A Quick & Dirty Legal Guide For Bloggers

February 4, 2011
By Lisa Barone in Content Strategy

If you’re looking for blogging best practices, there’s certainly no shortage of them on the Web. Experts will line up for miles to tell you how to blog, how to find an audience, and even how to sell to that audience once you have one. But there’s one area where I fear bloggers aren’t getting the education they need. One area where either they simply don’t know the rules or they think they have permission to ignore them. And that’s in how NOT to act like a dirty jerk content stealer. Or, in other words, how to blog without the threat of getting sued.

While many hail the Web for lowering the barrier to publishing, it’s also created an economy where people feel anything they find on the Web is fair game. And that couldn’t be further from the truth. Here are five legal blogger myths that you need to stop believing right now. Otherwise, people are going to punch you in the face. And by “people”, I really mean me.

Myth 1: All’s fair in love and content

You know what’s awesome? Mere moments after I publish this post on Outspoken Media (if you’re not reading this blogger legal guide on OSM, come back!), it will magically appear on more than a dozen different blogs. And by tomorrow, this post, in its entirety, will appear on even more blogs. In most cases, that’s not okay.

Unless you have written permission from a content owner, you are not allowed to take their entire blog post and slap it on your site, even if you give them attribution. It’s content theft. And it’s content theft whether you’re Joe Schmoe writing for Joe’s Plumbing Blog or whether you’re PayPal sending out someone’s content to 9 million people. When you take someone else’s content you are not “sharing” that content, you are not “advertising” that content and you are not “being helpful” with that content. The Berne Convention states that all new and original works created after April of 1989 receive copyright protection whether the author states they are copyright or not. Again, that means, if you take my words, you are committing copyright theft. Did I drive that home strongly enough?

Of course, that doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to quote parts of someone’s content. The Fair Use provision in the Copyright Act allows for bloggers to take a small excerpt of someone else’s content for the purposes of commentary, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching, or other such noble purposes. You may take 100 or so words. More than that and there’s going to be fisticuffs.

If you need a refresher on your 11th grade Business Law class [Hi, Brother Christopher!], the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a great breakdown of Intellectual Property, Fair Use and how not to get yourself sued.

[Worth noting: Feel free to steal any content printed by a government agency or someone acting in a governmental capacity. That stuff’s free domain, bitches!]

Myth 2: If it’s on Google, you can use it

While we’re on the subject of content theft, that image you found through Google Images and slapped up on your blog? Yeah, that’s not yours. It belongs to the person who took it. If you need images for your blog, you may take the photos yourself, buy them from a stock photo site or learn how to use Flickr’s Creative Commons photo search. You can’t just swipe them off the Internet. Those belong to people.

Myth 3: There’s no such thing as libel on the Internet

Just because you bash your boss on Facebook instead your company newsletter, doesn’t make you exempt from punishment. If it’s not true, you can’t say it. Anywhere. Not in a magazine, not on a blog and not even via a tweet. Which brings us to Courtney Love.

In 2009, fashion designer Dawn Simorangkir sued Courtney Love after Love made libelous statements about her on her blog, Etsy, Twitter and elsewhere. [The Twitter ones are my personal favorite because it’s 21 minutes of Courtney Love going batshit crazy. But I digress…] If you take a look at the official court document, you’ll see a full recounting (with screenshots!) of all the vicious tweets and nasty comments Love threw at Simorangkir during her online tirades. Whereas many people would have sat back and done nothing, Simorangkir, rightly, decided to sue. Courtney will now have to face all of those comments in court after her motion for dismissal was denied by a judge.

Lesson: Spread lies, rumors or propagate blatantly untrue information and there will be consequences. The Internet is no longer a free pass for bullying.

Myth 4: On the Internet, you can be whomever you want

Wrong! Though admittedly hard to enforce, legislation is finally starting to catch up to technology, with laws being crafted to deal with people like Lori Drew who get their kicks by impersonating someone else online with the intent to harm or threaten. States like California, Florida and Texas have adopted full legislation to make online impersonation/bullying a crime, while others (like New York) have cyber-crime units dedicated to handling issues like bullying and online harassment. Whereas online bullying was once brushed or off ignored, recent tragedies have helped bring it back into the spotlight, making sure it gets the attention (and the punishment) it deserves.

Myth 5: The Web allows you to hide in your anonymity

It kills me that people still think anonymity holds true on the Web. Just because you’re alone, in the dark, comforted only by the soft glow of your computer doesn’t mean that other people can’t see what you’re doing when you. They absolutely can. That libelous comment you just left on someone’s blog? You left a trail. It’s called an IP address and anyone with half a grain of Internet savvy can use it to find out who you are. That means if you’re leaving jerky comments on your competitors blog, he’s going to figure out it’s you and either bring a complaint OR walk through your doors to punch you in the face. Just something to keep in mind.

Those are my five blogging legal myths I’d like to see debunked.  Any I missed?


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