2013 FTC Dot Com Disclosure Updates and What They Mean For Online Marketers

On March 12, 2013, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released the long-awaited Dot Com Disclosures. The Dot Com Disclosures guide provides guidance for online and mobile advertisers. Last released in 2000, the internet back then looked very different than it does today. Even now, after over a year of working on this update, some of the information seems dated because technology is changing so quickly.

As soon as the guide was released I started getting emails and contacts asking questions and seeking clarification. The amount of inaccurate information I’ve seen in the few days after their release tells me that there is a need for helpful and accurate information for business, social media professionals and bloggers when it comes to the FTC’s 2013 Dot Com Disclosures.

1. These disclosures are NOT new laws. The 2013 Dot Com Disclosures, like its predecessor, is a guidance document. The FTC staff has made these documents public to assist businesses and professionals working in the online and mobile advertising space in creating their advertising programs so they comply with the FTC rules with regard to advertising and selling online and via mobile platforms. The guidelines only address disclosures required that relate to laws the FTC enforces.

2. The FTC Act continues to prohibit “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” with regard marketing, advertising, promotional and sales practices, in general. The FTC Act is platform neutral, with the goal of consumer protection being paramount. As new technologies and methods of engaging with consumers have come about, the requirement for appropriate disclosures has continued. This document seeks to clarify what is meant by “clear and conspicuous” disclosure to consumers.

3. The FTC’s basic principles of advertising law have not changed. Advertising must still be fair, truthful and not misleading, and have evidence to support all claims. The FTC is tasked with protecting consumers, and, as such, their evaluation of advertising uses the reasonable consumer as its standard.

4. These disclosures, both the content and their placement, aren’t measured by what the company or online marketer/professional thinks makes sense. If a disclosure is necessary or required so that an advertisement or marketing message does not violate an FTC rule or other law, then the disclosure should be clear and conspicuous. The guide provides a very good discussion of this topic. Mentioned are factors such as size of text, color, distracting factors, use of graphics, repetition, location, proximity to message, as well as the primary message of the advertisement.

5. Hyperlinks may be used for disclosures, but the FTC will look at a number of factors to determine if they meet the clear and conspicuous test. The Dot Com Disclosure guide provides a comprehensive discussion on this topic on pages 10 – 13. The general conclusion is that if you are going to use a hyperlinked disclosure you should read this section to fully understand how to do it within the parameters of compliance.

6. Understand the technical limitations of the platform. The FTC is very clear that pop-up disclosures are not to be used. Due to pop-up blockers, a user or consumer may not see the required disclosure creating a potential liability for the marketer. In addition, be aware of the issues related to the technology that may prevent the disclosure from being seen. Not all apps, browsers or mobile platforms function in the same way. What may work on one device may not work on all. In addition, common software may prevent hover disclosures or change link functionality. If these are known (or should be known) limitations, be prepared to create alternative means of disclosure.

7. For the first time, the FTC addresses disclosure on space-constrained platforms. For most, this means Twitter. The FTC states the disclosure should be at the beginning, using “AD” or “Sponsored” so the consumer is adequately informed. The FTC notes that using an abbreviation of the word “sponsored” is likely inadequate because the consumer will not know what the abbreviation means. While most advertisements or sales pitches are teasers and will lead the consumer to a site where it is much easier to provide full and appropriate disclosure, the space-constrained message may still need a disclosure. Furthermore, the FTC recognizes that space-constrained messages may be replicated (such as a retweet). With such replication, the advertiser needs to ensure there is sufficient space so the disclosure is maintained.

 

8. Since the FTC is primarily tasked with protecting consumers, it makes sense that the Dot Com Disclosures address the language used for the disclosure. Consumers have different levels of understanding. Online professionals may be very proficient at the utilized technology, but the consumer may not. How you use the technology may differ from how the consumer uses it, making it incumbent on the marketer and other online professions creating the message to craft a disclosure appropriate for the average consumer.

9. The Dot Com Disclosures do not change any of the requirements with regard to testimonials and endorsements used in advertising. When companies use third parties to share their message, through testimonials or endorsements, the FTC’s Endorsement Guides offer helpful information. The Dot Com Disclosures not only addresses additional situations with regard to marketing, sales and advertising in the mobile and online space, but it acts to clarify they types of disclosures that are required when the internet or mobile platforms are used. The disclosure requirement for bloggers, spokespeople, brand ambassadors, and other third-parties (like celebrities) remain the same.

While this update to the Dot Com Disclosures now incorporates technology that did not exit when the prior version was created, we don’t see many radical changes. These disclosures relate to online and mobile-technology communication with consumers that could lead to a buying decision. And while much of the focus is on the consumer protection aspect of these new Dot Com Disclosures, what is equally important is that compliance is also a tool which allows marketers and sellers to compete in a marketplace free of deception or unfair trade practices.

Who should use the Dot Com Disclosures? This guide should be used by brands, entrepreneurs, small businesses, PR companies, marketing strategists, online professionals, social media consultants and strategists as well as bloggers and others who use social media in conjunction with promoting a product or service to the consuming public. Non-compliance with this new update won’t bring a fine or a reprimand from the FTC. However, since these disclosures are a guide as to how the FTC will determine and evaluate unfair and deceptive trade practices which violate underlying laws it would not be wise to disregard them. The FTC is attempting to offer insight and transparency into what they look at in determining what consumer protection matters they will pursue. While it may not be exacting or crystal clear, it is an important tool to consider when making consumer focused marketing, advertising and sales decisions.

What are your thoughts about the 2013 FTC Dot Com Disclosures? Are you confused about what you have to do? Has the FTC gone too far? Are you mad because you disclose and others don’t?

For other articles about the legal implications of being online, check out my legal blog.

Disclosure: While I am a lawyer, I am not offering legal advice. Posts on legal matters are intended to provide legal information only and do not create an attorney/client relationship. 

Images taken from FTC Dot Com Disclosure Guide

Sara

5 Legal Considerations For Your Pin It To Win It Promotion

Pin it to Win it

Pinterest is one of the most popular social networking platforms, especially for people who are visual. Pinterest is currently the fastest growing social network, and if you’re on it you know why. If you’re not on Pinterest, you may not understand all the hype. Suffice it to say that Pinterest’s digital “pin boards” have given millions a place to house all the things that were once relegated to bookmarks.

More and more, though, I’m seeing “Pin It To Win It” (PITWI) type promotions. Now that Pinterest has business accounts, it’s easier for a business to create a promotion that includes Pinterest. Pinterest has even created some promotion guidelines to give insight as to how and how not to use the platform.

