New Ruling Says Public Instagram Means No Infringement

A federal court (SDNY) has just ruled that a case must be dismissed because the photographer-plaintiff had posted the work on Instagram, with the account “public,” so the photographer granted a license to Instagram that included permitting Instagram to re-license it, including to the defendant (THR article about the ruling, here). So, the defendant (Mashable) had a license to display the photograph at issue via the Instagram API, and thus the case was dead. 

In other words, there was no infringement by the defendant since the photographer posted the work publicly on Instagram. YIKES! 

Now, this ruling does NOT say that it would be okay for a defendant to copy or download a photo it saw on Instagram and use it on its website for any purpose, but the door is open to defendants to try that, even if it might not be a winner. Here, Mashable used Instagram’s API to embed the work into its story; those facts may be the key points, but the terms of service for Instagram are very broad and, frankly, I’m surprised there hasn’t already been this result. Defendants will lock on this ruling and argue it, even in cases where the facts do not include API use.

While this is just one court, the implications are profound and, frankly, something I have predicted for some time. Also, remember that Facebook is as bad.

I know many of you would argue that you won’t be seen unless you use these platforms. I have to tell you that is simply not true and rather are stories told by the platforms and by clients/users, neither of whom have your best interests in mind. While sure, you don’t want to make things hard on your clients, you must balance that with what risks are reasonable (or not) for your business.

In my opinion, best practices for visual artists, especially photographers, is not to use Instagram or Facebook to display work. Keep your work on your own servers or use a reputable tool/host like PhotoShelter. If you have Instagram or FB accounts, I suggest deleting them asap and leaving a post directing your followers to your own website, instead. If they ask why, tell them you value your work and can’t afford to give away your rights.

Exclusive Versus Sole

Earlier this year I wrote about exclusive licenses and how they can make a big difference in your legal rights, when it comes to infringements. Today, I was reminded of a related issue: how to grant a client the rights to use a work only for that client’s materials, and not get caught in an exclusive license trap.

Here’s what I suggest: only use the word “exclusive” (or non-) for actual, legal rights–specifically the ones covered by the statute (17 USC §106) and stick with “sole” for other limiting factors in a license, like media or geography.

For example, let’s say IlloBob wants to license an illustration of a squid to SurferSam for use on his surfboards and newsletters. He wants to make sure SurferSam doesn’t use the illustration on t-shirts or to be able to re- or sub-license to third parties for their use. He also wants to be able to license the same illustration to others including for their use in their newsletters. His license might read like this:

Conditioned upon full and timely payment received, IlloBob grants to SurferSam the non-exclusive right to reproduce the Squid Illustration solely on SurferSam surfboards and in SurferSam newsletters for one year, starting January 1, 2019. SurferSam may not license these rights or any other rights to any third party, except as required to produce the surfboards and newsletters permitted by this license.

By using the word exclusive (or non-exclusive) only with the rights (as opposed to the media), a licensor is protected from accidentally granting exclusive rights. To see the difference, look at this variation of the license above:

IlloBob grants to SurferSam the right to reproduce the Squid Illustration exclusively on SurferSam surfboards and in SurferSam newsletters for one year, starting January 1, 2019.

Is that an exclusive license? Can IlloBob license the work to anyone else to use in a newsletter? Can SurferSam use the work on t-shirts but without exclusivity? Maybe yes to all of the above. Well informed lawyers could debate all that and more, just because of how the word “exclusively” is used.

If you don’t fully grasp the differences here, that is what I (like other lawyers) am here for. I can help you draft licenses that will provide your client what it needs while making sure you aren’t accidentally giving away more, and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg. A little professional hand-holding now can save you lots of money and frustration in the future.