You might own your blog and believe that you can publish whatever you want online, but bloggers and online publishers have to follow laws, too. If you’re a United States resident, then you need to understand the laws that apply to you.
Claiming ignorance is not an allowable defense in the U.S. court system. The onus is on you to understand and adhere to all of the laws and regulations that affect bloggers and online publishers. That means it’s up to you to do your homework, learn the laws, and abide by them. When in doubt, it’s always best to consult with an attorney. The last thing you want to do is accidentally set yourself up for legal problems.
Following are seven laws that bloggers and online publishers should know and follow. This isn’t an all-inclusive list of laws that affect online publishers, but it does represent some of the most common areas of confusion and legal problems that bloggers face.
1. Copyright laws
Anytime an original work is published (whether it’s an article, book, photo, song, or any other work originally created by an individual or group), the creator of that work automatically owns the copyright to it. That means unless you have permission to reproduce the work on your blog or website, you’re not legally allowed to publish it. There are instances when you can purchase a rights-managed, single-use or royalty-free license of an original work, which allows you to publish it on your blog or website. For example, stock photo sites like BigStock.com and iStockPhoto.com sell licenses for royalty-free and rights-managed photos and images.
Some creators license their work through Creative Commons, so it’s easier for other people to republish the work. Other works have been around for so long that copyright laws don’t apply to them anymore. You can use these works for free under Public Domain laws.
Another exception to copyright laws is Fair Use. According to Fair Use judiciary rulings, you can republish another person’s original work for a variety of reasons, such as to quote excerpts of another person’s work in order to add your own commentary or criticism, in a parody, in a news report, or in an educational lecture or lesson. However, Fair Use is dangerous territory. If you can’t get permission to use another person’s work on your blog or website, the best decision is not to use it at all.
Follow the links in this section to learn more about each of these types of copyrights, so you don’t break any laws. You can also learn about copyright, trademark, and patent laws in Title 37 of the CFR.
2. Laws related to paid endorsements and material connections
The Federal Trade Commission publishes the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) which is described in the National Archives as, “the annual codification of the general and permanent rules in the Federal Register by the executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government.” An Act of Congress requires that the CFR is published each year, and it includes 50 titles on a wide variety of topics.
Title 16, Section 255 covers “Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” Paid blog posts and content (both monetary and non-monetary payment) are included in this section, too. You should read and adhere to the entire Section, but bloggers are specifically mentioned in Section 255.5: Disclosure of Material Connections. Follow the preceding link and take a look at Example 7 to see one way this law applies to bloggers and online publishers in general.
3. Trademark laws
Before you start using a specific name for your blog or domain name, make sure that name isn’t already trademarked by another person or entity. If you violate a trademark, you could receive a cease and desist letter from the trademark owner asking you to stop using the mark (which could be a name or design such as a logo) immediately. That means you’d need to remove that name from any part of your blog, website, URL, social media usernames, and online and offline content and materials.
If you don’t comply, the trademark owner can sue you. If you’re found guilty of violating trademark laws, you could be required to pay some hefty fines. Always search the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office trademark database before you start using a name or design to make sure it’s not already trademarked and owned by someone else.
It’s also important to understand that trademarks owned by other people and entities must be identified as such on the web page where the trademarked name or design appears. For example, a trademarked company name should include the appropriate trademark or registration mark (depending on where the name or design is in the trademark process).
Typically, you need to include a disclaimer that identifies the trademark owner as well. Fortunately, most trademark owners understand that this isn’t going to happen across the web, so it’s not usually something that they’ll worry about if they find that you didn’t use the correct symbol or disclaimer with their trademark. You just need to know that if a trademark owner contacts you and asks you to add a symbol or disclaimer to your content (or to remove their trademark from your content), your best course of action to avoid legal entanglements is to comply.
4. Libel laws
Defamation laws protect people from being the victims of false or damaging claims about a person that are published with malicious intent and result in negligence. Written defamation is libel, and if you’re found to have published false or misleading content about another person or content that harms the other person’s reputation, you could be sued for libel.
If the content you published was true and you can prove it, you should be okay. However, if your content was your opinion, it’s not necessarily covered by free speech laws. If the other person can prove malicious intent or negligence in the form of harm to their reputation, livelihood, business, career, and so on as a result of your content, you could be found guilty. Tread carefully.
5. Email marketing laws
Do you maintain a list of email addresses of people who subscribe to your content, download materials from your website, or join your online community? Do you send emails to those people? If so, you need to make sure that you’re following the laws of the CAN-SPAM Act.
In brief, you need to make sure you’re only sending emails to people who opted in to receive them, and you must always provide a way for them to easily opt out of receiving future emails from you. Furthermore, you can’t use misleading subject lines or deceptive information in the “From,” “To,” and “Reply To” information of your emails.
6. Privacy laws
As an online publisher, if you collect any kind of personally identifiable information about visitors while they’re on your site, you have a duty to tell them and to keep that information secure. Furthermore, you typically cannot sell that data or share it without permission. To stay out of trouble, don’t store personally identifiable information about your site visitors.
7. Income tax regulations
If you earn an income from your blogging and online publishing activities, you’re required to report that income to the IRS. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can also claim many of your expenses such as web hosting, phone calls, mileage, supplies, and so on as deductions on your tax return. Always discuss your income and possible deductions with a tax professional to ensure you’re filing your tax return correctly.