Twitter photo-sharing service TwitPic has updated its terms of service to clear up any misunderstanding of who owns the pictures uploaded to the service. There have been controversies in the past year about media organizations using photos posted on TwitPic and not giving proper attribution or compensation to the original photographer.

TwitPic’s new terms of service should clear up that confusion. In it TwitPic explicitly states that content uploaded by a user is the copyright of the respective owner. It is not part of the public domain and is subject to how the user, not media organizations, chooses to have it disseminated.

Copyright law tells us that when ever somebody creates something, be it a short story, a piece of music or a photo essay, as soon as it is created the person who made it is the de facto copyright holder. That is unless the person has given explicit to a different party to be the copyright holder of anything that person creates.

“To clarify our ToS regarding ownership, you the user retain all copyrights to your photos and videos, it’s your content,” Noah Everett, founder of TwitPic, wrote on the company’s blog. “Our terms state by uploading content to Twitpic you allow us to distribute that content on and our affiliated partners. This is standard among most user-generated content sites (including Twitter). If you delete a photo or video from Twitpic, that content is no longer viewable.”

TwitPic users have fought back against the media. One photographer, Emily James of Just Do it, went so far as to invoice The Daily Mail in the United Kingdom £1,170 (British pounds, around $1,900 America dollars by today’s exchange rate) for photos that it had used of a polling station during the British General Election.

New media copyright is a Wild West of usage and rules. Generally, copyright and Creative Commons are the rules for using photos taken off the Internet and social media. That does not stop thousands of blogs from using whatever photos they want and getting away with it. The difference between small blogs and big media, though, is that mainstream publications stand to make money off the photos they attach to their content.

The rule is simple. If you create it, you own the copyright. Media organizations have to give attribution and/or compensation to the producer if they use that content.

dan rowinski