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6 Laws Every Blogger Needs to Obey so they Don’t Get Sued

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
  • links
  • images
  • podcasts
  • videos
  • 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.

A great way to deal with this issue is to have very clear terms on how you will manage user-developed content. In your site’s terms of use, you should spell out a few things:

  • 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?

A good guideline is to have a clear privacy policy on your website. It could be as simple as “We promise never to rent, sell or share your email address.” Or it could be more elaborate, with an entire page dedicated to it. It just depends on how much information you collect.

Conclusion

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.

Neil Patel is the co-founder of KISSmetrics and blogs at Quick Sprout.

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Comments

  1. A good review of issues. However, it is not “merely polite” to link back to flickr when you use a photo from their site. It is required as part of their terms of use – and you must link back to the page where the photo’s rights are spelled out.

    Terms of Use are dry and boring to read, but a must if you’re going to avoid issues.

  2. As blogging becomes more commonplace, I’m sure a lot of items will be added here in the future :) Good list, though, and I would especially like to emphasize the item on copyright infringement. So many bloggers think that it’s okay to copy another’s work and pass it off as theirs. I have filed DMCAs right and left since I started checking for copies of my work online.

  3. Can’t help but be amused that a case such as the Ticketmaster and Ticket.com case really happened. Perhaps Ticketmaster’s owners see websites as just another physical real estate, instead of a virtual real estate. That all visitors had to knock on the main door before going into it’s other rooms.

    I could not imagine how deep linking can be illegal. It’s like, hey you’re under arrest…you should never open a book at any other point except through the front cover.

  4. Angie says:

    This info is very helpful, thanks so much for putting it all together in one post! I’ve wondered the best way to disclose affiliate relationships – a separate page? a footnote? I appreciate the link to a great example! Thanks again. :)

  5. This information should be a part of every bloggers ‘must know’ list. Thanks Niel for sharing these laws.

    A few other blogging laws I can think of are -
    1> Domain name trademark issues
    Newbie bloggers generally do not have trademarks for their domains when they start out. If a large corporation has a trademark which you are using in your domain name then you may have to give it up if they claim for it.
    2> Tax Law issues related to blogging
    If a business selling products over the internet has a local presence in an area, they are required to collect state sales tax for the sales they make to people from that area. Even if you are exempt from state sales taxes, you will need to pay up your federal income taxes.
    3> Limited Liability Laws
    Limited liability means that when something goes wrong and someone sues a blogger, they can only get to the professional assets that are owned by the blogger and not to the personal assets of the blogger.

    • Carolyn says:

      Speaking of the above, I’d love to see more info on the US tax laws (I know, it’s hard to find someone). I’m hoping to sell some things on my site in the coming year and live in a semi-rural area. I’d like to know a bit about these things before approaching an accountant, so I can judge if the accountant knows his/her stuff.

  6. Anand says:

    Thanks for this great post.I learned a lot from this post and i don’t know about these laws for longtime.I will try to obey these laws and hope i get good results.

  7. thank you for these six laws, these very useful advice neil

  8. Brad says:

    Yea not following these tips can get you in serious trouble.

  9. Conni says:

    Super helpful advice for new bloggers! (and probably more experienced ones as well!)
    Been looking for something like this for a while actually!

  10. tushar says:

    an ultimate post for everyone who is in the blogosphere. Knowingly or unknowingly we all are doing these mistakes. Its better to be aware before head

  11. Bryan says:

    I’m going to pick nits with Law #4. Linking to the owner doesn’t prevent you from being on the wrong end of Law #2. If you use a photo without permission, you violate U.S. and international copyright law. In other words, don’t use a photo without permission, either via the copyright owner or through a licensing agreement such as Creative Commons if the copyright owner offers that licensing.

  12. Guy Hogan says:

    Knowledge is power. You have made me a more powerful blogger.

  13. Paula says:

    Hi Neil, thanks for your insights. I was curious, in the law about images, you didn’t mention the use of commercial images like logos or book covers. It’s my understanding that companies want us to use them because it act like free advertising. Are you familiar with this?

  14. Thanks for sharing Neil, I was aware about the disclosure and image issues but not really the other 4, I can understand the logic behind the ticketmaster fiasco, and don’t think it’s something I would ever do, like you mentioned deep linking is usually encouraged for SEO purposes.

  15. Mark says:

    Thanks, Neil. I’ve been going at this for about a month now, and I was (rather stupidly) wondering if I had all of the legalities taken care of.

