Why the Copyright Copypasta Persists

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Cresting at some point yesterday evening, a wave of celebrities began telling Instagram that the service is forbidden from sharing their content. “I do not give Instagram or any entities associated with Instagram permission to use my pictures, information, messages or posts, both past and future,” the copypasta — a slang term for any block of text that gets copied and pasted repeatedly — states. Every instance of the Instagram name is in a different font, which should be an obvious hint that this text is not an original work, and it cites a “new Instagram rule” as reported by “Channel 13” that Instagram now owns everything you post. That’s not how it works, but I am desperately hoping you already knew this.

The myth of platforms wresting ownership of intellectual property from users is an internet tale as old as time, and I have no idea why this particular example has caught on so strongly, especially among the celebrity crowd. Maybe growing fears of the power of Big Tech brought it back up to the surface. Like other privacy controls, the public rebuke lets us feel some semblance of power over systems we cannot effectively control.

Of course, posting this message on your Instagram page like a warding charm has no effect. But copypasta proliferates because the idea it is based upon is almost true. The idea that platforms own anything you upload and can use it however they want stems from a broad clause that most terms of use include. Here is the vital component from Instagram’s:

[W]hen you share, post, or upload content that is covered by intellectual-property rights (like photos or videos) on or in connection with our Service, you hereby grant to us a non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works of your content (consistent with your privacy and application settings).

That stipulation — the user granting the platform an endless license to repurpose the user’s work however it sees fit — certainly sounds like a complete and total transfer of ownership in all but name.

The reality is that platforms need users to grant these permissions so that they can perform basic functions. When you load up your Instagram feed, Instagram transmits media to your device over the internet. Every time you refresh Instagram is, in effect, once again redistributing the work of other users to you. Because of that, it needs the blanket permission contained in broad clauses like the one above simply to move data around its network and show it to other users. The extreme alternative to these blanket permissions would be Instagram seeking your explicit permission every time a user wants to load your Instagram page.

It’s not really our fault that we’re paranoid about this stuff. Nobody reads the terms of service, and platforms know this and have been taking advantage of our collective EULA phobia for years, granting themselves permission to surveil our activity in great detail or sneak in forced-arbitration clauses. Back when terms of use were written in endless blocks of text in nearly impenetrable legalese, a sentence like Instagram’s licensing might be regarded as a trick.

Now Instagram and other big platforms have learned to spell things out in plain English: Right before the sentence granting them an endless license to users’ content, the terms state, “We do not claim ownership of your content that you post on or through the Service.” You could easily be forgiven, though, for maintaining your skepticism.

Why Celebrities Fall for the ‘New Instagram Rule’ Hoax