How Your Blog Can Land You in Court
Business blogging is not easily pigeon-holed from a legal perspective. Some laws already apply in non-blog contexts, such as:
- Don’t disclose another’s trade secrets
- Bad-mouthing the boss is not a good idea
- Trumping up unfounded claims against a competitor will get you in trouble
If you are blogging for your business (that is, either publishing your own blog or posting comments on someone else’s), what, briefly, are some of the legal issues that this brave new world of blogging raises?
Defamation and Libel
Remember when your mother told you to "Think before you speak"? In the blogosphere, think before you press the Enter button. Being incendiary or flippant can get you noticed for the wrong reasons. Defamation (called "libel" if in writing, and "slander" if verbal) involves false statements concerning someone else that cause harm to his/her reputation. Statements regarding a person’s trade or business can render you particularly vulnerable to a defamation suit.
Let’s say you’re reviewing a nutriceutical drink and don’t care for it. Saying, "It reminds me of the time my mother washed my mouth out with soap,” may be seen as more of an opinion-type statement. After all, taste buds are not verifiable fact. But going over the top saying, "It’s so awful it made me gag and want to puke,” could cause harm to the company’s reputation through the inference that it makes people ill. Will a retraction help? It depends on the laws of your state and how you publish the retraction. Do you r-e-a-l-l-y need to be an in-your-face crusader/gadfly? If so, have an in-depth consultation with a defamation attorney to develop a strategy for handling these issues.
“It’s on the Internet, so I can take it, right?” No. Remember playing in the sandbox as a kid. If you didn’t bring the shovels and pails and Tonka trucks, they belonged to someone else, and they were not yours to use. Unless you asked. Similarly, if you didn’t upload the information to the Internet, it’s not yours to take. Unless you get permission.
Now there’s an exception for what copyright law calls “fair use.” If you use a snippet of Rich Sloan’s article or images (with attribution to him, of course) to inspire blog commentary of your own, that’s generally okay. If you take whacking great hunks of his content and pass it off as your own, that’s not. An easy work around: be original. And If someone complains that you have infringing material on your blog, respond quickly, and consider removing the offending content.
Here’s an area that needs clear guidelines, for employees’ time both on the job and off. On the job, you have productivity issues. How much time do you really want them spending updating their Facebook pages? (Answer: none.) There’s also the issue of what employees write, whether it’s on their personal blogs or a company blog. To what degree are they expressing their dissatisfaction with their job, their co-workers, and your company? Even worse, how easy it is for them to post confidential information (plans, photos, documents, diagrams) or divulge company trade secrets? An employee handbook/manual can go a long way to setting boundaries for blog activity and setting protocol for the kinds of information that will not be permissible on the company blog, such as regulatory investigations, product launches, and customer information.
Blogging for business differs from personal blogging in one important respect – you want to put your professional foot forward at all times. This isn’t the place for frat house (or cat house) antics or language . . . particularly when caches can preserve foolish comments for posterity. Sure, you have the right to free speech, but you also have the responsibility to bear any negative consequences for that speech.