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User-generated content: privacy and legal issues for website owners

User-generated content (UGC) refers to any publicly-available content produced by the users of a website or app. That includes social media posts, product reviews, and posts published on a discussion forum.

Whether you’re looking to leverage UGC for your next social media marketing campaign, or if you’re launching your own app where users can create and share content, there are a few legal considerations you’ll need to stay mindful of — yes, even if your users submit content they understand will appear on your platform.

When content and copyright collide

Let’s consider copyright first. Just because an image, video or user-written post is accessible on a platform, it doesn’t necessarily grant you the right to use it on yours. For example, a photographer may post a travel photo on their publicly available Instagram profile, but it doesn’t mean they consent to you displaying that photo as part of your campaign — even if Instagram’s technology permits you to embed that content on your website.

Using another person’s ideas or creative work without due permission, acknowledgement or payment — whether knowingly or unknowingly — could potentially hurt your brand’s reputation, as well as attract hefty infringement fines for failing to honour the original creator’s copyright.

Fortunately, there is a law that helps protect US-based businesses from such risks — the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Provided that certain compliance guidelines are followed, the DMCA’s “safe harbor” provisions protect online service providers from any infringing activity committed by their users.

What about online privacy?

Beyond copyright, UGC raises privacy concerns as well — think photos, videos, comments and posts that may feature a person’s name, likeness or personal information.

Because this information can be used to identify a natural person, UGC is categorised as personal data and must be handled in compliance with laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).

This means disclosing, as transparently as possible, your purpose and intention for the content you “collect”; taking adequate measures to safeguard the information; and enabling your users in exercising their rights over their data.

A safe starting point

To help your business avoid violating copyright and privacy laws, we recommend starting with the following:

Understanding the rules and etiquette of each online platform your business operates on. This is especially vital if you intend to republish user-submitted content on a third-party platform.

Disclose your privacy policy if you collect and use personal data. While it takes more than a GDPR-ready policy document to be GDPR-compliant, clear and transparent disclosure is a great place to start.

Make your terms of use crystal clear, whether you’re running a website, app, social media profile, public competition or marketing campaign. Ensure your terms include a limitation of liability clause, outlines what content can and can’t be shared, and how users can report infringements and violations.

UGC is a valuable resource for businesses and essential ingredient for thriving online communities, but it must be carefully moderated to ensure both website owners and users can continue to reap the benefits.

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