It’s an exciting day when it first happens: you’ve been posting to Instagram for a few months and your picture quality and composition have really gotten better. Your images are looking great and you’re picking up followers—and then you notice the alert go off on your phone. You’ve been reposted!
Your level of excitement rivals the day your first child was born… Ok, so maybe not that much, but you’re still pretty excited. Someone thinks highly enough of your work to share it with their followers! You embrace Instagram’s community of sharing, hopeful that others will be inspired by your photo or video. This reposter (they like to be called “curators” BTW) has really done you a favor… or have they?
What is reposting anyway? Reposting is a rapidly growing practice on Instagram in which a user downloads a third-party application, allowing them to basically copy and paste your picture or video into their page. Reposting happens in all categories, from fashion to fishing and from makeup to monster trucks. Once an accepted practice, this assimilation of content has become increasingly volatile and divisive in the Instagram community. Why? Because reposters are making money from the content that other users have created.
When it became clear to me that reposters are making money as a result of reposting content that I (and countless others like me) work so hard to create, I started researching our rights.
This is what we need to know:
- What rights do we have to our pictures and videos when we post them on Instagram?
- Why should we care if we are reposted?
- Is reposting legal?
- Is reposting ethical?
- What can we do once we have all the facts?
What are your rights?
I will say now that I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, so I am not giving legal advice. But I’d like to share what I’ve learned from researching this issue.
The first thing I discovered was that the instant an original content creator (that’s fancy talk for an everyday user like me) posts a photo to social media, copyright protection exists on that photo or video.
What is a copyright, aside from that funny little “c” with a circle around it? The U.S. Trademark Office in Washington DC defines a copyright as “…a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” They go on to say that pictures, videos, etc. are protected under copyright law. Click here to learn more; it’s some really informative reading.
So, do you have to file for a copyright on every picture you take?
Nope. According to the Trademark Office, “Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” Going further, “…registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created.”
And there you have it: the second you post an original picture or video to Instagram, you own the copyright for that work. I would encourage you to read the information linked above for a broader view of the topic, but we’ve covered the basic ownership rights involved in creating content for social media.
Why should you care?
Who cares if your content is reposted by another account? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you even welcome being reposted; some people do. Just make sure you understand the factors: why you were reposted in the first place and what options you now have.
First, you have absolutely no control over a reposter’s account. This means your photo could be shared by an account that you find distasteful, that isn’t family friendly, or that espouses viewpoints that you don’t share. We live in a society where people are often judged guilty by association, so having your pictures posted on a questionable account may be harmful to your reputation or your personal “brand.” This is just something to consider when contemplating the issue.
WARNING: I have blurred areas of the following screenshot to tone it down a bit, but I felt it was needed to illustrate how frustrating it is to see your image surrounded by unrelated and questionable content—through no choice of your own. This user goes so far as to label their profile “My Page, My Rules” except that this page is full of other people’s content, including mine, which I promptly reported to Instagram.
Next, you should consider the financial implications of reposting. What’s in it for you? It might sound obnoxious but that’s how the world works, via a mutually beneficial and equitable exchange of goods and services. When one of the massive reposting accounts reposts your images, many are doing it for one reason: to receive a financial benefit. Their benefit comes via endorsement deals they receive from various brands and the value of these deals is based, in large part, on the enormous number of followers reposters attract.
But how do reposters get so many followers so quickly? It’s simple: they attract them by posting your images. Because they are not actually taking the time to do the work and create content, a reposter can post countless high-quality images and videos per day. They choose images that are already performing well from an engagement standpoint so they have little risk in posting a flop. (And let’s face it, all of us content originators have posted something that we thought would break the internet only to see it flop—isn’t that a heartbreaker?)
The larger point is that, for many of us, we are investing our time and money into our original content and simply can’t post as often as someone who is aggregating all of our content. As a result, the growth of an original content account will be many times slower. One reposter in particular boasts on his website of having gained 275k followers in only 9 months. Not bad for what is likely about 20 minutes of work per day using a third-party reposting app.
The bottom line is “the bottom line”. You do the hours of work, someone else takes it without your permission, they increase their following at lightning speed, and they cash in. In return, you get… (drum roll please) nothing, you get nothing. No commission, no licensing fee, and no endorsement deal.
Is reposting legal?
Now that we’re all copyright experts, let’s answer the next objective question. Is reposting legal?
The answer is: it depends. Per Instagram’s terms of service, reposting without prior permission is a violation of copyright law and therefore a violation of the Instagram terms of service. Which only makes sense, right? Because if IG wanted users to be able to repost the copyrighted work of others, they would surely enable it within their own app. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, the reposting apps are all third party.
