This article originally appeared as a column for the Cleveland Jewish News.
Although social media has been around for decades, the benefits – and pitfalls – of it continue to make headlines. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Pinterest are household names and just a sampling of the many available services. All of this social connectedness has spawned considerable research and opinion, but also some unexpected legal questions.
In relatively recent headlines was the case of a British nature photographer whose equipment captured a number of selfies taken by a group of Celebes crested macaque monkeys. Those images have since been widely distributed and reproduced and a number of lawsuits regarding ownership of their copyright have been fought. The photographer has claimed financial ruin as a result.
In 2014, singer Courtney Love won a landmark suit regarding alleged libel posted on her Twitter account. Ultimately, her statements that her lawyer had been “bought off” were determined by a Los Angeles jury to be untrue, but they did not constitute libel because she did not know them to be untrue at the time she made them.
Earlier this year, a number of so-called celebrity “influencers” were sued for using their social media presence to promote the now-infamous Fyre Festival, allegedly in violation of federal law.
In the context of family law, social media posts have uncovered wrongdoing, including bigamy. Smart litigants and attorneys will mine an opposing party’s social media presence for useful nuggets.
Photos that go viral and become internet memes are especially tricky and their subjects unintentionally find their lives altered in unexpected ways. Sometimes this is for the better (such as “Success Kid,” who was able to leverage his image’s popularity for a GoFundMe campaign to pay for his father’s kidney transplant), but often it is for the worse, when an unflattering image is ridiculed or given a fake backstory and is forwarded by thousands or millions of nameless and faceless strangers.
What does all of this mean to the non-celebrity, non-criminal, non-monkey-photographing person? Here is some food for thought:
Most of us will never have copyright issues from photos that we have taken. Go ahead and post those photos of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and don’t worry if you caught the Cleveland Indians’ logo in your family photo at the ballpark.
Photos taken in public that happen to include bystanders generally will be fine. But, please don’t be like the former model that made headlines and lost gigs for posting negative commentary attached to a photo of someone changing in a gym locker room – a place where people generally have some expectation of privacy.
If you are going to take and use a photograph that you did not create, know that someone else may own the copyright and someone else may take you to task for using it.
Know that you cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube and once that image or language is out there in cyberspace, assume it will live on forever (perhaps even in the U.S. Library of Congress)
Always assume that whatever you put out there will have a wider audience than you anticipate. It is impossible to control where the information goes once it is out there, even if your Facebook settings are set at the strictest level.
It’s almost enough to make you want to shut down all your accounts and turn off your devices. Almost. These stories do highlight the importance of taking precautions in posting online, but with precautions, social media can still be a safe place.