From giant billboards on the highway to tiny pictures that can go viral within seconds, the use of social media sites like Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr has revolutionized the advertising industry.

Companies can now reach their target audiences more quickly and more effectively by taking advantage of instantaneous posting of pictures and blogs. The use of social media apps that allow the quick exchange of photos to other users is rapidly growing.

Apps like Instagram are some of the top social media apps, bringing in more than 200 million active users around the world. See Twitter active users pass 200 million, The Guardian, December 18, 2012. These apps can be a valuable tool for businesses whose advertising depends on the sharing of visual content with their clients.

That’s not all. Third-party analytic apps are beginning to emerge that apply statistical analysis to a company’s social media accounts in order to provide companies with the analytical tools to maximize the impact and scope of their online postings.

For example, Iconosquare is a powerful app that provides tools to help make the most of a company’s Instagram posts, such as growth charts, engagement rates, most-used tags to help maximize visibility, and features such as calculating the best times to post when the community is most active on Instagram.

Corporations can take advantage of these powerful tools to receive the most benefit from the use of social media. The ability to attract clients to a business has become easier and less costly with social media but carries greater legal risks than the billboard-type advertisements that once dominated the advertising industry.

It is important to consider the legal implications of using social media, including: 1) copyright concerns; 2) trademark concerns; 3) privacy concerns; and 4) employee misconduct concerns.

Copyright concerns

Corporations need to be wary of infringing copyright in other works as well as protecting the copyright in their own works. Social media apps like Instagram and Pinterest allow users to copy and link to other users’ photos at an incredibly rapid pace such that it becomes difficult to trace a picture to its original source. Companies should familiarize themselves with Terms of Use policies on social media apps and how complaints of copyright infringement are handled.

Trademark concerns

While the use of social media apps can help build up a company’s brand, the misuse of social media can potentially expose a company to liability for trademark infringement or trademark dilution of others’ brands. Companies who regularly re-post others’ photos or leave comments on others’ photos need to ensure that trademark rights are being respected and that the company’s actions do not negatively impact the brands of other users. Terms of Use policies should be regularly consulted and followed appropriately.

Privacy concerns

Corporations need to be careful that the pictures and blogs they post online do not disclose personal information from their employees or clients in contravention of privacy legislation in their jurisdiction. The use and disclosure of personal information is heavily regulated in many jurisdictions, and the sanctions for failing to comply with the legislation can be very costly to corporations.

Employee misconduct concerns

Many of the legal issues that arise as a result of social media can be managed by ensuring that appropriate workplace policies are in place governing the use of social media by employees. Since corporations can sometimes be held vicariously liable for the conduct of their employees, it is important that employees are properly educated and trained in using social media apps to promote the company’s brand.

In the social media world, a picture can be worth a thousand links but can also carry with it unintended legal liability that can be minimized by taking appropriate steps to both protect a corporation’s own intellectual property as well as respect the intellectual property of others.

Daniel Daniele ( / +1 416 216 2317) an attorney in Norton Rose Fulbright Canada’s Intellectual Property Practice.