One of the things that makes the web amazing is that anyone can create content for it. Whether it is a news video for YouTube, a blog post, a set of photos or a tutorial on how to build toys. If you can imagine anything, you can share it on the web in one of these forms.

Right now, you can even build a small work of art that anyone can print in 3D.

And then there’s social media. Those online channels where these content producers (authors, musicians, thinkers and tinkerers) share their work and even let others comment and contribute with ideas. With or without a copyright claim.

These are the people who make the web great, because they take their time and effort and accept the risk of sharing it expecting little or no compensation.

In such a trove of content, links, mixes and remixes, authorship is in serious peril of getting lost. Pinterest recognised this problem and did what was in their reach to fix it. Facebook also started giving more credit to outgoing links as a result of the changes in the Edge Rank Algorithm.

Let’s jump back for a while now. Among the web brands are trying to find their place in the dialogue, trying to be close to their stakeholders, to stay interesting and relevant in their lives.

For Brands, Facebook turned out to be the channel where this communication could take place. Soon brand and marketing managers came to realise that being a part of the web means producing content. It can range between a simple photo of your product, taken at the right setting and with a clever remark, or it can be much more elaborate as an info graphic or extensive white paper.

Building great content takes time but it’s worth it. That’s usually where some agencies step in, helping their clients set up an interesting content plan.

When the setting is right, this content plan includes searching the web for User Generated Content that is valuable and can be shared with the brand’s community of users.

But can we? Just because something is online, it doesn’t mean you can just take it as your own. If you’re just another user, someone like you and me, chances are that you can just add a small caption stating who the original author is. I do that all the time on my blog, finding photos tagged with a Creative Commons license and linking back to the photographer’s flickr account.

On the other hand, Brands need a stricter approach. It doesn’t matter if something is under a creative commons license, it is still good practice to check with the author and explain how they would like to use that image or video in their Facebook Page for example. Given Facebook’s limitations in design, it is also important to look for ways to award due ownership with a ribbon or small mention in the photo saying who the author is. This way, other users can either search for the person online or look in Google Images for the original version.

The alternative is to pick up something interesting online and publish it as if the brand itself had created that piece of content. Most often than not, brands are going to get away with it. Every once in a while however we find situations where the author sees the miss-use of their content and demands explanation, showing that the brand or community manager is speaking to the community from the top of a soap box, not really respecting them as important stakeholders.

In a nutshell, instead of nurturing a community, of building a setting where people feel motivated to work and produce content on their own for nothing else than the recognition for a good accomplishment, we set up an auditorium where people feel they have been robbed or that their peers are being treated unfairly.

A constructive approach to this problem is to develop a community outreach plan as part of your content strategy. This plan will aim to motivate the community to build content on their own and be rewarded for it in some way, not just by seeing their work shared and recognized.

The benefits to this approach are many, one of them being that Brands can reduce the amount of budget they spend on producing content on their own and, as an outtake, gain reach within a user’s own social network. For agencies, developing these outreach plans is a clear business opportunity.

And after all, don’t we all stand by a social approach to how brands communicate ? Don’t we all want to see the web as a place of conversation and lasting relationships? For that to happen it is of the utmost importance to find middle ground between brands and stakeholders and to have a strong backbone in dealing with situations where we may be pushed towards a less ethical approach.

Sure, saying “no” comes at a risk, but what is is truly important is never easy to do.

Photo by Armando Alves @ Flickr.