Company Photogs: Check Your Aperture — and the Fine Print


Let’s say you’re the PR/marketing person for your company and you take a delightful photo at the staff picnic of your CEO re-enacting a Colts game half-time frisbee toss with his Border Collie named "Harley" or "Rascal" or whatever. Throw that bad boy up on Twitter and watch the positive vibes roll on into your brand. Only one problem: If you used Twitpic, that photo may no longer be just yours. The New York Times has the 411:

If you post a photo on the Web, it still belongs to you, right? Well, be sure to read the fine print.

World Entertainment News Network, a news and photo agency, announced this month that it had become the “exclusive photo agency partner” of Twitpic, a service with over 20 million registered users that allows people to upload images and link to them on Twitter. The deal allows the agency to sell images posted on Twitpic for publication, and to pursue legal action against those who use such images commercially without its permission, according to the agency.

“There has been much unauthorized use of Twitpic images which we shall be addressing without delay,” said Lloyd Beiny, the agency’s chief executive.

World Entertainment News, whose photo business revolves largely around shots of celebrities, says it is interested only in the photographs posted to the accounts of people like Britney Spears, Russell Brand and Demi Moore. But the scope of the deal is not clear, and professional photographers are worried that it could allow the agency to profit from any photo posted to Twitpic. Others say Twitpic’s move shows the tenuous control people have over what they post through Internet services.

The extent of that control is typically laid out in the terms of service that users agree to when they sign up for Internet services and smartphone applications. But the more such services people use, the harder it becomes to keep track of the things to which they are agreeing. And of course many terms of service, which are heavy on legal language, include clauses that assert the company’s right to change them without notice.

In a recent episode, the television show “South Park” poked fun at the tendency to consent to such agreements without reading them, when one character discovered that he had inadvertently given Apple the right to surgically transform him into a “product that is part human and part centipede, and part Web browser and part e-mailing device.” In the real world, there has been more discussion of what users could be risking than concrete examples of problems. Much attention has been centered on privacy concerns and the confusing aspects of companies’ privacy policies.

Professional photographers in particular have worried about their work being distributed in ways they would not approve. Protests over changes to Facebook’s terms of service in 2009, which seemed to give it rights to users’ content even if they discontinued their accounts, caused the company to change its copyright language.

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