User-generated content (UGC) can be a great marketing asset. Customer reviews, photos, videos, and other UGC on your website or social media can boost engagement and provide social proof. But there are legal considerations around using UGC. This guide will examine UGC laws and best practices on legally clearing rights to reuse consumer content in your marketing.
What is User-Generated Content?
User-generated content refers to any form of content created and shared by your users or customers, as opposed to content produced directly by your brand. Common types of UGC include:
- Reviews and ratings
- Comments and forum/discussion posts
- Social shares and tags
- User-submitted articles and blog content
Essentially, if users are creating and uploading content related to your business – you want to be sure you have the legal right to reuse it.
Why Legally Clearing UGC Rights Matters
There are a few reasons you need to be thoughtful about legally clearing UGC reuse rights:
IP and Copyright Law
User-generated content is protected by intellectual property laws. Users own the copyright on original content they create, such as photos, videos, articles, comments, etc. Reusing their content without proper licensing can constitute copyright infringement.
For example, a hotel was sued for copyright infringement for reposting a user’s vacation photo in social media and marketing materials without permission.
Many privacy laws also cover the reuse of user data, including UGC. For example, Europe’s GDPR requires opt-in consent to process user content for new purposes.
Specifically, GDPR prohibits using a customer’s review for ads without first gaining additional consent beyond the website’s terms of service.
FTC Endorsement Guidelines
The FTC regulates endorsements and testimonials in advertising. User content should reflect genuine user experiences and you need disclosures around compensation.
The FTC fined a company $2.5 million for deceptively using affiliate UGC as independent customer endorsements without disclosure of the financial relationship.
Being transparent around UGC reuse and respecting user rights builds consumer trust in your brand. You want to avoid “borrowing” their content in ways they may not expect.
For example, a beauty brand’s repurposing of user photos in ads without permission created backlash around exploitative marketing practices.
UGC Content Licensing Models
There are a few common licensing models for legally clearing rights to reuse user-generated content in your marketing.
Opt-In Consent License
With this model, users grant you license to reuse their content only after giving express opt-in consent. Consent could be gathered at time of content submission or through a bulk consent campaign for existing UGC.
Pros: Very strong legal compliance, respects user control of data.
Cons: Adds consent acquisition burden, excludes existing content where no consent was gained.
Here your Terms include a broad upfront license grant by users to reuse content. Consent is given at signup before contributing any UGC.
Pros: Allows reuse of all content subject to Terms.
Cons: Weaker consent, risks user feeling misled if unexpected content reuse.
You reuse UGC based on the implied premise that by sharing publicly, users want exposure and consent to reuse.
Pros: Very easy to implement, no consent needed.
Cons: Has weakest legal footing of the models. Higher risk of complaints.
Best Practices for Legally Clearing UGC Rights
Now let’s review some best practices for legally clearing rights to user-generated content under each model.
Opt-In Consent Licensing
With opt-in consent licensing, you gain an express content license only after user’s affirmative consent. Here are some best practices to implement it:
Point of Content Submission
- When users create UGC like reviews, photos, etc., provide a consent checkbox to allow reuse rights. Often this is missed if only in Terms.
- Make consent opt-in, not opt-out default. Avoid pre-checked boxes.
- Disclose specific marketing uses – ads, social media, website use, etc.
- Clarify license duration if not perpetual.
For example, a travel site’s review submission form allows users to check a box to consent to reuse of their review in social media and TV ads for 1 year.
Consent Renewal Campaigns
- Audit existing UGC library, segregate consented vs. non-consented content.
- For large UGC libraries, seek renewal consent from top creators.
- Email campaign should educate users, provide opt-in methods, and offer value in exchange for consent.
- Adding consent fields directly on UGC posts allows incremental renewal.
- Monitor renewal rates and adjust incentives or messaging as needed.
For example, an app offered users a discounted subscription for one year in exchange for permission to reuse their positive app reviews and screenshots.
UGC with Sensitive Data
- Scrutinize UGC with personal or confidential user data more closely before reuse.
- Consider colabeling, editing, or aggregation methods to anonymize sensitive UGC.
- Gain separate consent to use identifiable UGC with personal data, don’t rely on blanket permission.
