While we will cover some of the top legal issues of which you should be aware, we recommend thoroughly reviewing the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Legal Guide for Bloggers, which offers a more thorough look at issues regarding liability, bloggers' similarity to journalists, and the effect different laws may have on your work.
Contending with Copyright
It should go without saying that you must not infringe others' copyright- but what happens when people copy your content or use your Creative Commons-licensed images and text without properly attributing you?
Three common approaches are used by bloggers:
- Polite emails
- Public shaming
- DMCA complaints
Many people improperly use copyrighted content without realizing they have done something wrong. In such cases, misattribution or misuse of your work may be easily amended via a simple email exchange. Public shaming- that is, exposing flagrant copyright violation done by another person in a public manner- works well when you have a large audience and are fighting copyright violation from a real person rather than a bot. DMCA complaints are appropriate when copyright infringers do not respond to polite requests or public shaming.
For more detailed instructions on monitoring your content and filing DMCA complaints, stop by our guides to protecting and defending your content from theft and filing a DMCA complaint with a copyright violator. Intrigued by Creative Commons licensing? Visit our guides to applying Creative Commons licenses to images and text and learn how to properly attribute others' Creative Commons images.
Make a point of cultivating a healthy relationship with copyright. Placing copyright notices all over your work may make you look paranoid and detract from readers' experiences. Chasing after every single person who improperly uses your content is time consuming and does nothing to contribute new value to the online world. Actually taking a copyright infringer to court is expensive and rarely leads to a net gain.
Making Your Business Official
Full-time bloggers are typically small business owners. As such, they need to choose a business structure and contemplate incorporation (which can shield your personal assets from business-related lawsuit damages and bankruptcy).
Important factors to consider with regard to the selection of a business structure include:
- How you run your business
- With whom you run your business (is it a one-man organization or a joint venture?)
- Who ultimately owns the business
- Whether or not you eventually intend to sell your blog-related business (for example, you may eventually wish to sell a large digital publication you establish)
- The scale you expect your business to reach (whether it will have many shareholders, if it may eventually go public, etc.)
- The level of income you expect your business to generate (in the short and long run)
The Small Business Administration offers very helpful resources that can help you think through different alternatives. Check out their summaries of different business structure to gain a basic understanding of the benefits and drawbacks each brings to the table:
- A Sole Proprietorship
- A Limited Liability Company
- A Cooperative
- A C Corporation
- An S Corporation
- A Partnership
Factor in your long-term plans when contemplating different structures; it is not by any means convenient to change your business structure once it is established. When you are ready to fill out the paper work, consider asking your CPA to help you out- many CPAs are happy to help with business incorporation process.
While contemplating formal business moves, also review the SBA's advice on choosing your business name and registering with the country and your state, obtaining licenses and permits, and paying taxes.
Avoiding Legal Danger Zones
The most important danger zones to watch out for as a blogger include:
- Copyright violation
- Violation of publicity rights
- Invasion of privacy
- Negligent publication
For more information, stop by Chilling Efects' FAQ on piracy and copyright infringement, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's guide to online defamation law and publicity rights wiki, the Digital Media Law Project’s materials on gathering private information, and Lloyd R. Rich’s article on negligent publication.
Should you publish anonymously, read the Digital Media Law Project's overview of legal challenges to anonymity. Though you may be able to publicly mask your physical-world identity online, bear in mind that there are several ways individuals can legally obtain knowledge of your true identity.
The Implications of Section 120
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act offers two protections to web hosts:
(1) Treatment of publisher or speaker
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.
(2) Civil liability
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of—
(A) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected; or
(B) any action taken to enable or make available to information content providers or others the technical means to restrict access to material described in paragraph (1)
This section comes with additional obligations and caveats; read through it carefully, plus stop by the EFF's analysis of the section's implications for bloggers. The gist is that in some cases, this Section 230 protects you from liability related to third parties on your site who dip their toes into the legal danger zones mentioned above.
Clearly Disclosing Sponsorship and the Use of Affiliate Links
Should you provide advertising, use affiliate links, or accept payment from sponsors, we recommend reading carefully through the Federal Trade Commission's guide to making effective disclosures in digital advertising.
Generally speaking, they recommend that you:
- Display ads clearly and conspiculously (you must provide clear disclosure of promotional content; audiences should know almost immediately when content is sponsored or meant to advertise something)
- Provide truthful advertising that does not mislead audiences
- Back up claims with evidence
- Not advertise potentially harmful or damaging products and services
In other words, no funny business. Only recommend products and services that (1) you genuinely like and (2) would truly be of interest and use to your audience. Be very candid about sponsorships, free samples, and promotional material. Even if the FTC did not recommend you follow these guidelines, failure to do so could ruin your online reputation and decimate audiences' trust in your integrity.
Don't Forget Social Media
Just as you must provide clear and conspicuous disclosure of advertising in your blog, you must provide clear and conspicuous disclosure of advertisements presented through social media channels. Tweets, Facebook posts, and Instragram photos prompted by advertisers' requests must be clearly marked as advertisements.
Managing Contracts Carefully
Use contracts with partners, collaborators, and employees less as punitive warning documents and more as guidelines for your relationship. Given that you will probably neither want to expend the time nor the money necessary to take someone to court over his or her violation of a contract, you might as well treat contracts more functionally, using them to make sure you and a potential partner are on the same page.
When establishing contracts with contributors and editors, make sure that is clear:
- How and when compensation will be delivered
- What an individual will be paid in return for services rendered
- Who ultimately owns the rights to work that is related
If it is important that you retain the rights to work that others create for your blog, video series, or podcast, be sure to designate that their work is "made for hire."
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