“There’s a Wild West attitude about getting stuff off the Internet” was a phrase that peppered our interviews. Most journalists, however, now know that copyrights exist with uploaders even after they share it on a social network and understand the need to seek specific permission to use someone’s content. Still, there’s a difference between what people know and what people do.24
Certainly the pressure of rolling news means that there are more situations on 24-hour news channels where a senior editor will make the decision to run with pictures without securing permission (knowing they will “sort it out” retrospectively if necessary) than on daily bulletin programs. Broadcasters working outside the pressures of rolling news explained that obtaining permission from an uploader was mandatory before using content.
Online differentiates itself from television again because most websites have the capability of directly embedding social content. There were mixed responses about whether a news site has to seek permission before embedding content. There is no legal precedent here and many people are aware that this is a difficult space. The terms and conditions of the different social networks mean their users have agreed that their content can be embedded on different sites, but a number of journalists expressed disquiet about publishing someone’s Twitpic on their site via an embed code, since that person will not even know it has happened.25 In two separate interviews, people discussed the ethics of embedding selfies women had taken for Cancer Research UK’s “no-makeup selfies” campaign.26 The pictures were public because they had been posted on Twitter, but publishing them on a news website seemed to change the context considerably for the journalists to whom we spoke. Some people suggested that they would like users to get an automated alert via the social network if their content is embedded elsewhere.
Even online journalists, who admitted they sometimes didn’t contact uploaders before embedding their content, admitted this only happened if the photo had little hard-news relevance. Most people who work with UGC discussed the need to talk to the uploader on the phone, not only to help with the verification process but also the newsgathering one, as people often had other footage. As one website editor explained:
We would try and contact that person, not least to say, “What else do you see, what else was happening at the time, who else was there?” We’d do it to get more journalism out of it, but generally speaking, if it is a still, an Instagram still, we would just use the embed code. We wouldn’t feel obliged to contact them. We would only contact them if we wanted to use it in a way that made it ours and we want to talk to them about the story.
Overall, it is very rare that newsrooms pay for UGC. Many interviewees justified this reality, stating that most uploaders don’t care about payment. As one senior manager explained, “Occasionally people ask us for money. Nine times out of 10 in the UGC space it’s not about money, it’s about attribution and permission.”
However, there was an awareness that this is gradually changing as audiences recognize the value of their content, and licensing companies spring up, contacting uploaders and promising money either directly or via revenue-share agreements. As one producer argued, “I think what has changed is that people are shooting stuff with ever greater quality with their phones and now appreciate the value of what they’ve got.” Some interviewees talked about the need for the industry to look ahead at the long-term implications of these trends.
We saw a consensus among interviewees that once UGC has been uploaded to a social network it loses all value, as it can no longer be an exclusive for a news organization. The example of the exclusive amateur footage secured by ITN in the immediate aftermath of the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, London, in May of 2013 was referenced multiple times in interviews with UK-based organizations. This UGC scoop won ITN the UK’s Royal Television Society award for Scoop of the Year for 2013. In announcing the award the jury noted, “When ITN broadcast the shocking pictures of the murderer of Lee Rigby filmed by a bystander on a mobile phone, the team were ahead of the pack.”27 While no one interviewed could cite the exact figure the British broadcaster paid for that exclusive, editors at different newsrooms talked about how it had impacted their newsgathering practices in terms of thinking about sending producers to a breaking news event ready to spend money and present legal documents if necessary.
The process of securing permissions for use differed greatly. It ranged from an online form written by company lawyers for an uploader to sign, to a simple tweeted “yes” (as long as it was screen-grabbed for later proof). There was a clear awareness of the tension between the need to secure rights in a way that will stand up in court, and the realities of traumatized uploaders sharing content on social networks during breaking news events, often in situations where Internet connections are unreliable.
Our research demonstrated that there are different forms of copyright law in different jurisdictions, and there is also a great deal of confusion about copyright law in general. One of our interviewees, for example, acknowledged (guiltily) that he had taken content from YouTube in relation to the Arab Spring because there is no copyright law in Iraq. Another interviewee based in Asia described the way that “laws that govern UGC and copyrights in our region tend to be a bit murky.” In Sweden, legal responsibility lies with the overall editor of the program, who would be personally liable if a mistake was made.
In Australia, our interviews demonstrated that “there is a widespread belief that if you are reporting anything as a news story—even if it’s about a viral video of a dog on a skateboard—then you have a legal right to use short pieces of third-party content without payment [or permission], as long as the sources are credited.” In fact, as Alan Sunderland, head of editorial policy for ABC Australia, explained, “You would have the capacity to use it under fair dealing only to the extent that it is absolutely necessary because of its news value, and then only for a limited period, on the day it happens, when it’s absolutely relevant.”