For instance, a health site取得d specific consent to reuse a user’s testimonial detailing their medical history, rather than relying on the broad Terms of Service.
This model involves upfront Terms granting broad UGC licensing when users sign up or post content. Here are some best practices:
Draft Reuse Rights Broadly
- Seek expansive reuse rights in Terms – marketing, ads, redistribution, commercial use, etc.
- No limitations on duration, medium, geography, or context.
- Avoid language limiting license to the site or platform itself.
For example, Terms could allow reuse of UGC in “online and offline promotional materials, in any format, worldwide, indefinitely.”
Prominently Disclose Terms
- Link to Terms near main call-to-action buttons to improve notice.
- Don’t bury Terms under secondary menus users may overlook.
- Reconfirm acceptance for key actions like reviews, content uploads.
One best practice is linking to Terms of Service right on review submission forms to reinforce consent.
- Periodically re-promote Terms to users through emails, site notices, etc.
- Remind users of reuse rights when they contribute new UGC.
- Maintain visible Terms link in website and app footers.
For example, an email encouraging reviews could end with “Remember, by submitting your review, you agree to our Terms allowing us to share it in promotions.”
Monitor User Feedback
- Watch user complaints, opt-outs around content reuse.
- If high volume, revisit approach for better alignment with user expectations.
- Provide opt-out methods for users to exclude UGC from reuse.
Implied Content Licensing
This approach relies on the premise that by sharing publicly, users imply consent to reuse their UGC. Here are some tips:
Limit Commercial Use
- Avoid heavily commercial reuse like paid ads or merchandise.
- Keep reuse in context like social shares, aggregating reviews.
- Don’t overstate endorsement without clarity UGC is user-supplied.
For example, a hotel website reposting a visitor’s vacation photo risks overstepping implied consent compared to sharing the photo on the brand’s Instagram travel gallery.
Attribute and Credit
- Always credit authorship to original creator.
- Link to source URL of UGC piece when feasible.
- Properly identify testimonials/reviews as user-generated.
A best practice is adding “Shared by [username]” or “User Submission” whenever UGC is displayed.
- If users object, remove their content immediately upon request.
- Don’t argue implied consent if complaint volume is high.
- Shift to opt-in model if pushback indicates brand trust issues.
For example, listening to users retracting implied license grants and removing content demonstrates respect for their rights.
Special Cases in Legally Clearing UGC
There are also some special use cases that require extra diligence when reusing user content.
If your brand jointly creates UGC with users through contests, campaigns, etc. – establish clear licensing terms upfront for both parties’ IP rights in the collaboration agreement. Don’t assume full license to reuse their contribution without permission.
For example, a co-created contest video would need both the brand and user’s consent terms spelled out before launching the campaign.
Seek intellectual property assignment agreements with employees if their job involves creating branded content, reviews, forum posts, etc. Otherwise they retain IP rights.
For instance, formal IP agreements ensure a social media manager’s tweets and posts become fully-owned brand content.
Licenses from Other Platforms
Review third-party platform Terms for any additional restrictions when pulling UGC originally posted elsewhere. For example, scraping content may violate platform Terms.
Specifically, you couldn’t take reviews off another site without permission given license limits.
Anonymous Unattributed UGC
While anonymous uncredited UGC cuts attribution compliance needs, it increases licensing gray areas. Be cautious about commercializing unattributed content where provenance and permission are unclear.
For example, an anonymous viral tweet reposted as a promoted post could elicit complaints about lack of licensing. Attribution helps reduce this risk.
Minimizing UGC Legal Risks
Some final tips to minimize legal risks around UGC reuse:
- Seek counsel to review UGC policies for compliance with IP, privacy and advertising laws.
Having an attorney audit monetization of UGC, opt-in consent flows, and attribution practices is wise.
- Train social media staffers on proper attribution, labeling marketed UGC.
For example, formal training can explain when disclaimers like “User Submission” are mandatory.
- Act promptly to address DMCA copyright notices related to UGC.
Diligently honoring takedowns demonstrates respect for IP rights.
- Have user-friendly takedown processes if owners want content removed.
