Using faces from Facebook

Student editors talk about using social networking sites as sources; experts say approach sites with caution

With deadline only two hours away, the staff of The Reflector, Mississippi State University's student newspaper, was at a crossroads.

A freshman student had been in a car accident, striking and killing a sophomore, and was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. Unable to obtain her booking mug shot, the newspaper staff was considering running a photo of the charged student from Facebook is an online directory that connects people through social networks at schools. Students can post photos and profiles of themselves on the site, and the accused driver appeared to have done just that.

Editor in Chief Elizabeth Crisp thought the newsworthiness of the story merited running the photo, which she said would have given the coverage a hard-hitting personal element.

"I think it puts a face onto it," Crisp said. "It made it a little more real."

Frances McDavid, The Reflector's adviser, recommended the students consider the risks involved with running the photo.

News Editor Sara McAdory said the staff had two main worries: misidentification and copyright issues.

"We didn't want the wrong picture up there." McAdory said. "The issue was whether or not it was really the girl. We were pretty sure it was but you never know. People can post anything."

The other question, McDavid said, was who held the photo's copyright and would the paper's use of it constitute a "fair use."

With no clear answers available before deadline, Reflector staff said they decided not to publish the student's picture.

A different approach

When staff at The Miami Hurricane was faced with a similar situation they decided to run photos from Facebook.

In November, photos of several University of Miami students who indicated they went swimming in a campus lake ' an act forbidden by the university ' appeared on a fellow student's Facebook profile. Patricia Mazzei, Hurricane editor in chief, did not hesitate to run them, accompanied by the headline, "Caught on Facebook."

Mazzei said the staff considered the pros and cons of running potentially copyrighted material but decided "the story's importance outweighed any other risks."

"We thought it was newsworthy. It was a matter of public safety ' we've had two students drown [in the campus lake] before," she said.

Officials at Facebook disagreed, as evidenced by a letter their attorney, Chris Kelly, sent to Mazzei.

"The mere assertion that something is newsworthy does not invalidate the copyright," Kelly said.

The letter stated that The Hurricane had no right to publish the material from Facebook and must immediately remove it from their Web site. Hurricane editors had not complied with the request as of early December.

Facebook also objected to The Hurricane's decision to tag the photos and profiles taken from their site with "Courtesy of," which Kelly said implied that Facebook supported or endorsed the article.

Mazzei said the paper ran a follow-up article in its next issue clarifying that Facebook had nothing to do with the story.

In addition, Kelly said the use of the material violated the copyright interests of Facebook and the user who posted the photos, as well as the privacy interest of those in the photos. It also constituted a breach of Facebook's terms of service, which all users agree to when becoming a member of the Web site.

Kelly said he is confident his client would be successful in a lawsuit against The Hurricane, citing Facebook's copyright interest in the overall look and feel of their Web site. But he said filing a claim is not necessarily the route Facebook plans on taking.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said it is doubtful Facebook's claims based on its own copyright would hold up in court.

"I think it unlikely that a court would find the use of an image of a Web page that is accessible to thousands of people, for illustration of a story about the controversial activity depicted on that Web page, an infringement of Facebook's copyright," Goodman said. "This seems like a pretty clear 'fair use' to me."

Copyright issues

However, even in a newsworthy situation, printing a photo taken from a social networking Web site could violate the copyright of the owner of the photo, said Dona Gilliam, a professor at James Madison University and an attorney who specializes in entertainment law and intellectual property law, including copyright and multimedia.

"The pictures put up on the Web are owned by the person who took them," Gilliam said, "and that person maintains copyright for life plus 70 years."

Gilliam said it is better to err on the side of caution unless the rightful owner of the picture can be asked permission to use it. She added even that can be tricky when Facebook, or similar sites like and, are involved because "there is no way to know who put it there."

"Just because people upload things doesn't mean they give consent for use [of their copyrighted work]," Gilliam said. Since 1989 all original works are copyrighted whether they have a copyright notice or not, Gilliam said.

But there are some instances where permission may not be necessary because using the copyrighted image would be a "fair use."

Facebook in the newsroom

The Reflector and The Hurricane are not the only collegiate newspapers using Web sites like Facebook as a resource in the newsroom.

"It's an invaluable tool," said Amber Corrin, editor in chief at West Virginia University's The Daily Athenaeum. "It's like any other piece of technology ' you wonder how you got along without it before."

Corrin said her reporters use Facebook only as a way to find sources. The Web site makes finding sources infinitely easier for reporters, she said, but The Daily Athenaeum would never publish a photo from the site or take any posted information as fact.

"That's pretty questionable," Corrin said of running Facebook photos. "It's not credible enough to use for anything other than sourcing."

David Cross, editor of The Lantern, Ohio State University's daily newspaper, said he agreed that social networking Web sites are a good way to find sources.

Cross said The Lantern used Facebook to find sources for the paper's stories on Julie Popovich, a part-time Ohio State student who disappeared earlier this year from a campus-area bar. Even though Popovich was not listed in the school's student directory, Cross said Lantern staff members were able to find her friends and subsequently who she was with the night of her disappearance using her profile on Facebook.

