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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > April 2020

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Vol. 40 No. 3 — April 2020

Can Facebook Steal My Stuff? Your Studentsí Intellectual Property Rights on Social Media
by Joyce P. Johnston

It finally happened last spring. In May 2019, WhatsApp was successfully hacked by Pegasus malware. Encryption had failed on the last truly secure site among major social media. It was the one place participants could be sure that their postings—their intellectual property—would not be altered or stolen (Bershidsky 2019).

Because WhatsApp isn’t as popular in the U.S., the hack doesn’t seem as if was a major problem for American librarians and teachers. However, this lack of popularity means that young U.S. users aren’t always supervised by knowledgeable instructional staffers when they enroll. In addition, WhatsApp’s intense focus on privacy completely obscured the question of ownership of all those heavily encrypted files.

So what happens to the photos, videos, and VoIP conversations that unsuspecting WhatsApp users create? It helps to know that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, as is Instagram, a favorite among college students (Snider 2014), so all three platforms’ policies are the same. That doesn‘t necessarily mean good news, though. The terms of usage convey “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook” (Bowen 2015). In other words, any one of the three sites can use the photos and videos you post (which you own) in any way it sees fit, without paying you, and it can transfer that license to third parties. This applies to school or library social media accounts, as well as to students—no matter how young.

Students or faculty members who aim to protect themselves from ill-advised posts or inappropriate pictures—not to mention Facebook bullying—by deleting their accounts need to know that this is only a partial solution. Unlike your deleted content, Facebook retains a log of your keystrokes forever, so that it or any law-enforcement agency or advertiser could potentially track every friend request, every website, and every advertiser you have ever visited—information that’s often valued for security checks, immigration status, and legal investigations (Karlis 2019).

While it’s true that Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram’s licenses to use your content end with deletion, your rights to stop others from using it are very limited. None of the three will take action to find and remove content that you shared with others or that the platform itself used for advertising or marketing (Bowen 2015). An initiative begun last August to allow users to block recording of their commercial or employer interactions online (aka “off-Facebook activity”) may provide some control, but it is now available only in Ireland, South Korea, and Spain (Egan 2019). For the foreseeable future, “Keep in mind that information that others have shared about you is not part of your account and will not be deleted when you delete your account,” as Facebook says in its data policy (Karlis 2019). In a legal situation, school or district administrators could also use that data to investigate student or faculty conduct.

Because of Facebook’s fame as the most popular social media site among adults, it’s easy to forget that it isn’t the most popular one among younger users. It is viewed by 51% (and falling) of teens age 13–17 and is substantially outranked by YouTube, at 85%. (Interestingly, Pew Research Center reports that “Seven-in-ten teens living in households earning less than $30,000 a year say they use Facebook, compared with 36% whose annual family income is $75,000 or more.”) Thirty-two percent of teens say that YouTube is the site they use most often (Anderson and Jiang 2018). YouTube’s large number of how-to videos (trending now among adults as well) and mashups of current movies—including documentaries—gives it tremendous potential for instruction. A recent search for “Venezuela news,” for example, produced 21 results posted within the previous week (Jan. 2–8, 2020). This would be invaluable for a social studies or international literature teacher whose materials are not as current, for a librarian who wants to build a book display, or for a school counselor who’s concerned about students with Venezuelan ties.

A side note to librarians: Probably the best-known instructional aid on YouTube is Khan Academy, which has been substituting successfully both for the private math and science tutors that many students cannot afford and for in-class acceleration for gifted students (Thompson 2011). Librarians can search its catalog for use with multiple student levels and subjects, including Khan Academy Kids for preschoolers and the official practice videos for the SATs. Most helpful to schools with diverse populations and/or limited budgets, all videos are available in 13 languages, with some available in 28 others (Khan Academy 2020). In my home state of Virginia, the Financial Literacy Video Series has been helpful for the state’s required semester of personal finance. One disadvantage is that users cannot submit content or correct errors in the videos; they will need to contact the Khan Academy staff instead. All materials are produced and monitored by Khan Academy staffers.

Student-generated videos are common on YouTube, especially music recitals, choir performances, and drama productions. In general, YouTube approaches user-generated content much the way that Facebook, Snapchat, and WhatsApp do, only more so. While it does protect student uploads from commercial exploitation by viewers, who are limited to personal use only, its terms of service explicitly give it the right to “use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content in connection with the Service and YouTube’s (and its successors’ and affiliates’) business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing” (Terms of Service 2019). There is, however, one recent positive upgrade to content ownership. As of Oct. 2, 2019, Google, which owns YouTube, allows users to reclaim ownership of all Google searches, requests using Google Voice Assistant, and location history by deleting them if desired (Chen 2019).

