Everything You Need to Know About Copyright on Instagram

Many of us, when we think of copyright, envision that little c inside a circle, usually appended to the title page of a book or the end of a song name. Copyright, however, applies to a vast swath of human creations, and is in no way limited to writing. In fact, you might be surprised by how easily it has kept pace with the modern world … and that includes social media.

If you are an influencer, content creator, or even just a user on Instagram, the law regarding copyright on Instagram is more pertinent to you than you may realize. The unfortunate truth is that Instagram photos follow the same laws that written text, songs, films and other types of creative content do.

That means you can face many of the same consequences on the world’s most famous photo-sharing site as in any other public forum. With potential fines of up to $150,000 and jail time up to 5 years—not to mention a severely smeared reputation—Instagram copyright infringement is the real deal. Even if you don’t face the worst penalties, any accidental or intentional copyright theft can still result in account shutdown, post removal, follower outcry and more.

If you want to engage in fair dealing, post content honorably and avoid Instagram plagiarism, we’ve got you covered. In this article, we will discuss:

  • How copyright infringement works on Instagram
  • What happens if you infringe the rights of others
  • What copyright covers, including words, photos, videos and music
  • How you can protect your own copyrighted works and how to tell if someone has stolen your Instagram photos or other content
  • What you can do if your work gets stolen
  • How to avoid copyright on Instagram

Get ready to respect everyone’s intellectual property rights like a boss, and read on.

Copyright Infringement on Instagram

One of the main reasons copyright on Instagram gets so sticky is because people often treat “community guidelines” as though they are just that … guidelines. But as opposed to Geoffrey Rush’s interpretation of the Pirate’s Code, Instagram’s so-called guidelines are very much rules that need to be followed.

Image of Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean, with meme text reading "They're more what you'd call guidelines"
Barbossa Guidelines [Digital image]. (2022). Retrieved from https://i.imgflip.com/1tdzbm.jpg Click the image above to learn how to cite a meme.
In general, Instagram policies cover music, images, videos, reels, and any other form of content you upload or create in Instagram, including stories and captions. While an overview of their extensive copyright regulations is beyond the scope of this article, Instagram is careful to convey several ideas.

Your Content Is Your Own

When you create content—whether it’s created offsite and uploaded in, or handled fully within the Instagram platform—Instagram does its best to protect that content. Specifically, Instagram says:

  • Your content, assuming a basic level of creativity in its making, is yours and protected under copyright law, even if it only exists on the Instagram platform. The same goes for anyone else’s content.
  • If you own a copyright, you may grant permission to others to use it, but you do not have to allow others on Instagram to use it.
  • Instagram does not copyright your photos or other content just because you upload it to their platform, but you are granting them a license to use it how they want (e.g. in their promotional content) and to disseminate it (e.g. through the algorithm, on the search page, etc.).
  • You own the copyright on all your content as soon as you have “fixed it in a tangible medium,” per basic U.S. copyright law.

Others’ Content Belongs to Them and Is Not Free for Public Use

Similarly, others have copyright protections under the Instagram guidelines and terms of use that you sign when joining. These say that:

  • Just because the content of others exists on Instagram does not mean it is in the public domain, fair use, or otherwise free of U.S. copyright policy, so be extremely careful how you use it.
  • You don’t necessarily have the right to use the content you purchased or licensed elsewhere on the Instagram platform, even if you paid for it.
  • If it does not specifically stated in the license that you can use a piece of content on Instagram—this applies to copyrighted music, Instagram photos, graphics and more—you should not do so.

You Can’t Copyright Just Anything

Just because you take a minute to put a creative spin on something doesn’t mean it’s yours. You cannot, for instance, photograph a famous sculpture, apply your custom filter and then get the little c circle for that picture. Mainly because:

  • You can’t copyright photos of things/places others could also photograph.
  • You can’t do new things with others’ work and call it your own.
  • Similarly, you don’t necessarily own the copyright to a photo or video simply because you are in it, if you are not the creator.

There Are Consequences for Breaking Copyright Rules

People treat Instagram like a playground, and for good reason. It’s bright. It’s colorful. It’s fun. It’s a great place to found a community or a business. But in fact, it is not a playground. It is one of the largest social media platforms and algorithms in the world, and it is governed by very real laws. You don’t want to come down on the wrong side of them, so keep in mind that:

  • You are not immune to copyright infringement laws when you use content without asking simply because you acknowledge the content belongs to someone else. If you can’t tell where work is from and you can’t be sure it’s free to use, don’t use it.
  • Instagram has the right to take down your posts, videos, reels, and any other type of content if they determine you have infringed on copyright rules.
  • If you repeatedly violate Instagram’s terms of use or community guidelines, you can expect to lose your account temporarily or permanently.
  • If you repeatedly violate rules on multiple accounts, Instagram will do its best to prevent you from coming back.