British newsrooms can also use material under the “fair dealing for the purposes of reporting” copyright exception. The BBC did so with ITN’s footage from Woolwich. But as one senior editor admitted, if you had great pictures and people weren’t getting back to you, “You would just take it and stick it on the air and fair-use it. You would, but you would also inform a lawyer.”
The one thing that troubled everyone was that the person from whom you are attempting to secure permission might not be the copyright holder. Many producers shared stories of uploaders saying, “Yes, of course you can use it. I didn’t shoot it, but it’s fine.” Some producers also talked about an even more confusing issue that frequently arose when they were trying to secure permission to use photos from Facebook: Even though wedding photographs or school photographs are uploaded by the people in the photo, they don’t own the copyrights. Those are owned by the professional photographer who took the picture in the first palace. As the AP explained, “Unless someone has taken a selfie and posted it to their social network, when you ask them for permission, it’s not actually their copyright to give.”
Copyright lawyers and people who work in rights departments understand the need for exercising caution when seeking permission. We are all accustomed to seeing journalists reach out to uploaders on Twitter during breaking news events saying, “Can we use your picture?” Those that have been trained will first ask, “Did you take this picture?”
What is not clear for uploaders is how that picture is going to be used. Technically, someone who uploads a three-minute video on YouTube can complain that the video hasn’t been used in its entirety. When the video is taken down from YouTube, cut and edited into a wider package, the original meaning of the video could be lost. In this case an uploader has the right to complain, unless he or she granted permission for this to happen. Similarly, an uploader might agree to his or her content being used by the program that reaches out, not realizing that it could be used by any other news organization under the same corporate umbrella, or even used by a completely different news organization that happens to have a syndication deal in place with the first. But these complexities are very difficult to spell out to uploaders, many of whom have just been caught up in a breaking news event.
The specific ways that permission is sought were raised in every interview. Some respondents were happy with a tweeted “yes,” while others require signed documents. One interviewer described internal discussions about this issue:
It was a vigorous discussion about whether a Twitter “yes” would be enough. I was saying, “No, it wouldn’t be,” and other people were saying, “Well, yes, but a few years ago you would have said that an email wouldn’t be enough; you’d have wanted a fax, and before that you’d have wanted it written with a quill pen and a stamp on it.” So, I mean, everything is evolving and things are changing.
Producers regularly using social media for newsgathering expressed the difficulties of balancing the need for watertight legal protection with the informal nature of social media. As one explained, “If you are chatting with someone via DM [Twitter direct messaging] and suddenly you’re saying, ‘What is your email address?’ and ‘Can I send you this form and can you print it out, sign it, and scan it back?’ That’s just not going to happen.”
The AP and Reuters explained that they always need permission granted before they will distribute content, but admitted that in very rare cases they will use content when it has been impossible to contact the uploader. Fergus Bell from the AP explained, “If it’s very, very newsworthy and we know that it’s just that they can’t communicate at the moment and we don’t suspect that there would be a reason why they would prevent us from using it [we will use it]. We will also follow up afterwards.”
As the messages posted on an Instagram account during Typhoon Haiyan illustrate, journalists know they have to seek permission, but the pressures of the job often conflict with the realities of people’s lives when they are caught up in a news event. When uploader Marcjan Maloon didn’t reply to the repeated requests of any journalists for four days, someone had to remind them that it was unlikely he would even be able to reply—as “there was still no power in Tacloban City.”
Another significant problem is that uploaders themselves often don’t know their own rights, and don’t understand enough about the news business—particularly archive, distribution, and syndication elements. “We’ve got to make it so clear to them because [copyright] is not something that people always understand,” said one journalist.
Both AP and Reuters told us that they required permission via an email exchange, and both have wording that has been signed off by their legal departments. The agencies emphasized that because uploaders haven’t necessarily heard of them, and don’t understand how content is regularly distributed, they have to make sure they have explained the process fully.
An interesting side note: Some broadcasters might be using the agencies, not just as an insurance policy in terms of verification, but also in terms of rights. As someone from one of the agencies argued, “I think part of the [decision to run with pictures before getting clearance] is a risk calculation on the broadcasters’ part, because they know that we’re working on getting the clearance, so they’re thinking, ‘The clearance will come. Let’s just run it.’ ”
As the quotes in this section’s introduction illustrate, permissions around embedding social content are cause for some concern. While the terms and conditions of Twitter, YouTube, and now Facebook explain that by accepting them, the user grants permission for their content to be embedded by other publishers, there is reason for this unease.
