Wait. Who Really Owns What You Post On Facebook?

These days, the process of posting a photo on Instagram, sharing stories on Facebook, and snapping morning matcha lattes feels as innate as brushing your teeth or making breakfast. Our social media lives are a natural and expected extension of who we are — whether we like it or not.

But the recent controversy surrounding Pantsuit Nation, the not-so-secret Facebook group for nearly four million Hillary Clinton supporters, is calling into question the issue of digital ownership. For months, members have posted inspirational tales about overcoming opposition in classrooms, at work, and in war-torn countries. Now, news that the group's founder, Libby Chamberlain, has secured a book deal based on those stories have some calling the whole thing a scam. Overwhelming, the comments in response Chamberlain's announcement express feelings of betrayal and exploitation.

What Chamberlain is doing may feel like a violation, but it isn't illegal. She notes in her post that she will get permission to republish any stories included in the book. But this led us to wonder: When you post something on social media, be it Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, or elsewhere, who owns what you've posted? You? The network? The creator of a subgroup where you shared a story?

Whenever you create something original — whether you write a message or take a photo — you automatically take ownership of the copyright, says John Browning, JD, a professor at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law and author of The Lawyer's Guide to Social Networking: Understanding Social Media's Impact on the Law.

That ownership holds true when you type said words on a site such as Facebook. However, when you post on a social network, you do so in agreement with the site or app's terms of service. While the wording differs slightly from Facebook to Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter, Browning says the underlying principle remains the same: You still own the copyright, but you grant the network a license to "use" your work.

Those uses aren't explicitly described in the terms of service, but could include a variety of internal purposes, including finding ways to upgrade software or introduce new features. For example, Snapchat's terms of service says: "This license is for the limited purpose of operating, developing, providing, promoting, and improving the Services and researching and developing new ones." If you delete your account, you revoke the license you have previously granted.

Laws become fuzzier when you consider livestream videos or photos that disappear after you've posted them, Browning says, including those that you don't save on Snapchat and Instagram Stories. Say someone screenshots your work and claims it as their own. How are you to argue otherwise without the original as proof?

In the case of Pantsuit Nation, it is very clear who owns each story. They don't belong to Chamberlain, even though she created a platform where they live. Only the original authors maintain their rights to them. If she does not receive explicit permission to use these posts in the book then she is acting without a license, Browning says.

There is an exception (of course) and that's fair use. While Chamberlain can't include any stories in her book that she doesn't receive permission to reprint, a journalist can publish your public snap, tweet, or post as long as they follow certain guidelines laid out by the U.S. Copyright Office. This means it's not out of the realm of possibility that your Twitter rant about a workplace nemesis could show up on the front page of The New York Times.

The front-page test is a good rule of thumb for anything you share on social media. While you might own the rights to your post — and other people can't profit from it — the content is public and can be viewed by anyone and everyone, from your mom to a future employer. Uncomfortable with being so exposed? It's easy to change your settings to private to ensure that you know who is seeing every tweet, snap, or story, and that's the simplest way to protect yourself from unwanted publicity.
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