Facebook Hoax Causing Panic — A Quick Lesson on Copyright Laws and Your Photos

There’s something satisfying about copying and pasting a photograph of the hoax message that warns you about people copying and pasting your photographs.

There is a viral hoax going around on Facebook over the last few days that has a lot of people confused over ownership of their private media once it is posted publicly on the overwhelmingly popular social media site.  Basically, the hoax is a declaration that the person that originated the hoax is claiming copyright protection for his or her media that is posted, creating the guise that there is some question about who owns what once it is placed on Facebook.  The hoax urges users to make the same declaration on their own pages and to spread the word to family and friends.

This hoax is strange because it seems to have no real purpose except just to cause hysteria.  A sort of domestic Internet terrorism if you will.  For the record, copyright laws in the United States can be a tricky subject, but the most important thing to note here is that no one has to declare that they are using their rights to copyright protection.  Copyright protection is in effect at all times, at least legally, and Facebook no more owns your private photos or treatises than you would own someone else’s material just because you posted it on your own site.  Like books, music, and art, copyright exists at the moment the media in question is created and stored, be it digitally or physically, in a form where it is documentable.  Put simpler, the second you take a photo and store it on your camera or cell phone, you already have a copyright on it at that moment.  Anything you write or create that is truly original has the benefit of protection under the United States’ copyright laws from the moment it is manifested and stored.  No, Facebook, nor any other entity, can claim to take over your material without your permission.  There is absolutely no threat here, and there is no instances of Facebook attempting to claim such a thing.  Nor has Facebook been involved in any sort of controversy about using user-contributed content in a manner that would be a violation of said copyright.

Why this is causing such panic in ordinary people is astounding?  Yes, there may be a small percentage of people that use Facebook to spread real photographs of artistic value, their created music, poetry, or other writings.  But the overwhelming majority of people use Facebook to put up pictures of their children, pets, or just something they think is funny.  Even if Facebook could claim such a sweeping authority, most people couldn’t care less what happens to their media and would never think of it in a copyright context to begin with.  But as soon as this message started going around, housewives were suddenly fearing for their cherished family photographs as if they were soon to be up for a Pulitzer.

If you are one of that small percentage that is posting things on Facebook or the Internet in general that could have legitimate copyright concerns, you have to be responsible for your own actions.  Most people know how easy it is to save an image off of social media or to download music.  And yes, unscrupulous individuals could attempt to use your work for their own gain.  But that has nothing to do with Facebook, the medium you are using, or the law.  The situation is no different in a Facebook setting than it would be if someone ripped you off in a more conventional format.  The law is clear.  When you create something, you own the copyright to it immediately.

So why do people pay for the Copyright Office to officially recognize their works?  They are paying for the documentation and more importantly, the final proof that they were the originator of said content.  With music and writings, despite the copyright existing upon creation, it can be difficult to prove who came up with something first.  Registering these types of things with the Copyright Office gives the ultimate legal proof that the person did indeed create the work and provides evidence of when it was created.  So, if you wrote a sure-fire hit song, it may be wise to get an official copyright on it before releasing it out into the hungry Internet public.  But legally, this is only a formality.  The concept of copyright is somewhat abstract in that it is already there from the beginning; the paper just helps you prove it.

Lastly, the hoax actually might be most harmful in that it provides a false sense of security for people that repeat the posting on their own pages and status updates.  The hoax message tries to make people think that simply posting that declaration enables them to have full protection.  As explained above, the declaration does nothing but bring to light what already existed anyway; those that steal content for their own purposes will not be any more or less likely to steal yours if you have this declaration posted.  So, don’t be fooled into thinking that this hoax provides a degree of security from Facebook or anyone else.  It might provide you with a little peace of mind, but that’s about all.