But here’s the catch: what constitutes “prior permission”?
Does simply tagging a fellow Instagram user in a post grant them permission to repost your original work? This seems to be the common explanation (or excuse) reposters use but in fact that does not constitute permission. Crocs brand learned the embarrassing way that simply being tagged in a photo does not grant explicit consent to repost the picture. Tagging someone in a post is simply a way to say to the person who’s been tagged, “Hey, I’d love you to see this post,” because it initiates an alert on that user’s feed.
For Instagram’s part, they disagree. Former global head of business and brand development, James Quarles was interviewed by the New York Times and said “It’s absolutely clear from our standpoint that there has to be explicit permission given.” So, what is “explicit” permission? Different people seem to have different understandings of this, but many ethical brands have gone to the practice of commenting on your photo and asking permission to repost it.
For example, Vital Farms recently commented on one of my posts and asked for my permission to share it on their page. They requested that I respond “YES” to their comment if I agreed to let them share my photo. At this point, it was clear to me that they wanted to use my image to help their sales. I knew going into the arrangement that someone was going to make money from my work, and it wouldn’t be me. I gave my permission, and I appreciated that VF was honest in their approach, not trying to disguise this as a favor to me in the name of “exposure.”
Exposure by the way, is the buzz word reposters like to use to convince you that they have actually done you a favor. What a concept: take something that belongs to someone else, without their permission, and then tell that person what their content is worth. In this case, it’s worth “exposure.” Imagine walking into your local supermarket, loading a cart of groceries and walking out while shouting, “Thanks for the groceries! I’ll be sure to tell all my friends I got them here and you’ll get all kinds of exposure!”
Our original question was: “is reposting legal?” YES, it is legal with prior permission, but simply being tagged in a photo does NOT constitute permission. I put this principle to the test by filling out this form on IG to report the unauthorized use of some of my copyrighted images which were reposted without my permission. The form is somewhat cumbersome but only takes about 90 seconds to fill out once you get used to it. I recommend doing it on a computer as you have to cut and paste links to the stolen work as well as your own to complete the report. Within about an hour, my images were removed from the reposters’ accounts. I also received an email from Instagram that read in part:
Next up, ethics…
Is reposting ethical?
This is a bit subjective and if you asked 20 people you’d likely get 20 slightly different answers. I think most people are fine with having their work reposted. In fact, I would go so far as to say most people actually welcome it. I once did. I’ll admit that when I first started my page, I was one of those creators who longed for a repost. I sometimes even thanked people who reposted me. But at the time I was uninformed about “business of Instagram.” The ethical issue is this: reposters don’t tell you they are using your images for their financial benefit.
Not only has my exposure from reposting yielded no real benefits, my bigger issue is I wasn’t involved in determining my compensation for my work. I was just told what I would receive for it after the fact, with no choice in the matter. If someone had first asked me to repost my picture, I would likely have given my permission. But would I do the same if I knew the reposter’s purpose?
Bring the scenario off IG into the real world, and it’s clearly absurd:
A neighbor rings your doorbell and asks for a cup of sugar. Assuming you have the sugar, you are likely to say yes. Now let’s assume that same neighbor asks for a cup of sugar and tells you, “By the way, I am going to sell this sugar for one thousand dollars.” Wouldn’t you think differently about giving your neighbor something he could get for himself but that he has instead chosen to get from you for free, to gain tremendous profit for himself? The same principle applies with reposters; they could put in the work and build a page like the rest of us, but they do what’s easier and more profitable.
Each person has to answer the question about ethics for themselves. It seems ethical to me that Instagram users should be informed, before giving permission to use their work, that the person using it may be profiting from it. One prolific reposter proudly explained to me that they earn in the high five figures annually by simply reposting the work of others. Sadly, users whose content made that income possible were paid in—you guessed it—exposure. Try sending an envelope full of exposure to your mortgage lender or landlord next month and judge for yourself the real value of this exposure.
We all know social media is a powerful tool, changing the way we interact with the world and the way business is done. It may be a tool you use for fun, to stay connected with people you already know or a tool you use to create new connections. But for some of us, it’s a tool that’s helping turn our passion into business. Regardless of how you use it, it’s important to know what your rights are regarding your content. Make sure you (and your content) are treated with respect.
I’m not interested in telling anyone what they should do. But if the facts I mention above bother you, here’s what you can do:
- First, you can unfollow and block those who repost without permission.
- Next, you can submit the copyright violation form when someone takes your photos or videos without your permission.
- Finally, you can support all original content creators by liking and commenting on content that is genuinely appealing to you.