“On LinkedIn, we are committed to respecting what is yours, ”says the narrator from one video titled “Who Owns Your Content? You Do.” They continue: “So we always ask for your permission before using your content in other companies’ ads, publications or websites.”
This should be a matter of course. Our content should not be used in third-party ads without our knowledge or consent. Social media sites should not use content we post for business purposes that we did not intend.
Still, from a legal perspective, social media has broad rights to use any information you provide. “You own your content,” promises Twitter Terms of Servicefollowed by a long section that gives Twitter the rights to use, customize, share and distribute your content worldwide. TikTokalso claims “an unconditionally irrevocable, non-exclusive, royalty-free, fully transferable, perpetual worldwide license” for your content. Instagram requires not only a broad license for your content, but also permission to display your username, image, likes and relationships in connection with third-party ads.
Social media like YouTube and TikTok may also, without violating any laws or their own Terms of Service, charge users to access your video. Or show your video at their exclusive film festival. Or publish a book that contains your status updates. Or create an art gallery to display your photos. Imagine Twitter University, where users pay to access curated content from (uncompensated) experts. It could offer courses in art history or scriptwriting or user interface design simply by collecting existing comments, links, videos and photos without user permission or compensation. You may not even know that your content was included. And it would all be perfectly legal.
Social media companies can’t afford to alienate creators and business partners, so YouTube is unlikely to produce its own user-generated content film festival in the near future. And Snapchat probably won’t make and sell music tracks with your voice. Although they could.
The most important force that keeps social media companies in check is market pressure – and markets are changing. When the risk-benefit calculation changes and they can make money in new ways without losing too many users or sponsors, social media does not need your permission. They already have it.
The law in general disfavor “adhesion contracts” where the more powerful party sets the terms and the weaker party gets stuck with them. But adhesion contracts are allowed in business-to-consumer transactions because companies cannot be expected to negotiate with every single customer. Customers have two sources of leverage: their market power (they can walk away if they dislike the deal) and consumer protection laws that prohibit misleading or unfair business practices.
Social media companies, especially well-established ones with huge user bases like Facebook, are hard to walk away from. Users who have invested years in building networks and lots of content have too much to lose: memorials to life’s milestones, personal and professional contacts, archives of creative work with reactions from fans. Facebook users have repeatedly threatened to boycott or #DeleteFacebook following the latest controversy, but the page’s user numbers continue to rise year after year.
With limited market power, social media users are left to rely on consumer protection against misleading or unfair practices. These are deliberately vague terms, designed to adapt to changing markets across industries. By definition, misleading and unfair trading practices depend on judges’ assessments of reasonableness and relative advantages. Both are subjective and context dependent.