Your Guide to UGC Rights Management

hand holding a phone while taking a photo of the beach cliff view in front


or some brides, the wedding photos and videos are as important as the wedding itself. They’re ready and willing to share the images everywhere, even telling their venue that it’s fine to use the content on their website. It sounds simple, but if the bride had a professional photographer take the pictures, it may surprise you to learn that she doesn’t own the copyright – the photographer does. While she has permission to use the photos for her own personal use, publishing them on a commercial site, like a wedding venue, requires written permission from the person who took them.

Wedding photos are just one example of user-generated content (UGC). When used properly, incorporating UGC into your marketing can be hugely successful. The right hashtags and great submissions can elevate your brand with both current and new audiences, but working with UGC comes with extra requirements that other marketing tactics don’t. Namely, legal rights and permissions. And where you think things may be straightforward, they’re likely not. That’s why we’ve put together a guide for the different types of UGC and what you need to do to ensure you’re using the content legally.

First, What Defines User-Generated Content?

UGC is exactly what the name implies: content that’s about your business, but not created by your business. Customers, followers, users, fans, influencers, and anyone else can create UGC, whether it’s on their own whim or requested by you.

Some popular examples of UGC in the hospitality industry include guest vacation photos and videos, property walk-throughs, Insta-worthy food snapshots from the on-site restaurant, and wedding or other event photos.

UGC is popular among social media users, with 93 percent of customers saying it’s very helpful when making a purchase decision. That’s a significant number. Even more remarkable, more than one-third of Gen Zers believe that within a few years, UGC will have more credibility than brand-generated content.

That’s not a trend you can ignore.

In this post, we’ll take a look at the basics of UGC rights management, including what you as a business can and cannot do with submitted content. For more information, we’ve included links that dive deeper into each concept.

What Are UGC Rights?

If an individual user posts about your property on their personal social media pages – even if they tag you – it’s clear that the content still belongs to them. But if you love the photo, is it okay to use it in a marketing campaign? If you solicit content using a hashtag that you created, does that content now belong to you? The user rights about UGC can be complicated, but understanding the legal landscape of permissions is essential to keeping yourself out of a legal quandary. (Just ask Volvo.)

To start off, any content developed by anyone (including your brand) is called intellectual property and includes copyright, trademark, and other IP laws. The guidelines are more strict for businesses – you can’t use a Beatles song in a campaign without legal permissions, for example – but the law says that if an individual user creates original content, they hold the copyright unless they’ve transferred those rights to someone else. If you’re going through UGC that features your brand, assume that everything you see, including images and sounds, is under copyright protection.

UGC Rights Management

Even if you haven’t used user-generated content in your campaigns before, your brand should have clear policies and procedures in place for managing UGC rights. This includes obtaining permission to use content, monitoring and moderating user submissions, and responding to requests for content removal or modification. The key is to ensure that all UGC complies with your content guidelines and legal requirements. This may include removing or editing content that violates copyright or trademark laws, contains offensive or inappropriate material, or otherwise poses legal risks to the brand.


Stock photography sites like Adobe Stock and Shutterstock feature images taken by individual artists, but they make rights management easy by offering upfront licensing packages with permissions already built in. When it comes to individual users online, however, the process can be a bit more complicated.

If you find content you love that highlights your brand and would fit perfectly into your upcoming campaign, the first imperative step is to track down the original owner of the content and seek their consent to use it. At Hawthorn, we see the biggest challenge in this arena with user reviews. Often, brands will want to highlight five-star reviews, but even if the reviews are listed publicly on their website, it doesn’t mean they have permission to reuse them.

If you’re able to find the original user (which can be a difficult task if an image has been shared and reshared), draw up a form that outlines how you intend to use the content, including where and for how long it will be used, and work with the owner to obtain clear and explicit permission. For company-initiated requests for UGC, the legal terms and guidelines can be laid out in service agreements that users must agree to before being able to submit.

For content you find online, use written, direct communication with the owner.


Once permission is attained, it’s still essential to give proper attribution to the creators of any UGC you use. This can include the user’s name, username or social media handle, and when possible, providing a link to the original source of content. (Determining attribution should also be outlined in the initial agreement you set up with the owner.)

If you’re interested in seeing user permissions in action, the images found on Creative Commons all come with instructions on how they can be used and how they must be attributed. Other stock sites also list attribution requirements. A good rule of thumb is to assume that all content needs attribution, so always check the fine print to see how it needs to look from a legal standpoint.

Endorsements and Disclosures

If you share UGC that shares endorsements or testimonials (like the user reviews we mentioned earlier), you need to make sure that you not only have permission, but that the content complies with any applicable advertising regulations. This can include things like disclosing any material connections between the brand and users, such as sponsored or influencer content. The endorsements must also be truthful and not misleading.

Endorsements get even more complicated if you’re going to use the content on a social media platform, many of which have their own disclosure requirements for sponsored content and paid partnerships. And, if your company is international, those laws may be different as well.

Privacy Rights

Although express consent covers many privacy rights, it’s still important to ensure that a user’s personal information is protected if they want it to be. For international content, privacy rights also include complying with relevant data protection laws, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union.

Privacy can be especially complicated if people other than the creator are included in their videos. In those cases, consent must be obtained from every person whose face is identifiable. And perhaps the most complex situation is if you decide to broadcast live on a social channel while patrons are visiting the establishment. Often, venues cover this legality with general notices posted around the property that people may be filmed. If the environment is controlled, it’s possible to gain consent before the livestream begins.

Finally, remember that a participant can withdraw their consent at any time.

Content Moderation

If you’ve ever had a post or comment removed from a social media platform for “violating community guidelines,” you understand how content moderation works. While it can be automated or manual (like Facebook group moderators, for example), it’s important to create a process for moderating any UGC to make sure it complies with your content guidelines and legal requirements. This may include removing or editing content that violates copyright or trademark laws, contains offensive or inappropriate material, violates the terms and usage of the hosting platform, or otherwise poses a legal risk to your brand.

A Word About Fair Use

In the U.S., fair use means that brief snippets of copyrighted material may be used under some circumstances without obtaining the owner’s permission. Typically, however, fair use applies to criticism, news reporting, teaching and research, and individual use. Commercial use (such as for a business marketing campaign) does not fall under this doctrine.

If navigating the legalities of UGC feels intimidating, working with an experienced brand agency can help. Our full-time staff of experts will be your partners in ensuring that everything in your marketing campaigns follows legal guidelines.


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