Sharing content with the world every day is fun.  You interact with people all over the world, you see parts of the globe that you wouldn’t have seen, and you get glimpses into other people’s lives.  All through the magic of smart devices and the Internet.

But to be able to do this, you partake in the use of social media.  You sign up for accounts on the platforms of your choice, and you fill in your personal details.  You’ve freely given tech companies info that market research companies would have struggled to come by only 15 years ago.

That’s where the unnerving part of social media captures imaginations.  Questions like “who owns my information?”, “what are they doing with it?”, “does the platform own my content?” make uneducated users rather nervous about what they’ve agreed to without reading any documents.

I’m only going to discuss images here, but this does apply to captions that you write, as well as any other original writing that you post to social media (eg, status updates).

Here’s what you need to know.  When you snap a photo with your phone, camera, or any device that can take a photo, you immediately own the copyright to that image, without needing to file a copyright claim.

There is a doctrine that exists in the United States called the Fair Use Doctrine.  This allows for the fair use and distribution of content.  For example, visitors to a blog can share blog posts to their social networks or email the URL to their friends without requiring permission from the owner of the content.  Social media users can share images and memes.  If you’re writing a book review, you can quote sections from the book you’re reviewing.  At the end of this post, I’ve linked an easy-to-understand article on Fair Use written by Rich Stim.

I’m allowed to share this image of this gorgeous daxie without asking permission to do so.  I’m not taking credit for the image, and I’m making it clear as to the source and the original owner.  I’m doing this to illustrate my point, as well as because he’s such a handsome boy, and this post is hugely improved with the presence of a daxie photo.

Ahhh just another lazy Monday for me! 🙃🙃🐾🐾

A post shared by Monty the Mini Dachshund (@montyminidachshund) on

Creating and using an Instagram account means that you’ve agreed to Instagram’s Terms of Use.  This is a hugely complicated document that’s approximately 7 printed pages long.  Most people don’t scroll past the first screen of text and merely click “Accept”.  Understandable because these terms and conditions are boring to read, and aren’t written in terms that the average person using Instagram would understand.

I’ll highlight the most relevant parts of the Terms of Use for now, and then explain it in simpler terms.  Disclaimer:  I’m not a lawyer and have no experience with intellectual property.  My explanation isn’t complete or exhaustive, nor does it include all the interpretations of the text.  My explanation here is merely to help you begin to understand parts of the Terms of Use document.

Extract from Instagram’s Terms of Use:

“Instagram does not claim ownership of any Content that you post on or through the Service. Instead, you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post on or through the Service, subject to the Service’s Privacy Policy…”

When you create an Instagram account, Instagram doesn’t own your content – meaning you own the copyright to your images.  However, you grant Instagram a license to use your content in any way they like, including selling your images to third parties.  This license is non-exclusive, meaning you can license your images to another party as well.  The license is fully paid and royalty-free, meaning that Instagram doesn’t pay you anything for the license, nor will it have to pay you anything for the license in the future.  “Transferrable, sub-licensable” means that Instagram can give your license to any third party, and that they can sell a sub-license to any third party without paying you for it, because as mentioned above, the license is royalty-free.

Another extract from Instagram’s Terms of Use:

The Service contains content owned or licensed by Instagram (“Instagram Content”). Instagram Content is protected by copyright, trademark, patent, trade secret and other laws, and, as between you and Instagram, Instagram owns and retains all rights in the Instagram Content and the Service. You will not remove, alter or conceal any copyright, trademark, service mark or other proprietary rights notices incorporated in or accompanying the Instagram Content and you will not reproduce, modify, adapt, prepare derivative works based on, perform, display, publish, distribute, transmit, broadcast, sell, license or otherwise exploit the Instagram Content.

Instagram has licensed the content on the platform (as explained earlier), and that content is protected by copyright and other laws.  Instagram owns and keeps all rights to the content as well as to the service it provides.  You agree not to remove, change or hide any trademark attached to content on the platform.  You also won’t copy, distribute, or exploit the content on the platform.

This inherently has a lot of grey area attached to it, so in my next post, I’ll be discussing how to share content on other accounts.


Resources and further reading:

Fair Use

Instagram Terms of Use

Instagram Policy


Articles about Instagram’s Terms of Service/Terms of Use

melissa de klerk

Melissa De Klerk

Writer, Web Designer, Digital Media Strategist, Typophile, Inspiration Junkie, Yogi

Melissa is the owner and creative brain behind Fox & Owl Media. She loves creating content strategies and has considerable experience with Website Design and Brand Management.

You can contact her here, and find her on social media by clicking the links below.

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