We are a visual species and making social and digital beautiful was a game changer that caused a huge demand for great photos and content. The changes to the SEO algorithms have also driven a preference for expert long-form content.
Unfortunately these changes have driven a bigger need than many businesses can keep up with, and many now find themselves requiring a lot of additional content for social media and SEO, whether that is blogs, articles, photos, videos, or graphics.
This has opened up a whole can of worms for businesses. Let’s have a look at the various issues:
• Copyright when commissioning or buying content – If you commission content from a copywriter or photographer, you need to be aware of copyright considerations and ensure the copyright is fit for what you need. Make sure you get a release form signed, covering how and where you can use the content. This is both to protect your own rights and to ensure you are not infringing other people’s rights, both of which could cost you dearly.
• Reusing PR – A lot of published PR content cannot be reused on social media or elsewhere if you don’t have a licence to do so, even if it’s your PR that you paid for. Reusing it will cost you a lot of money (potentially thousands of pounds) if you fall foul of it, so make sure you read our in-depth article!
• Duplication kills SEO – There are SEO considerations with reusing written content, whether your own or someone else. Google dislikes duplication and will penalise it, choosing one source (usually the website that has the highest rank, which is unlikely to be yours). If you are reusing your own content on different platforms, as a rule of thumb be sure to change at least 30% of the article.
• Stealing someone else’s content – Stealing is a strong word, but that’s what it is if you use someone else’s content without permission and you will face consequences, see below.
Social Media Usage
Social media has blurred people’s perceptions about this over the last decade or so, but copyright remains clear and precise – it belongs to the creator unless you have permission to use it. The social media platforms have some sweeping rights written into their terms and conditions (which you also need to be aware of if you are uploading content of your own), but that is for them, not for you.
Do not assume that just because a photograph of your product, local area or premises is shared on social media, for example, that you can use it to promote your business without permission. Volvo fell foul of this recently, in fact, concerning a photograph featuring a Volvo car, which Volvo reused on Instagram without the photographer’s permission.
It is currently the subject of a pitched court battle in the United States and one that many are watching very closely. Jeffrey Gluck, a lawyer for the photographer Jack Schroeder, said.
“Volvo’s argument, that they can allegedly take and exploit ANY photo publicly posted on Instagram, is dangerous, chilling, and wrong,”
We all tend to assume social media is a public domain, however those images ALWAYS belong to someone. Even if the social media platforms have given themselves the right to use them as they want on their platforms, that doesn’t give anyone else the right to do so. If you do so then the owner may request payment, as well as force you to take them down, with a ‘cease and desist’ notice if necessary. As Wikipeadia puts it:
“Such letters “are frequently utilized in disputes concerning intellectual property and represent an important feature of the intellectual property law landscape”. The holder of an intellectual property right such as a copyrighted work, a trademark, or a patent, may send the cease and desist letter to inform a third party “of the right holders’ rights, identity, and intentions to enforce the rights”. The letter may merely contain a licensing offer or may be an explicit threat of a lawsuit. A cease and desist letter often triggers licensing negotiations, and is a frequent first step towards litigation.”
If your business is international, be aware that laws elsewhere can be just as strict, if not stricter (such as the EU copyright law) than in the UK, so you could be looking at multiple claims or court cases in different territories.
As we’ve seen, the creator owns the content, not the subject(s) nor any other business, the photographer owns the copyright and you will require permission to use it unless they’ve released it under a Creative Commons licence, which enables free distribution of otherwise copyrighted work.
Having said that, if a photograph is of a person (especially a child) then you will need to get a release form signed before using it, owing to data privacy laws. You also can’t divulge personal information, such as someone’s location, name or other personal details.
Regardless of what it is taken on (mobile phones count just as much as cameras) or where it is shared. If you haven’t got express written permission you are likely to get stung if they find out, and with reverse picture search and hashtags/location apps, it is very likely you will be found out.
When this does not always apply is when linking to content, or mentioning an author or book, or quoting published material, such as books and articles, that have been in public domain for over 105 years. If you are using a lot of someone else’s work, however, that’s when it is likely to get sticky, especially if it’s for your own commercial gain, it’s a creative piece (facts tend to be less of an issue, so quoting research pieces, for example, is fine), or if it affects people buying the original piece or paying the creator.
It can get also badly backfire on your reputation as well, as we have seen with the Volvo case.
People really don’t like seeing that businesses have stolen people’s content – it makes companies look like bullies and sharks. How will they know? How about if the creator calls you out of social media? Or leaves you a terrible review on Trustpilot, for example, or on your Google or Facebook business page (which can’t be edited or deleted by you). This will also have the consequences of making it crystal clear you are untrustworthy as a business because how can you be trustworthy if you stole someone’s content without their permission? All of which will then knock your business reputation as well as your SEO. See our article on why Trust matters for SEO in 2021 here.
If it escalates, you might also get burnt with outraged comments on social media, lose business, or face boycotts and even a social media crisis, which is a growing issue for unethical brands, as covered in my new book, Social Goodness.
Best advice? Don’t be that business. Just pay for the content you need and make sure that you have full rights to use it.