Attorney Ruth Carter on Avoiding Lawsuits Related to Your Company Blog

by Tim Parker

3 min read

It’s just a blog, right? Wrong. Untold thousands — even millions — of people may read the contents of your company’s blog over its lifetime. So it’s far from “just a blog.”

Ruth Carter (pictured) is an Arizona attorney and author of The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to Get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. Her practice specializes in intellectual property and business, social media, and flash mob law.

The Intuit Small Business Blog asked Carter for some advice on how to blog without becoming the target of litigation.

ISBB: May a blog owner use an image from a site like Flickr, provided that credit is given to the photographer or artist?

Carter: Many people think that they can use any image they find on the internet, especially if they give an attribution and a link to the original image. If you do that, you might be committing copyright infringement and telling the owner about it.

If you want to use an image from Flickr, use the Advance Search option to search for Creative Commons images. These are images where the owner has given anyone who wants to use [them] a license, as long as you comply with the license’s terms.

I always use images that come with a license that lets me modify and commercialize the image. The license to modify the image lets me crop the original, and the license to commercialize the image lets me make money from my blog whether I am doing so now or may want to do so in the future.

If there is an image that you want to use and it doesn’t come with a Creative Commons license, you can contact the owner and ask for permission to use the image. I’ve never had a photographer say no when I’ve made this request.

May a blog owner re-post another blog’s content provided that the content is attributed to its original source?

That could be a slippery slope. If you’re quoting someone else’s work and adding your own thoughts to what they said, using the other blogger’s material may qualify as fair use. If you do this, you should always provide an attribution and a link to the original published piece, so your readers can see the quote in its full context.

If you’re using someone else’s material and not adding anything to it, there’s a good chance you’re committing copyright infringement. The original author likely owns the copyright in their work, and they have the right to control where they copy and distribute their work.

One thing to remember about fair use is this is a defense. It is not a permission slip to copy someone else’s work. And to provide clarification, providing a link to someone’s blog is not the same as copying their content on your blog.

May a blog owner be sued for defamation? If so, how do you protect yourself?

Absolutely! Bloggers need to remember that the law cares about what you actually said, not what you meant.

Defamation involves telling a lie about a person that damages their reputation. The best way to avoid a defamation lawsuit is to do thorough research (from reputable sources) and make sure that all of your facts are accurate. Be careful not to make misstatements or share half-truths on your site.

Be careful about what sources you use. If you copy someone else’s defamatory statement, you can commit defamation even if you didn’t know that you were telling a lie when you told it. Be sure to check your state’s laws on this to see if there are different standards that apply to defamation involving public persons compared with private persons.

If another writer is hired, is the blog owner liable for the content that the hired writer created?

I tell every person who outsources their blog content or allows guest submissions that they need a rock-solid contract that holds the writer liable for any wrongs they cause with their content. When I write these contracts for blog owners, I write that the writer is responsible for the blog owner’s attorney fees and any damages assessed against them.

Can an employer take action against an employee based on the contents of their blog?

If you are an at-will employee, you can be fired because of your personal blog, even if your blog is legal. You can be fired for any reason or no reason at all, as long as that reason isn’t illegal. This means you can be fired simply because your boss doesn’t like your site.

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