A Quick & Dirty Legal Guide For Bloggers


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?

Your Comments

  • Kristin

    Thanks for the post Lisa! The copying blog posts from blog to blog has been a long time debate between some of the SEO’s I know. Many like the idea of people scraping their content because they can hide links back to their websites in them… I just haven’t been able to agree with them on that!

  • TheMadHat

    All true except the anonymous part.. you can still have that if you know what you’re doing, and it’s not all that hard.

  • john Falchetto

    Interesting you write about this Lisa, this week a blogger is getting sued for defamation for a bad review in his personal blog by Beni Hana…Kuwait.
    At the same a businesswoman got sued for insulting a stalker on FB…in Dubai.

    So although developing countries obviously restrict freedom of speech on the net, you show that the US is not exempt from similar cases.
    The big question is where does freedom of speech end and libel or defamation start?
    How is the new FCC rulings going to change the rules of the game (at least in the US)?

  • Dawn Wentzell

    Just want to point out those are all US copyright & libel laws mentioned above. But being outside the US doesn’t mean you’re free from all that stuff, it actually makes things messier. Particularly if you use a US-adminstered TLD (.com is included in that!), host in the US, commit libel or copyright infringement against a US company, etc etc. Then you can be in hot water in your country AND the US. And the US doesn’t always respect your country’s laws.

  • Josh King

    Re “Feel free to steal any content printed by a government agency or someone acting in a governmental capacity. That stuff’s free domain, bitches!”

    True with respect to US government docs, but not true when it comes to content created by state and local agencies. State and local governments retain copyright, and have been known to enforce it even in straightforward-seeming cases – like someone publishing Oregon statutes: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2008/05/fight-shaping-up-over-oregons-state-law-copyright-claims.ars

  • Nick

    Uh Oh, I’ll have to stop repaying your blogs in full…just kidding, great quick guide, complete with a touch of humour, on the subject. I’ll be retweeting this – as that’s allowed!

  • Suzanne Vara


    I would add that when you are quoting be sure that the source does allow such a practice. Naturally this does not pertain so much to another blogger but for a newspaper, tv stations, etc. Out here in Vegas, a lot of people were slapped with a hefty lawsuit (no cease and desist was sent) because they linked to the local newspaper. Why a newspaper would not want links to their site is unknown but just as a precautionary and to save yourself from having to defend a lawsuit, it is always to check with the sources’ terms of use.

    Someday we will live in an online world where your blogs are not scraped and republished without your consent. Just not today.

  • Alec Perkins

    Minor quibble: technically speaking, it’s copyright infringement, not theft, and has been explicitly distinguished from theft. It’s still wrong, of course, but stealing the content would involve hacking into computers and eliminating every other copy of the content, preventing the creator from at all exercising their copyright.

  • Tito

    Here in my country (Guatemala) there was a case where a twitter user was jailed because a comment mentioning a bank that was in a scandal with the president and a murder.

  • Laurie Holman

    Thanks for the info, Lisa! I’ve actually had #1 done to me several times, but since the lifted post included a link to my blog and a complimentary intro, I was okay with it. Actually, I didn’t realize that wasn’t kosher, since it included my URL. Good to know!

  • Jenn@ t1 service

    Good summary! I’m a lawyer who has studied intellectual property pretty extensively, and you are right on. I had forgotten about the exception for government content, so thanks for the refresher!

  • Mike Mueller

    Many people like myself welcome any extra exposure we can get. The right way to do that is to license the stuff you want shared with a Creative Commons License. I do so with my blog and my pictures on Flickr. The license I went with requires a link back. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

    Here’s a question – blogging plugins like Zemanta, or Amplify allow readers to quickly grab snippets of a blog post for a quote. They don’t check for copyright (as far as I know) – is there a certain number of words that is legal? or is there a tool that would do the same and autocheck for legal usage?

  • Kelli

    Great post Lisa.
    One question – is there specific law in the US regarding site spam sent in the comments section? In most cases, it’s a waste of time since so many comment links are nofollow, but does anyone know a specific incident relating to spamming through comments?
    Keep up the great work!

  • Joanna Sayers

    Great post with great reminders for us all. I’m a Freelance Writer & Journalist, amongst other things, and love the way you write .. always great to deliver a message with some sassy humour! …and yes, I can spell humour..I’m English ;)

  • Val @ Web Tracking Guide

    All good points, and nicely done.

    You forgot to mention the affiliation disclosures, which are obligatory in some jurisdictions, and the tax-related issues – but that’s a can of worms so twisted, I understand you may not want to even touch it.

  • Toby

    interesting post with some good info. You’re right people continuely think its on the web I can do what I like – your post is a useful wake up for some, especially those just starting out

  • Brandon Cox

    Great points. I remember when James Chartrand (aka, “Men with Pens”) came out of the closet, so to speak, and shocked the writing world with the admission that he was a she. She had made a nice living and reputation for herself as James, but eventually someone, with ill intent, decided to rat her out. There is no privacy now, and the illusion of privacy can be dangerous.

    So the best policy is be yourself, be open, and be authentic.

    John Doe

  • Farnoosh

    Thank you for writing this. I had my photos stolen a few years ago and it was an awful experience but I pursued the case and shut down account after account of the user doing this and in the end, I realized content and photos WILL be stolen. All your points here are valid but the largest one of all is that IT IS WRONG, and people need to have a sense of right vs wrong to even begin to give a damn. Ummm, the thieves just don’t but it helps to try and educate them.

  • Bryan

    Myth 1 is by far the most irritating for me. It really sucks when another site takes over yours on Google, Bing, etc. searches using the same article *you* wrote, just by copying and pasting it. Even worse is when they remove anything related to your site (such as the name) and refuse to even link to you. Basically they get all the reward for what you did.