Last year, Judd Apatow, Debra Messing and Rick Perry — the U.S. Secretary of Energy and guy in control of America’s nuclear weapons — fell for a lie that’s been circulating on Instagram: that Instagram changed its policies so that they could use all of your photos, messages, and other information at their disposal. In reality, Instagram doesn’t legally “own” your photos – but it can use them in any way it sees fit, forever.
Naturally, and without fact-checking, celebrities began re-posting a warning via screenshot to millions of their followers. “Don’t forget the new Instagram rule starts tomorrow where they can use your photos,” the message reads with little punctuation. “[…] Everything you’ve ever posted becomes public from today even messages that have been deleted or the photos not allowed.” In all-caps, the message also contained language that stated that they would not grant Instagram permission to use their images or messages.
The message looks like chain mail sent from your aunt on a Hotmail account, and yet, you couldn’t escape it if you followed any random celebrity on Instagram.
So does Instagram own my photos?
Technically, it’s not true. Instagram hasn’t recently changed its policies nor has it changed its terms-of-service concerning ownership. The platform still does not claim ownership over your photos. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson for Instagram also denied the post’s validity.
But they do already have the right to use your photos and have for a long time — a non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide licence, to be exact. They also have permission to use your username, profile photo, and “information about your relationships.” (They don’t, however, have the explicit right to your private messages.)
If the rumours were true, you could expect celebrities like Kylie Jenner to jump to a different photo-sharing service.
It begs another important question regarding these types of hoaxes: Does sharing a post that supposedly revokes permission from a platform like Instagram or Facebook carry any actual weight? Snopes recently re-shared its story in which the site fact-checked a similar hoax that circulated on Facebook. (Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012).
As they point out, once you successfully sign up for an account on Facebook or Instagram, you agree to its terms and privacy policies, meaning public declarations like these are pretty useless.
And according to Eric Perrott, a trademark & copyright attorney, there’s not a whole lot you can do to protect yourself on Instagram. “Users can consider adding a watermark or other physical attribution that could not be easily removed, but this would likely be a problem for aesthetics,” he said on email. “Otherwise, I think the answer is to carefully consider the commercial value of any photos/art that are being posted and consider either a more content creator-friendly site or self-hosting any content that he or she wants exclusive control over.”
Snopes does offer a few, limited alternatives: You could cancel your account, though you may have already ceded some rights. Or if you’re lucky, just don’t sign up and they can never use your photos.
This story has been updated since its original publication.