Social networking sites have become increasingly popular and the range of material that is posted on these sites continues to grow.  From photos, to videos, to blogs – there’s not a lot that people don’t post on their personal pages. But who actually owns this material?  It’s not as straightforward as you might think …

A recent example in the media of a photographic image [seemingly] being misappropriated from a personal Facebook page acts as a good reminder to those who use social networking sites to be aware that there are likely to be significant implications regarding their intellectual property rights when they sign up to these sites.

Rights to intellectual property in the material you post depends on the underlying terms of use for each individual site.  However, most sites are the same.  The terms usually provide that a user retains ownership rights in the material they post, but “grants an irrevocable, perpetual and worldwide licence” to the site to use their material.  This licence is granted when the sites’ terms and conditions are accepted at the time of signing up to a site.

What does this mean in plain English?  Well, the “licence” referred to is granted to the site owners and allows them to use any of the material you post.  While you still “own” the material, the license is so broad that your ability to stop a site using your material is extremely limited.  Multiple cases have been reported recently involving material lifted from the Facebook site.  Personal photos of identifiable individuals have been lifted from Facebook by the site’s owners and placed as homepages of other commercial sites, probably for a fee, without the photo owner’s knowledge.

This might shock you!  So what can you do to protect your ownership rights to the material you post on a social networking site?  Ideally, we suggest that you carefully consider the underlying terms of use before joining a social networking site so that you are well aware of what you are signing up for.  Simply ticking the box to avoid reading a lengthy list of conditions might leave you in for a nasty surprise.

At the very least, you should think twice about the material you post on your personal page.  Unless you want the site to have the ability to use any material you post, it would probably be better to avoid posting it at all.  After all, the licence may be perpetual and so your material could still be used without your consent, even if you are no longer a member to that site.

If in doubt, we suggest that you obtain professional advice to ensure that you understand your rights and can protect your material as much as possible.