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Copyright Online and Fair Use in Social Media
Social Media Management

Copyright Online and Fair Use in Social Media

March 22, 2024

With the online world being dominated by images, what do you need to understand as a business owner when it pertains to copyright laws?

Sharing Photos on Social

Visuals are huge in the social media world, especially for businesses. Here's a quick run-down:

  • Generally, content with appropriate pictures has 94% more total views than content without (Jeff Bullas).
  • Compared to other kinds of content, visual content is 40x more likely to be shared on social media (Ethos3).
  • Facebook posts with images can receive 2.3 x more engagement than text posts (BuzzSumo).

A couple things can be seen here. First, using photos in your social media communications is essential to its success, and second, social media is the driving force behind the unfathomable amount of images being shared online every second. In fact, the world is on track to share over 2.5 trillion images online by the end of this year!

Social Media Copyright Dangers

Since online culture progresses so fast, the laws of the land are constantly readjusting to the most recent trends in online activity. This is especially true when it comes to copyright online and fair use on social media, both of which have yet to become clearly defined for the digital age. Luckily, even online, by following the basic foundations of copyright law you will be protected for the most part.

💡 This post focuses on copyright laws as they pertain to Canada and the United States.

What is Copyright?

Simply put, copyright is: "the exclusive lawful right to copy, release, sell, or distribute the matter and type of something (as a literary, musical, or artistic work)." Its purpose is to strike an equilibrium between protecting the author of a work, and serving the public interest.

Copyright gives the owner exclusive rights over their work. Copyright owners can:

  • Copy the copyrighted work.
  • Make derivative works based on the copyrighted work.
  • Distribute copies of the copyrighted work to the public by sale, transfer of ownership, rental, lease, or lending.
  • Perform and/or display the copyrighted work publicly (

Copyright is determined on a case-by-case basis, which makes it hard to find any specific examples of infringement that could be applied to other cases seen in social media.

Creative Commons and Free Use

On the other end of the spectrum, "creative commons" work is always free to use. This dedication means that an author has dedicated their original work to the public domain, waiving all rights to their work worldwide under copyright law.

This work is free to "copy, modify, distribute and perform, even for commercial purposes, all without asking consent" (Creative Commons). Websites like Pixabay or Flickr find pictures that are released under Creative Commons! These pictures need no attribution (credit to the author/source) and they are free to use.

Internet Memes and Copyright Online

There are so many types of memes that may or may not infringe copyright online that lumping them all into one group and marking them with "accepted" or "rejected" ink simply does not work. If you wonder about how the memes you might be sharing fall under copyright law, here is a quick guide.

Types of Memes

Memes can range from the popular "image macros," to silly sentences repeated across the internet. Obviously, catch phrases, hashtags and other word-based memes have no real copyright risk. It's the visual and image macro memes that might pose a threat. Particularly, image macros that depict copyrighted characters and creations.

Pop Culture Memes

Let's say, for simplicity's sake, that the majority of memes are fair use. I mean, nobody is going to come after you for throwing a "damn, Daniel!" into one of your Facebook posts. The memes that might present a problem are those that take images from pop culture, like Futurama Fry or Boromir's "one does not simply" meme. These character stills are pulled from pop culture media and turned into memes, yet the characters depicted are owned by a specific brand or company.

Could using a pop culture meme that depicts a copyrighted work or character result in a lawsuit? Yes.

Is it likely to? No.

But when it involves commercial use of memes, it's better to err on the side of caution, and avoid posting pop culture memes that clearly depict copyrighted works.

Memes in Social Advertising

Using memes for social advertising is the surest way to cause issues with copyright when it comes to sharing memes. Posting a meme is fairly harmless, but using it in advertising is a totally different story.

Advertising is not protected by fair use, and so any type of direct promotion of your company/brand with using memes, or using memes for profit, can get you legal heat.

If you're thinking "that's absurd, who would reprimand me for selling a shirt with a picture of a particularly grumpy cat?" I get where you're coming from, but Grumpy Cat has a company that's ready to protect its property (which is, strangely enough, a mean looking cat).

General Rule for Copyright Online

Although the rules of fair use and copyright online are often left up to interpretation, a good rule to follow is assuming that all photos and videos located online are protected by copyright, unless explicitly expressed as being free to use by the owner. Ultimately, it falls to the author of the work to enforce copyright law if they find that their work is being used without consent.

The next time you decide to use any kind of content that isn't yours, ask yourself:

  1. Do I have permission to use this picture (or is it free to use)?
  2. If not, does my usage fall under "fair use"?
  3. Is using this content worth the possible legal consequences?

It will be interesting to see how copyright laws and content sharing methods will transform with the advancement of social media patterns. In the meantime, just remember-- an image might be worth a thousand words, but it can cost you a lot more if used without consent.

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