Blogging may seem like a simple, easy way to earn a bit of extra cash. After all, you just put your opinion up on the Internet, throw up a few ads, and then watch the bucks roll in. Unfortunately, blogging comes with much more risk and much more responsibility than it appears at first glance to entail. For instance, you may be sued for copyright infringement, libel (slander), or even for hate speech. In some cases, you may even be sued for comments made by others as they relate to your content. It is critical that you understand your legal liabilities as a website owner or blogger to avoid both civil and criminal legal disputes.
Copyrighting Your Work
Before jumping into what you need to do to ensure that you don’t violate the rights of others, it is important to understand how to protect your own rights. Anything you post to your blog or website, is immediately considered copyrighted by the U.S. Copyright Office. As they put it, “the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form,” whatever you wrote or created becomes protected by copyright law.
Despite the ease with which a work is copyrighted, suing for infringement of that copyright isn’t quite as straightforward. Before you can sue, you must register your work with U.S. Copyright Office. This is tricky because if you wait until someone infringes your copyright to register the work, then it may be difficult to prove that you were the original creator (difficult, but not impossible). Thus, if you have something you really want to protect, then you should register it with the Copyright Office immediately upon its creation.
Perhaps the biggest risk with blogging is defamation. Any time you unjustly convey an unfavorable impression of a person, business, etc., you run the risk of defamation. Now, this is not to say that you can’t be critical, because you can. In order to avoid defamation, you need to ensure that anything you publish can be backed up with facts and evidence, but that alone isn’t enough.
There is a legal finding, called “false light,” which is closely related to defamation and which may leave you open to liability even if what you write is true. False light allows someone to sue you if what you say is misleading and is considered an attack on one’s dignity or leads to mental stress. Simply put, if what you write can be interpreted to be aimed at intentionally causing emotional harm, you can still be sued even if everything you said was true. In other words, don’t be mean for the sake of being mean. Be as factual as possible and keep the snark to a minimum.
Media Liability Insurance
Media liability insurance is often carried by major news agencies and publishes to protect against the kinds of legal disputes discussed above. Applying for media liability insurance, even if you don’t buy it in the end, can be enlightening. An insurance agent will read your work and determine if it is able to be insured. Insurers will look at things like whether you check your facts or whether verify your work when they consider issuing a policy. If they refuse to issue you a policy because you are lacking in common “best practices” in journalism, then you may want to reconsider your approach.
Sources & Fact Checking
To avoid defamation/false light claims, be sure to use reliable sources, always double check your facts, and follow good journalism practices. Be careful about your phrasing to avoid implying something you don’t intend to and seek comments from the subjects of your writing when appropriate. Thoroughly document your research and be extra cautious any time you publish something negative. Keep an eye out for “red flag” statements that accuse someone of committing a crime, acting immorally, committing malpractice, abusing drugs/alcohol, or engaging in improper sexual activity. If at all possible, get consent from the people/businesses you are covering and be ready to correct/retract factual errors in your work.
The rules surrounding intellectual property (IP), while confusing, are nowhere near as archaic and convoluted as those surrounding defamation. Simply put, don’t use works if you don’t have permission to use them, don’t know if you have permission to use them, or simply can’t understand their copyright status. Just attributing a work to the original author may not be enough if the work is copyrighted, so take care.
Note that using whole works is generally where problems with IP laws arise. You can uses parts of works so long as you are doing so in order to illustrate/teach a point. For instance, you can quote from a copyrighted work if you are doing so to illustrate the author’s style, make a point about the author’s intention, or even if you are parodying the author.
To help protect yourself against IP infringement on the part of your users or employees, make sure that you have a designated person to respond to copyright claims. Post that person’s contact information on your website and register the person’s name with the U.S. Copyright Office. Finally, create a copyright/IP infringement policy and post it to your site as well. If a claim is made against you and the previously discussed measures have been put into place and you take it down the infringing content in a timely manner, then you won’t be legally liable for any IP infringement.
SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation and refers to the use of litigation and the court system to suppress legally protected speech. Simply put, you cannot be sued simply because someone doesn’t like what you have to say. If their suit does not have merit and they are just using the court system as a means of silencing you, then they are in violation of the Anti-SLAPP laws. People often use Cease and Desist letters as a pre-cursor to a SLAAP. If you run into this situation, then you need to contact the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Lawyers at EFF may be able to help you resolve your case by providing pro bono (free) legal assistance.
Don’t Publish Private or Personal Information
“Doxxing” people, the practice of publishing their names, addresses, and other personal information, is considered a taboo on the Internet. As it turns out, this taboo is rooted in law. You cannot publish information that is not generally known and that is not newsworthy about an individual. For instance, you should take care when publishing photographs, addresses, the names of friends and family, and so forth. If the information is not newsworthy and isn’t from a public source, then you could easily find yourself in court.
Caution Should Prevail
The bottom line for bloggers and website owners is that caution must prevail. You need to publish information that is true, newsworthy, and not intentionally designed to hurt people for no good reason at all. You can publish controversial information and even say very negative things about people and businesses, but you can’t do so if the things you publish aren’t true or if you are going out of your way to cause emotional harm. Stick to the facts and be very conscientious about intent and meaning. If your intent is to harm rather than to report the facts, then you may be in serious legal trouble.