celebrity leaving your store, but you cannot say that they love shopping there or give the impression they are endorsing your brand. This is why actress Katherine Heigl sued pharmacy chain Duane Reade earlier this year. She was legally photographed leaving the store, but once they tweeted that she liked shopping there, a lawsuit was filed. Even dead celebrities have estate managers who can continue to control their likeness. Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson are worth far more now than they were while alive.
  • Intellectual Property: Copyright laws protect works of authorship, such as text, photos, video, audio and art, for the life of the author, plus another 75 years. An educator may be able to use these types of works for teaching, but a commercial business will have a hard time proving ‘fair use’ of the elements without obtaining copyright clearance from the author or his estate. Sometimes it may take some digging – and things that you just KNOW are public domain are often not. For example, you can’t use the song “Deep in the Heart of Texas” without paying fees to the owners of the copyright.
  • Trademarks: Words, slogans and logos that help identify a product or service can be registered at the federal or state level. Be aware that certain trademarks are vigorously defended, which is why we use “The Big Game” when referring to the last football game of the season. The NFL is a strict enforcer. 

How can social media managers best navigate these laws and regulations to avoid getting tripped up?

  • Thou Shalt Not Lie: Be honest about who you are and why you are writing about a product. Did you get a free sample to try? You need to say so before you write a review. If you don’t and you are found out, your brand will lose credibility with the audience it wants to impress.
  • Thou Shalt Not Steal: If you didn’t create it, don’t use it as if you did. You can share and retweet or hyperlink to the original information – but give credit where it is due. This includes using pictures you find on the Internet. Just because it is on the Web, doesn’t mean it is free. Even images published under a Creative Commons license require you to credit the owner. Keep a file of written permissions or licenses you have obtained.

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