A fireman in the aftermath of the Tottenham riot. The image is taken from Flickr where it is under a creative commons licenceCredit: Christophe Maximin on Flickr. Some rights reserved
Following recent debate, here is a guide to the legal restrictions and journalistic responsibilities of using photos and video from social media and the web.
Useful documents to be aware of include the BBC's guidelines on social media, the Press Complaints Commission's Editors' Code of Practice and Reuters' Handbook of Journalism.
Copyright law and social media
A person who creates a photo or video retains the copyright when it is uploaded to Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and YouTube.
As copyright is retained by the creator of the image or video, journalists should therefore seek permission from the originator and should credit the person and pay if requested. Here is a link to the National Union of Journalist's photography rate card.
Many broadcasters and publishers also list the social media site as the source, but this is a practice that has been questioned by Paul Bradshaw, writing on his Online Journalism Blog.
Media law consultant David Banks told Journalism.co.uk: "It doesn't mean it's right and you are breaching someone's copyright but most of the time you're not going to get done for it.
"Sometimes [publishers find it] too tempting because they won't get caught. I'd say in 95 per cent of cases there's not going to be any comeback.
"But people are increasingly aware of their intellectual property and will say 'it's my picture, and I want something for it'."People are increasingly aware of their intellectual property and will say 'it's my picture, and I want something for it'David Banks, media law consultant
There is a public interest defence to copyright law, but it is rarely used. Banks cited the case of a woman who was missing and a photograph taken by a professional photographer was distributed and printed in a number of publications. The photographer pursued the papers claiming copyright but publishers were able to argue a public interest defence due to the compelling need to track the woman.
Apart from copyright law, there are a number of moral and ethical editorial considerations to take into account too.
When is it justified for a journalist use a photo from Facebook?
The BBC Editorial Guidelines and guidance from the Press Complaints Commission both state that journalists should take privacy settings into account when deciding whether to publish a picture. For example, if someone has photos and a profile that anyone can view, it is arguably more acceptable to publish these pictures than if privacy settings limit photos to a closed circle of contacts.
Following a complaint against the Scottish Sunday Express, which in 2009 published a story using photos taken from Facebook, the PCC found the paper had intruded on the privacy of survivors of the 1996 Dunblane school shootings and issued new guidance.
The PCC said: "It can be acceptable in some circumstances for the press to publish information taken from [social media] websites, even if the material was originally intended for a small group of acquaintances rather than a mass audience.
"This is normally, however, when the individual concerned has come to public attention as a result of their own actions, or are otherwise relevant to an incident currently in the news when they may expect to be the subject of some media scrutiny."
The PCC added that journalists must also take into consideration whether a photo is "innocuous and used simply to illustrate what someone looks like" saying in such a case "it is less likely that publication will amount to a privacy intrusion".
Can publishers use a Facebook or Twitter picture if someone has since removed it?
For example, if a journalist copies photos from the profile of someone arrested for murder, can these be used if this person is later convicted but the photos are no longer available online?
According to David Banks, the timing is irrelevant. "You are still breaching someone's copyright and that's the person who took the photo of the murderer."
Can journalists publish photos from Twitter?
The person who creates a photo posted on Twitter retains the copyright. But as in the examples of reporting the Hudson river plane crash, the Norway massacre and the UK riots, photos distributed via Twitter have been broadcast on TV and printed in newspapers breaching the copyright of the originator.
Following the recent riots, Andy Mabbett put in a complaint to the BBC pointing out photographers are frequently not credited, this may be a breach of copyright and requested that the broadcaster properly credit photographers in the future.
After a retracted statement from the broadcaster, the BBC responded explaining social media photos may be used "in exceptional circumstances" without permission.
Writing on the BBC Editors' blog, social media editor Chris Hamilton, said: "In terms of permission and attribution, we make every effort to contact people who've taken photos we want to use in our coverage and ask for their permission before doing so.We make every effort to contact people who've taken photos we want to use in our coverage and ask for their permission before doing soChris Hamilton, BBC social media editor
"However, in exceptional situations, where there is a strong public interest and often time constraints, such as a major news story like the recent Norway attacks or rioting in England, we may use a photo before we've cleared it.
"We don't make this decision lightly – a senior editor has to judge that there is indeed a strong public interest in making a photo available to a wide audience.
"In terms of attribution, i.e. giving a credit to the copyright holder, it's something we should always try and do when we use such photos in BBC News output.
"But sometimes, in the exceptional circumstances just outlined, it's just not possible to make contact with the person who took the picture, or they don't want to be contacted, or we might consider it too dangerous to try and make contact – a significant issue in our coverage of the recent Arab uprisings."
Users of platforms such as Flickr and YouTube, or indeed any site, can opt to offer their work under a creative commons licence, meaning content can be used by others as long as they attribute the work to its author. There are a variety of creative commons licences, some of which restrict content from being used for commercial purposes, or restrict editing and making of derivative works. The image used on this article, called "Fireman in action" and taken by Christophe Maximin, is under a creative commons licence on Flickr that allows us to both crop the image and use it on a commercial site.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself before publishing a photo or video from social media.
It's not an exhaustive list and bear in mind you will be breaching copyright law if you publish without permission from the person who took the photo. This could lead to being pursued for payment by the person who owns the copyright.
1. What privacy settings has the person applied? This is particularly relevant if dealing with photos from Facebook. The more public the photo, the more acceptable it is to use the picture.
2. Is the photograph to be used simply to identify a person? If so, it is more acceptable to use the photograph.
3. Is there time to seek the photographer's permission? If so, a journalist should do this.
4. Is there a public interest in using the picture?
5. Could the use of the picture cause distress? If it is a photograph of a murder victim or someone who has died in an accident, have you approached the family?
6. Could it put the photographer in danger by crediting him or her?
7. Could the photograph could be in Contempt of Court? Are court proceedings active?
8. Is the photo of a child? Do not forget you must have permission from the parent of any child under 16 in order to use a picture.
Free daily newsletter
- The Guardian is reaching new audiences on Facebook with video series for people who dip in and out of news
- Tip: Learn how to restrict your internet access to focus on writing
- How publishers can get their community back from social media
- Highlight your expertise and be there to listen: The dos and don'ts of building trust with readers on Facebook
- Lead Stories is debunking misinformation starting to trend on social media