RCG Blog To The Point

Intellectual Property in the Social Media


On April 26th every year, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) celebrates World Intellectual Property Day to promote discussion of the role of IP in encouraging innovation and creativity. I was just reflecting upon this while advising copyrights to a potential client regarding the promotion of her children’s music and story books. Then our office experienced a social media etiquette faux pas during an online marketing campaign for one of our retail destination client’s outdoor concert festival events. Part of our job was designing all of the graphic needs for posters, signage, print and digital ads, and a collection of imagery to use on social media that would capture Facebook viewing attention and brand this “Peace Love & Wellness Music Festival” for both our client, and be available for use by any of the participating retail tenants, businesses, vendors, and the bands. This particular client uses events as its primary source of marketing, outside of a year-round general branding campaign, and we have fun creating visual identities for each event. The Peace Love & Wellness campaign is proving very successful with image likes and shares growing viewership to its 3rd Annual event page more than 100% over last year’s page. The ROI is worth the effort.

Obviously, the object of marketing through social media is to entice viewers to attach their identity to the event and share it with others to extend the buzz field. Yes, share the original images to their timeline, add their own descriptive announcement with the post, and tag their friends and businesses. But we had one vendor take things a bit further than that. And I’m certain if you asked him he would say that he was just helping out and thought it was okay to promote his business by making his own flyer out of our client’s collateral. After all, he did slide their logo, although poorly resolute and altered in shape, onto his new graphic. So that’s more than okay, right?

Well, actually, not. Our client paid for the artwork to be presented in the approved composition. This vendor did not ask for permission to change it. He did not hire Alchemy to make a poster out of this collateral and change it to feature his business. He added his own banner boldly across the top, juxtaposed shoddy font styles in an unprofessional layout of low quality, dropped in a low-resolution logo, and added his own copy. At this point, neither the client nor we would want our names attached to the altered artwork for credit. We had a conundrum: allow him to promote to his patrons or ask him to take it down. Our client made the decision not to offend him.

Social media is now a balancing act of etiquette and manners. What is acceptable here is not acceptable there and the rules are bent and stretched to fit a variety of scenarios. Unfortunately, intellectual property once uploaded into the digital slipstream has very little protection. According to Facebook Copyright Infringements, violations have to be noticed by the author, reported to the powers that be on Facebook by the author, and then the violator must be contacted by the author and agree to take down their post and make amends. Only after these steps are refused is the author advised to claim a lawsuit. Furthermore, it is up to the author to set the privacy settings to limit the viewership and shares. One has limited protection of ownership if they want their work to be seen. So, in the scenario of a visual marketing campaign, images are out there with permission for the public to share until the original is removed. And according to an article written by a local West Palm Beach, Florida-based intellectual property attorney, Joseph J. Stafford, TO PIN OR NOT TO PINonce something is uploaded on to Pinterest, the author must understand that Pinterest takes no responsibility for the image sharing and usage. The artwork will remain on Pinterest indefinitely. And anything without a registered copyright or trademark is seriously at risk for loss of ownership.

The increasing cultural trend is to share, save, tweet, or post any image as your own without thought or concern over identifying the true author. This virtually attaches ownership to any pinner for multiple re-compositions. The only protection would be to add a backend code for tracking violations or the application of a watermark across the image that would be difficult to remove or alter. So what can professional social media communicators do? Stay aboveboard and remain very professional for our clients in social media activity. We should set an example by creating our posts with integrity. If we are sharing the photo or work of another author then we should make time and effort to give credit where credit is due. Photos courtesy of…, or original painting by…, etc. Vintage ads and old movie stills are grandfathered for acceptable use as long as you are not selling them. But be very careful in the use of trademarks and brand collateral. I even went as far as to get corporate-level permission to create an original floral pattern reminiscent of Lilly Pulitzer for social media promotions of an event it sponsored for charity. Lawsuits can happen and they can be very costly to settle when they do. It’s better to be respectful and safe than sorry.

Below is one of the original pieces of artwork created for our Facebook promotional campaign, the other is the altered and unapproved version. What do you think about the modification and reuse of collateral materials without permission?


-Lori Herrala, Communications Director at Alchemy Communications

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