5 Website Legal Landmines Every Freelancer Should Know About

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Protecting Your Business on the Web

Whether you’re an accountant, a designer, or a plumber, chances are you use the web to advertise your services, communicate with clients, and mange your network. And if you’re using social media, a blog, or your website as a platform for marketing your freelance business, then you need to understand the legal and financial risks of posting content.

In many ways, the web is still a legal Wild West. As the Internet evolves, our legal system is struggling to keep up with the challenges presented by social media, file sharing, digital copyright law, and online character defamation.

Avoid uploading another person’s intellectual property, unless you have their written permission…

As a solopreneur, the best way to protect yourself is to know your rights and to act in good faith every time you make a decision regarding content on your website, blog, or a social media platform.

Consider the following article food for thought, and use this as a jumping off point to examine your rights online. As always, if you are unsure about a legal issue pertaining to your business, consult a professional.

1. Intellectual Property

On the web, content is extremely fluid. With a single click, you can download photographs or data files to your hard drive, and many freelancers make the mistake of “publishing” copyrighted material on their website or blog. In general, you should avoid uploading another person’s intellectual property, unless you have their written permission.

You can usually get away with publishing quotations, facts, and ideas so long as you cite your sources and provide links, but if you reproduce published material without citing your source, then the copyright owner could claim that you have substantially diminished the value of the content.

If you want other people to be able to copy content that you have created for your website, then you might want to consider publishing your work under a Creative Commons license.

These licenses are available free of charge. They allow you to communicate which rights you wish to reserve, and which rights you are willing to waive for the benefit of other content creators, aggregators, and web users.

2. Privacy

You do not have the right to publish private facts and confidential information about other individuals, including your competitors, on your website (just as they do not have the right to publish private facts about you), but it isn’t always easy to establish what constitutes a private fact.

Privacy on the Internet has always been a gray area, since most of the information on the Internet has been offered voluntarily. However, in general, it is never acceptable to publish a personal detail or specific fact about an individual that has not been established as a matter of public record.

Trade secrets (the term is pretty nebulous, but it can include everything from pricing structures to secret recipes), are another gray area. In order to be counted as a viable trade secret, a piece of information must give an organization a distinct competitive advantage.

It is always wise to avoid disclosing any information which might affect another business’s ability to generate revenue.

3. Stock Photos

Recently, owners of large collections of stock photography have launched a litigation campaign aimed at punishing individuals and organizations who republish stock images without permission.

If you are looking for images to use on your website or blog, then consider creating images yourself, or performing a search for images that are available under a Creative Commons license. Or buy some stock photos that grant a use license.

4. Social Media

As social media has become the dominant platform for self-expression and file sharing on the web, the courts have struggled to address specific legal issues related to this rapidly evolving phenomenon.

The best way to protect yourself within social media sites is to research your rights and obligations. On Facebook, for instance, you own all of the content and information you post to your profile, and you can control how that information is shared through your privacy settings, but individuals with access to your profile are still able to copy or download your content without your knowledge.

5. Defamation

Defamation essentially means making a false claim that harms the reputation of a person or organization. So long as you make it clear that the opinions expressed on your website or blog are just that—opinions—you should be protected from claims of libel and defamation. And just don't lie about someone.

The best way to stay out of trouble? Keep it strictly business. Focus on promoting your services and your expertise, and let your competitors fend for themselves.