By Tammy L. Hensel
As a journalism student at Baylor I took a basic course in media law which covered much on the “cans” and “cannots” of publishing. I have tried to keep up with changes to these laws through years, but I didn't think about how they applied to the Internet until a couple of years ago when I joined Myspace. (Of course the Internet wasn’t around when I was in college, so it wasn’t covered in my course.) As I viewed profiles, read blog comments and bulletins, I was amazed at how much potential for privacy and libel lawsuits I saw there. Here are a few things everyone who has an Internet site needs to know.
Your profile is your newspaper.
Publishing something on an internet site or forum is like publishing it in a newspaper or book. You are in a sense writing your autobiography on your profile or blog. You own the copyright to all original material you post. No one may copy it or forward it to anyone else without your express permission. But the content does become public information because you are making yourself a public figure. That means that others may gain information about you from your sites and use it as long as they don’t copy it word for word, without attributing it to you. More and more employers, journalists, and law enforcement officers are using Internet social sites as sources for information in their investigations. That is legal because it is public information, regardless of your “privacy settings.”
Keep from crossing the line between free speech and privacy laws.
Invasion of privacy and libel laws that pertain to all media also apply to profile sites and blogs. I have noticed much on the social sites that could qualify as violations of these laws. For the most part this happens because people are just uninformed and not used to thinking like a journalist. They think anything and everything is covered by the right to “free speech.” Or they think of it as private chatter. But privacy and libel laws draw a line as to what may be published about a another person. Sometimes it takes the courts to decide when the line is crossed. I foresee that in the future we will see more and more lawsuits brought against people for things they post on Internet social sites and blogs. So be careful!
The only private Internet communications are emails. In my research I discovered that it violates privacy law to forward emails without permission. Don’t forward or post on your blog anything that doesn’t have express permission in it, such as the words “please forward.” Never forward or even quote from a private letter without permission from the other person.
Privacy and copyright laws apply to your pics too.
You find a box of old school photos and you want to post them on your Facebook page to share with your old friends. However, you are in contact with some of the people, so you can't get permission. My advice is DON’T POST IT! You do own the copyright to that photo because you took it. But privacy law prohibits the publishing in a public forum photos without the permission of the subject. You never know what may embarrass another person.
You do not own the copyright to photos you did not take or inherit, even if you purchased them. So when you get that family portrait made, be sure and ask the photographer for permission to upload the photo to your website. There are photo and graphics sharing sites, such as photobucket, for people to post photos they want to share with others. Remember when you share your photos there you are granting others royalty-free permission to use your photo. I think most of these sites have certain usage restrictions to which members agree. Most stipulate that you cannot use the photos for commercial purposes. Usually the site will have their name attached to the pictures, so people will know where you got them. If there is not you should protect yourself by saying where you got the photo. Never copy a photo or a logo from a site that does not specifically give permission for it.
Be an informed participant!
The Internet is a fun and useful tool for social interaction, networking, and exchanging information. Just remember that the key to avoiding problems is to be informed.
A good resource I recently purchased is The Law (in plain English) for Writers by Leonard D. DeBoff and Bert P. Krages, II.
Here are some Internet articles I found:
Common Questions & Answers About Copyrights: A Simple Guide for Photographers, Artists, Illustrators, Writers, Musicians and Other Creative Individuals By Andrew "Drew" Epstein
Copyright and the Internet By Virginia Montecino
The Law for Photographers: Do I Need Permission? By Dianne Brinson, a copyright attorney, for PhotoSecrets
Copying Old Photographs: Infringement of Copyright Laws?
If you know of any other good resources, please share them in comments.