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Customer Photos in Your Social Media Strategy? Stay on the Right Side of the Law

18. February 2014 13:36

Woman with a camera

Privacy invasion is a tricky thing to navigate in the virtual world. Photos and thoughts that used to be restricted to photo albums and journals can be broadcast across continents in seconds. With a single hashtag, an image can become a viral sensation.

Small-business owners are wise to tap into the power of customer-generated social media photos. By encouraging followers and fans to use your business's hashtag when they post pictures of themselves sporting your products, you create an organic marketing tool. With the hashtag in place, you can filter thousands of customer photos on Instagram or Twitter. And with a regram or retweet of the image, you connect with customers and create grassroots social media advertising.

It seems like a win-win. Your customers feel as though they are engaging with your brand in a meaningful way, their photo generates attention, and your business receives free content to market its products. But like all good things, there are some risks involved, too.

If you use a customer's photo outside of the social media site you found it on, you could be sued for misappropriating their image or copyright infringement. Misappropriation is a kind of privacy invasion, an offense that occurs when you don't have permission to use someone's image, name, or endorsement to promote your business, but you use it anyway. Infringing on copyrights means that you use work created by someone else without their consent. (Learn more about invasion of privacy claims and how they could affect your social media marketing by reading "Can Social Media Advertising Be an Invasion of Privacy?")

Small business insurance can cover the costs of a misappropriation or copyright infringement lawsuit (including settlement or judgment costs and legal defense fees), but it's not a blank check to be careless. It's better to know what you can and can't do with your customers' photos so you can avoid a legal disaster.

Here are some tips for using customer-submitted images.

Social Media Marketing: What's In a Hashtag?

A hashtag is a form of metadata tag that signifies specific keywords or topics. Most users caption their photos with a hashtag so that the image will appear in an archive of other images or posts with the same tag. In turn, users can filter and find photographs easily in a sea of competing content.

Businesses have started to use customers' photos of their products in websites and advertising campaigns. Some retailers have even stated that when someone uses their brand's hashtag to caption the photo, that tag gives the business license to use the picture as it sees fit. However, this kind of disclaimer likely wouldn't hold water in court. That's because the person who took the photo still holds the copyright and publicity rights to it, regardless of the hashtag used.

The Risks Your Small Business Faces When It Uses Customer Photos

Your customers hold the copyrights to their photographs, even when they post them publicly on a social media site. Twitter and Instagram can display their users' images on their sites because their policies grant them a non-exclusive license to the content. But other businesses that use these sites don't have the same benefit. The most they can do legally is retweet or regram the photo on the respective networking site.

Regardless of the caption used, your business could run into legal issues if you take a customer's social media photo and use it elsewhere, such as on your website, in press releases, or in print advertisements. That's because individuals retain copyrights to their pictures and have enforceable publicity rights.

If you profit from someone else's photo, you may owe a portion of that revenue to the copyright holder. If you use someone's unauthorized image, you could be liable for privacy intrusion, even if the users voluntarily posted photos of themselves knowing that the images may be used to promote your brand.

Courts in California ruled that individuals who aren't celebrities can still claim economic injury when their image is used among people who recognize them (e.g., friends and family). Under common law, this means that a consumer could easily collect damages from your business so long as they can prove that you used their picture without their knowledge.

Avoiding Misappropriation and Infringement Claims When Using Customers' Photos

So how can you use your fans' selfies without the legal headache? Dodge a social media marketing fiasco with these simple steps:

Remember, just because someone uploaded a photo to their social media account doesn't mean they forfeited their copyrights or privacy rights. While you can use customer photos to promote your brand in some situations, be sure you do so mindfully and legally.

For more tips on avoiding advertising injury mishaps, check out our eBook Tweet or Twibel: The Small-Business Owner's Guide to Advertising Injury.


Advertising Injury | Freelancers | General Liability Insurance | Home-Based Business | Risk Management | Small Business | Small Business Risk Management | Tips for All Small Businesses

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