Despite the usefulness of social networking Web sites, Cross, like Corrin, has doubts about using them for anything other than a way to find sources.

"We've never used a picture from Facebook," Cross said, because he said he is not sure the Web site is always accurate.

Corrin, Crisp, Cross, McAdory and McDavid all said Facebook is a legitimate newsroom tool.

"I look at it as an extension of the campus directory," Crisp said. She added that no source has had a problem when they find out they were tracked down using Facebook.

McDavid agreed.

"It's put out there for the public to consume," she said.

What the Web sites say

Kelly, Facebook's lawyer, said the Web site has a license from users through its terms of service that allows his client to use the material members post, including photos. But that license does not grant Facebook the right to allow others to use it.

"As a matter of policy we would not sublicense users' material, even for the student press," Kelly said, referring to the Hurricane article.

Gilliam said the above statement about reproducing photos means Facebook is claiming a nonexclusive license to display photos on its Web site. Facebook is not taking an assignment of rights, she said, just a license.

"An assignment of rights would transfer the copyright of the photo to the publisher in exchange for royalties ' [This] is a mere license to use not a transfer of copyright," Gilliam said, meaning whoever took the picture owns it, despite the fact it is displayed on the Internet.

Gilliam said it is important that Facebook users remember to be careful when posting photos on the Internet.

Even with Facebook's user agreement and copyright law, Gilliam said, there is no one to stop people from using Facebook photos for reasons the poster may never have thought of, like having a newspaper print it in conjunction with a news story.

As to privacy concerns for using photos posted by Facebook users, Facebook Spokesman Chris Hughes said, "There is no general waiver of privacy when a photo is posted, but users do clearly know and intend that their photos will be viewed by others."

reports, Winter 2005-06

More Information

A continuing issue

As more students become Facebook users, it appears inevitable that questions and problems regarding its use as a newsroom tool will continue to occur.

The Daily Athenaeum's Corrin may have summed it up best.

"I think the scope of it definitely remains to be seen because it's such a new thing," she said. "It's definitely something to be weary of."

SPLC Advice

Social networking Web sites can be a useful resource to student journalists looking for information on a deadline, but sometimes, taking and reprinting pictures from or images of Web pages from these sites can ruffle feathers and may trigger legal problems. The two most likely complaints are invasion of privacy and copyright infringement.

Privacy - The individuals in a photograph posted to a social networking site are unlikely to have any right of privacy in the picture because the picture has already been published online to a broad potential audience. Unlike private Web sites that may limit access to those the user designates, social networking sites typically offer access of the images to a wide range of registered users. If journalists who do not know the photographer or subject of the picture are able to view the picture, it is hard to imagine how the picture could qualify as "private," assuming it ever was.

Copyright - Copyright problems can arise in two different ways: the Web site's copyright in the design and original content of its pages, and the copyright in the photographs placed by users in their own listings on the site. Copyright owners have the right to control the use of their works by other people, but this right is limited by a concept called "Fair Use." While determining whether something is a fair use is often difficult and often should be done in consultation with an attorney or other expert, generally speaking, a fair use occurs when someone uses another person's copyrighted work in a way that does minimal harm to the copyright owner's economic interest while offering some substantial benefit to the public.

Although the owners of a social networking site (like any other Web site owner) have a copyright interest in the design and layout of their pages, student journalists have a fair use right to use an image of the page to accompany a story about the site itself or a newsworthy event taking place on the site. Such a use does not interfere with the value of the copyright while providing important information to the public.

The user-provided images hosted on the social networking site may or may not be available under fair use, however. These photographs will generally be owned by the individuals who took them, and whether or not you can claim fair use will depend both on how the owner intends to use the photographs and on what use you have in mind. For example, it would probably be a fair use to reprint an image from a social networking site in a news report about a crime where the image itself was of the crime in progress and the photograph was taken by a participant. On the other hand, it probably would not be a fair use to take the same photograph for the same story if the photographer was another journalist who posted the photograph to show her work. Contact the SPLC to discuss your specific situation and whether you can make a fair use claim regarding a copyrighted image.

By Adam Goldstein, SPLC legal fellow

On The Web

For more information about copyright law, read the SPLC's Student Media Guide to Copyright Law online at

Fast facts on some social networking sites

More than 8.5 million members

Founded by Harvard student Mark Zuckerburg in February 2004

Based in Palo Alto, Calif.

Available to anyone with ".edu" e-mails and students at all accredited high schools

source: Chris Hughes, Facebook spokesman

More than 21 million members

Founded by entrepreneur Jonathan Abrams in 2002

Based in San Francisco

Available to anyone over 16 years of age


More than 32 million members

Founded in 2003

News Corp. media mogul Rupert Murdoch recently orchestrated a $580 million buyout of the company, based in Los Angeles

Available to anyone over 14 years of age