    I didn’t know that content is automatically copyrighted the moment that it is posted. It’s nice to know that my hard work is protected. However, but I think I like Leo Babauta’s approach better.

  16. Steven Fogg says:

    Neil, are the FTC rules relevant in Australia? I’m based in Melbourne just like Darren is and I wondered if there is a different set of laws around this?

  17. Josh Sarz says:

    It’s really scary that bloggers could get sued if they don’t use images and content properly. But alas, it is reality. We have to obey the rules and respect other people’s copyright.

  18. Neil says:

    Some good advice, I was quite surprised by the deep linking issue however I can see where the argument is coming from.

    Another possible issue is where the blogger gives bad advice in the blog itself. One example would be a blogger listing tax deductions or giving legal advice on their blog (assuming that they are not a tax accountant or lawyer) and then a reader acting incorrectly on this advice.

  19. Grace says:

    A helpful site is:
    http://creativecommons.org/

    Great post!

  20. Muhammad says:

    Dear Neil, thanks for guiding on this sensitive issue, regarding copyright infringement if someone is copying your content and not caring your reminder you can contact his advertiser and even to his host for taking action against him. Also you can inform search engine like Google for de-indexing such website.

  21. naijadotcom says:

    Highly important points and useful advice,put together in a educating post,Thank you so much for sharing.

  22. James Greg says:

    Good compilation of points that are easily overlooked by many bloggers while some may even think these kinds of rules never existed. There’s too much piracy over the internet and many bloggers may have been a victim of this issue losing the praise they should be getting for their unique content. It would be great if someone sues the other for stealing his work but unfortunately bearing the costs can only be achievable by the types of facebook and google.

  23. Ling says:

    Most of them make sense. Thanks for the reminder.

  24. Faizan says:

    Great post. I will try my best to follow the advice given.

  25. Very well Neil … Truly said that these laws must be followed by every bloggers who wants to become a successful blogger (in a legal way ;))

  26. Kathy Paul says:

    These are great tips! Thank you for researching, sharing, and providing links (internal links!) to more detail.

  27. Ana says:

    I have a question:

    I’m planning on a art-featuring blog. I am not an artist.

    1. I run across some great images on, say, Tumblr, but they aren’t attributed properly.
    What happens if I feature them (of course, saying they’re not mine)?

    2. I want to feature art of John/Jane Smith.
    They, of course, have all the rights to their images, BUT: there is no contact address that I can reach them at and ask for permission.
    Can I feature their works, with links back to them?

    There are blogs in that niche with hundreds of posts… I don’t think their owners ask every single one (or any) of the artists for permission to feature their work, but I’d rather be on the safe side.

  28. Paul Jun says:

    Wow. Just as I was pondering this.

    Great article. Definitely bookmarking this. Great information for everyone reading this site.

  29. The part about images probably needed to be said. I didn’t even think there were such rules until a friend of mine pointed it out and then I asked him to write a guest post on it. It’s so easy to grab an image off Google that it seems legal.

  30. Gordon Firemark says:

    Readers in search of more information on this subject might find my ebook useful. “The Podcast, Blog & New Media Producer’s Legal Survival Guide” is at http://podcastlawbook.com

  31. JC Dill says:

    You are incorrect about “links” in section #2. Copyright protects CREATIVE works. Photos, videos, text (e.g. prose and poetry), and code (HTML etc.) are all creative works. A link isn’t a creative work, it’s just an address, the location of material on the internet. You don’t have copyright protection over your business address in the real world, and you don’t have copyright protection over links in the online world.

    Also, interestingly, contracts are not protected by copyright either. Contracts are a statement of facts of the agreement between parties, and as such they are not considered “creative” writing. (I learned this from a top IP lawyer – he advised me that it was perfectly legal to take clauses from our main competitor’s contracts and edit as necessary to be applicable to our own products.)

  32. Mary says:

    Thank you for sharing the great information. Since they are mostly US copyright laws. I am wondering whether websites owned by people from non-US countries should abide by them.

  33. edt says:

    About law #3 deeplinking. When researching, deep linking is very, very handy, irregardless of SEO practices, it makes sense. (Not for marketing purposes, but when you actually link to a page discussing the same thing you are). When I am reading a blog and it references the information they are talking about, I want to go right to the reference easily. When I have to dig through a website to find what I was just reading about on another website, that is really, really annoying. So much so that I will probably just stop reading a blog or website that consistently points me to a homepage rather than to the direct topic/page where I can continue to read/follow up on said topic.