Once students reach college age, and on through their mid-20s, their tastes change sharply. Facebook, one of my university seniors once told me, is relegated to communicating with family, since “It is an old people’s website.” Much more often, Instagram (71% of those age 18–24) and Snapchat (78%) are their media of choice (Smith and Anderson 2018), followed by YouTube. This group is of particular interest to public school librarians since it typically includes tech-savvy preservice and student teachers, as well as beginning teachers.

Snapchat is particularly interesting because it is the only major social media site that is independent of bigger companies. Snap, Inc. owns both it and Bitmoji, a site that allows users to create avatars that look like themselves in many different moods and situations, then insert the images anywhere a regular emoji would appear. Bitmoji’s cheerful, nonviolent, nonpolitical atmosphere makes it very appealing, but it has the same intellectual property issues as Snapchat. Both sites claim terms of service very similar to YouTube’s: The content of your posts is your responsibility, but the use and distribution of it is at Snap’s discretion. This seems counterintuitive, since Snapchat’s distinguishing feature is that its photos and messages disappear shortly after someone receives them. Unfortunately for those who value their privacy or control over their posts, the idea that the content is ephemeral is only an illusion. In reality, Snap routinely collects “whatever information you volunteer, how you communicate with other Snapchatters and content you create on our services” (Privacy Policy 2019). In addition, it claims the perpetual right to “use your name, likeness, and voice, including in connection with commercial or sponsored content,” without any financial compensation to you (Snap, Inc., 2019).

Instagram has much the same appeal as Snapchat and is based on photos that may or may not disappear quickly, depending on the creator’s choice. It offers all sorts of stickers, color effects, and filters to make the photos or videos more interesting and creative. Both it and Snapchat encourage users to create “stories” or collections of photos and videos that tell a tale, usually of events in the user’s life—a powerful draw for young writers who want to hone their narrative craft as well as get personal attention. Its distinctive features include add-on apps: Boomerang, which creates custom GIFs; Hyper­lapse, which creates time-lapse videos; and Layout, which creates image collages. Art, digital design, and creative writing teachers especially might want to practice research within Snapchat and Instagram for models of mixed media and narrative or have students create “dummy” posts as a class assignment. Because it’s owned by Facebook, though, Instagram’s terms of service are the same, so any material actually posted will become Facebook’s property rather than the students’—a real problem should they wish to use their creations in portfolios, shows, or college or art school applications.

Looking to the future, librarians may wish to keep a particular eye on student users of TikTok, now wildly popular abroad. Owned by a Chinese media company, TikTok and its Chinese version, Douyin, claim 500 million active users in 155 countries and 79 languages (Mohsim 2019). It is not as well-known in the U.S.—indeed, it doesn’t even show up on Pew Research Center’s annual survey of social media usage—but it is gaining exposure rapidly. It appeared in a Super Bowl commercial in February 2020 and has hooked up with Chipotle, Mountain Dew, and Hyundai, as well as promoted music by Lil Nas X and Justin Bieber (Alexander 2020).

TikTok’s target audience is teens, who can “create and share funny videos while singing, dancing, or lip-syncing to their favorite tunes” (Mohsim 2019). TikTok is particularly attractive because its short—often goofy—music videos are fun to watch, especially since the company has a history of banning political or controversial content (Matsakis 2020). In addition, “the platform serves a different purpose than YouTube, Instagram, or Snapchat. TikTok is a platform mainly aimed at content creators. And the ease with which anyone can become a content creator, is one of the many factors that gives TikTok an advantage over the competition” (Mohsim 2019). Also, “It can produce viral stars out of nowhere and is, in essence, a fame factory. These factors alone explain its rapid growth and enduring popularity among Generation Z” (Hughes 2020).

All of this makes it seem as if TikTok is a wonderful, safe place for young users to create and upload their content, especially since its new 2020 community guidelines stress child safety, firearms control, diversity, and nonviolence. It specifically bans “underage delinquent behavior” (13). However, several issues exist. The first is that users must have PayPal accounts so they can buy sponsored content directly on the site—a practice that sets off alarm bells among parents and middle schools. While 41% of all TikTok users are 16–24 years old, TikTok allows them to be as young as 13. Anecdotal reports claim that many simply lie about their ages and are actually 10–12 years old (Mohsim 2019). Schools might consider blocking access to PayPal and similar sites to prevent students from buying sponsored items and other commercial property on school terminals.

