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How to rock UGC without getting sued by your audience

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27th Feb 2015
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For marketers and media brands, user generated images provide some of most engaging and cost effective content you can publish – unless of course it costs you a multimillion dollar lawsuit. Every year, a few brands learn this the hard way. In 2013, BuzzFeed was sued for $3.6 million by a photographer after he discovered that the media site had used one of his Flickr photos without permission. Getty Images and Agence France-Presse (AFP), too, faced a $1.2 million lawsuit after they scraped a photographer’s photos from Twitter without getting consent.

For brands, this conflict between user-generated content (UGC) and digital rights is perilous. On the one hand, UGC is considered the key to the Millennial generation. They reportedly spend over 5.4 hours per day (i.e. 30% of total media time) with UGC, and they claim to trust it more than all other content. On the other hand, a high profile lawsuit will erode the trust and authenticity that UGC is supposed to create.

A common misunderstanding is that content on social networks is fair game for marketers. It’s not – unless of course you work for the social networks. For example, 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)” is effectively a carte blanche to monetize user content. Flickr (and its parent Yahoo) has virtually unlimited authority to take advantage of user content.

Usually, the social networks know better than to abuse this right. As Instagram learned in 2013, terms of service that promise to convert personal images into advertisements – without compensation – can cause a media frenzy and scare off half the user base. If social networks can’t legally repurpose UGC without public outcry, neither can you.

While marketers know that repurposing user generated content without permission is risky business, the chances of being caught seem so slim. The convenience and appeal of deceivingly ‘free’ content can overcome better judgment. We gape at the success of UGC campaigns like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and we feel inspired to compete on that level. Ultimately, however, marketers will have to respect digital rights or watch UGC backfire.

So what’s the solution? While there is no single way to capture, organise and deploy UGC, the technology you choose should provide 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 distinguish between authentic and inauthentic photos?

Once a photo has been posted to a social network, its history is nearly impossible to ascertain. Was it taken by the user and posted directly? Is it photoshopped? Was it ripped from a blog? If your content marketing and brand journalism efforts hold you to a high standard of integrity, the origins of your images matter. Lawsuit aside, misappropriating or mischaracterising an image can breach trust with your audience. Your UGC solution needs to guarantee that no one could manipulate the image between it being captured and being passed in your hands. If the image is already on the web, you can’t be sure about that.

2.  Do I have permission to publish this photo?

The nice thing about UGC is that loyal customers love to participate. They feel honoured that you would use their creative efforts to represent you brand to the world. However, their friends and family members might not feel the same way. 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, reaching each of those people and obtaining releases is quite a bit of work for one photo. You can track everyone down, or you can choose a UGC collection tool that automatically obtains model releases within your workflow.

3.  How do I obtain and document image rights?

To cover yourself, legally obtain and document the transfer of image licenses between the creator and your organisation. Relying on a mixture of email records and manually generated invoices will be overwhelming for your marketing organisation and siphon time better spent elsewhere. I recommend using technology that automates the exchange of intellectual property rights into your UGC workflow.

The bottom line is that Facebook and Twitter pictures aren’t worth a multimillion dollar lawsuit and PR scandal. UGC is an essential ingredient in modern content marketing, but it requires methodical 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.

If you’re a marketer, protect your credibility, your strategy and your job. Prove to the global public that we respect digital rights. Help our entire community save UGC from a potential backlash. 

Petri Rahja is the founder and CEO of Scoopshot, a mobile platform for photo and video crowdsourcing. In addition to professional experience in the IT field, Petri also has business management experience, spanning altogether over 20 years. His previous undertakings include Accenture, BEA Systems Inc., Iobox Oy, CRF Box Oy and Iprbox Oy.

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