November 6, 2018

Social media copyright terms: How to promote AND protect your work

‍Photo by dole777

Social media is an essential promotional tool for photographers and visual artists. Platforms like Instagram can form the cornerstone of your business, boosting visibility and getting your work in front of global audiences. At the same time, however, image theft on such platforms is rife, with Pixsy’s image theft report revealing that 49 percent of bloggers and social media users have infringed copyright.

There’s a common misconception that uploading your work to social media means you forfeit your copyright and are powerless if someone uses your work without permission — but that’s not true. According to the terms and conditions of almost every social media site, original users retain the copyright to their work.

What is image copyright?Image copyright is assigned to the creator automatically when the visual work is created. The copyright owner doesn’t need to register the image to “officially” obtain copyright. With copyright, the image owner has access to a so-called bundle of rights that allows them to display, sell and distribute the copyrighted work, reproduce it and create derivative works based on it. This means that the image and copyright owner can also decide about the possible use of their images, and any action – willful or not — going against it, is considered copyright infringement.

What is social media copyright and how to protect yours?

Are images on social media copyrighted, goes the common question, and the answer is strict and simple: yes. Social media copyright is image copyright — there is no legal or other distinction between the two. In other words, although the world of social media is all about free access, that doesn’t mean “free to use”. Here’s how to use social media to benefit your business while minimizing the risk of your work being used without authorization.

Remember: You own the copyright to your work

Are Facebook photos public property? Does Facebook own my photos? Are Instagram photos public domain? Are Pinterest photos “copyright free”? Some of the most frequently asked questions around social media and copyright. Let’s clear the picture.

When you sign up to a social media site, you have to agree to its terms of use. In most cases, you will grant the site a license to use the content that you post. You also confirm that you own the copyright to the content that you post. This simply means that you allow the platform to display your work and allow it to function as it has to but this agreement never overrides copyright laws and your ownership.

It does not mean that you hand over ownership of the copyright; nor does it mean you are unable to take action against infringement of any work you share on the platform. When agreeing to the terms of use of a social media platform, that is between you and the provider only and nobody else — none of the other users are allowed to take your images and use it in any way without your permission.

Asking for permission before using an Instagram post Instagram explicitly states that “if you own a copyright, you have the right to grant permission to use your copyrighted work, as well as the right to prevent other people from using your copyrighted work without permission.” In its Terms of Use it also mentions that “you cannot do anything that violates someone else's rights, including intellectual property rights (e.g., copyright infringement, trademark infringement, counterfeit, or pirated goods).” This means that embedding an Instagram post on an external site and doing it without the permission of the creator is a copyright infringement, as the copyright owner is the only one who can decide about the use of their images.

See the copyright terms and conditions of the major social media sites below.

Make it easy for people to contact you to buy or license your work

There are a number of simple but effective things you can do to maximize the potential of social media. Firstly, make sure that, if possible, your social media handle contains your professional name, to make it even easier for image users to find and identify you. It’s also important to clearly include your contact details in each post, along with relevant links to your website. Including the copyright symbol (©) in your caption is another good way to reiterate your ownership of the work (however is not a requirement).

In addition, for extra protection, some photographers choose to watermark the images they share — one option to choose from many other image protection alternatives.

Instagram profile
Photo by Nathana Rebouças

Take control over how people share your work

When it comes to social media, sharing images is not necessarily the same as using them without authorization. For example, if you post one of your images under a “public” privacy setting, other users are able to share that original post with their network. This is often within the terms of the social media platform and does not constitute copyright infringement (think of Twitter’s retweet function, for example). Your profile and contact details remain attached to the post, so you benefit from the exposure while retaining ownership of the work.

You might also want to consider installing a social media share button on your website. This lets people share your work on their social media profiles while allowing you to control the information that gets included in the post.

Check periodically for infringement

Some image creators take an active approach in protecting their copyright by using reverse image search. A service like Pixsy monitors the web for use of their work 24/7. This way they can easily find out if their images have been used online without authorization.

Submit a copyright infringement complaint on social media

If you do discover that your work has been used without authorization on a social media platform, the most direct route to resolution is usually directly through the platform. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest all have structured processes for filing a complaint, which, if successful, may lead to the infringer’s post being taken down.Copyright complaint forms of social media platforms:

To maximize the chances of a successful claim, be sure to document evidence of the unauthorized use of your work on the social media platform. Gather links, take screenshots, and make notes of dates, times, and the handle of the user(s) in question.

Submit a copyright infringement complaint with Pixsy

Alternatively, you can use Pixsy’s Takedown service, sending legally binding takedown notices to any site globally, to have your image removed. The notices meet the requirements of more than 35 countries and are translated into 14 languages, using the power of AI. If you’d like to know more about your alternative options, check out our article on what to do when your work is stolen.

What is fair use?Fair use allows copyrighted material to be used without a license if it is in the public interest. This can apply to fields such as news reporting or education however, interpretation of fair use is largely dependent on individual court cases. The terms of fair use, therefore, are often misunderstood in the public and can give a false sense of security to image users, making them believe that it’s not considered copyright infringement. Consequently, relying on the “notion” of fair use is not safe to rely on for everyday image use.