As one digital editor explained, “I think it would be much better if we had a sort of an industry standard, agreed guidelines about the legality [of embedding]. I don’t think it has been tested in a court of law and I think people are beginning to understand that you can ask two lawyers and they’ll give you two different answers.”
He went on to explain how every decision to use content is a calculated risk. “So if someone got a shot of the bomb going off, I’m not going to use that without permission because frankly it could be worth tens of thousands of pounds. But if it’s nice images of people sunning themselves by the seaside, you know what, you might just take that risk a bit more.”
Paying for UGC isn’t new. A senior editor recounted the following story from an earlier career moment: “I remember a ferry disaster, and I phoned up the producer and said, ‘If you can find anybody who had a video camera on board that ship, then buy the material.’ I said, ‘You need a contract from them because otherwise we don’t own the copyright, but the contract can be written on the back of a cigarette packet.’”
And while most people reiterated that very few uploaders want payment, there was also a sense that any disputes could be cleared up after the event. As one former producer admitted, “Actually the rule has always been, ‘We’ve always paid if it’s a good enough picture, so if it comes to that we’ll pay afterwards, after the event’.”
Another producer from a broadcaster in another country said that they didn’t pay as a rule, explaining honestly, “It would just become cumbersome and unworkable.”
Payment also seems to be culturally dependent. While producers from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Europe were adamant that requests for payment were rare, a producer working in Africa said, “When you do get content, it tends to be much more of a paid model where they are journalists. Even if they’re not in a steady job, they have an interest in this type of thing. It would be rare for a guy to just witness something, film it, upload it, and be happy for people to use it for free.” There are sites popping up in Africa encouraging people to photograph news events, and then offering small amounts of money for these pictures.
Other journalists talked about the increasingly blurred line between citizen journalists and freelancers, and the ethical implications of that. A managing editor explained that more people are asking for money, because more licensing companies are willing to pay. He explained, “Now you’ll suddenly get, ‘Well so and so will pay me’ or ‘Somebody will pay me x.’ Well, fine, you’ll have to go to them because we won’t pay. You’re not trained, you’re not a journalist, you’re not a freelancer and you’re not someone we want to take responsibility for.”
A foreign editor also talked about the increasing number of people who are traveling to Syria and then upon return get in contact with news organizations. “They get in touch with us and say, ‘I went in somewhere, you didn’t commission us, we’re out again and here’s what we’ve got.’ Now, those are still user-generated, but they are trying to make money out of that user-generated content.” Editors discussed their serious concern about taking this type of content because of the precedent it sets for freelancers who are putting themselves in increasingly dangerous situations.
Quite a few of our interviewees referenced the impact of the small licensing companies springing up to manage UGC. They shared concerns that most of these companies were not set up by journalists and were operating without any sense of journalistic ethics. Many organizations were uncomfortable about or even refused to use these companies for reasons of ethics and uploader safety.
While the agency Storyful does license UGC, it has very strict guidelines about not licensing videos that show gratuitous violence and death, or videos that have been captured by people putting themselves in danger or breaking the law. This is not the case for all licensing companies.
One producer noted another issue—that uploaders often don’t understand the term “exclusive”:
Those agencies are a bit screwy. There was definitely a Woolwich-related photo where we got stung by an agency. It was one that was a wide shot of the whole street scene, but you couldn’t see any of the detail. We had originally said to the guy, to the individual, “Are you okay for us to use it?” He said, “Yeah, whatever.” And then a day or so later, we got an invoice for £350. But we’ve got a screen grab of [our Twitter conversation with him]. They [the agency] are still there saying it’s fine to use it. So in that situation we’re not going to pay [an agency] for it. We took it down but we didn’t pay for it. It’s a bit of a Wild West out there.
The world of licensing and UGC could run into an entirely separate section, but it is worth recognizing here the emergence of different payment models. Some agencies buy the copyright content outright, and resell it to different broadcasters. Other agencies and publishers are using revenue share models, whereby no money changes hands at the beginning of the agreement, but when a piece of UGC generates views on a player—whether on YouTube or a publisher’s own player, which is surrounded by advertising and has pre-roll ads before the video starts—the uploader, the licensing agent, and the publisher come to a revenue-share arrangement. This is clearly more appropriate for viral videos of talented babies or funny cats, than it is for hard-news content.