The days of the wild west use of Pinterest are gone. While many have ignored the FTC Disclosure requirements and the fact that there really are laws about giveaways, that should change now. Pinterest, while not so clear in their new guidelines, has mentioned that it is up to the business to apprise themselves of laws or administrative rules that may also apply to their promotion. Unfortunately, I don’t see small businesses doing this. Even large companies, with access to lawyers, aren’t taking the time to have legal check over their PITWI promotions. What’s worse is that many companies hire outside agencies to run these promotions and these outside PR, social media and digital agencies aren’t seeking legal input either. Instead, they might be relying on what some sales exec at the company providing their promotion interface (be it an app, an embed or widget) give them info on what to do or “social media experts” who know just enough to be dangerous.

Problem is, there are laws that govern sweepstakes and contests. And, the FTC has been very clear that there must be disclosure if there is a material relationship between the parties. Unfortunately, the laws relating to sweepstakes and contests are lagging the technology and the FTC is understaffed and can’t monitor the tens of millions of online communications daily that are subject to disclosure.

To help you, your clients or your business, I’d like to share with you 5 things that may cause your Pin It To Win It promotion to run afoul of existing laws or disclosure rules. Of course, you should also be in compliance with all the Pinterest Promotion Guidelines as well.

1. Compensation – this is one of the huge grey areas in current sweepstakes law. In the past it was easy to define compensation because the only way the company could be compensation was with purchase. Now, though, the value of engagement is one of the main reasons businesses do these types of promotions. With a sweepstakes you often see the phrase “no purchase necessary”. This is so that there is a way to enter without providing compensation to the sponsor. With a PITWI promotion, there is almost always some value conferred to the sponsor. In the world of Pinterest, a pin or repin is virtual currency. Every PITWI sweepstakes should have a method of “free” entry that does not require the entrant to pin, repin, like or somehow provide this virtual currency to the sponsor. Because contests are a “game of skill”, the legal guidelines are a bit different than those of sweepstakes and can require voting mechanism or other interaction between the business, the contestant and the public.

2. Method of Entry – courts are very settled that an entrant to a sweepstakes should be required to do as minimal as possible for their “free” entry. There has not been a current case addressing what this means in the world of the internet. However, taking the current law, cases and commentaries, a business should not require too much of a person to gain an entry into the sweepstakes. Having an entrant create an elaborate board, make multiple pins/repins/like, or click around like they’re on a scavenger hunt could be seen as requiring too much effort on the part of the entrant for the entry.

3. FTC Disclosure – The FTC requires clear and conspicuous disclosure if there is a connection between the endorser and the seller of the product or service. By requiring an entrant to create a board or pin or repin something to one of their existing boards as an entry to win a prize, it could be argued there is a connection between the endorser (entrant) and the seller of the product or service (business). You have to ask yourself, “would this person be pinning, repinning, liking, or creating boards unless they could potentially win something?”. If the sole reason for doing those actions is gain entry, should there be disclosure? The FTC has not spoken about this specifically, however, I believe it’s only a matter of time before we hear about the FTC investigating this type of promotion. You may ask how someone is supposed to disclose when it’s just a click. Or how are they supposed to disclose. These are questions that don’t really have an exact answer, which is why these PITWI promotion can create a liability that the business did not contemplate.

4. Copyright  – one of the issues faced with promotions involving photographs and images is copyright and the potential for infringement. While Pinterest TOS do speak to the fact that one should only pin images for which they own the copyright, it is well established that is not always the case. Copyright ownership is a significant concern when using Pinterest. By asking an entrant to pin an image owned by the business, there may be little or no concern with the copyright issue. However, if the entrant must pin their own image or pin another image found on Pinterest the business must now be concerned with the copyright issue. Furthermore, if the business has pinned images to their own board, for which they do not own the copyright, the continuous infringement issue could create significant liability. Copyright should be of special concern when the promotion is a contest and there may be voting on images pinned or repinned.

5. Location of Entrant – sweepstakes and contest laws are specific to each country. Pinterest is a global platform that does not provide any easy method of determining location. And with prizes that may be capable of fulfillment via an email, there are concerns that laws of the country in which the entrant is a legal resident are being overlooked. A business may face significant liability for running a promotion that is open to residents of countries where the business has not ensured the promotion is legally compliant.

Complying with the laws, administrative rules, and Pinterest Business Guidelines are essential for a long term social media strategy. Sure, it’s easy to look the other way because it seems like everyone else is. But the reality is that legal compliance is an important part of every corporate strategy and shouldn’t be an afterthought.

For other articles about the legal implications of being online, check out my series on blog law and online rights.

Disclosure: While I am a lawyer, I am not offering legal advice. Posts on legal matters are intended to provide legal information and do not create an attorney/client relationship. This post is part of my Blog Law Series. This post is was not sponsored, reviewed or edited by Pinterest. I am not affiliated with Pinterest and use of the Pinterest logo does not imply endorsement. 

Sara

Your Copyright Notice Status Update On Facebook Is Worthless

 

Evidently, my lack of friends on Facebook means I don’t have this nonsense cluttering up my feed.

In response to the new Facebook guidelines I hereby declare that my copyright is attached to all of my personal details, illustrations, graphics, comics, paintings, photos and videos, etc. (as a result of the Berner Convention). For commercial use of the above my written consent is needed at all times!

(Anyone reading this can copy this text and paste it on their Facebook Wall. This will place them under protection of copyright laws.) By the present communiqué, I notify Facebook that it is strictly forbidden to disclose, copy, distribute, disseminate, or take any other action against me on the basis of this profile and/or its contents. The aforementioned prohibited actions also apply to employees, students, agents and/or any staff under Facebook’s direction or control. The content of this profile is private and confidential information. The violation of my privacy is punished by law (UCC 1 1-308-308 1-103 and the Rome Statute).

 

Facebook is now an open capital entity. All members are recommended to publish a notice like this, or if you prefer, you may copy and paste this version. If you do not publish a statement at least once, you will be tacitly allowing the use of elements such as your photos as well as the information contained in your profile status updates…

 

Yes, it seems that someone vomited some legalese and with a quick cut & paste job it’s all over Facebook. And, sadly, it seems that most people who are posting this think it means something legal. Sorry, it doesn’t.

Besides there being nothing known as the “Berner Convention” (it’s the Berne Convention, btw), the Rome Statute established the International Criminal Courts and despite how oppressive Facebook may be, it’s not engaging in any “core international crimes” last I checked. Sure, there may be privacy breaches but not so much in the area of war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity. Although, there are some that think Facebook itself is a crime against humanity. But that’s a different story.

