Social Media Law 101

Posted February 4, 2010 in Internet Law by

Last year, Chicagoan Amanda Bonnen was having a disagreement with her landlord. In what must have been a moment of frustration, she posted to Twitter account, "Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s okay." A couple months later, her landlord, Horizon Group Management, sued her for libel. In its suit, the company claimed Bonnen, "maliciously and wrongfully published the false and defamatory Tweet."

In January, a Cook County (Illinois) Circuit Court judge dismissed the case with prejudice, which means Horizon cannot refile the same case. Bonnen’s attorney claims the case was dismissed because the judge felt the tweet was too vague to be libel.

I’m sure Bonnen’s breathing a sigh of relief not that the case has been dismissed, but at the same time, she may have just learned an expensive lesson: If you’re on Twitter, Facebook or other social networking sites, or if you’re blogging or posting to sites such as YouTube, you had better be familiar with the basics of libel, slander and copyright law. Because, after all, ignorance of the law is not valid defense.

The Basics of Libel and Slander

Libel and slander are both forms of defamation. To defame someone is to make a false statement that’s intended to damage their reputation or good name. When you make this statement in writing, it’s libel. If you make it orally, it’s slander.

For someone to win a libel suit, a person must prove:

  • The statement was defamatory (in other words, it was more than just offensive or insulting, and actually harmed the person’s reputation
  • The statement was published and read by at least one other person
  • The statement was specifically about the person who has sued for libel
  • The statement was made with the intent to fault you

If the person who was allegedly defamed is a public figure, than he or she will have to prove that the libelous statement was made with actual malice. If the person who was allegedly defamed is not a public figure, he or she will have to prove that that person who made the libelous statement was negligent.

If you are sued for libel, you can defend yourself by proving that the statement was true or by proving the statement was an opinion, not a fact.

The Basics of Copyright Law

Copyright is a form of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship, including literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works. This includes writings, plays, songs, software, and paintings from the moment they are created and fixed in a tangible form. Copyright law gives the author or owner of a work the right to control reproduction, distribution, adaptation, public performance, public display, and translations into other languages or other media. It is important to understand, however, that copyright protection does not protect ideas.

On the internet, copyright infringement and plagiarism often go hand in hand. Plagiarism is taking someone else’s words and using them as your own. With the use of the Internet, plagiarism has been on the rise because it takes little effort to copy words and ideas. If the work being plagiarized is protected by copyright and used without permission, then the copyright owner can take legal action against the person reusing the material.

If you are active on the internet and want to avoid copyright infringement, there are a couple simple rules you should follow:

  • Assume that everything is protected by copyright unless you see a notice specifically stating that there is no copyright.
  • Ask for permission before using someone else’s copyrighted material, including words, songs, pictures and videos.
  • Always clearly mark material that you did not create and give credit where credit is due. Text, for example, should be in quotation marks and attribution to the original source should be included.
  • If you mistakenly use someone else’s copyrighted material and they ask you to remove it, do so promptly, and without argument.

Beware of the Federal Trade Commission

If you have an influential presence on the internet, businesses may start to approach you, offer free use of their goods and services, and, in exchange, ask you to talk about it on the internet. The Federal Trade Commission has recently cracked down on this practice. According to the New York Times:

"The F.T.C. said that beginning on Dec. 1, [2009] bloggers who review products must disclose any connection with advertisers, including, in most cases, the receipt of free products and whether or not they were paid in any way by advertisers, as occurs frequently…For bloggers who review products, this means that the days of an unimpeded flow of giveaways may be over. More broadly, the move suggests that the government is intent on bringing to bear on the Internet the same sorts of regulations that have governed other forms of media, like television or print."

If you review products and/or services online, make sure it’s clear to your audience whether you received the item for free or if you were paid for the review. If you weren’t compensated in any way, it’s good to say that, too, since it enables your audience to know that your review wasn’t influenced the company.

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