Copyright terms of major social media sites

As an image creator using social media, you must be familiar with the copyright rules of the different platforms. Here we sampled the terms of conditions of the most common social sites, focusing on copyright and content ownership.

Instagram and copyright

“We do not claim ownership of your content, but you grant us a license to use it. Nothing is changing about your rights in your content. We do not claim ownership of your content that you post on or through the Service and you are free to share your content with anyone else, wherever you want. However, we need certain legal permissions from you (known as a “license”) to provide the Service. When you share, post, or upload content that is covered by intellectual property rights (like photos or videos) on or in connection with our Service, you hereby grant to us a non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works of your content (consistent with your privacy and application settings). This license will end when your content is deleted from our systems. You can delete content individually or all at once by deleting your account.” (May 2021)

Facebook and copyright

“You own the intellectual property rights (things like copyright or trademarks) in any such content that you create and share on Facebook and the other Facebook Company Products you use. Nothing in these Terms takes away the rights you have to your own content. You are free to share your content with anyone else, wherever you want.

However, to provide our services we need you to give us some legal permissions (known as a ‘license’) to use this content. This is solely for the purposes of providing and improving our Products and services as described in Section 1 above.

Specifically, when you share, post, or upload content that is covered by intellectual property rights on or in connection with our Products, you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, and worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works of your content (consistent with your privacy and application settings). This means, for example, that if you share a photo on Facebook, you give us permission to store, copy, and share it with others (again, consistent with your settings) such as service providers that support our service or other Facebook Products you use. This license will end when your content is deleted from our systems.

You can delete content individually or all at once by deleting your account. Learn more about how to delete your account. You can download a copy of your data at any time before deleting your account.When you delete content, it’s no longer visible to other users, however it may continue to exist elsewhere on our systems…” (May 2021)

Twitter on iPhone
Photo by Daddy Mohlala

Twitter and copyright

“You retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services. What’s yours is yours — you own your Content (and your incorporated audio, photos and videos are considered part of the Content).

By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods now known or later developed (for clarity, these rights include, for example, curating, transforming, and translating). This license authorizes us to make your Content available to the rest of the world and to let others do the same. You agree that this license includes the right for Twitter to provide, promote, and improve the Services and to make Content submitted to or through the Services available to other companies, organizations or individuals for the syndication, broadcast, distribution, Retweet, promotion or publication of such Content on other media and services, subject to our terms and conditions for such Content use. Such additional uses by Twitter, or other companies, organizations or individuals, is made with no compensation paid to you with respect to the Content that you submit, post, transmit or otherwise make available through the Services as the use of the Services by you is hereby agreed as being sufficient compensation for the Content and grant of rights herein.

Twitter has an evolving set of rules for how ecosystem partners can interact with your Content on the Services. These rules exist to enable an open ecosystem with your rights in mind. You understand that we may modify or adapt your Content as it is distributed, syndicated, published, or broadcast by us and our partners and/or make changes to your Content in order to adapt the Content to different media.

You represent and warrant that you have, or have obtained, all rights, licenses, consents, permissions, power and/or authority necessary to grant the rights granted herein for any Content that you submit, post or display on or through the Services. You agree that such Content will not contain material subject to copyright or other proprietary rights, unless you have necessary permission or are otherwise legally entitled to post the material and to grant Twitter the license described above.” (May 2021)

Pinterest and copyright

“Pinterest allows you to post content, including photos, comments, links, and other materials. Anything that you post or otherwise make available on Pinterest is referred to as "User Content." You retain all rights in, and are solely responsible for, the User Content you post to Pinterest.

More simply put - If you post your content on Pinterest, it still belongs to you....

You grant Pinterest and our users a non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferable, sublicensable, worldwide license to use, store, display, reproduce, save, modify, create derivative works, perform, and distribute your User Content on Pinterest solely for the purposes of operating, developing, providing, and using Pinterest. Nothing in these Terms restricts other legal rights Pinterest may have to User Content, for example under other licenses. We reserve the right to remove or modify User Content, or change the way it’s used in Pinterest, for any reason. This includes User Content that we believe violates these Terms, our Community Guidelines, or any other policies.”

More simply put - If you post your content on Pinterest, we can show it to people and others can save it. Don't post porn or spam or be a jerk to other people on Pinterest.” (May 2021)


  • Signing up to a social media site does not mean you sign away the copyright of work you upload.
  • Use a professional handle that includes your name, and make sure you include contact details and copyright info in each post you upload to social media. This all helps increase your visibility and business potential.
  • Encourage people to share your work from your profile, so you can gain visibility without losing control of the original work and credit.
  • Embedded posts of your Instagram (and other) content on a website does not bypass copyright law - the embedder still needs permission from the rights-holder/creator.
  • Keep checking for infringement. Use a service like Pixsy to monitor the web for use of your work 24/7.

If you do discover your work has been used without authorization on social media, you can submit a takedown request directly through the platform in question or by using a takedown service such as Pixsy Takedowns.

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