Anyway, by posting this nonsense as your Facebook status you change nothing about your relationship with Facebook. See, when you signed up to get a Facebook account you clicked that you read and agreed to their Terms of Service (TOS), even all the updates. And despite the fact that you probably didn’t read the TOS you’re still bound by them. You can post all the copyright notices you want and Facebook’s only obligation to you is in the TOS, so read them if you’ve got nothing better to do.

If you don’t like how Facebook works, then delete your account. Despite what you may believe, Facebook is not the government. It is a private company (with crappy stock) and while they do have to comply with many local, state, national and international laws they don’t have to comply with any attempt at a legal notice you post as your status update.

If you really think Facebook cares, you obviously don’t know much about Facebook. So, please do the rest of us a favor and stop posting this nonsense.

Thanks!

For other articles about the legal implications of being online, check out my series on blog law and online rights.

Disclosure: While I am a lawyer, I am not offering legal advice. Posts on legal matters are intended to provide legal information and do not create an attorney/client relationship. This post is part of my Blog Law Series. This post is was not sponsored, reviewed or edited by Facebook. I am not affiliated with Facebook.

Image Credit

Sara

Blog Law: Defamation and Social Media

Online Defamation

We’ve all heard the phrase “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” When it comes to social media and online content, though, its seems the phrase is actually “If you can’t say something nice, blog, tweet, facebook, or post it online.” While I shouldn’t be, I am surprised at what people post online. It’s as if there is no internal filter on some people. For others, Shakespeare has nothing on the drama they call life.

While it may not seem like many, as early as 2007 several hundred bloggers have been sued on a variety of legal theories, with defamation topping that list. And, as recent as 2011 a blogger was held liable for defamation and assessed $2.5 million in damages. Legal liability for what you post (and even comments made) on your blog is not a theoretical discussion. It is very real and is happening more often than you may imagine.

What is Defamation?

Defamation covers two types of communication, written (libel) and spoken (slander). Generally, defamation is a statement that is communicated to a third party and makes a claim, either expressly or implied to be factual, that injures another’s reputation or causes others not to associate with the person or business. Malicious intent is not generally required. And given that few bloggers would likely be classified as Public Figures within the very narrow definition, don’t rely on the “but they have to prove malice” defense.

With blogging, the main concern will be libel. Even if it’s not a written blog post but rather a vlog or podcast or some other type of internet-oriented medium, you’re likely going to be dealing with libel.

How does this apply to bloggers?

Your Own Statements

While 40 states do have Media Shield Laws which protect members of the media and media organizations, not all of those states include the internet in their Shield laws. As such, bloggers are not able to use those same protections when they write negative things about other people or organizations when those statements are implied to be or stated as factual when in-fact they are not.

We’re not talking about bloggers giving a review and sharing their opinion and their personal experiences which happen to be negative. Truth is always a defense to a defamation claim, but you have to have some proof that what you state is, in fact, true.

In addition, one of the key words in the definition requires that the statement be asserted as fact. This is why many bloggers and users of online forums, chats, and social networks and platforms are very clear to assert that their statements are merely their opinion.

For most bloggers, when it comes to their blog the risks of defamation are low. The topics covered don’t generally lend themselves to the assertion of allegedly false statements of fact nor do the comments and discussions move in that direction. However, with the US legal system as easy to use as it is there is a real possibility of being sued. Because being sued isn’t the same as being held responsible, someone can sue you just because they have a good faith belief that you’re defaming them. (Just ask Donald Trump.)

Comments On Your Blog

One of the great things about blogging is connecting with our readers. Engagement and comments are what we live for. In general, bloggers keep an eye on the comments. We need to filter out the junk, make sure people aren’t taking advantage of our generosity with the link juice, and try to keep the haters at bay. Some people moderate all their comments so they can control what goes out publicly on their blog. Others feel that moderation impedes conversation so they allow anyone to comment and it be available in real time.

Are bloggers really responsible for what a commenter says on their blog? As a lawyer, the answer is a resounding … MAYBE! In general, we’re not responsible for libelous statements made by others. So much so that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (47 USC 230) offers protections that apply to bloggers who permit comments on their sites. However, this won’t prevent someone from filing a suit against you or subpoenaing you and/or your blog records, but it will be an affirmative defense you can raise. And while you may not be liable, having to spend your time and money being involved in a lawsuit are often very high costs to standing your ground.

Where Can You Be Sued?

I’ve been asked this a few times. And while the answer is somewhat complicated, at the same time it’s very easy. The short answer is Everywhere! It is the world wide web, afterall. And that first word, world, is quite broad. Chances are though, that if you were sued for defamation you’d likely be sued in the US in some state other than where you live. And that creates lots of problems.

Jurisdiction, the ability of a court to hear a case involving you and your actions, can be pretty tricky. For example, criminal courts can only hear cases about alleged violations of criminal laws. It can’t rule on divorce or probate or contract disputes. Civil courts, though, hear cases about civil matters. That’s called subject-matter jurisdiction.

With any court, though, they also have to have authority to hear a case involving you specifically. Known as personal jurisdiction, the state has to have some relationship to the parties or the matter to haul you into their system. You can’t just file a lawsuit against someone anywhere in the US. The parties involved have to have some relationship with the state to be subject to their court system. Even in Federal Court, the courts have special rules about which court you can use.

If you blog in California and the person or company that alleges you have defamed them is in Florida, where do they sue? Besides looking at the question of state or federal court (which I won’t discuss), should you have to go to Florida because it’s convenient for them? Why shouldn’t they sue you in California? Afterall, you are there and that’s where the alleged defamation occurred. Right?

As recently as 2010, a Washington State blogger was sued in Florida for defamation. The Washington blogger didn’t think she should have to go to Florida to defend herself because she had nothing to do with the state. Unfortunately, the court disagreed. The rule that came out of that case is that if your posts are accessible in Florida then you’re subject to Florida courts.

That’s not a US Supreme Court ruling and therefore not the ultimate law of the land. However, as precedent it is very strong. As such, just understand that even if you’re sitting in your jammies in middle of now where USA you may need to haul yourself into any court in the land to defend yourself for claims relating to your blog.

Comments, Discussions and Updates Made to Social Networks or Platforms

You may have heard that rocker (and wife to the late Curt Cobain) Courtney Love was sued over an allegedly defamatory tweet. In less than 140 characters, Ms. Love made allegations against a former clothing designer she had been working with. And while the case never went to trial so we won’t know if there is any legal basis, Ms. Love settled the defamation suit. However, Ms. Love didn’t think she needed any type of internal filter when using Twitter after that experience and later in that same year she was sued again for defamation, this time by her former lawyer.

