Like clockwork, every couple of months some “fact” about Facebook goes viral. Facebook is going to start charging you money! Copy and paste this status or Facebook will cook your children! As soon as you upload them, Facebook owns your photos!
That last one is especially common, so let’s talk about it.
What Rights Does Facebook Have to Your Photos?
Let’s start by getting on the same basic page: no, Facebook doesn’t own your photos. That’s not how copyright or real life works. They’re still your photos, not Facebook’s. In fact, it’s right in Facebook’s terms of service: “You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook.“
Got it? Good. Myth busted. Now let’s address what rights Facebook does have with your photos once you upload them. Here’s the relevant bit of the terms of service:
You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings. In addition:
- For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.
- When you delete IP content, it is deleted in a manner similar to emptying the recycle bin on a computer. However, you understand that removed content may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time (but will not be available to others).
So Facebook gets a “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license” to your photos. Let’s break it down.
A “royalty-free worldwide license” means Facebook is free to use your photos pretty much how they’d like anywhere in the world without paying you a penny or asking your permission.
“Transferable” and “sub-licensable” mean that Facebook can either transfer the license to another entity or just sub-license it, again without your permission.
Finally, “non-exclusive” means that you’re free to license your photo to anyone else you want. Just because you’ve uploaded a photo to Facebook, it doesn’t mean you can’t share it on Twitter, or do whatever else you want with it.
These are all pretty broad and scary terms but, for Facebook to work as intended, it needs this sort of vague license. Displaying the photos you post to Facebook in your friend’s News Feeds would be impossible otherwise: if you hadn’t given them a license, it would be a violation of your copyright for them to show that photo to your friends.
You’re Still In Control
The most important sentence, however, is “subject to your privacy and application settings”. Through Facebook’s privacy settings you’re able to control exactly how your images are used. If you only want your close friends to see them? You can do that. This means that, even though Facebook’s license is broad, you’re still in control of how it’s implemented.
Another important clause is, “This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account.” Again, this gives you control. If you delete a photo, Facebook’s license is revoked. It’s the same when you delete your account.
To sum up, this all means that:
- Facebook doesn’t own your content, you do.
- Facebook’s terms of service sound scary but really aren’t.
- Your privacy settings control how Facebook uses your photos.
There’s no need to worry about Facebook using your photos to make T-shirts or flogging them on stock photo sites. They make about $60 a year for every US or Canadian user; selling your photos of you at Coachella or playing Dungeons and Dragons wouldn’t even come close to generating that sort of revenue.