In America, two large photographic agencies - Getty, and Agence France-Presse - have just been fined $1.2m for using photographs they’d acquired through Twitter, without the photographer's permission.
The photographer, Daniel Morel, had taken photos of the Haiti earthquake aftermath and then posted them on his Twitter account. These photos were downloaded by one of the agencies and distributed to the other, without the photographer’s permission. In a complicated legal battle, Morel sued for breach of copyright. The agencies’ lawyers claimed that because the photos had been posted on a social media website they were open to commercial use. The jury decided no - and that Morel’s rights had been infringed - the photos had been used without his permission.
This just highlights how big companies can get it wrong. There is a common misconception that anything on the Internet is copyright-free - this is simply not true. Copyright laws state that the creator owns the copyright and it’s up to them what rights they issue to others to use that work. Every word you read on the Internet, and every photograph you see on the Internet, is protected by copyright. You can’t just help yourself to anyone else’s work, in the same way that they can’t help themselves to your work.
There is a movement call Creative Commons (http://creativecommons.org) where people can give permission for their work to be used by others (but not commercial organisations) … and some work you see on the Internet is covered by this. However, the original creators have made the decision to offer their work in this way. They’ve granted permission for their work to be used in this way. And that’s the key point to remember. If you come across words, or photos, anywhere (not just the Internet) that you’d like to use within your own work, or on your website, you should always ask for the creator’s permission. Some will be happy for you to do so, and they won’t charge, others will be happy for you to do so if you pay for the right to do so. As the copyright holder it is their decision as to who can use their work, and in what way, and whether they want to charge for this.
Roy Greenslade has written an excellent blog posting on this issue called Ten Bogus Excuses People Use When Stealing Photos From The Internet (http://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2013/nov/26/news-photography-medialaw), which I would encourage you to read. It’s just as valid for a writer’s words as it is a photographer’s photos.
If posting any of your work (written, or photographic) on social media sites, just be aware that they have terms and conditions. Some social media websites have a habit of updating and changing their terms, which doesn’t make life easy. And be aware of competitions, particularly photographic competitions. Some have it in their terms and conditions that any entry becomes the copyright of the competition organiser. That enables the competition organiser to use your work in any way they like without any further recompense to you, and without the need to ask your permission (because by entering the competition, you’re deemed to have accepted the terms and conditions of the competition, and, therefore, you’ve given them the copyright in your work). The golden rule, then, is: Always read the rules, or the terms and conditions.