While most people aren’t using Twitter or other social platforms to make allegedly defamatory statements, the increase in what are believed to be private discussions within social media and social networks are beginning to pose concerns. A defamatory statement does not require publication to any specific number of people. In fact, all that is required is that such a statement is made to a third party. One person! A defamatory statement sent by Direct Message on Twitter, the chat feature in Facebook, instant message or even text is all that’s needed. You may wonder how the person/company/business being defamed would learn about it, but really do you.

7 Important Takeaways about Defamation (specifically, Libel)

1. You only have to publish your statement to ONE person! – Contrary to what many believe, you don’t need to tell millions of people to be held liable for defamation. With the ease of screen capping or forwarding a text, what you say to one person can easily get to the allegedly defamed person. As for those private conversations on DM, IM, chat or text, they’re fair game. As are anything said in those “secret groups” on various social media platforms.

2. You can likely be sued anywhere in the US – Anything published on the interent will likely expose you to jurisdiction in courts across the country. Be prepared. Even if what you did say turns out not to be defamatory, it doesn’t prevent you from being hauled in to court in another state to prove it.

3. You may be sued for what other people say on your blog – As a blog administrator, you have a great deal of control over comments made on your blog. And while Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act may protect your from liability, it won’t protect you from being sued and having to defend yourself. Sure you’ll be able to raise a valid defense but you’re still being sued and it sucks.

4. What you write is asserted as fact either expressly or impliedly – Defamation does not apply when the statements are your own opinion. It’s when asserting things as fact that you can get in to trouble. If you’re ranting about someone (or something, or a company) and it’s just your opinion then make sure it’s clear that it’s your opinion. If you’re stating facts be clear about that as well. If you know for a fact so-and-so was smoking weed and you can back it up with either first hand knowledge or a reliable source then write about it. But if you just think so-and-so is a pothead don’t risk it with hyperbole and grandstanding. But remember you can’t shield your source and expect the court to just wave you past go to collect your $200.

5. Bloggers often aren’t treated the same as traditional media – Even for those bloggers who take a more journalistic approach to their craft, many courts still aren’t ready to extend traditional media protections to a blogger. While some states have attempted to close this gap on how bloggers are classified, most have not. But, like traditional media, bloggers should check, double-check, and possibly triple-check any sources they rely on for their information.

6. Be careful with photos and images you use – The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words can be a detriment to you if you use a photo that implies a fact that is untrue. Stay away from juxtaposing images with stories to imply something that isn’t there.

7. If you are sued, find a lawyer in your city that specializes in defamation – Don’t immediately take down the post or delete the tweet. You can’t unring the bell, but you can find out how to best defend yourself. If not handled appropriately, removing the allegedly offending piece can make the problem bigger.

While I mention this in the context of a blogger, really it’s applicable to any type of online professional or entrepreneur that publishes content on the web. While the adage is that “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”, we need honesty and authenticity. Others may not like what you have to say about them or their product, but the truth of the matter is that we’re all allowed our opinion and the ability to tell the truth.

For other articles about the legal implications of being online, check out my series on blog law and online rights.

Disclosure: While I am a lawyer, I am not offering legal advice. Posts on legal matters are intended to provide legal information and do not create an attorney/client relationship. This post is part of my Blog Law Series.

Sara

Avoiding Copyright Pitfalls on Pinterest

 

Copyright Issues with Pinterest

You either know what Pinterest is or you don’t. For those who do, just skip this next section. For the uninitiated, let’s bring you up to speed.

Pinterest in the online equivalent of all those torn out magazine photos, articles and recipes you’ve got taped on your wall, stuffed in a drawer, bookmarked in your browser even though you have no idea how to find them ever again, or piled high in a ‘to be filed’ which used to teeter on your desk until it fell over so now it’s on the floor. For those of you who are ‘my age’, it’s an online cork board. For the younger crowd, it’s similar to a vision board only you can have many vision boards without having to put together any more furniture from IKEA.

In a single word, it’s genius! Pinterest is a hybrid of Etsy, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Posterous and a Blog. As of the writing of this post, Pinterest is an ‘invite only’ community. It’s not some secret handshake kinda place, I think it was done that way to manage initial traffic. If you’re not on Pinterest but want to be, just email me and I’ll send you an invite. (As of August 2012, Pinterest is open to anyone without an invitation) So, now that you have an idea of what Pinterest is why the talk about copyright?

I signed up for Pinterest shortly after it went live. I used a stealth email so I can lurk and see how this thing worked. Sure, with about an hour worth of work you could probably connect me to my James Bond-ish Pinterest but I signed up for a very different reason. Anytime there’s photo and content sharing there are potential copyright issues. And I wanted to check it all out and see how it would unfold.

First, let me say that the Pinterest Terms and Conditions are pretty straight forward. While I’d guess about 90% of the Pinterest population just clicked the ‘agree’ box, I, in fact, have read the T&C. Several times. There are places where they are convoluted and exceedingly verbose. And, in many instances they’re quite a bit more ‘techy’ than they really should be. But, being a lawyer who works with online content creation, protection and sharing I’m probably a bit deeper into the reality of how a site like Pinterest is used than the average corporate or tech attorney. That being said, I didn’t see anything in Terms and Conditions or Copyright notice that would raise any red flags related to privacy or copyright protections.

I do have serious concerns about Pinterest hosting full-size images on their server, often without knowledge or permission from the original copyright holder. In doing this, Pinterest removes all references to the the original source. That creates significant issues with copyright (as well as other issues), especially when the copyright holder may not have provided authorization, tacit or otherwise, for the redistribution of the image. Now, the image can easily be redistributed without any determination of whether the image is protected by copyright. This is an issue I have with Pinterest directly, and not necessarily with Pinterest users. And, of course, Pinterest is based in the US yet it is a global board and thus there are concerns with protecting the rights of non-US citizens as well.

Now, that being said, let’s get to the reality of how Pinterest is used. The site is intended for users to ‘pin’ content to your virtual pinboard. By pinning a specific web page you can add comments, categorize that ‘pin’, and connect an image. And by doing so, potential copyright violations are apt to occur.

It’s not 100% the pin-ers fault, nor 100% Pinterest. Much of the issues related to copyright problems come about because the law is not straightforward. There is a great deal of wiggle room in copyright, which tends to fall under the category of Fair Use. And while there are licensing issues that are addressed in the Pinterest Terms and Conditions, the fact that people don’t read them combined with a lack of understanding of what Copyright Fair Use really is means that problems are bound to happen.

How can you avoid Copyright Pitfalls on Pinterest?

I’m glad you asked!

