Influential blogger Jason Kottke has run into a spot of legal trouble with Sony after he blogged about the TV show jeopardy, and the situation has exposed one of the biggest differences between blogs and Big Media: newspapers and magazines have legal teams and big pockets, and bloggers don’t.
Inevitably, as blogs become more influential they attract the attention of lawyers, and it’s very important to know the law to make sure you don’t get into trouble. For UK bloggers, there are three key things you need to watch out for: copyright, malicious falsehood and libel. These things are drummed into every trainee journalist from day one, and as the lines between blogging and “proper” publishing continue to blur, bloggers should pay attention to them too.
Libel is the biggie. Put simply, libel – often described as “defamation” – is when you write something that’s provably false, and which damages someone’s reputation. Such cases are open to interpretation, and because libel cases are so expensive they are often seen – rightly, in my view – as a way for rich and powerful people to suppress legitimate criticism. Robert Maxwell was a big fan of libel cases, and won countless cases against journalists; after his death it emerged that most of the supposed libels were in fact true.
It’s important to note here that you don’t need to be the person who started the libel: under UK law, repeating the libel is enough to land you in hot water. There have been a number of cases where sites have been held responsible for their users’ posts on message boards, and they have set the precedent that the site owner is the publisher – which means it’s the site owner who gets sued. In the case of a blog, that means you.
It’s also important to note that it doesn’t matter where your site is actually located. Successful legal action has been brought against site owners in the UK and Australian courts over material posted elsewhere, on the grounds that while the material may have been on a US server, it was available to readers in the UK or Australia and therefore still damaged the person’s reputation in those countries.
(Incidentally, libel and slander are often confused. Slander is verbal, libel is written.)
Copyright is a fairly common one, and the main thing to watch is content that encourages others to infringe copyright – such as links to illegal software downloads, or files that break copy protection. If you’re unlucky enough to catch the attention of a firm with deep pockets, the penalties for copyright infringement can be severe.
Malicious falsehood is similar to libel, but works in a slightly different way. It applies when a false statement is published maliciously and causes (or is likely to cause) financial loss. So for example if you say a firm has gone out of business but it hasn’t, then that is potentially a malicious falsehood: it isn’t defamatory – you’re not suggesting that the firm’s boss eats babies or has sex with Saddam Hussein – but it’s a false statement that could cause the firm financial harm.
David Price has an excellent guide to this stuff here. If you’re writing controversial content on your blog, it’s worth reading up on media law. The last thing you want is a lawsuit.