What You Need to Know Before Sharing Photos and Videos Online

You might be sharing stolen content on Facebook and other online outlets without even knowing it. Here's how to spot stolen content and then share stuff without stealing it.
Columnist, American Express OPEN
August 29, 2014

As of late, Facebook has become the go-to destination for copyright infringement when it comes to videos and images. All you have to do is check your timeline, and you’ll see account after account sharing copies of videos uploaded directly to Facebook, created by using software to screen capture the original YouTube or Vimeo-hosted videos.

And photography? Don’t even get me started! This career photographer is fighting to be paid for her work—all on account of an innocent share of an exclusive photo she took on a shoot for fashion icon Oscar de la Renta.

With images and videos being so easy to share with the simple click of a “share” button, how do we know what’s OK to share and what could potentially get us in hot water? I sat down with intellectual property attorney Kandis Koustenis of Cloudigy Law to help everyone—from creators to simple social media users—share stuff without stealing stuff. 

Sharing Videos Without Violating Copyrights

According to U.S. copyright law, copyright protection is granted the moment an author’s creative work is “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” For videos, that means the moment a video is uploaded to YouTube by the person who created it (or the entity that holds the copyright to the material), it’s protected by copyright, even without a copyright notice.

What you can’t do: Well, you can’t do what lots of folks are doing right now, which is copy videos and post the copies on your own site or Facebook page. Why? Because they’re not your videos. Copying videos also has a few additional layers of negative repercussions attached to it as well.

  • Violating YouTube’s "Terms of Service." Click on the link and pay particular attention to section four, especially parts A and C. They expressly prohibit distributing content on YouTube via any means other than the embeddable player or “functionality offered by the Service” (such as links to videos accessible in your browser window or via the Share function on every YouTube video).
  • Loss of ad revenue. When you copy a video from YouTube, you’re cutting out the ad content that displays both before the video starts playing and during the video. This takes money out of both YouTube’s (Google’s) pocket and the pocket of the person who uploaded the video who benefits from the ad revenue, especially on the “viral” videos most likely to be copied and shared unethically.

So how do you share a video without violating someone’s copyright? First, use the provided links and embeddable players provided with virtually every video displayed anywhere online. That ensures that the original source (the copyright owner) receives the view credit and the links back to the original source, as well as keeping you from infringing on copyright.

Second, ensure that you own the copyright to any video content you directly upload to Facebook or other social sharing sites that allow user-uploaded video.

Sharing Images Without Violating Copyright

When it comes to copyright, images are tougher than video. Why? Because of the proliferation of meme-type photos floating around. In addition, people seem to think that a photographer should be glad their image is being shared, period!

But that's not really the case. As with videos, any image you find online has an original source, and someone owns the copyright on that image.

So how can you share images without stealing them? Koustenis first advises that, if you’re doing more than linking to a photo, you get permission. “In addition to simply seeking permission from the content owner, you can use resources such as the Copyright Clearance Center, Creative Commons and Wikimedia Commons to find content that's already been licensed for sharing. And both Google and Fickr provide ways to limit your image search to licensed images only.” Basically, you have to respect how content creators want their images to be shared and where.

Second, when sharing an image, be sure to both cite the photo credit and provide a link back to the original source. Why? Because creators like illustrators, graphic artists and photographers make their living from the images they create. Bringing traffic back to their sites ensures they have the opportunity for more people to see their work and potentially profit from being hired to create more work or sell a piece of work they’ve already created.

Finally, both Koustenis and I heartily recommend either creating your own images or using stock images to further personalize your work. Even if you have a low visual savvy, you can use online design software like Canva and PicMonkey to create unique images. Canva even comes complete with more than 1 million stock images (many of which are free; otherwise they only cost $1 each) that you can freely customize. You can also explore stock imagery sites like iStockPhoto, CanstockPhoto and BigStockPhoto (among many others) to purchase images at a minimal cost for you to use without worrying about whether you’re ripping off someone’s work.

“Using stock images is probably the safest and easiest way to be sure you aren’t inadvertently stealing,” Koustenis says. “There may be a nominal cost, but you avoid the uncertainty you may otherwise encounter when you rely, for example, on content you think is licensed or in the public domain, where you can make mistakes without knowing it.”

When in Doubt ...

Many people don’t think before sharing a video or image they see on Facebook. It’s fun, it hit a nerve, they want to share it with the world, and social media makes it easy to do so.

Before you start sharing, however, take a moment to think first. Yes, I know that goes against human and social media nature, but ask yourself the following questions to keep yourself from inadvertently stealing stuff while sharing stuff:

1. If what you want to share is a video you see on Facebook, is it a Facebook video or a YouTube video? It’s easy to tell. You can always see the YouTube player in YouTube videos as well as the youtube.com URL.
2. If it’s a Facebook video, is the person or brand that's sharing this video on their page the owner of the video? This is also easy to tell. A “fitness model” was recently sharing cute videos of puppies, dance contests and other viral video content that had nothing to do with his brand—he just wanted the views and page likes those videos brought. He’d copied those videos from YouTube and uploaded them to Facebook as his own, complete with his website URL. Ew.
3. Is the creator of the video the brand on whose Facebook page you found the video? Bueno!
4. Is the video a copy that the person or company simply uploaded to their Facebook site? If it's a copy, don’t share that link. Instead, head over to YouTube and do a simple search for the video using some key terms about the video’s content. Odds are, you’ll find the original video in a jiffy. Then share the YouTube link instead.

You’re now an amazing digital citizen—and that pause before sharing took you about one minute.

Don't feel bad if you've inadvertently shared something you shouldn't have. We’ve all done it—shared a video or image and just perpetuated a long chain of copyright infringement. But until we end the myth that not everything on the Internet is free to be shared willy-nilly, we’ll still see copyright infringement and stuff stolen. All it really takes is a bit of social consciousness to respect the creators and come out the hero when we do share all the amazing stuff out there.

Read more articles on legal issues.

Photo: iStockphoto

Columnist, American Express OPEN