1. Avoid ALL cutting and pasting – When pinning on pinterest, the point is to add your insights, comments or thoughts NOT to cut the article and post it so you never have to reference back to the original. Since you’re linking to the original (or what is believed to be the original), in the ‘Describe your pin’ window you write something meaningful to you.

2. Pin the original source – I know that re-pinning is an acceptable practice and a time saver. However, if you’re really interested in what was pinned, take an extra minute or two and verify the source. Sadly, I’ve seen things re-pinned that don’t belong to the site mentioned.

3. Never copy an image from Pinterest to use on your blog! – Chances are whatever you’re doing will not fall under fair use, so you’ll risk the copyright holder saying you’re infringing their rights. If you really like what you see, reference back or get permission.

4. Don’t perpetuate the wrong owner – I’ve seen the same image attributed to many different blogs. This is not only frustrating for the reader but it’s downright maddening for the original owner. It takes a lot of work to get your images taken off other sites, and when you have to take extra steps to prove you’re the real owner it’s not only maddening but also very time consuming.

5. Watemark your images – I know that many photographers do not like to watermark images because it takes away from the beauty they were capturing. And for the average blogger, like myself, adding a watermark isn’t always easy (especially now that Picnik is shutting down but it’s gotten easier thanks to free sites like PicMonkey). It’s important to know that Pinterest doesn’t crop the image. That means the watermark will remain, letting people know the original source. This is not foolproof, but it’s a start.

Hope this helps with honing your Pinja skills!

UPDATE: On April 6, 2012, Pinterest updated its Terms of Service to specifically address several issues regarding what Pinterest can do with uploaded images as well a creating what they believe are simpler tools for reporting copyright violations. Overall, the general nature of Pinterest did not change. The one big change in the platform to help those whose words were lifted was to limit the comment to 500 characters.

For other articles about the legal implications of being online, check out my series on blog law and online rights.

Disclosure: While I am a lawyer, I am not offering legal advice. Posts on legal matters are intended to provide legal information and do not create an attorney/client relationship. This post is part of my Blog Law Series.

Sara

Tax Tips For Bloggers

 

Tax Tips for Bloggers

Every week I get a few emails from bloggers or online professionals asking me questions about taxes. Most of them are the same questions again and again. Because I can’t answer fact-specific questions individually without potentially creating an attorney/client relationship, I tend to give the same general answers. First and foremost, seek counsel from a reputable accountant. Unfortunately, I understand, too well, that many accountants don’t understand about how blogging works and some of the nuances related to making money online. And I also understand that finding a tax lawyer who may understand these nuances can be very expensive.

I started out my legal career in the tax group of a boutique firm. I’ve spent thousands of hours working with tax laws. That said, I am not a tax attorney. Through the online world I have gotten to know tax attorneys. One, in particular, is not only an exceptional tax attorney she happens to understand the online and blogging worlds. Kelly Erb is a practicing tax attorney, writes tax-related articles for Forbes magazine, has spoken at BlogHer and is well-known by her pseudonym, TaxGirl. I had the pleasure of speaking with her to clarify my knowledge and get some insight about how the IRS thinks when it comes to bloggers and taxes.

Tax Tips For Bloggers

SWAG (Stuff We All Get) – It may surprise you that the IRS defines this as compensation. Of course, while we like to think we hit the trifecta of SWAG bonanzas at blogging events, it was celebrity awards shows that led the IRS to look into this concept of giving people stuff for showing up. Under federal income tax law, such gift bags are treated as taxable income, not gifts, by the IRS since they are not “solely out of affection, respect or similar impulses for the recipients of the gift bags”. This may come as a shock to many people, because despite the fact that bloggers aren’t getting free trips to Tahiti, Botox, and jewel encrusted sunglasses we do get some pretty nice gifts in our conference attendee bags. Are bloggers really claiming the value of their SWAG bag as income? I can’t answer for anyone else. I can only tell you that if you are audited and you’re taking deductions for going to a conference, the IRS has every right to ask you if you claimed the value of the swag as income. Can you argue it away? Sure, but talk to your tax preparer or seek legal advice before doing so.

Promotional Items in the Expo Hall – If you’ve gone to tradeshows, you know some have better stuff at them than others. Having been to a number of legal conventions, I’m likely not alone in saying that our expo halls tend to have pretty lame stuff compared to the housewares show or the candy and gourmet food shows. Depending on the event, bloggers are walking trade shows and convention exposition halls where companies are plying men and women, moms and dads, especially, with all kinds of products. Are these income? Again, the companies aren’t giving you this stuff solely out of affection and respect for your awesome blogging. The company likely wants something in return. Many people throw around the number of $25 as the baseline to determine if something is income or a gift. The value of $25 comes from that being the threshold in deducting business gifts. It’s a good rule of thumb, but it’s not ‘the law’. That being said, what you get in an Expo Hall may or may not be ‘taxable income’ depending on the circumstances surrounding how you received it. If there are discussions about doing reviews, writing abou the company on your blog, tweeting, or creating social media impressions, you may have created a business relationship. Or, are you a ‘big time A-list blogger’ and when they saw your badge they began plying you with everything they had in their booth (we can dream, right)? This is one of those circumstances where you have to look at what the expectation is regarding your getting the product or service.

Affiliate Income – seems pretty easy to say, it’s income. And not just income, taxable income. However, this is one area I have many people wanting to argue with me. The IRS does not care if you get paid in non-US Treasury currency. Payment in money, products or services can be considered income. If you are using affiliate codes, links, banners, etc., the money generated from them is taxable income because it is payment made for helping a direct seller make sales. And keep in mind that even if you don’t have enough in your affiliate account to cash out, you are still responsible for reporting the funds sitting in the account. To the IRS, it doesn’t matter if your compensation is in the form of martian bucks, if you can spend in on earth, the IRS want’s their cut!

Beginning in 2012, for tax year 2011, a new form has been introduced that may impact affiliate income reporting. The 1099-K is a new informational reporting mechanism for the IRS. Online affiliates that once sent out 1099-Misc may move to the 1099-K. Given that the reporting thresholds are much higher ($600 vs $20,000) you may not get a form reporting your income earned. This puts the responsibility on you to track this income closely.

I didn’t get a 1099, do I have to report that money? – Yes! A 1099-Misc form is an informational filing that is required only if the income is $600 or more. If you did not fill out a W-9 the company does not have your information on file and can not report using a 1099-Misc, even if you earned $600 or more. Regardless of what you earned, it is still up to you to report this income.

