Is it legal? Maybe. Is it professional? No.
There are several websites, social media groups and video channels for techs to share images and videos of customers’ vehicles. Many use the hashtags “customer states” or “just rolled into the shop.” These videos typically showcase a damaged vehicle due to customer negligence or ignorance. The content might be a brake rotor worn to the fins or a bent valve after the timing belt broke.
These sites let technicians share stories about cars and customers for imaginary internet points or real money. I must confess this type of content can be very entertaining. Chances are the customer will never see the photo or video. But, there is always that chance they could find it, and they might not see the same entertainment value.
I called my lawyer friend about this conundrum. He handles intellectual property cases. I asked him some questions about this Wild West of content creation.
Does the customer have a reasonable expectation of privacy?
He said it is a difficult question because you are not taking pictures of the owner. You are taking pictures of their property. Also, most photos are taken at a private business, not in a public space. This is a gray area where the customer can claim they were exposed to undue harm because personal information might have been disclosed.
If you are a shop owner, you might want to have a discussion about what technicians are posting. A video can reflect poorly on the business.
Who owns the image?
He said this is tricky. Most lawyers would say the copyright is owned by the person taking the picture. Since they are the creator, they have exclusive rights to copy and reproduce it. The creator of the content is also liable in the eyes of the law. But it is never that easy.
Many sites and services can claim your content. While these agreements are non-exclusive, the services can use your content however they want just because you hit submit and agreed to the user agreement.
Here is part of the user’s agreement from Reddit:
“When Your Content is created with or submitted to the Services, you grant us a worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, transferable, and sublicensable license to use, copy, modify, adapt, prepare derivative works of, distribute, store, perform, and display Your Content and any name, username, voice, or likeness provided in connection with Your Content in all formats and channels now known or later developed anywhere in the world.”
While you still technically own the content, Reddit has the right to use it as they see fit.
Is posting pictures of customers’ vehicles legal?
Yes, it is legal under most circumstances. Is it professional? No.
But, if you must post a photo or video, here are some simple rules to follow:
- Don’t include any shots of the license plate: An owner can quickly identify their vehicle from the license plate.
- Don’t show the repair order: If you are doing a “customer states” video or meme, try to avoid showing the repair order. No matter how tight you crop in on the customer notes, you could reveal the owner’s identity and shop information.
- Avoid interior shots of the vehicle: The average driver spends approximately 50 minutes behind the wheel every day, according to AAA. It is a personal, safe space for most drivers. Taking pictures is an invasion of their privacy. It would be like a maid service posting pictures before they clean a home.
- Do not say derogatory things about the vehicle’s owner: This can be tough if you have to dig through the garbage in the passenger footwell to get to a blower motor or fix a botched driveway brake job. It might be you saying it, but it can reflect poorly on the shop.
- Ask for permission from the customer: If you run across a vehicle with an interesting story, ask the customer if you can take photos or video.
- Keep the shots cropped tightly on parts, the wheel well or under the hood: Make sure the content is just as educational as it is entertaining.
Look at it from the customer’s perspective: they own the vehicle and took it to your shop to repair it. They did not want to become an online sensation or be criticized by strangers. Also, remember you could become content if the driver has a dash camera that records while you work on the car. But, that is content for another column.