Facebook’s Rights Manager for Images: A Bitter Pill for Viral Content?


Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic aggressively reclaiming it, the word ‘viral’ had adopted an altogether different meaning in our lives.  The phenomenon of a massively shared video or image is now commonplace, from twitter-storms to Instagram memes, the regurgitation of a particular image with innumerable same-but-different variations of (what the author thinks is) a funny caption has become a familiar part of the cybersocial scenery.

Up until now, and unless a more conventional breach of copyright has been committed by a commercial venture or business competitor (e.g. patent law, plagiarism, copying a product design or logo), the issue of Intellectual Property (IP) rights has been largely ignored by these online communities – celebrity photos, product images, selfies, TV commercials, billboard ads, and Candid Camera type holiday snaps are all regarded as ‘fair game’ for modification in the vast playground of our social networks.  A quick scout around the popular and time-honoured (est. 2001) British digital arts community website B3TA (NSFW) demonstrates just how mature (or immature) the meme scene, photoshopping and digital satire has become.

However, a new pilot scheme by Facebook allowing users to take more control over their images may soon put a stop to all this larking around, at least on a couple of the most popular platforms.  In a recent announcement, the social network’s Product Manager of Creator and Publisher Experience Dave Axelgard explains how Facebook’s newest addition to their Creator Studio platform, Rights Manager for Images, will assist publishers in keeping track of their content across Facebook and Instagram:

Today, we are introducing Rights Manager for Images, a new version of Rights Manager that uses image matching technology to help creators and publishers protect and manage their image content at scale.”  [Read More]

According to the Rights Manager introduction page, content to be protected is first placed into a reference library:

To get started, you’ll add content you’ve created and want to protect into a reference library. Rights Manager will take it from there, finding any content on Facebook and Instagram that matches yours. You can also adjust the match settings to specify such things as if your ownership should apply worldwide or only in certain locations.”  [Read More]

After a match is discovered, the creator can choose to either monitor, block or allow the image.  It’s not clear whether the tool will eventually be rolled out to all users, but at the moment, those wishing to participate are required to submit an application, and the accompanying guidance suggests that the feature is mainly targeting those in charge of large content catalogues (e.g. stock image libraries), much like music publishers, who were given extra incentives earlier this year by way of additional control over video content:

A powerful and always-advancing platform, Rights Manager is built for creators and publishers who have a large or growing catalog of content that people love to share. Delivering a high-level of insight and detail for both your account and your files, it helps protect your creations and drive the right results for your goals.”  [Read More]

Aside from the obvious David and Goliath type scenario whereby a popular brand or news outlet takes legal action against a small-town teenager for reposting a protected image, the issue of personality rights (which we don’t have here in the UK) could also enter the fray. For example, could the Rights Manager mechanism be used by a celebrity who decides they’ve seen enough of a particular photograph of them in an immoderate pose and wishes to scattergun a bunch of takedown requests?

Like many areas of our online and offline lives at the current time, there is a chance that such a program could create an additional schism in our already divided communities, especially considering online copyright is already such a grey area.  Many social media users will undoubtedly regard rights management as a manifestation of the ‘fun police’, whereas individual artists, photographers and digital creators might welcome this as a long-awaited chance to formally claim ownership of their work and claw back some kind of revenue for their efforts. Or at least dispute the use of their work and attempt to sue someone.

As long as the large content players such as stock image libraries are buttered up and onside, it might not bother Facebook that they run the risk of being seen as the King Canute of free digital expression, but there is also the possibility that their attempts at enforcing rights, if too heavy-handed or indiscriminate, could backfire as users either find new ways to circumvent copyright mechanisms or simply migrate their meme recycling activities to a new platform.

It will be interesting to see how this evolves and whether the old adage “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” will remain largely unchallenged, or whether Facebook’s latest rights management update heralds the era of a new, less magnanimous and more litigious social media playbook.

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