Respecting Copyright - Tips for Social Media Managers

Respecting copyright is an important part of being a responsible social media account manager—and it's the law. Unfortunately, copyright law and the principle of "fair use" are not always black and white, and a number of stubborn myths keep people from really understanding copyright, especially as it applies online.

Some common MYTHS include:

  • I found this image, video, or other piece of multimedia on a .org or .gov website, so it's free to use on my website or social media platform.
  • If I give credit to the photographer, musician, or creator of a piece of multimedia, I am free to use his or her work.
  • Because I work at an educational institution, I can use images, videos, music, or other creative works freely because the principle of "fair use" applies automatically.
  • If I only use a small amount of a creative work (e.g. a few lines from a song), it will fall under fair use.
  • Someone else posted this item to the web, so it is now free to use.
  • If I am not using the creative work for commercial gain, then I am free to use it.
  • No one will ever know the difference. I'm not hurting anyone. I won't get caught.

In reality, there are no blanket statements that apply to all uses of multimedia or creative works. Each question of copyright and fair use comes down to the details of the situation. But there are some best practices you can observe in order to respect copyright and find multimedia resources you can use. The following are general tips and should not be treated as legal advice for your particular situation:

  • Request permission from the owner to use multimedia items you find online. This is the safest (and often the easiest) way to stay on the right side of copyright law. Many people are thrilled to have their creative works used by a reputable organization like UA, and will be happy to give permission for limited use. Explain how and why you would like to use the item, offer to give the creator proper credit, and keep a record (e.g. an email thread) when permission is granted. The catch: be sure you are actually receiving permission from the owner—not someone who is themselves using the work without permission.

  • Ask others involved in the topic you are posting about. If you're posting about an AHSC program or a topic of active research at AHSC, there's a good chance that a staff or faculty member involved in the program will have related photos.

  • Take photos or video yourself or commission BioCom for higher quality, more professional products. This is especially helpful for events and items you know are on the horizon, but you can also create your own storehouse of "stock" photographs that could be useful in various contexts. These might include scenery and facilities shots from around your college or images of prominent faculty in action. The UA brand guidelines offer some tips on taking photographs. Be sure to use a model/subject release for pictures including recognizable people.

  • Look for works that are licensed under the Creative Commons framework. Under Creative Commons licenses artists, writers, photographers, musicians, and other media creators allow others to use their works for free without seeking permission--so long as they are given credit and a few other stipulations.  Using the advanced search feature on Flickr is one good way to find images under Creative Commons licenses. Make sure you read and abide by the parameters of the license for each image you use.

  • Find works that have been freely available under other systems of distribution, such as "U.S. government works" or items in the public domain provided by government agencies or cultural institutions. While it's true that most multimedia created by employees of federal agencies while on-the-job is freely available for public use, it's NOT true that all photos and videos found on government sites were created by the agency hosting them. Like us, federal agencies sometimes purchase stock photography or request permission for limited use of media owned by others. While an agency may have received permission to use a photographer's work on their website, that does not mean the agency owns or can distribute the image to others. Even on government image banks, read the fine print. For resources to help you find photographs that are free to use, visit the AHSC Social Media Toolkit.

  • If you are unable to obtain permission from the owner of a piece of media, consider whether your situation falls under the principle of fair use. This will rarely be a cut-and-dry answer, but the UA Office of General Counsel provides a Fair Use Overview and a Fair Use Checklist to help you apply the principle to various situations. When in doubt, don't assume fair use applies. Ask for permission from the copyright owner or find a different piece to illustrate your post.

  • Give credit to the creator whenever possible--even if it's not required. If someone is allowing you to use their media for free, it's courteous and a small way of showing gratitude to include a credit.

  • Purchase stock images or other media for important projects or hard-to-find items. Of course this is subject to budgetary constraints, but occasionally purchasing a stock image can save a lot of time and steer you clear of copyright gray areas.