What Are My Rights if Someone Copies My Social Media Post?

June 18, 2020


In this video, you get answers to these questions:

  • What are my rights if someone copies my social media post?
  • What is United States copyright law?
  • What is a “work”?
  • What are your options when handling this issue?
  • What are problems that can occur with copyright infringement lawsuits?
  • When does it make sense to go after another company with a copyright infringement lawsuit?

Video Transcript

What are my rights if someone copies my social media post? That’s the question I’m answering today. I’m Aaron Hall, an attorney for business owners in Minneapolis.

Imagine you spent a lot of work creating a social media post. Maybe it’s a video. Maybe it’s an image. Maybe it’s something you wrote out. These days, it’s very easy for people to repost your social media posts. But imagine you don’t want that. Maybe you don’t want a competitor posting your stuff. Or maybe it’s a much bigger company posting something that you worked hard on and you want to be compensated for it. What are your legal rights?

You, under copyright law, have the right to control copies. Copyright gets its name from the fact that you have a right to control copies of what you do. Other people can’t copy your social media posts or anything without your permission under the United States copyright law.

Whenever you create something, that’s called a work. You created something, maybe it’s a poem, a musical song, an image, a social media post, whatever it is, you created a work, and that work is protected by copyright.

All right, so what are your options? Let’s say somebody copies your social media post without your permission. Well, first off, you need to register that copyright before you initiate a lawsuit. One requirement to suing somebody for copyright infringement is registering the work. You need to register it with the United States Copyright Office. It’s pretty inexpensive. Last I checked, it was well under a hundred dollars. You can do it on your own. You don’t need to use an attorney. Just go into the United States Copyright Office and walk through the process of submitting your work online. Then there’s a short waiting period, and you can initiate a lawsuit.

When you do initiate that lawsuit, it’s not easy. First, it has to be done in the federal court system, not state court. It has to be done in federal courts because that federal copyright law is what governs permission to copy somebody else’s stuff, somebody else’s work.

All right, so let’s say you prepare a copyright infringement lawsuit. You file it in federal court. Usually you’re going to be using an attorney for this. Then the question is, what are the damages? Well, you have a couple of options. First, you have a right to what’s called statutory damages. In general, somebody who infringes your work can be held liable to pay up to $30,000 in statutory damages. The judge gets to decide how much. That means that even if you can’t prove what the harm was to your business, you still have a right to recover the damage amount established by statute. Now, you may be able to prove what kind of damages you had. In that case, you can go after that instead.

Here’s the real problem with copyright infringement lawsuits. It’s hard. It’s complicated. Often in order to win, you need an attorney. For an attorney to litigate this in federal court, typically you’re spending far more than $30,000. For that reason, you often find that the owners of works that are copyrighted don’t initiate a lawsuit, unless there are a lot of people involved. You often see this with the movie companies. They’re initiating a lawsuit against people who illegally download movies on the internet. They might initiate a lawsuit against 50 people or hundreds of people. In that case, it may justify the cost of attorney time spent going after those folks.

Now, the other problem is, assuming you move forward, you register your copyright, you then sue in federal court, and let’s say, you win. Now what? Well, now you have a piece of paper from a court that says you’re owed money by the party who infringed your copyright. Maybe it’s a competitor, maybe it’s a company out there. You still now have to collect on that. In other words, you have a piece of paper that says they owe let’s say $30,000, but what do you do about that? Now you’re hiring an attorney to garnish on their bank accounts, levy the bank accounts, perhaps garnish wages, and really go after that. But again, you’re paying an attorney.

The practical problem of copyright infringement law is a single infringement results in damages, statutory damages, that are generally far lower than the attorney’s fees you’ll pay to go after those damages. Of course, there’s risks that you might lose in court, you might win in court but then not be able to collect against the other party. That’s part of just the business analysis that goes into whether you actually want to pursue somebody.

Usually what I see is business owners decide to go after someone when they’re a competitor, because it’s about more than just winning some money. It’s about getting a competitor to stop using their stuff. It’s about a competitive advantage. It perhaps might be about sending a message in the marketplace that, “You better not steal my stuff, because if you do, I’ll actually go after you. I’ll actually sue you. Here’s proof. Here’s the federal lawsuit.” Usually those are the types of cases where it may justify spending the money on an attorney.

When I’ve brought claims of copyright infringement on behalf of my clients, it’s typically in a competitive scenario where it’s being brought against a competitor. It’s also typically being brought where you know the competitor has money, so if you win, you can actually collect on it. They’ll actually have to pay. In other words, it’s a pretty good size competitor. It’s not your just little small business somebody’s running out of the home. It’s an established brand or established company with a lot of employees.

All right, so there you have it. Can you sue if somebody copies your social media posts without your permission? Absolutely. That is, at its most simple form, copyright infringement. But there are some steps. You need to register the copyright. You then need to file a lawsuit in federal court. You might also, before filing the lawsuit, send a demand letter. That’s one other step that can save some money. For example, you say, “Look, we have evidence that you have violated our copyrights. We’re prepared to sue. However, if you pay us a certain amount of money, we won’t. We’ll settle with you instead.” Maybe that’s $5,000, maybe that’s $10,000. It’s typically going to be much less than you could get in court. The idea is a settlement offer is always a compromised amount. It’s always less than what you could get if you win in court. That’s the whole reason that everybody’s settling. Nobody’s going to give you the full amount that you could get in court, knowing that you’d have to spend a lot of money to actually recover that.

All right, that’s it. That’s copyright infringement. If you want more information, you’re welcome to check out the links in the description below. If you’d like more educational videos like this, feel free to subscribe here. Also, I need to mention this disclaimer that I raised these educational videos so you can spot issues to discuss with your attorney. Please don’t rely on these videos as a replacement for consulting with an attorney who knows the laws in your jurisdiction, who can take the time to understand your particular issues and advise you regarding that.

I’m Aaron Hall. To learn more about me, visit AaronHall.com.

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