Blogging might seem like an innocent activity, but it is riddled with potential legal issues.
OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. Most bloggers won’t break the law, and those who do probably won’t get caught. It’s a fool’s errand to police the entire internet.
That doesn’t mean that bloggers are immune from the law, though. If you break the law and do get caught, you could be in for more trouble than you can handle. It’s best to stay on the straight-and-narrow adn avoid the potential legal issues that can hamper bloggers.
Thankfully, there aren’t too many pitfalls. Just follow these tips and you should keep your nose squeaky clean.
1. Do not copy content without express written consent
You learned it very early in your education, and you heard it repeated throughout school: do not copy other people’s work without citing them. The even greater lesson: do not pass off someone else’s work as your own. It seems as though many bloggers pretend they never learned about plagiarism.
When people publish content on the web, they own it. Either that, or their publisher owns it. Either way, if you take it without permission, you are stealing. While that might merely result in a not-so-friendly note demanding that you remove the content, it could very well lead to a lawsuit. It could also greatly damage your reputation; wronged bloggers tend to tell everyone about the experience.
Sports fans know the line that broadcasters say at some point during the game: Any use of the accounts or descriptions of this game without the express written consent of Major League Baseball is prohibited. Keep that key phrase in mind: express written consent. Get it in writing. It’s the only way to cover yourself.
2. Avoid unlicensed images
Just as you cannot take someone else’s words and publish them on your own website, nor can you publish images that someone else owns. This might seem a little odd. Bloggers use other people’s images all the time. Do they get express permission every time?
The answer is clearly no, but that doens’t make the practice right. It’s still stealing, no matter whether you get caught. Given the increasingly powerful tracking tools available, getting caught is more of a certainty these days. If you don’t have permission to use a photo, either in written form from the owner or through a license, you can get sued.
Blogger ROni Loren has a cautionary tale about using photos without permission. Even if you don’t make a dime by using the image, the owner can sue you for damages. You might have credited them thoroughly and linked to the original. It doesn’t matter. The owner can press the issue if he or she so pleases.
The solution? You can take advantage of Flickr Creative Commons, a popular option among bloggers. You can write to a photo owner for permission. You can join a stock photo service and gain access to royalty-free images. Or you can just take your own images. Whatever you do, don’t take images from just anywhere.
3. Check for potential trademark infringement
Your blog might might sound totally original, but it still might infringe on someone’s existing trademark. The key to trademark law is not that marks are identical, but rather that they could potentially confuse consumers. That’s why you can have Dove chocolate and Dove soap from different companies. You could not, however, start a line of candy bars called Dove, or even Turtle Dove. There’s just too much potential for confusion.
It can be very difficult to determine whether your blog name infringes on another publication’s trademarks. Danielle Walker found that out the hard way. Her blog, Against All Grain, seemed perfectly benign. The only issue is that an older company, called Against The Grain, had recently filed a trademark application. You can read about the issue at ProBlogger. The change didn’t kill Ms. Walker’s blog, but it did require her to make significant changes.
The author of that post, trademark attorney Xavier Morales, has a ton of information on his site, SecureYourTrademark.com. It’s worth a browse even if you don’t intent to register your blog name as a trademark.
4. Disclose gifts and affiliate relationships
If you get something for free and write about it, you must disclose that relationship. If you link to a product and make a commission from sales, you have to let your readers know. This actually sounds pretty common sense, right? Yet it wasn’t spelled out clearly until 2009, and wasn’t fully clarified until 2013.
If you review products that companies send you for free, or if you make commissions when people click links and buy products, please, read the “.com Disclosures” document (it’s a PDF). Or at least read a good summary of it.
The last thing you want is to fall afoul of the FTC’s guidelines. You could land in serious legal trouble. And trust me, the last entity you want to run afoul of is the federal government. They do not take matters like this lightly, even if you consider yourself small potatoes.
5. Stick to facts and opinion
The First Amendment might protect your freedom of speech, but you cannot use that freedom to the detriment of others. If you make knowingly false statements about someone, you open yourself up to legal issues. A harmed party could claim defamation of character.
This happened a few years ago when blogger Crystal Cox found herself on the wrong end of a defamation lawsuit. A jury found her guilty and ruled she must pay the plaintiff $2.5 million in damages. This is a rather extreme case, and not one seen often, but it certainly provides a cautionary tale for bloggers.
If you stick to blogging about verified facts and your clearly stated opinions, you will be taking steps to avoid lawsuits like this. In other words: don’t accuse people of things they might not have done. The law is on their side.