Despite the variety of legal recourse available to copyright owners, exclusive rights to creative content posted in the Twittersphere can sometimes be difficult to enforce and defend.  Complications due to social media websites’ frequently-changing terms of service and viral gossip such as Facebook’s recent “copyright hoax” can leave the copyright owner doubting the strength of his or her legal argument against unauthorized third party use of their copyrighted works.

On January 14, 2013,  however, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York provided copyright owners with a bit of breathing room, recognizing that the blanket copyright license in Twitter’s Terms of Service, which grants in Twitter a non-exclusive, perpetual, world-wide, royalty-free license from the owner, does not extend to third parties.

In Agence France Presse v. Morel, defendant AFP, a foreign news association, was held liable for copyright infringement when it used photographs of the Haitian earthquake that photojournalist Daniel Morel had originally taken and posted on his Twitter page.  AFP asserted an affirmative defense, claiming that Twitter’s terms of service granted an implied license for AFP to use Morel’s works, and that AFP was a third party beneficiary of the contract between Twitter and Morel.

The relevant provisions in Twitter’s terms of service state:

“By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the  Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license…to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media…

You agree that this license includes the right for Twitter to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Twitter…subject to our terms and conditions for such Content use.”

The trial court, however, ultimately rejected AFP’s argument, noting that the agreement as a whole does not appear to grant a license to anyone but Twitter – in the words of District Judge Alison Nathan, “[a] license for one use does not equate to a license for all uses.”

What content owners and posters of owned content alike may be able to take from this is the fact that more courts are recognizing and discussing users’ rights to their posted content. Additionally, at least with respect to Twitter, this trial court opinion has helped to narrow and define the scope of copyright license contained in social media terms of service.

View Judge Nathan’s entire opinion here.

Justin Haddock (, +1 512 536 3024) is an associate in Fulbright’s IP practice group.