“Free Trips” – There’s no such thing! No one is flying you anywhere out of their affection or respect for you. Except maybe your family. If it’s a company, PR agency, brand rep, or anyone business related, your trip is for a reason. What is that reason? Why are you going? Are they paying you in addition to covering your travel expenses? Most likely you’re being given a trip so you can do something for the organization. Even if they’re not giving you any cash, the cost of the plane ticket, the hotel, the car service, the meals and any pampering, events or attractions you’re taken to should be reported as taxable income. Regardless of whether you get any money to pay the taxes on this several-thousand-dollar-trip, it is taxable income. That magical trip doesn’t seem so magical after all, does it?

Products for review – while many bloggers frequently talk about the cool products that just show up at their door, most products arrive with some expectation. The company or PR rep had to get your address or possibly exchanged emails with you regarding some expectations they may have with regard to sending you their product or service. If there has been conversation where you have agreed to try their product or service and then write about it, the brand or PR rep is sending it to you with the expectation of getting something in return. That is the fine line separating ‘random stuff dropped off by hot delivery guy’ (not taxable income) and ‘item provided for something in return’ (taxable income). If you’re sent a product for your use to help facilitate a giveaway you’ll be doing, that item you received is taxable income.

“Free Stuff” – There are many examples of things bloggers get that the IRS would find to be taxable income, despite the fact that you may not ever receive a dime. I’ve seen bloggers tweet, post and facebook about their home full of new appliances, the fashionable new clothes for their kids, the best organizational products, and so on. Regardless of whether they are theirs to keep or simply to use for 6 months, the value of the products is compensation and the IRS would expect to find it reported as taxable income. And those ‘free cars’? Not so free, really. Bloggers given the use of vehicles to drive to a conference – tweeting weeks in advance, on the way, etc. – are given those vehicles for one reason only. To talk about it. True, you can’t talk about the vehicle unless you use it. However, use of the vehicle is the compensation the blogger is receiving in exchange for their social media engagement. It’s easy to come up with a value for this, even if the company doesn’t send you a 1099-Misc.

Conference ‘Sponsorships’ – Not every company sends bloggers a check to pay for going to a conference and touting a specific product or service. I’ve seen tweets about ‘free clothes’, ‘new shoes courtesy of …’, ‘my new luggage’, and much more filling up a conference’s twitter stream. Add a hashtag and tell twitter how excited you are that company XYZ has given you something for the conference chances are they gave it to you in exchange for you giving them time in social media, on your blog and maybe other platforms. Most likely you’ve sent the company or PR rep a sponsorship pitch detailing what you will do if they ‘sponsor’ you. Bloggers are not charities. You know as well as I that you’re not getting ‘free stuff’ for your conference experience. You’re entering into a business relationship, no matter how much you don’t want that ‘free outfit’ to be taxable income.

But I Donate The Stuff I Get! – That’s awesome! Here’s the general rule: If you don’t report it as income, you don’t get to take the charitable deduction. That ugly sweater Aunt Martha gave you? Donate it all you want and take the charitable deduction. She gave it to you because she loves you. Nothing about it will be considered taxable. However, if the item would be taxable income you need to report it as such if you want to get the benefit of a charitable deduction. This is definitely one of those ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too’ type of situations.

Conclusion

While many don’t want to hear that their ‘free’ stuff is actually taxable income according to the IRS, in reality it likely is. When it comes to taxes, the Number One piece of advice you’ll get from almost every tax preparation professional is to keep good records. But don’t just keep them in a pile in a shoe box. Annotate them. Make notes regarding the circumstances that led you to getting the product or service, take photos.

Keep in mind that all those blog posts, tweets, facebook status updates and countless social media check-ins may tell a different story than you’re hoping to tell to the IRS should you get audited. Good record keeping does take time, but it will always be helpful should you find yourself being audited. As to how long to keep tax records, it depends. For most things it’s 3 years, but there are some instances where it could be 4 years or 7 years. Before you discard them, double check the time period for the IRS and determine if you might need them for another purpose, such as insurance which may require they be maintained longer.

While many accountants may not understand the blogging world, they do understand the concepts of income. If you don’t feel your accountant ‘gets it’ then find another accountant that will take the time to understand your industry nuances. Many people now opt to do their own taxes since tax preparation software is very comprehensive and rather easy to use. But that tax prep software is only as good as the information it is given. If the person putting in the information doesn’t understand the tax laws, it doesn’t matter what the software spits out at the end.

When it comes to taxes, if you don’t know what to do, ASK! The consequences of the IRS finding errors in your tax return can be significant. Even if it is a paper audit, the stress, time, anxiety and frustration can often be more than the penalty potentially assessed.

UPDATE: I’m not here to tell you that if you don’t do exactly as I say you’re going to jail, will be reported or find yourself audited. Like many laws, there are people willing to push the envelope. Tax laws are no different. If you feel you have a logical and legal ground for what you choose to do, then do it. This information is to help you make decisions based on what the laws say.

For other articles about the legal implications of being online, check out my series on blog law and online rights.

Disclosure: While I am a lawyer, I am not offering legal advice. Posts on legal matters are intended to provide legal information and do not create an attorney/client relationship. This post is part of my Blog Law Series. All references to tax codes are to the US Tax Code. This is not tax advice. See advice from a tax professional to address your specific needs.

 All references to taxes are to the United States Federal Income Tax.

Image Credit: Arvind Balaraman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sara

Fotolia Stock Photo Service Review

Photo Credit: Sample Image from Fotolia

You know what a stickler I am about the proper use of photos on blogs and websites. As a lawyer who has worked with clients to protect their images and use others’ images properly, I was very pleased when Fotolia contacted me to check out their stock photo service. I was provided with complimentary access for a month. You may have even noticed that for the last month the photos I’ve used have been a little different.

Fotolia offers exceptional quality images of just about anything. With nearly fifteen million images and HD videos available, finding just the right image for whatever you’re doing is easy. My problem was narrowing down the options.

As a royalty-free stock photo site, you just buy the image in the size you want for the purpose you need and you’re good to go. You can edit the image or create a derivative work and still be within your rights so long as you buy the correct type of image.

Fotolia charges you based on the size of the image. For the average blogger you’re probably looking at about $1-$3 per image. That may seem high, but for the peace of mind that you’re not risking your site being taken down it may be well worth it. For designers, the prices really can’t be beat. And for consultants and companies, the quality and cost is exceptional. With sizes ranging from 400×300 to over 15mp, there are photos for almost anything you would create.

When I was using the stock images, I credited each photo. The terms of Fotolia do not require attribution. I just felt it was a way to let you know where I got my images so I can be up front about the source.

If you’re looking for high quality stock images, look no further. I often use public domain or creative commons images, neither of which offer the versatility of stock photos. Fotolia has images for any type of post you may write, promotion you may be doing or design you are creating.

Check out Fotolia today. It’s free to join, you just pay for the images you want.

