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Posting Photos on Google+: How the Terms of Service Impact You


On Thursday night, when I got home from work, I planned to respond to a couple of quick emails and work out. But the viral nature of social media had other plans for me. When I started sifting through my inbox and Twitter DMs, there were a number of questions regarding an article that Scott Bourne posted on Photofocus. The article had people concerned that Google was, more or less, going to take away their ownership of any rights to their photographs once they were posted to Google+.

I want to note that Mr. Bourne’s article was largely misconstrued, by myself and others. I was extremely concerned by the way people were interpreting the article. I allayed the concerns that I could. The next day, Mr. Bourne published a second post that very specifically outlined his concerns as they related to professional photographers only. This clarified the specific points he wanted to make about the Terms of Service. I contacted Mr. Bourne to apologize for any snipey 140-character messages that I sent and he was happy to have his posts linked here.

What do the Google+Terms of Service mean to you? (The paragraph in question is Paragraph 11.) ¶ 11.1 states that you retain your copyright and any other rights that you hold in the content. Google is not taking away your copyright simply because you post a photo to Google+. This is how many people interpreted the TOS based on Mr. Bourne’s article. The terms do not assign Google any rights to your copyright in the image. You still own that copyright. It is still your image.

Like most social services, Google+ takes a non-exclusive license in the photo when you put it on their system. This also happens when you post a photo on Facebook. Or Foursquare. And Twitpic. Picplz, too. This has already been part of Google’s existing TOS for Picasa.

As Mr. Bourne pointed out in his post, the only time subset of the population that should concerned with the licensing aspects of these terms are professional photographers who have clients who want an exclusive license on an image. If that particular image has been posted on any of the services listed above, then there is already a non-exclusive license on that image. Accordingly, you cannot give an exclusive license to your client if there is already a non-exclusive license on the photo that cannot be revoked.

Here’s the lesson to be learned: Read the fine print carefully. For the vast majority of the population, there is no reason to panic over the Google TOS. Yet, an article published by a professional photographer caused that confusion. If you have images that you plan to use professionally and you plan to license exclusively, your safest bet is to refrain posting them from any social media sites unless you have consulted with an attorney and fully understand the terms of that particular site.

For me, as an amateur photographer, the Google+ TOS are pretty standard. I will post the same types of photos that I do on Facebook. And, when it comes to photos on Google+, maybe I am missing it, there is no way to tag embarrassing photos of friends yet, so that is a definite benefit of Google+ for now.

Danielle Liss is a lawyer from Las Vegas. Danielle will be speaking at Blog World East on contract law for bloggers. She is a member of the Board of Advisors for FitFluential, Inc. This is provided for informational purposes only and does not contain legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship.


  • Aaron Hockley

    With all due respect to Mr. Bourne, his article was very selective and seems to have been dismissed by most folks.  For a more thorough look at the Google+ terms of service and how they could affect photographers, I recommend Jim Goldstein’s take on things.

  • ScottBourne

    Thanks and while professional trolls claim my article was largely dismissed, the fact that it was quoted in the Washington Post and vetted by actual practicing IP attorneys proves differently. It is unfortunate that people who either simply can’t understand or don’t want to understand what I was writing about decided to use this situation to promote an agenda. I appreciate your even-handed recap of the situation Ms. Liss and hope that people who have legitimate interests in the subject heed what you’ve said. Thanks again.

  • iMac

    It’s very simple TOS to understand folks I don’t see what the big fuss is about, if I have a image that I plan on selling exclusive licence of why and the heck would I be posting it on a social network to begin with.

    It’s all well and great to warn people about a TOS of some new social network that hit the internet, but I would like to believe that if you are a professional photographer that your most likely not going to be posting your work to a social network anyway. To some degree the article that Mr. Bourne wrote was I think a bit insulting to the professional photographer intelligence, that may have not been Mr. Bourne intent but that is kind of the way it could have been taken. Perhaps some of the of the “professional trolls” as Mr. Bourne has tagged them to be are lashing out at him for insulting their intelligence. 

    • Anonymous

       ” if I have a image that I plan on selling exclusive licence of why and
      the heck would I be posting it on a social network to begin with.”

      Maybe to promote the image in question?

  • Cat

    Interesting theoretical argument but are there any cases of a photographer actually being harmed by this potential licensing conflict? I have not heard of any which makes this seem like much ado about nothing. 

    • Anonymous

      Actually, yes. A woman posted a picture of a space shuttle launch from the air to TwitPic.  She lost the ability to collect from news agencies because Twitpic will sell the rights to pictures at a lower price and she got nothing in turn from Twitpic except the use of their service.  After the kerfluffle, Twitpic reiterated their intent to continue doing so.

      This may seem “much ado about nothing”, but if you intend to sell your photos for money, then you do need to be careful what is posted online and where.

  • Matthew Vanecek

    Have you been on Facebook lately? I follow several highly respected professional photographers who put their work on Facebook. They may not be aware of these terms; after all, photographers are only human, too. Or the risk/benefit analysis may have told them the benefit is worth the risk. Although, I really doubt that Scott’s target audience was professional photographers who do risk/benefit analyses of posting work on social networking sites….

    Personally, I do not feel insulted by Scott’s blog in the least. I thought the blog was rather innocuous, and I’m really surprised at the ill-will that it has stirred up (although, there are many blogs, articles, and Google+ posts that pretty much say the same thing Scott said in his blog). Scott writes his photography posts not only from the perspective of helping people improve their photography, but also from the perspective of helping hopeful and budding professionals get started. So I find it entirely reasonable to find such a post in Scott’s RSS feed.

    My question to Danielle Liss would be, how does section 13 of the Google ToS impact section 11.1, with respect to the irrevocability statement, and would you argue your position in a jury trial expecting to win?

    Thanks for the article!

  • allfive

    I suppose you are all unaware of the interest Google, Getty, Corbis, et. al., had in passage of the Orphan Works Act of 2008, where, if the author of a photograph could not be found after a reasonable search, said photo could be claimed and used for commercial purposes. The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Lahey, passed without a single vote being cast, and the House version nearly passed the same way, except for a dedicated, ad hoc group of content creators who rallied to alert Representatives to its dangers to both “amateur” and pro photographers. If you hadn’t registered each and every photo you ever posted to a social network, your photo could be harvested for commercial purposes. Don’t worry, this legislation will come up again.

    The harm posed by these t/c’s is significant. Once posted they are out there forever, and you have little or no practical recourse to prevent how they are used by others. To say one still retains copyright gives a very false sense of security. If you haven’t registered your photo with the copyright office, you have no practical recourse to stop a damaging, embarrassing or commercial use without a lot of time and out-of-pocket attorney’s fees.

    Why not post warning labels instead of issuing overly broad terms? The Google terms are in Google’s interest only. Quite a lot of people think anything posted to the internet is in the public domain, right? Who’s looking after your interests?

    For instance, doesn’t this paragraph seem to allow commercial use on syndicated sites where Google receives revenue:
    “You agree that this license includes a right for Google to make such
    Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals with
    whom Google has relationships for the provision of syndicated services,
    and to use such Content in connection with the provision of those

    I would say everyone needs to have concerns.

  • web development bangalore

    Like most social services, Google+ takes a non-exclusive license in the photo when you put it on their system. This also happens when you post a photo on facebook.

  • jamescraigmtts

    Thanks and while professional trolls claim my article was largely dismissed, the fact that it was quoted in the Washington Post and vetted by actual practicing IP attorneys proves differently.

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