This guest post is by Neil Patel of KISSmetrics.
If you’re a blogger, do you know how to stay on the right side of the law? Do you know what you need to do to keep the FTC from knocking on your door or to keep from getting a dreaded cease and desist letter?
Fortunately you don’t have to be a lawyer or law scholar to understand the laws that govern blogging, particularly in the U.S. In fact, you really only have to understand six basic laws. Let me explain…
note: I’m not a lawyer, so do consult one if you are unsure about any blogging-related laws.
Law #1: Do you have to disclose paid endorsements?
One of the most important developments in the blogosphere when it comes to U.S. law is that bloggers must be open with the fact that they are being paid to use, promote, or review a product.
This all started back in 2006, when the Federal Trade Commission, recognizing that bloggers were displacing traditional ways of advertising that could open up dishonest business practices and conflicts of interest, issued a letter that recommended all bloggers need to be open and honest with their endorsements and reviews.
How open and honest do you have to be? It’s really pretty straightforward if you think about a few things:
- Label information clearly: Wherever you have content, make it perfectly clear which information is editorial and which is advertising.
- Come clean with affiliate relationships: This could mean labeling links that drive to your Amazon affiliates, or building a page that explains all of your affiliates and relationships (see Chris Brogan’s About page for an example).
- Do not claim to be an objective third-party when you are not: You also should explain your relationship with a company when you are talking about them. For example, “Company B, whom I work for, is about to roll out product X.”
To date not one single blogger has been sued over the issue that I know of. But, nonetheless, here is the FTC’s FAQ on the topic.
Law #2: What should I do when someone steals my content?
If you are creating compelling content, it’s bound that somebody will take it and uses it on their site. Sometimes they do it without knowing that they are breaking the law. They may even give you credit and link to your website.
What should you do? Well, it depends.
If you want to protect your work, you should simply send them an email and let them know that what they are doing is called copyright infringement. If you are dealing with an understanding person, then they’ll probably apologize and take the copy down.
If you’re dealing with somebody who doesn’t care what you think, then you’ll need to weigh the cost of pursuing legal action. Typically it’s a very difficult thing to do and will be very expensive.
You can usually discourage people from taking your content by putting a copyright symbol on the footer of your website so it appears on every page.
So when is your work considered to fall under copyright law? Interestingly enough, according to the U.S. laws, it occurs the moment you publish it. So even if you don’t have a copyright symbol, you are still protected.
What exactly is protected on the Internet? Just about everything, including:
- original copy
- code (HTML, VRML, and other unique markup language sequences)
Still, should you care if someone steals your content? Some bloggers like Leo Babauta do not. He actually encourages people to take his copy as long as they give him credit for it. He calls it his uncopyrighted policy.
Why would he do something like that? He considers the value of spreading his work through this method to be worth more than protecting and defending his rights.
Law #3: Is deep linking legal?
It may come as a surprise to you that there are some doubts to whether deep linking is even legal.
Deep linking is where you write a blog post and then link to another website in that post. However, you don’t link directly to the homepage: you link to a page buried on the site.
For example, one of the sources I used while researching this topic was from a Canadian lawyer who explored some U.S. court decisions on the topic. That link that I just provided does not go to the lawyer’s home page, but to an interior page.
From the perspective of a blogger, it makes more sense to link directly to the page that you are referring to than it does to link to the home page, and then hope the reader can find the information you are referring to.
What’s interesting is that some people have claimed that deep linking is a form of trespassing. One of the most famous U.S. cases was between Ticketmaster and Ticket.com back in 2000.
Ticketmaster’s argument was two-fold: Ticket.com tried to pass off one of their pages as their own when they didn’t link to the home page but an interior page, making it a copyright infringement.
The other argument was that deep linking bypassed the prescribed path a website owner wants its users to go, amounting to trespassing.
It’s not surprising that Ticketmaster lost on both claims.
No other case on this topic has been brought to the court since so it seems safe to say deep linking is a legal practice.
Furthermore, it’s such an accepted SEO practice that there is no reason you should worry that someone might sue you if you deep link to their site. In fact, most people encourage the practice since it brings exposure to their site.
Law #4: Can I use any image on my blog?
The short answer is “no,” because you do not have permission to use just any image. The concern here is that you might use an image that’s not your own, and inadvertently pass it off on your own.
How should you legally use images? Here are four approaches:
- Link to the owner: One practice is to simply put a link below the picture to the owner of the image. This will not be sufficient in many cases, though.
- Buy royalty-free images: You can also simply buy royalty-free images and not have to worry about copyright.
- Use Creative Common images: Another great source to look for free images is to visit the Creative Commons photos on Flickr. These photos do not have copyright restrictions, but are usually based upon a few Creative Common attributes, like “share,” “modify,” or “non-commercial use.” No matter the attribution type you use, it’s still a polite to link to the original Flickr page. This way, people who visit your site know who owns the image and they can easily find more of their work.
- Ask for permission: Of course if you find an image you like on someone else’s website, you can always ask them for permission to use it.
Law #5: Who owns user-developed content?
When it comes to reviews, comments or copy on message boards, you do not own the content: the original author owns it.
How could that be? The same law that protects the copy on your blog is the same law that protects people who write something on your site.
- You are at liberty to do with the comments as you please.
- You will not manipulate them or delete them without having a good reason to.
- You will remove them if someone requests (this is really up to you).
- You will require a minimum amount of information so you can avoid anonymous comments.
- You will delete all comments if and when you expire your blog.
If these terms are stated clearly and openly, you shouldn’t have much of a problem when it comes to the law and user-developed content.
Law #6: How do I have to protect people’s private information?
Privacy on the internet is a huge issue. People are worried that their identities will be stolen, their bank accounts will be drained, and the government will watch their every move if they don’t protect their privacy. Naturally, people want to feel comfortable when they are on your blog.
People online are also worried about spam. For example, they don’t want to share their email address with an email newsletter provider because they’re afraid it will be sold to a handful of marketers.
What is your responsibility when it comes to your user’s information? Of course if you run an ecommerce site, you need to protect their information with secure pages.
But what if you are simply collecting an email address?
As you can see, the law is pretty straightforward when it comes to blogging so if you familiarize yourself with the above situations, you shouldn’t have to worry about getting into trouble.
What other laws do you think are important for bloggers to know about?
PS: as I said, I’m not a lawyer, so do consult one if you are unsure about any blogging-related laws.