Distribution and Syndication
There are real problems associated with the audience not understanding news terminology or how their content can be distributed and used around the world, especially when a person thinks he or she has just given permission to a favorite news program. As one editor explained:
We work with lots of different partners around the world, so when we get content in, we always say to people, “Are you happy for it to be used across all of our platforms?” People are fine with this. But on big stories, you get all of our partner news organizations saying, “We really want to use that UGC.” Then what happens? The [terms and conditions people get via email when they contact us] do explain that our partners might use it but people often don’t read that. So sometimes we have to call people back and say, “We’ve had a call from Australia Broadcasting or Canada or European broadcasters, they want to use your material. Are you happy with that?” Often people don’t know what that means and just say yes. I wonder if that’s an area we need to think about. I wonder whether organizations need to really think about their terms and conditions and revise them in some way.
This isn’t a new problem. George Holliday was the person who filmed the Rodney King beating in 1991. He was encouraged by friends to pass on the footage to Los Angeles TV station KTLA, which paid him $500. In a story in the LA Times from 2006, he explained how much he regretted that decision when KTLA distributed the content to its networks, which played and played the video. “He didn’t have kind words for the media. He may have pioneered citizen journalism but he feels that he was swallowed up and spat out by CNN and the like, which, he said gave him little credit and no compensation of his contribution to history.”28
It could be argued that uploaders are becoming more astute and are certainly in the scramble for permissions that occur when compelling content is shared on social networks. Journalists are sometimes forced to justify why they’re not paying the uploaders. As an exchange in the immediate aftermath of the Glasgow helicopter crash showed, journalists are having to be more transparent about the news process to the people from whom they are seeking permission. In the example below (Figure 5) a Reuters journalist has to explain that the news agency’s business model is subscription-based rather than based on the sale of individual pieces of content.
FIGURE 5: Conversations Between a Reuters Journalist and Uploader Jan Hollands About Using Her Photo
Examples of journalists asking for permission via Twitter are seen during every news event. Permission is almost always granted, but our research found that credit was very rarely added to the content when it was used onscreen or online. This can also be the case when UGC is distributed by Reuters and AP. In the instance of the Glasgow helicopter crash, the agencies advised of the need to credit the uploader (FIGURE 6) in the information sheets distributed along with the content (the dopesheet). The broadcasters in our sample did not uphold this request. The graphic below is taken from the dopesheet associated with Christina O’Neill’s photograph, which she uploaded to Twitter.
Marina Petrillo, editor-in-chief of Radio Popolare in Italy, has publicly used an analogy comparing UGC to wallets that journalists pick up off the ground. They take out the contents without even bothering to look for a name inside, she infers. Those journalists who work with UGC every day would argue that they certainly don’t behave in this way. But one digital editor did describe the mindset many journalists have, saying, “I think people tend to see it as, not ‘How can I nick it?’ but ‘How can I use that on my [television news bulletin or website]?’ without actually thinking, ‘How do we use it in a collaborative way?’”
The current method of journalists seeking permission via messages on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram is laborious, legally dubious, and can be stressful for people who are caught up in the middle of a breaking news event. There are ideas circulating about embedding a breaking news license into social networks so that if users opt in their content can be used for free by news organizations for 24 hours.29 Any subsequent use, either in longer packages, documentaries, or within archives would require specific permission from the uploader. In addition, if organizations wanted to syndicate the content, they would need to establish a separate agreement with the uploader.
There also appears to be a need for clearer guidance around different copyright laws globally, as well as a better understanding of the legal implications of embedding content without seeking explicit permission.
The news landscape is changing. There are growing numbers of licensing agencies, more uploaders demanding payment for their content, and increasingly blurred distinctions between citizen and accidental journalists. As a result the industry needs more guidance, both in terms of legal advice and ethical standards. Without these, many journalists feel that social newsgathering is wild territory.24There is also a significant problem caused by the lack of legal precedent. One of the most confusing elements is that within YouTube’s Terms and Conditions, downloading video is prohibited. However, it is in the interest of the platform that high-quality video to be seen on news broadcasts as it might drive traffic back to the site, and therefore increase view counts and revenue. This leads to confusion around what is legal and illegal.
25The ethics of using content published on social networks was raised after BuzzFeed published a series of tweets sent by women about the clothes they had been wearing when they were sexually abused. It led to a number of discussions about the ethics of embedding content that was not originally created with the intent of ending up on a news site. This article by Slate provides a useful roundup of the debate.
26http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2014/03/25/nomakeupselfie-some-questions-answered/, accessed 12 May 2014.
27www.rts.org.uk/winners-tja, accessed 12 May 2014. 28S. Myers, “How Citizen Journalism has Changed Since George Holliday’s Rodney King Video,” Poynter, 3 Mar. 2011, 29M. Little, “A Public License for Online News Video,” Storyful blog, 16 May 2013,