Disclosure:  Fotolia provided me with a one-month complimentary subscription to facilitate my review. I received no monetary compensation. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Sara

Blog Law: Public Disclosure of Private Facts

Tommroch – Fotolia.com

 

On a weekly basis I find misdirected emails in my inbox. With a name as common as Sara, it’s been happening to me for years. And now with blogging, there are so many with the same name it’s easy to end up with an email not intended for you.

Have you ever received an email with one of those legal-like disclosures on it? If you’ve ever worked with a lawyer or someone in a larger company you likely have. It goes out on every email. And likely is ignored most of the time. For the most part, they’re worthless. Yes, this lawyer said something legalish was worthless. It’s just boilerplate slapped on the end of every single email regardless of whether it is relevant or not.

So if you received an email, DM, text, or skype message not intended for you, what did you do? Of course you read it. Because that’s how you realized you really weren’t the right person. And now that you’ve read it, what do you do? I always reply letting them know I received the email but they were likely intending it for someone else. To which they almost always are glad that it was me who received it because I’m known to maintain confidentiality regardless of whether or not I’m legally required.

But what about you? What would you do? What if it included someone else’s stats or how much they were going to get paid for a project? Or there was information about a medical situation or something about their child or spouse? Would you use it for your own purposes? Can you? Legally?

This is often where the legal part comes in. Once you read it you can’t unread it. So you  know the information. And if you email back so they know their misdirected the email, then there is someone who might think you know something confidential, or at least private.

What to do? Not just legally, but morally and ethically. You may not be legally prohibited from sharing some (or all) of the information, depending on what it is. But morally or ethically should you? Often two separate concerns.

The Restatement (Second) of Torts §652D provides: One who gives publicity to a matter concerning the private life of another is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy, if the matter publicized is of a kind that

(a) would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and
(b) is not of legitimate concern to the public.

In plain English this mean that if you publicly disclose another’s private information you may be liable for Invasion of Privacy if (a) a reasonable person would be offended if the information was publicized AND (note the AND so you need both of these) (b) the information is not a legitimate public concern. To break it down even more, there are 4 things that need to be present:

  1. Public disclosure
  2. Private facts of another person
  3. Offensive to the reasonable person
  4. Not newsworthy

Pretty much nothing you receive from another blogger, PR rep, marketing consultant, social media expert, online guru or twitter master is of a legitimate public concern, thus if you tell people about the contents of the email you could be liable for Invasion of Privacy.

What is Public Disclosure? It means telling the public. This can happen by emailing your entier address book, posting about it on Twitter, Facebook, ‘secret’ Facebook groups, Google Plus, Tumbler or the like. If you write about it on your blog, that’s definitely ‘public’. Telling a few people in your Skype group? Not likely to be public and not give rise to Invasion of Privacy.

What is ‘Offensive to the Reasonable Person’? The point here is that not everything that is disclosed, even if private, if offensive to the reasonable person and the law doesn’t want to punish someone for sharing something that would be relatively harmless. For example, if you find out someone’s birthday and share it the average person might be ticked off, but it wouldn’t really be offensive. Now if we’re talking about sharing a social security number, how much someone is getting paid or if they have a medical condition it might be offensive.

Newsworthiness? Is the information you found out newsworthy? Courts want to protect people who share information that is of a legitimate public concern. Chances are, though, the average blogger won’t be getting an email from another blogger, PR rep, marketing consultant or the like with information that is truly of public concern.

All in all,  disclosure to a few friends likely won’t meet the legal definition of Invasion of Privacy. But remember how the internet works. You’ve hear the phrase “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”? Well, that’s not how it works with the internet or bloggers. What happens in the blogosphere ends up on Twitter. And Facebook. And someone else’s blog.

And, then, of course, we get to the ethical issues. While we can’t ‘unsee’ something, we can always take the high road and not use the misdirected information, as it was never intended for us anyway.

Have you ever received an email not intended for you? How did you handle it?

For other articles about the legal implications of being online, check out my series on blog law and online rights.

Disclosure: While I am a lawyer, I am not offering legal advice. Posts on legal matters are intended to provide legal information and do not create an attorney/client relationship. This post is part of my Blog Law Series.

Sara

Blog Law: Online Bullying Isn’t Just For Kids Anymore

Online Bullying Laws

In some ways I feel like a therapist. I get emails with details on how a blogger or small brand is being taunted and tormented by others online. I completely feel for them because I have my own trolls and ‘mean girls’.

I always thought that grown ups would be different. I figured that I’m a professional, they are professionals so we should all be able to co-exist. Really, there is plenty of room for all of us. Or so I thought.

It’s not uncommon to hear stories of brand bashing. Companies hire bloggers, forum managers and website moderators to write negative stories about competitors. Called BADVOCATES, these people write bad things about the competitive brands to drive traffic away from the competitor and to the company in question. It’s being a bully for hire.

Now with Facebook and Twitter it’s easy, too, for brands to pepper these two platforms with negative information, misinformation, outright lies, inappropriate links and other types of online communication. I’ve even heard about people being paid to stir up fights within comments.

One of the aspects that pains me the most is how women go after each other in such hateful and vicious ways. As brands reach out more to women to help communicate their messages, the blogosphere often looks more like a high school than a professional landscape.

Rosalind Wiseman summed up years of research in her best seller Queen Bees and Wannabes. It was turned into a successful movie called, appropriately, Mean Girls. It easily could be updated and called Mean Women. I see it every day. More than I ever thought I would.

Online bullying is much more pervasive than we imagine. There are few statistics because online/cyber harassment is still so new. And, truthfully, few want to admit that they’ve ever bullied anyone. And those bullied or harassed often do not want to come forward for fear of further being targeted.

Online bullying takes many forms, all of which are inappropriate. Few of which ever rise to being illegal. Therein lies the problem. What do you do when you’re being harassed online via social platforms? How do you fight back when others are working behind the scenes and there is no way to know, even, who your attacker is.

5 Areas of Online and Social Bullying

1. Comments – negative comments on websites and blogs are part of online discourse. But if you notice that you’re getting a lot of negative, rude, hurtful, spammy, insulting, or profane comments then start moderating or pay close attention to IP addresses. And, remember, ultimately, it is your site and you make the rules!

2. Twitter – the bullying on Twitter can take so many forms, many of which we may not readily become aware of. There’s no way to search to see if your avatar is being used, so we rely on our network of friends and friends of friends. We can’t conjure up weird hashtags or twitter handles that might be geared toward us.

However, we can see what comes through our mentions and @ replies. Don’t ignore any tweets that seem to be harassing in nature. Of course don’t respond either but make a note and try to find out more about this person and see what might be out on other forums. Keep in mind, though, that as easily as you can hit ‘Block and Report for Spam’ so can the bully.