A second issue is that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has serious reservations about TikTok’s owner, ByteDance. ByteDance has already endured a major hacking scandal that resulted in users receiving bogus messages that appeared to legitimately come from within TikTok. As a result, the DoD has blocked TikTok from all government-owned phones, including those in the military services, “to proactively address existing and emerging threats” (Vigdor 2020). ByteDance has since divided its platform into Douyin within China and TikTok everywhere else, releasing a new set of community guidelines stressing political neutrality, but the DoD’s reasoning is that it is still a Chinese company—indeed, the only internationally successful Chinese social network—and thus is ultimately controllable by the Chinese government for its own purposes (Hughes 2020). Users—including schools—who are concerned about the safety of their data or their vulnerability to disinformation should consider all of this before downloading the app.

Ownership of those videos on TikTok is also a serious intellectual property issue, since they can be uploaded to Instagram and YouTube directly from TikTok. Uploaders then lose all control of their videos on those two sites, even when they delete their TikTok accounts. “You’ll lose access to the videos you’ve posted. You’ll lose access to purchased items and won’t be able to receive a refund,” per the Customer Support page (Delete your account, n. d.). This applies even to TikTok’s famous collection of influencers, who are usually paid a flat fee of $500 to join the program, along with virtual coins that users can give to performers they like, redeemable for money or products (Glum 2019). The offer can be very tempting to young video creators, especially since it includes exposure on YouTube and Instagram, plus a chance to attract deals with commercial advertisers. But the loss of content ownership constitutes a major drawback. Essentially, any shared TikTok production lives forever outside of its maker’s control.

At least for the foreseeable future, it seems clear that anyone uploading material to any social media site faces essentially the same scenario: greatly enhanced access to publicity, Likes, and shares in exchange for immediate and permanent surrender of content rights. The essential realization is that while a few sites do protect the identity and privacy of the content creator, most do not. So both personal posts and organizational webpages can lead to market-wide exposure not just for individual librarians, students, or faculty members, but for community groups, schools, and school systems.


Alexander, J. (Feb. 2, 2020). TikTok Has Its Super Bowl Moment in More Ways Than One.” The Verge website:

Anderson, M. and Jiang, J. (May 31, 2018). “Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018.” Pew Research Center website:

Bershidsky, L. (May 14, 2019). “End-to-End Encryption Isn’t as Safe as You Think.” Bloomberg website:

Bowen, N. (Jan. 28, 2015). “Who Owns Your Instagram Content?” Social Media Law Bulletin website:

Chen, B.X. (Oct. 2, 2019). “How to Set Your Google Data to Self-Destruct.” The New York Times website:

Delete your account. (n. d.) TikTok website:

Egan, E. (Aug. 20, 2019). “Now You Can See and Control the Data That Apps and Websites Share With Facebook.” Facebook website:

Glum, J. (Jan. 10, 2019). “Meet the Head of TikTok, a 35-Year-Old Who Makes Employees Do Push-Ups If Their Videos Don’t Get Enough Likes.” Money website:

Hughes, M. (Feb. 5, 2020). “What Is TikTok, and Why Are Teens Obsessed With It?” How-To Geek website.

Karlis, N. (Feb. 11, 2019). “You Just Deleted Facebook. Can You Trust Facebook to Delete Your Data?” Salon website:

Khan Academy. (2020). “For Every Student, Every Classroom. Real Results.” Khan Academy website:

Matsakis, L. (Jan. 8, 2020). “New Rules, Who Dis: TikTok Overhauls Its Community Guidelines.” WIRED website:

Mohsim, M. (Oct. 22, 2019). 10 TikTok Statistics That You Need to Know in 2020. Oberlo website:

Privacy Policy. (Dec. 18, 2019). Snap, Inc. website:

Smith, A. and Anderson. M. (March 1, 2018). “Social Media Use in 2018.” Pew Research Center website:

Snap, Inc. Terms of Service. (Oct. 31, 2019). Snap, Inc. website:

Snider, B. (Oct. 10, 2014). “Who Legally Owns Your Facebook Posts?” FindLaw website:

Terms of Service. (Dec. 10, 2019). YouTube website:

Thompson, C. (July 15, 2011). “How Khan Academy Is Changing the Rules of Education.” WIRED website:

Vigdor, N. (Jan 4, 2020). “U.S. Military Branches Block Access to TikTok App Amid Pentagon Warning.” The New York Times website:

Joyce P. Johnston, after 30-plus years teaching high school English, continues to be a digital intellectual property specialist and an English professor at George Mason University. This article is based on a presentation she gave at the Internet Librarian conference in Monterey, Calif., in October 2019.