Blogging is an activity that is fraught with legal peril. Though most bloggers will go their entire lives without a lawsuit or a serious legal threat, it does happen and regularly.
It’s important to remember that blogging is, for the purpose of the law, the same as running your own newspaper or TV station. Every time you hit publish, what you wrote is going to be shot out to people all over the world and, with that power, comes a great deal of peril.
If you don’t want to be sued or threatened (with any seriousness) over your blogging activities, you need to take a moment and understand the laws that govern what you’re doing. I’ll be going over these areas in greater depth over the next few weeks and months here on Performancing, but for those who want to take their education into their own hands, here’s the ground your legal education should cover and why.
1. Copyright Law
Copyright law covers works of creative authorship including writing, photos, artwork, music and movies. It grants the creator or the copyright holder a set of exclusive rights over that work and offers penalties for those who infringe upon those rights.
This one is pretty straightforward. When blogging you are going to use the works of others in some way. Unless you write your own blogging platform, develop your own theme from scratch (using only your code and images), create all of your content and never use a photo/video from someone else, you’re going to want to know how to use the works of others without getting in trouble.
On the flip side of the coin, you should actively expect that your work will be used by others as well, legally and illegally. So, it makes sense that you should also know what your rights are so that you can respond appropriately when needed.
In short, knowing copyright law not only keeps you out of trouble, but it also helps you protect what you worked hard to create. It makes good sense to at least understand the basics.
2. Trademark Law
Where copyright law governs works of creative authorship, trademark law deals with logos, slogans and other items used to identify a business, product or service.
Bloggers bump into trademark law whenever they talk about businesses and their products. This includes reviews, news and any other instance where you might want to mention company or its offerings.
Fortunately, trademark doesn’t place too many restrictions on the use of the mark, mainly focusing on not using the mark in a way that implies a relationship that doesn’t exist, but issues become especially thorny when dealing with using trademarks in domain names and in site titles.
It’s best to be familiar with trademark law before starting up a site, especially if it is about a business, product or service. However, knowing what’s in trademark law also helps prevent companies from intimidating you unduly with empty threats.
In short, it’s an important law to know.
3. Defamation Law
When blogging about people and companies you need to be aware of the importance of being truthful, in particular saying only things that you can prove to be true or are clearly a matter of opinion.
The reason is simple, saying untruthful things about people that harm their reputation, especially online, can land you on the wrong end of a libel lawsuit.
Defamation law covers both libel, written defamation, and slander, spoken defamation. However, most of what one would be dealing with online would be libel, as slander deals solely with transitory statements, meaning things that aren’t fixed into some permanent form.
You need to know what kinds of statements are defamatory and what kinds of statements are acceptable. A few words can be the difference between a perfectly legal statement and a major libel lawsuit.
Regardless, if you talk about others in your blog, even if you don’t identify them directly, you need to understand defamation law and where the lines are drawn.
4. Privacy Law
Privacy law governs the disclosure of private and personal facts about people. This makes it so that, in some situations, even making completely truthful statements can be seen as harmful.
Once again, if you talk about other people (and you almost certainly will) it pays to know what is considered a private fact and when it is acceptable to disclose them publicly.
To be honest, this isn’t an area of law most bloggers run into simply because most are talking about things already posted online, but if you are ever tempted to disclose something that hasn’t already been published by the person it involves, you need to know where the lines are drawn so you don’t find yourself being sued and losing.
5. Contract Law
Realistically, everyone should know the basics of contract law including how to read a contract, what makes a proper one, how to sign it, etc. Everyone signs agreements regularly, whether it’s loan papers, gym memberships or software license.
However, as a blogger, you are going to be a LOT more involved in signing contracts than most. Everything from the terms of service for your video host to a redistribution agreement for an aggregator will have you signing away rights and protections and you’ll want to know exactly what you’re agreeing to.
A good primer on contract law isn’t a bad idea for anyone, but it’s an especially good idea for a blogger.
Obviously, getting even a good primer in all of these areas of law is going to be time consuming. However, it’s time well spent and, fortunately, there are guides such as the EFF Legal Guide for Bloggers that can give you a pretty good start.
Unfortunately though, these aren’t areas of law that are routinely taught in school. The reason is that, unless you’re going into mass communications, they aren’t applicable to most fields of study. However, as a blogger, you effectively are functioning as a journalist and are bound by the same laws.
So, unless you want to go to either law school or get a mass communications degree, these are things you’re going to have to take the time to learn on your own.
It may be a hassle, but it’s much less of a hassle than getting stung by them in court.
Jonathan Bailey founded and continues to write at Plagiarism Today, a site about content theft and copyright issues on the internet. He also manages CopyByte, a company that protects online content, and writes a regular column for BloggingPro.