Michael Lerner

Thursday - May 26, 2011

Let’s say you witness a newsworthy event, whip out your smartphone and snap a picture. Or maybe you see a celebrity and take a picture. Then you upload it to TwitPic and post a link on Twitter or put the image on your Facebook page. Do you still own the rights to your image?

First, some background:

When you open an account with almost all online services, you have to agree to its Terms of Service (ToS). Few of us read the lengthy legalese. We just click “Agree” and jump in, oblivious to what we’ve agreed to or what the company can do with our content.

If you use TwitPic, with one click, you’ve given away some of your rights. Here’s its ToS:

“You retain all ownership rights to Content uploaded to TwitPic. However, by submitting Content to TwitPic, you hereby grant TwitPic 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 TwitPic’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.”

Earlier this month, TwitPic signed a licensing agreement with World Entertainment News Network, a London photo agency that specializes in celebrity images. Under the agreement, WENN has exclusive rights to distribute images posted to TwitPic. Apparently, WENN will not pay the owners any royalties for sale of the pictures.

The deal has raised concerns with professional photographers who use the service to publicize their work. Their worry is that it can be sold without any compensation. But what if you’re an amateur?

The most popular place by far to post photos is Facebook. Did you read its ToS when you joined?

“You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings. In addition:

1. For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (“IP content”), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy andapplication settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (“IP License”).”

The bottom line is that in exchange for using these services, you have relinquished some rights to your content. If you’re concerned about this, then be sure to carefully read the ToS for the sites you currently use. If the agreement is unacceptable, the best action to take is to remove your content and possibly close your account.

The good news is that there are alternatives. With some photo-sharing services, like Flickr, you own complete rights to your work, at least at the moment. The bad news is that most ToS agreements state that the terms can change at any time.