In 2020, people from all corners of the globe will take more than 1.4 trillion photos — mostly from phones. (That’s a three-hundred percent increase since 2010!) A sizeable number of those images will be shared on social media.

The photo-sharing phenomenon is responsible for the most important shift in advertising and trend in marketing: user-generated content (UGC). Marketers have recognized that featuring UGC is the key to building trust and conveying authenticity that modern consumers demand. And it’s an opportunity for marketers to connect with and cultivate brand ambassadors.

Instagram’s 800 million users alone post 95 million photos and videos per day, while tens of millions more are shared on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, etc. And consider this statistic: 60% of Instagram users say they learn about products and services on the platform. (Source: Instagram)

The growth of UGC presents a tremendous opportunity for marketers, but it also comes with challenges:

  • Who owns the rights to all this material?
  • When individuals post content that features a brand’s products and services, can the brand freely share them?
  • How can brands protect themselves when they share their users’ content?

As a number of high-profile cases have shown, brands that use content without getting explicit permission from their users risk legal trouble. And then there is the public relations damage brands face when they fail to secure permission to feature UGC.

User-generated content is about the users and the content they create. This post is designed to help you, the marketer, understand the benefits of UGC and put into place best practices that will protect your brand and/or your clients.

Why Rights Management Matters Now

Copyright issues with regard to photos and video are not new, so why is it such a hot topic now? The main reason is brands have recognized what a valuable tool the content their customers create can be. Consider the following statistics from Shopify.

When stores include UGC in their advertising, they see:

  • 4x higher click-through rates
  • 50% cost of acquisition
  • 50% drop in cost-per-click

In fact, one study found that “user engagement” — the personal connection that consumers share with a product or brand when they create content to connect with the brand — is much more valuable than a “like” or a tweet.

Since 70 percent of consumers say their peers’ opinions influence their purchasing decisions more than brand efforts do, brands should always be looking for ways to get their customers to do the talking for them — on social networks, in web galleries, in print catalogs and mailers, and in email. Marketers also want to implement a strategy for acquiring the rights to the content so they don’t alienate their valuable brand advocates.

Taking posted content and republishing it without permission from the content’s creator, basically, making a copy. And that is illegal.

Most consumers are excited to have their images and videos shared by brands they follow on social media. And there’s a very good chance when a brand asks permission, the user will give it. (In fact, 82 percent of Instagram users have given ShortStack brand partners explicit permission to use their photos and videos when asked.)

asking for UCG rights

82% of Instagram and Twitter users have given their permission to use their photos when asked by a brand.
Source and Image Credit: ShortStack & ShortStack Customer Data

How to Ask Users for Content Rights

When it comes to rights management and user-generated content, there are two essential terms to understand: implied consent and explicit consent.

As noted earlier in this guide, every photo or video created is considered the property of the photographer, and he or she owns the copyright. And while most content creators are individuals, most infringers are businesses.

Content Creators and Copyright Law
In 2017, skateboarder/photographer Max Dubler wrote a piece for the photography website Peta Pixel calling out an unnamed skateboarding company for posting one of his photos on their Instagram, without his permission. Dubler’s “No, You Can’t Use My Photo on Your Brand’s Instagram,” obviously struck a nerve because over the course of a couple of weeks, the post was shared nearly 160,000 times and garnered 571 comments. The author eventually removed the name of the offending brand from his post, but not before the brand received criticism from photographers and consumers alike.

User-generated content marketing is still a relatively new concept — in fact, the majority of brands aren’t yet using UGC — and obtaining rights to use consumer photos has not been top of mind for the majority of businesses. That is changing.

Many marketers have relied on a creator’s use of a brand hashtag in a caption or comment to indicate the creator’s approval for a brand to use the content. Brands can also require consumers to use a unique hashtag as the means to enter a contest or giveaway. When consumers post a photo or video using brand sanctioned hashtags, they are giving their implied consent.

#westelm post

Photo Credit: Instagrammer @noelledowning. She tags West Elm with the hashtag #mywestelm, which the retailer lists on its website and encourages customers to use. When consumers use the hashtag, they’re giving the retailer implied consent to use their images.

However, as UGC become even more valuable, brands should obtain explicit consent so as to make it easier for them to use the content across all of their marketing channels.

Petsmart UGC post

Photo Credit: Instagrammer @rundashie. PetSmart asks @Rundashie for explicit consent to use their photo on PetSmart’s social channels. PetSmart should keep a record of requests and replies.

Best Practices for rights requests

  1. Be friendly but not overly familiar.
  2. Avoid awkward phrasing in requests. For example, “Are you 18?” could be flagged as spam or mistaken for sexually explicit material.
  3. Make requests from a brand account, not a personal account. And never use a blank “requests only” account to ask for rights.
  4. Don’t use programs that auto-respond to posts as these automation tools can request rights for offensive posts.
  5. On Twitter, start requests with the handle of the user you’re requesting rights from. That way the request is formatted as a reply, so not all of your followers will see it by default.
  6. Respond to everyone who grants you rights with a simple, “Thank you.”
  7. Keep a spreadsheet with a record of rights requested and rights granted.

ShortStack can manage consent issues for you and your clients.

Image credit: ShortStack

Keeping a record of rights you’ve requested and rights you’ve been granted allows your business to capitalize on UGC and use it across all of your channels, including on social, in email, in-store and more.

2. You build relationships with your best brand advocates

Consumers who post photos and video of your brand are likely already fans of your business. Asking them for permission to use the content they share lets them know you value the relationship and may even make them even more loyal.

Rights Management FAQs

1. Are Instagram and Twitter photos and video in the public domain and free for brands to use?

No. Photos and video posted to Instagram and Twitter are owned by their creators and subject to copyright protection.

2. Do the same rules apply to written content?

Yes. For example, if you’re a food brand and you find a recipe someone has created with your product, you’d be wise to secure permission before using the recipe in your product marketing.

3. When should a brand get rights to user-generated content?

If you intend to use the photo/video away from the network where it is posted, always ask for rights. This includes:

  • Reposting to your own Instagram accounts since you must download the photo and upload it again.
  • Using the photo or video in digital or print advertising.
  • Displaying the photo or video on your website.
  • Displaying a modified version of a photo.

4. What is the easiest way to inform users how and where their content will be used?

In addition to asking users for permission to use their content, you should invite users to read your brand’s terms and conditions. You can link to your terms and conditions in your profile, or even within the comment if you have a simple URL.

Terms and Conditions Landing Page Template

A best practice for rights management is to create a landing page that contains details about where and how you will use the UGC you collect. If you have age minimums or other requirements or restrictions, this is where you will outline them.

Customize the URL of your landing page so it’s something like making it easy for people to find, even if you include the URL in a comment.

Terms and Conditions Template

Image credit: ShortStack

Since some social platforms will block content containing phrases like, “Are you 18?”, you want to take steps to protect your brand and your clients. In a worst-case scenario, a social platform could suspend your account for violating their T&Cs. Instagram can also prevent posts with certain hashtags from appearing in its feed. There are even a significant number of seemingly innocuous hashtags that have been banned because people have complained that some images bearing the hashtag violate Instagram’s community guidelines (banned hashtags include #happythanksgiving, #dogsofinstagram, #callus and #inshapelifestyle).

Want to learn more? Download this free “User-generated Content and Rights Management” guide


Since the popularity of UGC shows no signs of slowing down, make sure you understand the risks are rewards of collecting and using the content your users create.