According to wordstream.com, around 95 million photos are shared on Instagram every day. What happens with those photos after publication?, who owns the copyright over the photos? and finally, what use can be made out of the photos?
By default, anyone can see others' profiles and posts on Instagram. However, each user has the option of making their account private so that only approved followers can see what is shared.
Users are not allowed to do anything unlawful, or for any illegal or unauthorized purpose.
Users grant Instagram a nonexclusive license so that Instagram can use the content that is shared, posted, or uploaded. This license is royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, and worldwide to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works.
To sum, users grant Instagram the right to do anything it wants with the content that is posted on the platform. This license, however, is not granted to the users themselves. Thus, if one user takes another's a photo that could probably be copyright infringement.
But there is more... it is not that simple...
Sinclair v. Mashable, 2020 WL 3450136 (S.D.N.Y. June. 24, 2020)
On January 29, 2018, Stephanie Sinclair, a professional photographer, filed a copyright suit against Mashable, Inc. and its parent company, Ziff Davis, LLC, alleging that Defendants infringed the photographer's copyright when Mashable posted one of her copyrighted photographs on its website.
According to the facts of the case, the image at issue, titled “Child, Bride, Mother/Child Marriage in Guatemala”, was published on Ms. Sinclair's Instagram account to showcase her work to potential customers. Mashable contacted the photographer to negotiate a license. The image would be used as part of an article about female photographers. Mashable offered $50 for licensing rights to the photograph. However, the offer was rejected. Regardless of that, Mashable published the image on its website.
To incorporate the photograph, Mashable used a technical process called “embedding”. By means of this process, the digital file of the image remains stored on a third-party's server, while being displayed. To complete the embedding process, Mashable used a service called “application programming interface” or “API,” which enables users to access and share content posted by others.
Considering the arguments of both parties, Judge Kimba M. Wood rejected Ms. Sinclair's allegation and granted Defendant's motion to dismiss. The decision highlighted the following:
It is within Instagram's right to sub-license to third parties the right to embed user content on third party websites via Instagram's embeds API.
McGuckin v. Newsweek, 2020 WL 2836427 (S.D.N.Y. June 1, 2020)
Six weeks after the decision in Sinclair v. Mashablewas issued, a contradictory judgment coming also from the United States District Court Southern District of New York revived the discussion related to the use of the embedding API of Instagram to display content on third-party websites.
In this case, Elliot McGucken, a photographer whose work is focused on landscapes and seascapes, brought a copyright action against Newsweek LLC, a premier news magazine and website. The work at issue was a photograph depicting a large lake in Death Valley National Park, which the plaintiff posted to his Instagram account.
The photograph was displayed on Defendant's website accompanying an article titled “Huge Lake Appears in Death Valley, One of the Hottest, Driest Places on Earth”. The article noted that Plaintiff had captured the photograph of the ephemeral lake and provided some quotes from the Plaintiff about his observation of the lake. Defendants alleged they had an implicit sub-license granted by Instagram by means of its embedding API.
"Although Instagram's various terms and policies clearly foresee the possibility of entities such as Defendant using web embeds to share other users' content [...] none of them expressly grants a sublicense to those who embed publicly posted content. Nor can the Court find, on the pleadings, evidence of a possible implied sublicense.".
What happened next...
Adding to these interesting events, in an email to Ars Technica, a website covering news and opinions in technology, science, politics, and society, an Instagram spokesperson expressed that by using Instagram embedding API users of the platform acquired no copyright license to display embedded images on other websites.
The issue is not an Instagram issue
The discussion about the legality of embedding third-party materials is not an Instagram issue, there other platforms that also use API for similar purposes. Additionally, this is not the first time courts deal with issues related to the use of embedded images.
Goldman v. Breitbart News Network
On July 2, 2016, Justin Goldam published, through the Apple Snapchat service, a photograph of Tom Brady in the company of Danny Ainge, manager of the professional basketball team "Boston Celtics". The photo went viral on the Internet and later, it was used by Defendants in various online publications discussing the possibility of Brady participating in the recruitment of the NBA player Kevin Durant.
In his lawsuit, Goldman argued that the online media and defendant blogs, by embedding the link through which Goldman's photograph had been made public on Twitter, without authorization, constituted a violation of his copyright on the photo. Specifically, the exclusive right of the display of the image. Defendants argued there was no violation by them of the plaintiff's copyright since their conduct did not consist of downloading the image and then transmitting it from their own server.
In this case, the court explained that the exclusive right to display a work protected by copyright consists of the author's ability to show a copy of said work, either directly or through digital media, and includes the transmission and re-transmission of the signals through which said work is exhibited or transmitted.
Even though the issue, in this case, is different from that, which is related to the existence of a sublicense granted by Instagram, the tree cases illustrate that copyright protection on the Internet is far from relaxing and that a careful approached is necessary when it comes to using third-party content.
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