In a recent article we looked at how important it is for artists and content creators to ensure they have a written, signed contract for any licence agreement. A recent New York case highlights the strict licensing terms on social media platforms and the trade-off between exposure for your content, against control of your works.
Sinclair v Mashable – what happened?
Stephanie Sinclair is a renowned photographer whose portfolio includes works featured in The New York Times, Time Magazine and National Geographic. Like many creators, Sinclair uses Instagram as a platform to share her works.
Sinclair uploaded one of her photographs (an image of a mother and child in Guatemala) to her Instagram account. She was then contacted by digital media and news website, Mashable, offering $50 in exchange for a licence to use the photograph for a story on female photographers. Sinclair declined the offer.
Undeterred by the refusal, Mashable went ahead and used it anyway, taking advantage of Instagram’s API to embed her post of the photo in their website. Mashable didn’t make a copy of the photo – just linked back to the photo on Instagram – but the overall effect was the same. When Mashable refused to remove the embedded post, Sinclair commenced proceedings for copyright infringement.
A not-so picture perfect judgment
On face value, it might seem fairly straightforward that by using Sinclair’s copyright work without her permission, Mashable had infringed her copyright.
However, in this case, the devil was in the details – specifically, in Instagram’s Terms of Service (TOS).
Judge Kimba Woods found that by creating an Instagram account, Sinclair had agreed to Instagram’s TOS. These TOS included a term granting Instagram a “non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide licence to the Content.”
The judge determined that when Sinclair posted the photo to her public Instagram profile, she had “granted Instagram the right to sublicence the photograph, and Instagram validly exercised that right by granting Mashable a sublicense to embed and display the Photograph on their website.”
Even though Sinclair had refused to license the photo directly, Mashable could still validly obtain a sub-license from Instagram to embed the photo.
Private v public
Sinclair argued that Instagram’s TOS were unfair. Users must decide between either:
- choosing to have a private profile and losing out on the advantages of sharing their works on the biggest photo sharing platform in the world, or
- choosing to have a public profile in exchange for surrendering rights in their uploaded content to Instagram.
In her judgment, Judge Woods acknowledged the difficulty of this position, but determined that Instagram’s TOS were binding:
“Instagram’s dominance of photograph- and video-sharing social media, coupled with the expansive transfer of rights that Instagram demands from its users, means that [Sinclair]’s dilemma is a real one… But by posting the photograph to her public Instagram account, Plaintiff made her choice. This court cannot release her from the agreement she made.”
What does this mean for you?
As an artist or content creator, it is likely that you will rely on social media as a major platform for sharing your work. And while it is incredibly important to share your work with the public, there is another very important thing to consider; and it’s also one of the most ignored – the fine print.
The terms and conditions for online platforms, including Instagram, often contain broad terms applying to any content you upload – including the right to sub-license to third-party websites.
Sinclair’s case serves as a great reminder that when signing up to any online sharing platform, it is always worth taking the time to understand the terms you are agreeing to. You may not be able to negotiate the terms, but you can choose which works you share and make sure you retain practical control over valuable content.
Author: Blake Motbey, Associate