Allowing UGC opt-outs directly within your platform improves accountability.
User-generated content offers a free promotional asset if you responsibly establish licensing rights and properly attribute authorship. Be thoughtful about consent practices that respect user IP and privacy. With care taken on the front-end, UGC can become an owned marketing channel that delivers authenticity and amplification.
Summary of Best Practices
- Opt-in consent provides the strongest compliance for UGC reuse rights.
- Expansive Terms of Service reuse clauses should be prominently displayed and reconfirmed.
- Implied licensing has risks if user permissions are unclear or commercial use is heavy.
- Special cases like co-created content require tailored licensing treatment.
- Regularly train staff on labeling UGC, obtaining rights, and handling takedowns.
- Consult legal counsel to review UGC policies and consent flows.
- Inventory existing content and segregate consented vs non-consented items.
- Seek opt-in consent for greater commercial applications of UGC.
- Add consent checkboxes directly within UGC creation workflows.
- Monitor user feedback and complaints around content reuse practices.
You’re right, I can expand the FAQ answers with more detail and plain English explanations:
How exactly should UGC be attributed to avoid implied consent risks?
To avoid misrepresenting UGC as fully authorized branded content, you should credit and identify it as user-generated. For example, posting a photo could say “Photo courtesy of @johnsmith” or have the username in the image itself. For reviews, put “Review by @kat123” above it. Using labels like “User Submission,” “Testimonial,” or “UGC” helps clarify it’s from an outside user, not the brand. Links back to the original social media post or review show it wasn’t created specifically for your marketing. Making attribution prominent right on the visual content itself, not just in a caption, prevents it looking like fully owned brand content.
What disclosures are needed when employees post positive UGC?
If staff or brand representatives leave reviews of your business or product, the FTC’s endorsement guidelines say you must disclose their material connection. For example, an employee review should have “Acme Co. representative” underneath to reveal it wasn’t from an independent consumer. Similarly, influencer posts promoted by the brand should follow FTC guidelines to use #sponsored or similar hashtags denoting it’s a paid endorsement. Overall, ensure employees comply with disclosure rules for both authentic personal UGC and sponsored posts.
What are the risks of relying only on DMCA takedowns after unauthorized UGC reuse?
While the DMCA takedown process gives a way to remove infringing copyright content, it has some pitfalls if overly relied on compared to proactively gaining reuse rights:
- It only applies to copyright claims, but UGC reuse could also violate publicity rights or platform Terms without being an actual copyright issue.
- Overburdening users with reactive takedowns they have to submit strains brand trust and relationships.
- Just because improperly used content can eventually be removed post-hoc via DMCA doesn’t mean you had the proper licenses to use it in the first place.
How can companies respond to UGC licensing complaints arising from implied consent reuse?
If you receive user complaints about UGC being repurposed beyond what implied consent permits, the best response is:
- Apologize for overstepping the assumed permissions and immediately take down the content in question.
- Review your UGC policies and consider shifting high-risk uses like ads to an opt-in consent model instead to be more conservative.
- Increase training for marketers on UGC rights clearance and emphasizing brand safety considerations when leveraging outside content.
What are some creative ways to make the UGC consent process more engaging?
Rather than just legalese checkboxes, make granting UGC consent fun and rewarding:
- Frame it as joining an “exclusive content insider club” that unlocks perks.
- Turn it into a shareable social moment – “Unlock my pics for the brand’s Instagram!”
- Leverage gamification – grant badges and points for sharing rights.
- Tie it to loyalty programs – provide points/status for consenting.
- Make select UGC opportunities competitive like contests to fuel participation.
How can companies involve legal teams in UGC strategy?
Bring legal counsel into the process early when building UGC initiatives to spot potential issues, not just approve already planned campaigns. Ways to collaborate:
- Review consent flows, permissions language, and opt-in designs for compliance.
- Provide guidance on balancing branded content vs. raw authentic UGC.
- Advise on FTC disclosure requirements around employee and influencer content.
- Evaluate risks of specific UGC uses like sweepstakes or paid ads.
- Stay updated on privacy and IP laws impacting UGC reuse policies.
What privacy concerns can arise from mining UGC from other sites?
