Why Facebook Doesn’t Own Your Photos

I think it’s time to settle this: Facebook does not own photos you upload to the network.

I am constantly reading comment threads online where people are stating that any photos uploaded to Facebook’s website automatically become the property of the social network. This is just wrong – plain and simple. If it were true, Facebook would be hitting the self-destruct button. Companies would want to retain their image rights, so they would stop posting content and cease paying for advertising. It’s just not in Facebook’s interests to ‘steal’ your photos through complex legal language.

Yet the rumour mill is still going strong, born from paranoia and a misunderstanding of copyright. But if you don’t believe me, let’s have a look at the lines from Facebook’s terms of service that deal with your uploaded photos:

For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.

Nowhere in that paragraph does it mention your copyright being taken. You still own your photos, not Facebook. You might being wondering what some of the words mean in relation to the license you ‘grant’ Facebook to your photos, so let’s break these down.

  • Non-exclusive – This means that Facebook don’t have any exclusivity over your photos. You can continue to do what you want with them after uploading.
  • Transferable & Sub-licensable – The license can be transferred and relicensed to other parties.
  • Royalty-free – The right to use copyright material without the need to pay royalties or license fees for each use.
  • Worldwide license – There are no limitations as to the countries your photo can be used in.
  • In connection with Facebook – The usage can only be in connection with — you guessed it — Facebook.

Chances are you sat up in shock when you saw ‘transferable and sub-licensable’. Technically it means Facebook can grant licenses to others to use your photo. However, I know of no case where this has happened, and if it did the photography community would be in uproar. Even so, the transferred license would still have to be in connection with Facebook itself. Personally, I believe that clause is there to cover their backs should they be bought up by another company, or wished to merge Instagram and Facebook, for example.

Have faith in the social network giant. Not everyone is out to get you! (Photo: Shutterstock.com)

All in all, it’s really not something to worry about. Facebook would gain little from exploiting intellectual property uploaded to its servers. The backlash would be immense and potentially even spell the end of the network, depending to what degree they started pushing boundaries. After all…

… you can still limit and terminate the license

That license is ‘subject to your privacy and application settings’. This means that you can restrict where your photos can be used and shared. If you set the photo as public, then the sky is the limit. But if you set it to just friends, then it can’t be shared with others that aren’t on your friends list. You can change this on the fly, too. If you later decide you want to limit the distribution of a photo, just lock down the privacy setting and you are good to go.

‘This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account’. If you decide that you don’t want your photos on Facebook anymore, just delete them. It terminates the license and Facebook have no rights to use your photo at all.

This is another very important point, because there are a lot of rumours that Facebook can sell your photos to others. If they did that they would have a monumental headache whenever somebody deleted a photo. They’d instantly have to revoke any licenses they’d sold, and that would cause all manner of lawsuits and headaches for them.

Why does Facebook need a license anyway?

Look at any website where you share photos and you will see that you are granting them some sort of license. There seems to be some idea of ‘big bad Facebook’ that is out to get everybody, yet they are no different to any other photo-sharing website.

The license you grant Facebook is necessary to enable a number of features to work legally. Features that often work in your favour. The sharing function can help you go viral, but it wouldn’t be legal without this license in place. There’s also an embed feature, allowing Facebook posts to be embedded on other websites (just like with Twitter, Instagram, 500px, and Flickr), which needs such a license to be legitimate.

Facebook rights over photos

People aren’t free to take photos from Facebook

No one is allowed to go onto Facebook and pick and choose from the photos uploaded there. That’s not what this license means. That’s still copyright infringement, and Facebook takes that very seriously. Should someone upload a photo of yours to their network without permission, you can file an Intellectual Property Infringement report and they’ll have it removed rapidly.

Still worried? Watermark your photo!

If you’re still worried or concerned about how Facebook may use a photo in the future, then there’s a simple way to cover your back. You’re only granting a license to what is uploaded, not to the actual photo as a whole. So, upload a relatively low resolution file with a watermark. Then Facebook only have a license to the low resolution, watermarked version. They have no rights over the high resolution file, should they even manage to get hold of it somehow.

In Conclusion

Stop spreading rumours! Facebook is not out to get you. Facebook’s users are making them an unimaginable amount of money by being there in the first place. They want you to stay so that they can sell advertising space to companies who want to reach out to you. If they start driving users away, they’re killing off their business.

Instead, please help to settle this rumour once and for all. Share this article far and wide, or tweet the following quote in a click of a button:

Facebook doesn't own your photos! Let's decode the terms and conditions. Click to Tweet

Rest assured that your photos are safe. However, if you’re interested in this topic you may also want to read the following articles:

Will Nicholls is the founder of Nature TTL and a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from England. Having been photographing since the age of 12, Will's images have won a string of awards, including the title of "Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year" in 2009 from the British Wildlife Photography Awards. Will is also the author of the book On the Trail of Red Squirrels.

Download our free ebook
Grab Our FREE eBook!

Get our best tutorials sent straight to you, and enjoy a copy of "10 Ways to INSTANTLY Improve Your Nature Photos".


  • simonjpierce

    Thanks for the solid dose of sense 🙂

    • Peter

      Thanks good article. However, I think the main issue with Facebook is that they strip out the EXIF data from images loaded up, so although they don’t “steal” your images anyone else who downloads them cannot identify the copyright status or the owner. So it makes it more likely the images will be stolen.

  • Hi Will. I completely agree with the sentiment of your post (and watermarking is always a smart thing to do regardless), but I think you might be mistaken on two points.

    First, this sentence: “you grant us … to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook”. This does not specifically state that THEIR rights are limited to Facebook but that it concerns content that YOU post on or in connection with Facebook. Maybe they say something about this somewhere else though?

    Second, their rights do not end when you delete your content, and they state that very clearly: “unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.” I guess as long as people just hit “share” the content would disappear if you delete the original post, but if someone has saved and then re-uploaded it then it’s basically out of your control to do anything about it. These points may or may not matter, but I thought it was worth clearing them up – at least as far as I understand them. 🙂

Advertisment ad adsense adlogger