3. Websites – it’s your site, you’re free to do with it as you please. But when you take to ranting about what someone else is doing and how you don’t like it, maybe you should take a moment and consider if that is the best forum. I’ve seen sites where their entire purpose is to hate on someone. That’s their choice. Unfortunately, defamation is not always a way to stop online bullies.

4. Facebook – truly the bane of many people’s existence. Talk about having little control over your profile or information. With a few clicks marking your status as “Spam” takes but a few seconds. Ask a few friends and within an hour you can get hundreds of clicks on someone’s profile designating them as spam or inappropriate. It’s that easy. Anyone can write on your wall. People can post links to inappropriate content, tag fake images of you or even annoy those who follow you.

For as much as Facebook seems to be the nirvana of connectivity, it’s often more a haven for those Badvocates and trolls to hide behind loosely crafted rules. And unlike most other companies, if you don’t like the product there is no one to complain to and if you do find someone, generally they don’t care.

5. Email – one of the places where hate, vitriol, and rudeness can enter our lives so easily. More and more people are taking to email to ‘put them in their place’. The boldness of not even hiding behind a fake Twitter or Facebook account or an anonymous comment is amplified when the bullying is directed via email. Often disguised as friendly, I’ve seen emails spew nonsense, lob accusations, and generally do whatever is needed to cut the other person down. All under a subject that appears friendly.

Sadly, online bullying is not going away. If anything, it’s starting to get a toehold and the high from the real, or perceived, anonymity fuels the hate. We each need to be vigilant and, ourselves, not succumb to such low levels of communicating. If you have a problem with someone you don’t mark their work as spam. You discuss it like professionals.

If, however, it’s about jealousy and envy and greed. Well, that’s a bigger psychological issue that needs to be resolved. One piece of advice about bullies: Don’t get in the sandbox. Never stoop to their level and don’t fuel them.

I know it’s easy to say, but don’t give the bullies power. They may not stop but they may tire of targeting you.

Have you had to deal with online bullies? If so, how did you handle them? Any suggestions?

Image Credit: David Kitchenham (public domain/modified by Sara Hawkins)

For other articles about the legal implications of being online, check out my series on blog law and online rights.

Disclosure: While I am a lawyer, I am not offering legal advice. Posts on legal matters are intended to provide legal information and do not create an attorney/client relationship. This post is part of my Blog Law Series.

Sara

Just Because It’s Not Illegal Doesn’t Mean It’s Right

Blog Law and Ethics

Every day I get a few emails and DMs from bloggers upset that another blogger has taken something of theirs. Whether it is an idea, a design concept, something from Twitter, a hot deal, a complete post, it seems like there is a lot of taking going on. In addition, as bloggers are trying to grow their Facebook communities some are taking it upon themselves to poach from others.

For the most part, I’d say about 90% of the taking or doing unto another via some type of online medium, as it relates to blogging, is without legal consequence. Plagiarism isn’t illegal. Stealing an idea, unless covered by some type of non-disclosure, is not illegal. Designs? Depending on how much is lifted there could be issue. But generally, what I’ve been alerted to hasn’t risen to the point of copyright or trademark infringement.

I’ve discussed the issue of copying blog posts by another blogger. And depending on the type of post there may be a reason to scream foul and mount the troops for a take down. But when the post would not rise to the level of being subject to copyright, because it’s a list or may not be considered sufficiently original, copying and giving a ‘shout out’ or link back doesn’t make the taking right.

Years ago I studied Corporate and Business ethics under the foremost leading academic authority on the subject, Professor Marianne Jennings. It was in her class, as well as working with her to edit one of her textbooks, that I solidified my interest in the field of Ethics, Corporate Compliance and Corporate Responsibility. And over the years I have continued to stay current in these areas, especially as the internet and new media platforms emerged and have grown.

The law, for most is very black and white. They don’t break the law. Or at least not enough to get caught. Especially when we’re talking about things like copyright and trademark laws. I’m often told they’re not real laws because on really gets hurt. Well, not like crimes that have become the basis of an entire genre of television drama.

And, since most bloggers aren’t really violating some state or federal law they turn a blind eye to the consequences of their actions. Because, after all it’s not illegal per se. And we all know ethics is a big muddled blob of wishy-washy-ness.

Ethical standards of vary dramatically from one person to the next. We may even vary our own ethical standards depending on the exact situation. It is this inconsistency and the judgement we can heap upon others that makes what some bloggers do even more upsetting.

Some of the most ironic circumstances can present themselves. I’ve seen websites that have very forceful ‘All Rights Reserved. Don’t Copy My Stuff’ type of warnings. Yet the blog has wholesale cut and pasted another’s work. Oh, the irony. And the lack of common sense.

But it goes on many, many times a day. Cut, paste, linkback. Cut, paste, ‘shout out’. And some people are just naive and don’t realize that’s not done. While others just don’t give a darn and will lash out at you for daring to call them on their unethical behavior.

The golden rule seems to have been tossed to the side. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Plain, simple and straightforward. But for some, it’s disregarded. As if they are somehow special. Well, let me say this – they’re not. And you shouldn’t treat them like they are.

Ethics is a funny thing. There is such a broad spectrum of what is and isn’t ethical. While there is some wiggle room with laws, it seems like ethics is more like a wide open space with plenty of room to stretch. Ethics isn’t an either/or proposition. Doing what’s right isn’t always an easy choice. And my idea of what is right may not be yours. And vice versa.

However, with blogging, as with many other businesses you can easily find ways to justify every choice. Right or wrong, who is to judge you?, you ask. Besides the fact that there are what many consider to be ‘best practices’, ignoring them comes with some pretty harsh consequences. If you’re willing to deal with the fall out of your choices, that’s fine. But understand that there are consequences. And there’s not much worse than a ticked off popular or powerful blogger.

By practicing basic playground rules, blogging could be a much more beautiful landscape:

  1. Be nice
  2. Ask before taking
  3. Say thank you when someone does something nice for you
  4. Share if you have enough
  5. Don’t grab
  6. Follow the rules
  7. If you don’t know the rules, ask someone
  8. Don’t kick sand at someone because you don’t get your way
  9. Don’t be a bully
  10. Welcome new people

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What are your biggest concerns when it comes to blogging and ethics?

For other articles about the legal implications of being online, check out my series on blog law and online rights.

Disclosure: While I am a lawyer, I am not offering legal advice. Posts on legal matters are intended to provide legal information and do not create an attorney/client relationship. This post is part of my Blog Law Series.

Sara