Understanding Image Rights Laws In The Age Of Social Media

Oct 4, 2018

Modern society is connected by online social media platforms comprised of hundreds of thousands of visual, aural, and textual publications. As more online users begin to publish greater amounts of content, laws regarding individuals' rights to their own image, sound, and likeness gain greater pertinence within the modern era. 

Social media has slowly grown into an increasingly significant aspect of our day to day lives. Smartphones equipped with cameras allow people, places, and things of all kinds to be documented at the push of a button. As online presences and personal lives continue to meld together, the question of how to approach Image Rights Law in the 'social media age' begins to arise. Kevin Qualls, Murray State University professor of Mass Communications and Journalism, explains the importance of recognizing one's personal rights to their own image or likeness. 

"We all have rights to our image, we all have the right to what we look like and what we sound like and our signature and our name," Qualls explains. When social media and other online platforms use any of these things -- a picture, an audio clip of someone's voice or of a voice almost indistinguishably similar, or other personal attributes -- Qualls says, "[these sites] are taking licenses that they don't really have licenses for."

An important distinction to be made regarding Image Rights Law is the original intent of the published content. News stories and other forms of journalism, for example, are exempt from laws that prevent the use of an unaware bystander's image or voice. If a news crew is filming publicly and catch bystanders on the footage, publishing that footage to their respective platform does not infringe on Image Rights Law. Infringement occurs when personal attributes (image, voice, etc.) are used for trade, promotional, or advertisement purposes. Qualls suggests thinking of individual likenesses as trademarks, with the same significance and legal protection as better known symbols, like the Nike swoosh or the Coca-Cola logo. 

It is also important to note the differentiation between consent to be photographed and consent to have that image published however the image-holder sees fit. Only in a journalistic context can images be used with or without the subject's knowledge and approval. The nonconsensual use of anyone's image for trade purposes is known as appropriation. Celebrities gain publicity rights after reaching a certain level of commercial value, in which a well-known person's image may not be used for any trade purpose without the individual or the estate owner's (in the case of a deceased individual) consent. In Kentucky, for example, the statute of publicity rights continues fifty years after the death of the celebrity. 

For more information on Image Rights Law, visit the American Bar Association's website. There, the ABA has published a concise treatise in layman's terms detailing the guidelines of the use of an individual's likeness.

For more information on cybersecurity and how to better protect oneself from malware or identity theft/misuse, click here for an earlier Sounds Good interview with former FBI agent and cybersecurity expert, Jeff Lanza.