The Internet has changed the game in terms of personal publishing. Now anyone, with only a few minutes a free account, can reach an audience of millions on the Web. Individuals with a little bit of free time can compete reasonably well with huge corporations with thousands of employees.
Unfortunately, very few bloggers have had any kind of mass media law training to prepare them for the responsibilities that come with reaching out to such a large audience and many end up running afoul of the law, often resulting in them being on the wrong end of a lawsuit.
While there are many pitfalls and ways that bloggers can be sued, some ways are more likely than others.
On that note, here are five of the more common lawsuit risks that bloggers face and, more importantly, how to avoid them.
1. Use Google as a Stock Image Search
If you want to include images in your blog, which is a great way to attract more attention to your posts and spice up your blog visually, you need to be careful where you pull them from.
Since copyright is affixed to most works upon creation, the vast majority of works on the Web are copyrighted. So using Google Image Search as a stock photo source is a very bad idea, especially considering that the stock photo industry has been on a massive litigation and legal threat campaign.
Instead, either use Creative Commons-licensed images or use freely-licensed stock photos from sites such as Morguefile and Stock.XCHNG.
2. Say Things That Aren’t True About Others
While you can express your opinions about others, saying things that are materially false may prompt those who feel you’ve hurt their reputation to sue you for libel.
This is becoming an increasingly common threat for bloggers, made worse by the habit of some for shopping for plaintiff-friendly venues, such as Australia. This is made possible by the international nature of the Web, which means that the libel can, in theory, happen just about anywhere in the world.
Your best bet is to stick to what you can prove and make what is your opinion very clear, possibly separating them if you can.
3. Post Other’s Personal Information
Contrary to what many assume, privacy does exist on the Web, at least in the legal sense, and posting private information about someone can lead to a lawsuit if they feel that the divulgement may have harmed them.
What is and is not private information is becoming a very difficult question these days, especially when some of it may have a legitimate news gathering purpose, but your best bet is to stick to information that is already publicly available.
For example, DUI and arrest charges are public information once they go live on official state websites and data records. This means you may only have a few options left when trying to remove your information online. For example, a last resort might be to hire an attorney to represent you and to contact any of the websites that are posting your information online.
You can’t be sued for divulging private information when the person has already released it themselves, though even there there are some difficult questions about what happens when information was posted in a semi-private forum, such as on a private Facebook group.
4. Misunderstand Fair Use
While it is true that fair use allows you to make limited use of other’s copyrighted works without permission, that exception is both very small and is by no means a free pass to copy and republish whatever you want.
While, generally, taking short quotes from another article for the purpose of criticism or commentary is considered acceptable, republishing an entire article verbatim generally is not.
As a blogger, it’s worth taking a few moments to understand the basics of fair use, how to understand which uses are likely to be considered “fair” and how to use other’s works in a way that is less likely to get you sued.
Though it is unlikely that many of us would consider ourselves spammers, it is important to remember that what one person considers legitimate marketing, another likely considers spam.
The CAN-SPAM act in the U.S. put some strict criteria on email marketing and most people aren’t aware of all of them. Also, posting comments against a site’s terms of service, especially if you have to circumvent some kind of security measure to do so, can also lead to issues under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act or simply under contract law.
Your best bet is, if you want to have an email newsletter or do email marketing that you have a partner like Mailchimp that is knowledgeable about the law and will work to keep you within it. Also, always be careful to post comments legitimate and, if you feel that you’re unwanted, go somewhere else.
BONUS TIPS: Not Getting Legal Expertise and Advice in Advance
More often than not, it’s better to get advice and expertise beforehand, and not trying to beg for forgiveness later on. After all, when you are dealing with companies and law enforcement that are looking to make examples out of people all the time, the last thing you want is for them to make one out of you.
Just like how you might get a free consultation from a lawyer for any problems in life that you may have had offline, you can do the same for your blog, brand or business as well. This not only helps bring in new business for the attorney or firm, but can also send the end user off in the right direction and let them know what actions might need to take place before moving to the next step.
The good news is, having legal counsel and advice beforehand will go over much better than if you were to try and obtain an attorney after the fact. This is something every blogger, content creator, and brand must consider when conducting business online.
All in all, there are many dangers when it comes to posting and distributing a blog online and there are a lot of laws that you need to understand and avoid crossing.
That being said, the EFF has a great guide to Blogger’s Rights that talks about many of these laws and how you can avoid being sued over them.
In short, you don’t have to be an expert on mass media law to be a good blogger, but having a little knowledge might help keep you out of court.