You’ve found a perfect photo. You just love the photo. You want to keep the photo forever. But the photo does not belong to you.
Is it OK to copy and paste a photo from someone else’s social media site — a photo that someone else indicates he, she, or they took — without seeking permission from the original poster of the photo? That’s the question a reader we’re calling Annie asked me recently indicating that she really wants to download some photos from social media posts made by friends and family and has done so in the past. Each time, however, Annie writes that she feels a bit of guilt or remorse that she has done something wrong because she has never sought permission to download the photo.
On most social media sites you can limit the people who are able to view your posts, so such photo pilferage is at least kept among a close few, or a close several hundred depending on how many “friends” you have on your account. But near as I can tell there’s no feature that automatically sends a message to a social media account holder asking them if it’s OK to download whatever someone wants to download. Perhaps that’s a feature social media companies should consider.
But without such a feature, friends and followers are left to their own consciences when deciding when and what to borrow from someone else’s post and when, if ever, to ask permission.
I am not a copyright lawyer and I admit right off that I have not read the entirety of every user agreement for every social media site in the land. But regardless of law or fine print, it strikes me that any original photo or item being posted by someone has been created by them and they should have some say over what gets borrowed by whom. Of course, that doesn’t happen which is how memes and posts sometimes go viral and the originator gets lost to Internet history.
We’re not talking about random and willy-nilly reposting of items from unknown origins. We’re talking about taking something from a friend for your own pleasure or use without seeking that friend’s permission. Such borrowing without alerting the originator doesn’t strike me as how friends or anyone should treat one another.
Granted, when someone makes their posts public to the world (well, the Internet world), they should know there’s a good chance others might abscond with their creations. Even if it’s not for nefarious use, putting something out there is bound to find it grabbed by others for their own personal use.
The right thing, however, is to ask when you want to download someone else’s photo for whatever reason you want it. Yes, it will take longer to send the request and wait for a response. And it would take the poster extra time to read and respond to your request. But it’s the kind of behavior that should be expected of friends and family when they want to borrow something. Besides, if the item Annie wants to copy is that good, aren’t good things worth the wait?
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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