Breakout session: Legal issues
What’s the first move for community news publishers to legally protect themselves? Incorporate.
“If you publish online and get sued for defamation, copyright infringement, etc., your personal assets are on the line,” said attorney Kim Isbell of the Citizen Media Law Project about publishing without incorporating your organization to protect yourself personally from some legal liability.
In the breakout session Friday, Isbell discussed incorporation as well as several other common legal issues important to community news publishers. Here are some general points helpful to all:
Special protections under federal law
Online sites that repost third-party content, such as user-generated posts and photos, are afforded some special protection under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
• Section 230 protects sites from being sued for the content posted by third-party users, as long as the content is not criminal and doesn’t violate intellectual property protections, such as copyright or trademark violations.
Additionally, sites still may edit content on sites and still be protected, so long as you don’t change the underlying meaning of the content. This certainly is welcome news for many sites, particularly when dealing with reader comments.
“As long as you maintain the original meaning of the content, you are still covered by Section 230,” Isbell said.
• The Digital Millennium Copyright Act protects you from being responsible from third parties posting copyrighted material. In order to be protected, you must register as an agent with the Copyright office and put contact information for copyright violations on your site. Then, copyright owners have a way to contact you to request items be taken down.
“This is a great shield for anyone who is worried about copyright violations from user content,” Isbell said.
Other general tips
• Defamation. Isbell said the one of the biggest problems the CMLP encounters is site publishers who don’t know defamation law and end up encountering problems associated with it.
Defamation, she said, is a “statement of fact or implication of fact that is not true and is likely to damage a reputation.”
However, there are several important defenses against a defamation claim. If you don’t know much about defamation law, check out the CMPL’s page about it.
• Using non-staff contributors. Consider having a contributor agreement, with any kind of content that is not produced by paid staff members.Work from paid staff members, Isbell said, is considered work-for-hire, and the site would own that. With non-paid contributors, without an agreement, they own the copyright and can ask you to take content down at any time.
The solution is to have contributors agree to give your site certain rights when publishing content.
• FTC Endorsement Guidelines. A new guideline form the Federal Trade Commission requires that bloggers and social media users who endorse products disclose relationships between themselves and companies whose products they endorse.
In other words, if you get freebies, such as movie tickets or music, and you write something about that product, you should probably publish that you got it for free.
“It spells out what you are and aren’t willing to allow on your site,” she said.
It should probably be written both in plain language and legalese, though parts that specifically deal with legal issues should be written more in legal language.
Your best media law resource
Check out the CMLP’s website for more information about legal issues relating to publishing online, including information about national laws and state laws in about 15 of the most popular states (with more being added).
In addition to these resources, CMLP’s recently launched Online Media Legal Network aims to connect lawyers and law school clinics around the country to those online sites who need legal counsel at free or reduced costs.