Should brands be able to cash in on user-generated & viral content?

If you use Facebook and Twitter, the chances are that you have seen brands and Internet stars share videos of Pandas during Storm Jonas, Pizza Rat, or the supermarket duck army.

Everyone from vloggers to publishers have built huge communities with Internet treasure, sourced from the likes of Reddit, Twitter, Facebook & Imgur. To put the scale of these brands into perspective, web analytics site Alexa reports LadBible has become the 12th most popular website in the UK, above sites as LinkedIn & PayPal. The same site also rakes in more than £1m a year from advertising, according to Buzzfeed.

What seems to be an apparent theme with such brands is the authenticity of their content. Most media outlets credit and source the majority, but others are fairly notorious when it comes to content crediting.

One comedian last year reacted angrily after the Unilad website stole his Vine mocking Donald Trump. Rather than embed or officially share the video on Facebook, Unilad ripped its own copy, which would allow it to make money from the footage. The site placed the standard “comment credit” on Facebook, but that did not placate him. It only takes a quick search on Twitter with the LadBible handle and keyword “stolen” to highlight a problem.

Internet stars like The Fat Jew, a 30-year-old internet sensation, who’s gained a respectable 7.5 million followers on Instagram has also been called out on social media several times for plagiarism & copyright, and according to Time magazine, “comedians have long accused Ostrovsky of ripping off their jokes and posting them without credit.” These media outlets & individuals might have to start playing by some of the more accepted rules.

Online empires, like Google, know how important authentic content is, and it is well known that a website that has copied content is penalized with a lower ranking. Same goes for Youtube, who’ve been taking copyright seriously for years, removing over 180 million videos alone in 2014 due to “policy violations”, the vast majority of which likely stemmed from alleged copyright infringement. Finding a way to penalize brands across on social media may not be as simple, but it’s necessary because with little accountability many brands are pushing the limits of what is ethical.

After all, is there a difference between copying a piece of work to make money off of it and stealing cold hard cash from someone? There is no reason why this should change on the Internet. Media outlets and brands need to be more active in educating their newsroom staff about ethics of content, as the generation weaned on Facebook and Twitter enters everyday workforce.

Consumers need to wake up to brands that benefit financially from exploiting the original content of others. In layman’s terms they make money off other people’s content. “So what if they don’t credit people, the content is public domain isn’t it?” That may be true in some instances, but not all. Distributors like ViralHog have been created to “buy and sell the best viral videos!” and seed to the likes of CNN & BBC, but this still seems to be a very small percentage of videos. While these types of agencies seem to alleviate the problem, it has the potential to cause more issues as users try to monetize others, as highlighted recently on Reddit.

Some content, though, is available for public use without express permission, such as open source code. However, even that material also often requires attribution to the original author, so pay close attention to the terms and conditions of use. In some cases, the content owner may charge a license fee, but that fee will certainly be less costly than an infringement lawsuit. If you have to question yourself about using an image or video on social media, your blog or website — you probably shouldn’t.

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