User-Generated Content and Copyright Issues

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You asked your audience to create videos that celebrate your company, your work, and your successes. They came through with unbelievable content that makes you jump for joy. But questions begin to form. 

Who owns this content? And if it contains music, logos, or some other artistic asset, is it a copyright landmine?

It's not always easy to sort out legal issues involving user-generated content. In general, it's best to stay in close contact with your company's lawyers before, during, and after a call for content.

But prudent steps taken during campaign planning can help you avoid later headaches. 

What Is User-Generated Content?

Marketing teams create content filled with punchy text and compelling artwork. They sweat over each detail until it's perfect. But sometimes, it's just not enough. Enter user-generated content. 

As the name implies, user-generated content is content created by your company's users. UGC can involve:

  • Social media posts. Facebook reviews, Instagram stories, and Twitter brand mentions are all forms of user-generated content.
  • Written comments. Notes tapped out on your website or mailed to you on postcards are also user-generated content.
  • Videos. Product reviews, company testimonials, or impromptu commercials are additional forms of user-generated content.

Companies love user-generated content (UGC) due to the low overhead costs involved. Content creators take on production and development costs, allowing you to spend on other critical brand initiatives. 

But a user's creativity could know no bounds. Sometimes, your ardent fans could include elements your company doesn't own. And sometimes, your users resent your use of their work.

Common Copyright Problems and UGC 

Most forms of media are meant as jumping-off places for additional creative endeavors. Use them in a protected way, and your company is free from harm. But most companies need some type of system to deal with complaints from content creators. 

The fair use doctrine allows people to use protected, copyrighted materials in a transformative way. Verbatim copies are off limits, of course. But someone might take an existing work and alter it in some way. These new works of art build on what has come before, and in most cases, they give that art new meaning. 

But one person's fair use can be another person's copyright infringement. Sometimes, lawyers must decide which side is right. Those conversations can become remarkably expensive.

You're typically protected from cases like this as long as you can prove:

  • Ignorance. You didn’t know that the content infringes on the rights of others.

  • Financial independence. You didn't make money on the infringement.

  • Action. As soon as you knew the content was inappropriate, you took it down.

    It's critical for companies to work quickly when UGC violates copyright. Sitting on the video for a day or two could suggest that you know you have a problem but don't feel comfortable fixing it. 

Often, you must tell the person who holds the copyright that you took the content down quickly. A conversation between you and the offended party could smooth over the problem and keep the lawyers away. 

Who Owns UGC?

Real customers create user-generated content, and their work reflects your brand. But do you own exclusive rights to their work that allow you to do almost anything with it? Without proper paperwork, you don’t. 

User-generated content relationships work best when they're defined by informed consent. That means people creating content for you know:

  • How you're storing their content. Is it on your company server? Does it stay on a social media server (like Instagram)? Or are you using a hybrid model?

  • Where their content will appear. Will you share it in an email? Will it show up on your website? Will you play the video at trade shows?

  • How they will be credited. Will you tag them in social media posts? Will you share their name on your website?

Simply looking for posts with a branded hashtag and using them isn't enough. In most cases, hashtags don't imply permission for reuse. Neither do tags in social media posts.

If you don't obtain explicit permission, your user could ask for a cut of the profits you make from their work. Users could also sue for damages. 

Terms and Conditions May Help 

Consent and copyright problems aren't new. Companies have dealt with these dueling issues for years. Learning what worked for them could help you form your own plans to protect your company.

Major social media sites, including YouTube and Facebook, explicitly tell consumers that they don't own the content they post. The terms and conditions tell consumers their work will appear elsewhere. 

Consider the Zoom terms and conditions. Users retain ownership of their content, but Zoom and all employees (and others) can use your name, voice, image, or content in almost any way they see fit. 

Plenty of people click right by terms and conditions without reading every single line of text. But that language does provide a form of protection.

Build a Wall of Protection
Terms and conditions can help you explain how your site works and what users can expect. But you can take protection to the next level. 

Software, including products on sites like YouTube, can scan through video for exact duplications. Running a check before you share content could help you spot issues long before you run into legal trouble.

Talking with content creators may help too. Ask them:

  • Do we have permission? If you spot trademarked content (like music, a logo, or quoted material), ask the person for documentation. Who holds the copyright? Has the person obtained the proper permissions to use that content? If not, don’t risk it.

  • Can we share this widely? Ensure that the person knows where you will share the content and how you'll store it. Explain how you'll credit that person's hard work. Follow through on what you promise them.

  • Do you expect payment? Some people believe they should get cash or some other form of reward for their work. Clear up compensation issues quickly, long before the content goes viral. 

Wading through these waters takes expertise, and many companies have legal teams with valuable insights to share. We can help too.

At Gather Voices, our platform makes generating and sharing user-generated content really easy, and we can help you explain the process clearly to your community. Let us assist you in sharing compelling, legal content today.


Fair Use Principles for User Generated Content. Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

Protecting Yourself Against Copyright Claims Based on User-Generated Content. Digital Media Law Project. 

Principles for User-Generated Content Services

Social Media Law: User-Generated Content. (May 2019). Gowling WLG. 

The Impact of Digital Content: Opportunities and Risks of Creating and Sharing Information Online. (January 2016). World Economic Forum. 

Is Your Brand Breaking the Law on Social Media? (October 2018). Content Marketing Institute. 

Copyright, Ownership, and Control of User-Generated Content on Social Media Websites. (2009). Will Clark.

Exploring Consumer Motivations for Creating User-Generated Content. (December 2008). Journal of Interactive Advertising.

User-Generated Content Brings Authenticity to Brands. (April 2018). Adweek.

User-Generated Content as an Affordable and Effective Marketing Strategy. (April 2019). Forbes.

The Law of Social Media: Who Owns User Generated Content? (Part II). (October 2009). Silicon Angle.

Zoom User Generated Content License Agreement. Zoom. 

User-Generated Content: Use Your Head. (January 2015). Trademarks and Brands Online. 

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