Libraries and Social Media: Social Media Can Prove Highly Useful to Libraries but Can Also Pose a Variety of Legal Risks. Librarians Need to Develop and Implement Usage Policies before Problems Arise

By Carson, Bryan M. | Information Outlook, October-November 2010 | Go to article overview

Libraries and Social Media: Social Media Can Prove Highly Useful to Libraries but Can Also Pose a Variety of Legal Risks. Librarians Need to Develop and Implement Usage Policies before Problems Arise


Carson, Bryan M., Information Outlook


When I first wrote about libel and defamation in 2001, Facebook had yet to be invented. When my book, The Law of Libraries and Archives, came out in 2007, tweeting was only for the birds. Certainly, Facebook, Twitter and other new social media tools have had a significant impact, both on society and on the practice of librarianship. The legal implications of these tools are arising not from new laws, however, but from existing laws being applied to new situations.

For example, the right of privacy was first articulated by future Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis and his law partner, Samuel Warren, in a famous 1890 Harvard Law Review article. Today, the principles discussed in that article are being applied to everything from photographs of library events to Twitter posts.

Privacy law, while important, is not the only legal issue related to social media. Copyright concerns are always present in this area, and it is possible to run afoul of defamation law. Organizations should also be careful not to let out trade secrets through social media. In some situations, blog postings by employees may expose an organization to liability.

I do not mean to imply that social media should be avoided; in fact, I am very much in favor of using Twitter and Facebook to promote library activities and share knowledge. Throughout my career, however, I have found myself repeating the same warning over and over: A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Translation: Go ahead and use social media in your libraries--but use them thoughtfully, implementing proper policies ahead of time to avoid problems in the future.

Contests, Endorsements, and User-Generated Content

Many organizations have begun holding contests with social media such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. For example, you might ask clients to generate videos, with the winner getting a prize. This is a great way to get your clients involved in marketing, but it raises several legal issues.

First, it is important to review the policies of the social media site you are using. For example, you must obtain written approval from Facebook before conducting or advertising a promotion on Facebook. In some cases, you must use specific language when promoting your contest. Facebook also mandates that contests be open only to users who are 18 and older. (I have occasionally had to remind our public library colleagues that this means they shouldn't sponsor a Facebook contest for their young adult readers.) I recommend reading the terms of service and promotion guidelines carefully before engaging in any type of contest with social media.

Be cautious about using endorsements and user-generated content, because they present some significant potential legal pitfalls. For example, suppose you receive a YouTube video starring John Doe. Did he produce this video entirely by himself? Who held the camera? Who wrote the script? Was there a director? Under copyright law, the person who wrote the script owns that part of the copyright, while the videographer may own the copyright to the "film version."

Attorney Deb Peckham (2010) offers the following advice when dealing with user-generated content:

  Of course, most companies are well aware that copyright issues lurk
  behind [user-generated] content and warn contestants not to use, for
  example, third-party music or video clips without express
  authorization. However, many people forget that under copyright law,
  if someone else held the camera, wrote part of the script or even
  appeared in the work, these other contributors also might have strong
  intellectual property rights of their own. Therefore, contestant
  forms should include an assignment of rights from everyone who helped
  create the content, or at a minimum, an express representation by the
  named entrant that he or she has obtained an assignment of rights to
  use all of the contributions. … 

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Libraries and Social Media: Social Media Can Prove Highly Useful to Libraries but Can Also Pose a Variety of Legal Risks. Librarians Need to Develop and Implement Usage Policies before Problems Arise
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