As people are told to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic, social media usage has said to have increased by around 20%. Most particularly, people have turned to "TikTok" to pass the time but the platform has come under fire from some music publishing companies for copyright infringement.

Sharing is not always caring

For those not familiar with the concept there is a helpful summary here but, briefly, TikTok is a social media platform used to create and share short videos. Filled with dances, lip-syncing and singalongs, it has provided light relief for many whilst in lockdown. However, rightsholders and publishers have claimed that TikTok does not have the appropriate licences in place for use of their songs, meaning artists are missing out on royalties.

Copyright implications

Copyright protects original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works. The issue in this current situation is the use of music (musical works) as the background to most TikTok videos. Although, with the dances people pour over to perfect constituting dramatic works and the film scripts lip synced to being literary works, TikTok's usage cuts across nearly all works copyright intends to protect.

A copyright owner has exclusive rights to copy the work and issue copies to the public, as well as to perform, show or play their work. If a third party does so, without the author's permission, this is likely to be copyright infringement. It does not matter if the infringing party has not used the whole of the work, it is enough for them to have copied a substantial part – and even a 15 second TikTok video could fall foul of this. In limited circumstances certain "permitted acts" will not infringe copyright but it is unlikely any would apply here, particularly as the platform generates extensive commercial revenue, benefitting from such music usage.

Usually, in cases of copyright infringement, the owner will seek to stop their work being used. However, with the popularity of TikTok and the exposure it can bring, authors are more likely to request the organisation enter into a licence for such use, as well as recovering damages for any loss incurred. We will have to wait and see how the matter materialises.

TikTok takeaways

In a positive move, in the midst of the pandemic, many copyright owners are permitting use of their works which would otherwise be considered infringement. JK Rowling granted an open licence to school teachers, until the end of the school year, to post videos reading her books to their classes. Similarly, George Ezra has allowed Joe Wicks (The Body Coach) free use of his songs for his popular YouTube PE classes.

However, without such explicit permission, the TikTok scenario highlights the importance of being aware of when a work might be protected by copyright. When deliberating over that photograph you wish to put on your organisation's website or the song you want to use to enhance a presentation, consider:

  • what the work would be categorised as;
  • who the author of the work is; and
  • if the intended use of the work will infringe the author's rights.