How to Harness User-Generated Content Without Being Sued

scoopshot ugc rights

User-generated images have become a valuable asset for marketers and media brands, providing some of most engaging and cost effective content for campaigns– unless of course it results in multimillion dollar lawsuit. Each year, several brands learn this the hard way. In 2013, a photographer sued BuzzFeed for $3.6 million after discovering the site had used one of his Flickr photos without permission. Getty Images and Agence France-Presse (AFP) also suffered a $1.2 million lawsuit after pulling a photographer's Twitter photos without consent.

The conflict between user-generated content (UGC) and digital rights has become perilous for brands. UGC has become the key to unlocking the Millennial generation, who reportedly devote over 5.4 hours per day (i.e. 30 percent of total media time) to UGC, and claim to trust it above all other content. However, a high profile lawsuit, will ultimately undo the trust and authenticity that UGC aims to create.

A common misunderstanding is that social network content is fair game for marketers. Unless you work for the social networks, this is not the case. For instance, Facebook's terms of service secure the company's right to use and even sub-license user content to other companies. Twitter's worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) effectively grants them complete freedom to monetize user content. Flickr essentially has unlimited authority to utilize such content.

Social networks typically know better than to abuse this right. As Instagram discovered in late 2012, terms of service that promise to convert personal images into advertisements – without compensation – can spark a media frenzy that scares away half the user base. If social networks can't legally repurpose UGC without public outcry, neither can you.

While marketers know the risks of repurposing user-generated content without approval, the chances of being caught seem low. The convenience of deceivingly ‘free' content can cloud our judgment. We envy the success of UGC campaigns like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and welcome the challenge to compete on that level. Ultimately, however, marketers will have to respect digital rights or watch UGC backfire.

So how can we solve this problem? Intellectual property rights are near and dear to my heart – in full disclosure, I founded Scoopshot, an image crowdsourcing platform, to help combat this problem. While there is no single method to capturing, organizing and deploying UGC, the technology you choose should offer an efficient system for authenticating images, securing model releases and obtaining image rights. In greater detail, here are the three issues you must address to use UGC responsibly:

  1. How do I know an image is authentic? After a photo posts to a social network, its nearly impossible to confirm its history. Was it shot by the user and posted directly? Was it snagged from a blog? Is it photoshopped? If your content marketing and brand journalism efforts hold you to a high standard of integrity, the origins of your images matter. Aside from potential lawsuits, misappropriating or mischaracterizing an image can lead to loss of trust with your audience. Your UGC solution needs to ensure that no one could manipulate the image between it being captured and being passed in your hands. If the image has already posted on the web, you can't be certain about that.
  2. Do I have permission to publish this photo? – Loyal customers love to participate in UGC. They feel honored that you chose their material to represent you brand to the world. However, their family and friends might not share that sentiment. So, let's say a Facebook fan gives you permission to use a photo of her and three friends wearing your clothing brand. If you fail to obtain model releases for all four people, any one of them can sue you. Unfortunately, the process of contacting each person and obtaining releases can be tedious. Rather than track everyone done, you can opt for a UGC collection tool that automatically collects model releases within your workflow.
  3. How do I purchase and prove image rights? In order to protect yourself, legally obtain and document the transfer of image licenses between the creator and your organization. Sure, you could use email records or invoices to show that you have rightfully transferred the license, but this gets extremely messy if you're collecting thousands of user-generated images.I suggest using technology that automates the exchange of intellectual property rights into your UGC workflow.

At the end of the day, Facebook and Twitter photos aren't worth a multimillion dollar lawsuit and PR scandal. UGC is a key component of modern content marketing, but it requires careful execution. The BuzzFeed and Getty Images/AFP debacles were both preventable, and I have no doubt that these companies have reengineered their process for managing image rights.

As a marketer, protect your credibility, your tactics and your job. Help our entire community save UGC from a potential backlash.

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