Write Stuff – Legal Ease

Quick, what do trendy blogs and your grandma’s self-published memoir have in common? they’re both part of a revolution in the written word, a revolution That’s given broad exposure to millions. It’s also got us acting as our own publishers, editors, cover artists?and lawyers. That’s right, lawyers, because lots of folks are now publishing with only their own vague knowledge of copyright, libel, and other legal risks. And that could leave them one real-life plot twist away from an unhappy ending.

There are plenty of ways that uninformed writers can run afoul of the law, and bloggers seem to have found many of them. Sometimes It’s the information bloggers themselves post?even when the writers are people in the business of law enforcement. Take the case of a former Fairfield County, Ohio, sheriff’s deputy, who posted a negative view of his boss on a blog. As this NBC article notes, the deputy claimed that his right to free speech allowed him to openly voice his ?concerns and opinions.? But his boss (who was also the county sheriff) took a different view, claiming that the allegations were false.

The bottom line? The deputy lost his job, but vowed to file a federal lawsuit against his former boss. In this case, and many others, a little legal advice upfront might have saved a whole lot of lawyers? fees later.

In a twist on that scenario, model Liskula Cohen sued Google to gain access to an anonymous blogger’s identity. Google wasn’t held responsible for the comments, but they owned the service that hosted the Blogger account?and ended up losing the case in court, forced to hand over records that revealed the blogger’s name.

Writing a post isn’t the only way you can get into legal trouble on your website; you might also be held responsible for comments you allow other people to post?or even have to prove you didn’t write them yourself. In 2007, a popular blogger known as ShoeMoney was subpoenaed by a District Court in Nebraska, as an article at Search Engine Journal reports. The subpoena wasn’t for anything in a blog post. Instead, it involved a readers’s comments left on the blog. But as the SEJ article notes, It’s not outside the realm of possibility that bloggers might have to show proof, such as ?IP tracking and other log file tracking methods,? to prove they aren’t simply posing as a reader and stacking their own blog comments.

Publishing and libel laws vary by country, of course, but in Canada even the act of posting links had the potential to spell trouble. At least it did until the Supreme Court of Canada handed down a ruling on October 19 of this year. As Michael Geist writes on his blog, the case of Crookes v. Newton ?focused on the issue of liability for linking to allegedly defamatory content.?

In part, the judge’s ruling states that ?a hyperlink, by itself, should never be seen as ?publication? of the content to which it refers.?

It’s a victory for common sense, but what about the tricky world of fiction? You’ve got a great plot mapped out, all about the inside world of Washington politics. There are crooked politicians and backroom dealings galore. To add a dash of realism you decide to use real-life characters like, say, President Obama. It’s one thing to use a historical figure, but what about living people? You can mention them, but are you allowed to involve them in the action, or give them dialogue? What about lesser-known figures, like your friends and family?

If you don’t know the answer, you should definitely find out before writing your brother?or the president?into that scene.

So how can you find your publishing voice without writing your own ticket to court? Get informed. The Canadian Encyclopedia has a good primer on defamation, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation offers plenty of info in its Legal Guide for Bloggers (note that this only applies to US law).

It’s a lot more fun to design your own book covers or choose the colours for your WordPress blog, but you should devote at least as much time to learning the basics of copyright, libel, and other issues. Otherwise, you could end up writing the final chapter in your own blogging career.