Pulling UGC like social media posts and reviews from third-party sites can raise privacy risks:
- Scraping likely violates platform Terms of Service.
- Users likely only consented to sharing on the original site, not elsewhere.
- Outside platforms may contain more sensitive, less filtered UGC.
- Users have less control over downstream uses once UGC spreads.
- Combining data from multiple sources compounds privacy impacts.
- Compliance duty often shifts more to the aggregator mining UGC.
How should brands balance showcasing positive UGC while also being transparent?
The best practice is to showcase a representative sample of both positive and negative UGC to avoid cherry-picking an unrealistically positive narrative. Ways to achieve balance:
- Pull representative excerpts and ratings from broader review sources, don’t curate and distort data.
- Create UGC content highlight reels that blend positive and constructive feedback.
- Contextualize any heavily curated UGC collections as limited vs. comprehensive samples.
Transparency is key – consumers can spot when brands showcase only unanimous praise in their UGC.
What special considerations apply to obtaining UGC consent from minors?
- Review COPPA requirements – verifiable parental consent may be required for UGC usage from children under 13.
- Anonymous UGC is lower risk, but still evaluate context of minor content use.
- Flag any confirmed underage accounts and seek consent re-verification when they turn 18.
- Try to detect adult content misrepresentations by underage users upon submission.
- Limit certain UGC collection from minors (e.g. geotags, school names disclosed).
How can brands encourage more diverse, inclusive UGC contributions?
- Promote UGC opportunities beyond existing customer/fan base to get new voices.
- Spotlight underrepresented user segments in marketing showcasing UGC.
- Monitor UGC selection bias – seek wide cross-section of demographics.
- Set contributor quotas for diversity if needed to prevent imbalanced curation.
- Convey inclusive values and content standards upfront to attract diverse UGC.
What brand risks are introduced when reposting anonymous unverified UGC accounts?
- Lack of attribution raises doubts the content is even user-generated.
- Anonymity enables spread of misinformation or harmful UGC.
- Brand seen as amplifying anonymous opinions they can’t verify.
- Minor impersonation more likely without identity checks.
- Blurs lines on whether brand endorses inflammatory viewpoints in reposted UGC.
How can the UGC approval process balance efficiency with legal diligence?
- Automate scans for profanity, copyrighted material, and facial recognition.
- Flag high-risk content for manual review by trained moderators.
- Maintain detailed guidelines for approving/rejecting borderline UGC.
- Require second approver sign-off for rejecting high-value contributor submissions.
- Log approvals with license confirmation for audit trail.
- Spot check samples of approved content to ensure policy application integrity.
How should brands evaluate third-party UGC licensing platforms?
When using a third-party platform to manage UGC licensing, vet their practices in:
- Obtaining informed consent from users.
- Accurately representing content usage to contributors.
- Allowing easy content takedowns and opt-outs for users.
- Providing license transparency including allowed uses and durations.
- Handling attribution and disclosure of UGC origin.
- Establishing age and identity verification safeguards.
- Compliance auditing and adherence to changing regulations.
What risks arise from real-time UGC displays like social walls at events?
Consider risks of instantly displaying event attendee posts:
- Difficult to obtain consent amidst the live experience.
- Content could be inappropriate without moderation.
- External posts may assume limited event context.
- Removes control vs. more selective post-event curation.
- Could show unauthorized promotions as pseudo-endorsements.
- Increased pressure for risk-averse brands untested in UGC.
How can music copyright risks be navigated when users submit UGC with songs?
- Specify permitted use of branded music in submission guidelines.
- Auto-detect popular songs and confirm license permissions.
- Mute audio with unlicensed music or replace with royalty-free track.
- Route UGC with uncleared music to manual review.
- Only showcase compliant musical UGC.
- Purchase requisite sync and public performance licenses based on use context.
What ethical concerns arise from using AI to generate synthetic UGC?
Risks of AI-generated synthetic UGC impersonating real users:
- Deceptive implication it’s authentic user content.
- No true user provided underlying experiences referenced.
- Can scale misleading narratives difficult to rebut at scale.
- Removes consent considerations for modeled individuals.
- Defies transparency as content has no real provable origin.