Everything about Twitter invites you to re-tweet and to broadly republish the content you find there. In journalistic terms, using Twitter material may seem like reporting the news, using tweets and their attachments as basic raw newsworthy information. Anything in a tweet was intended for the wide world, so news media ought to be able to use it, too — right?
Not quite. A recent court decision has imposed a reality check on the myth of freedom to reuse tweets and their attachments.
Daniel Morel, a freelance photographer, took photos of the Haitian earthquake, and made them available on Twitter. Agence France-Press (AFP) took the photos off Twitter, and distributed them on its wire service. AFP customers published the photos.
When Morel complained, AFP asserted that Twitter’s legal terms allowed it to use the photos, but the court ruled to the contrary. Twitter’s legal terms and conditions were hardly crystal clear, but they pointed out that users retain whatever rights they own to the content they post. That is, Morel, as photographer and copyright owner, retained his rights. Other Twitter terms, referring to Twitter’s rights to use such material, might have confused AFP, but they gave no license to third parties like AFP to reprint copyrighted content.
The court’s decision in Agence France Presse v. Morel (issued Jan. 14, 2013 by Judge Alison J. Nathan of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York) surprised many. Why? Because of the myth that social media content is somehow free for everyone to use.
AFP argued that Twitter’s terms statement, “We encourage and permit broad re-use of Content,” meant that Twitter automatically gave AFP the right to re-use Twitter photos, but the court said that statement didn’t abrogate Morel’s copyright rights.
That doesn’t mean you can never use social media content. Short text quotes usually qualify as fair use, and embedding tweets using the “embed” code provided by Twitter is relatively safe, since it means you are effectively referring your users to Twitter.
What about Tumblr and Pinterest? The answer is that those services, too, possess only the rights given to them by their users. Users of those services should only post content for which they have rights, and only re-use content of others with the copyright owner’s permission.
Lesson #2: Don’t assume that social media is exempt from basic laws like copyright.
Social media hasn’t changed everything; it hasn’t changed the law. When urged to aggressively use social media content, you might want to retreat — not re-tweet — or seek legal counsel to help you safely navigate the real, not mythical, boundaries of social media use rights.