Social Networking Sites: Users Beware

Social networking sites can help users communicate with friends, find people with similar interests, facilitate professional networking and give exposure to lesser-known artists. With these sites becoming all the rage, there is now a question of who owns the information posted on user profiles. Once you create a profile and post your thoughts, do you have any rights over your ideas and what your name is associated with?

Courts have recently grappled with these issues. In Hays Specialist Recruitment (Holdings) Limited and Another v Ions and Another, the court held that a profile and contact list made in the course of employment actually belongs to the employer. This is consistent with the Canadian Copyright Act section 13(3). In Firsht v Readman, the court awarded damages for defamation and libel after a false profile had been created in the name of the applicant, by a former friend. This enforced the applicant’s moral right to association and the right to the use of their likeness.

It appears that courts place great importance on considering what purpose a profile page was created for, when deciding who owns the ideas expressed therein. This is important because the difference between owners and creators is still quite murky in the case of social networking sites. The aforementioned legal developments are positive steps towards establishing some rights but there is still room for further clarification, especially in regards to economic rights. I believe that certain creative expressions on social networking sites should be protected by copyright law. Copyright law protects expression in order to encourage innovation, and allows creators to authorize and assign economic rights to others.

Many networking sites believe that they own their users’ information. This user information is then shared with third parties intending to provide targeted advertisements based on what is expressed on the user’s profile page and contact list. However, the users of these sites are likely not joining and posting for the purpose of sharing their information with unauthorized third parties. Users of these sites likely believe that they own the information that they create and post. Many users post items on their profile such as poems, photos, pictures of their artworks, or copies of their songs. People post to communicate and share their creations with friends, and probably do not expect these ideas to be reproduced or communicated to third parties. There should be greater privacy controls and transparency with what the user intends to use the networking site for, and what the site plans on doing with the user information. Currently, networking sites can utilize private user information for their own financial gain. Users should have a clear picture of what rights they do and do not have in relation to what they post on these sites. If it is readily apparent to users that the website owns their information, then users may think twice before using these venues to share their private creations with friends and the rest of the world.