If all this sounds pretty dire, don’t worry. Staying above the law is actually pretty easy on Instagram. Before we discuss that, though, let’s turn our attention to understanding copyright protection, because Instagram users actually have a lot of it.

Understanding Copyright Protection

All original work is eligible for copyright protection, which means that the legal owner and copyright holder has exclusive rights to it. What qualifies as original is the subject of endless legal arguments, but the U.S. Copyright Office defines it as meaning it is was created independently with “a modicum of originality.” Also, it must not be based on the copyrighted work of others. If these qualifications are met, then the copyright owner has the exclusive right to it and can use the copyright protection watermark.

Note that although you do not need to register any work in order for it to earn copyright status, it can help to register works with the Copyright Office to prove that they are yours later, if needed. For instance, if you are posting your art on a free medium such as Instagram, where it is essentially guaranteed to be reshared and possibly stolen, this might be a good idea – particularly if your livelihood is based on it.

How to Avoid Copyright On Instagram

Having discussed how copyright works on Instagram and some of the consequences of violating it, it’s a good idea to create a workflow that helps you effortlessly adhere to copyright law. Luckily, with a few simple steps, you can ensure that your Instagram account always obeys copyright policy.

Only Post Original Work

Hands down the best way to avoid any copyright snafus is by committing to posting content that belongs to you and obeying all copyright rules. The point of Instagram, after all, is to create lovely photos and videos. If you stick to the creator side of things, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be fine. (Note this doesn’t mean others won’t steal your work; more on that below.)

Use A Disclaimer

If you are using the work of others in your Instagram posts and you have permission, use a disclaimer. State who the original author of the work is, that you’re using their work with permission, and, if they are an Instagram user, tag them.

Use a Reposting App to Avoid Copyright

Reposting apps allow you to share the posts of others wholesale, from the photo to the caption, with a little logo in the corner showing this is what you’ve done. It’s a great way to avoid infringement claims, although it’s worth noting that the original creator can still ask you to take it down.

Give Credit To Owners

Again, if the work is not yours, you must give credit to whomever it belongs to. Ideally, you will only credit them because you have already asked them for their permission to use the work on your page. If you haven’t, it’s best to avoid doing so. Even if you have, you must still credit them by name specifically.

Obtain Royalty-free Music and Images

Royalty-free music and images are those you can buy or download for free and use as many times as you like without paying each time. Note that some royalty-free content is allowed for commercial use (when you’re making money off your feed), and some content isn’t. Know the difference.

Avoid Taking Screenshots and Recordings

Screenshots and recordings are not magically free of copyright law. Copyrighted content shouldn’t be shared via screenshot or recording, even if you make it clear it wasn’t yours to begin with. As with any copyrighted material for which you don’t have permission, avoid it.

Don’t Make Assumptions About Music

Instagram has licensed lots of music for you to use. This does not mean that you can go out, download those same songs, and use them on Instagram or off. That’s infringement because you are not the one who holds the licensing contract.

Don’t Reuse Others’ Captions

Copying text directly from captions or stories and using it as your own is – guess what? – still plagiarism. Just because it happens on a social media site doesn’t mean it isn’t IP theft.

Don’t Attempt to Violate Instagram’s Terms and Policies

Think you can get around IG’s copyright rules? You can’t. They’ll know. The legal battles that can encapsulate you aren’t worth trying to get around the rules, so our recommendation will always be to play it safe.

Dealing with Reports and Appeals

Unfortunately, not every interaction you have on Instagram will be a positive one. You may have your content stolen, or you may unwittingly discover that you’ve used content in a way that violates Instagram’s rules or someone else’s rights. Both are manageable situations.

Submitting a Report to Take Down Content

If someone has stolen your work, you can report copyright infringement on Instagram. You will need to include your contact information, a description of what happened, and any proof you can furnish. Most creators report reasonable success rates with this approach.

Sending an Appeal if Your Content is Removed

If you receive a copyright notice because of a potential copyright infringement, but you do not believe you have committed this, you can submit an appeal for Instagram to review the situation. Make sure you’re really in the right before you do this, though, as it may get your account flagged for closer watching.

Final Thoughts

Once again, the main takeaway is that simply because Instagram is a fun place to be and make things, that does not mean there are no hard-and-fast rules. The same is true regarding consequences, of which there can be quite a few. Instead of taking your chances, we recommend you take the above guidelines to heart. They will help you protect your work and yourself, as well as ensure others get the credit they’re due as well.

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