Are You Making These Common Legal Mistakes on Your Blog?

Filed as Blog Tips on January 17, 2014 7:00 am

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Aaron George, an entrepreneur focused on changing the legal industry. His startup called LawKick makes it easier than ever to find affordable, qualified legal help for free.

People blog for different reasons. Some just do it for fun. Some use it as a marketing tool for other products and services. Some do it full-time and make a living by serving up ad impressions. No matter what your reason is, it’s a good idea to be aware of the key legal considerations of operating a blog.

Depending on your blog strategy and your reason for blogging in the first place, there are different legal obligations you must meet.

Blogger typing on laptopPhoto credit: Anonymous Collective via Flickr

For the casual blogger just writing for the thrill of self-expression, you won’t have more than a few minor legal concerns to think about. But if blogging is your primary source of income, there are more serious legal issues that come into play, and you should definitely address them before it’s too late.

This post highlights three of the most common legal mistakes made by bloggers, along with some tips on what you can do to avoid them.

Are you collecting emails? You may be violating privacy laws.

Most bloggers like to collect emails from blog visitors. It’s a great way to engage with readers, get them to come back, and build up an audience or customer base. Collecting and storing an email address might seem totally harmless. But in fact, it comes with serious privacy concerns that are overlooked by bloggers all the time.

In the eyes of the law, email addresses are considered a form of “personally identifiable information” or PII. PII is defined as any information that can be used, either by itself or along with additional information, to locate someone or identify a single individual in context.

Along with emails, other types of PII include full names, addresses, credit card numbers, digital identities, phone numbers, birthdays, and more. If you are collecting emails or any other form of PII on your blog, you should have a privacy policy in effect.

The purpose of a privacy policy is to let readers know what information you collect and how it will be used or shared with others, as well as how readers can keep up to date with changes to the privacy policy or request to have their information deleted.

Although there is no federal law in the US requiring you to have a privacy policy, the state of California has enacted a law requiring any website, blog, mobile app, etc. that collects PII from users to have a privacy policy in effect. There also must be a link to the privacy policy clearly displayed on pages where PII is collected.

Given that California is the largest state in the US by population, there’s a good chance some of your blog readers are from there, which means your blog would come within the reach of this law. If that’s the case and you don’t have a privacy policy in effect, you’re making a legal mistake that could result in harsh fines and penalties.

So get yourself protected. Talk to a lawyer familiar with Internet laws and have a privacy policy drafted for your blog. It’s well worth the cost to avoid the serious potential consequences in the future.

Is blogging your business? You might be exposed to unnecessary liability.

These days, almost anything you do can expose you to liability. Yes, even blogging. That’s just the nature of the litigious society that we live in: you never know who is going to sue you or why.

So, if your blog is anything more than a hobby and you are using it as a source of income, it’s highly advisable to limit your liability by forming an LLC or corporation.

Even if you don’t generate income from your blog, but it’s focused on topics that by their very nature are potential sources of injuries, financial losses, bad decisions, etc., it’s wise to form a limited liability entity for your blog. Things like fitness blogs or financial investing blogs would be good candidates, for example.

The best thing about having an LLC or corporation is that your personal assets like your home, bank accounts, and cars are not at risk on behalf of your business. So if one of your readers seriously injures himself after attempting a yoga pose you wrote about on your blog and tries to sue you for it, only the assets owned by the LLC or corporation (if any) would be at risk of loss.

It’s a small step to take and a minor expenditure, but one that can end up saving you big time in the long run.

You can form your own LLC by filing some documents with your Secretary of State, or there are online services that will do it for an additional fee. Depending on the complexity of your blogging business, it might be wise to consult with a lawyer familiar with Internet and business laws to make sure you take every step possible to protect your blogging business.

Do you use images on your blog? You could be infringing someone’s copyright.

All the top blogs have a nice, pretty image accompanying each post. We all know “a picture is worth 1000 words,” but pictures also have the added benefit of making your content more engaging and interesting to look at, which usually results in higher click through rates to your posts. All good things.

But what you might not know is that you could be guilty of copyright infringement for using those photos without permission. That’s why the unauthorized use of images on blogs is probably number one among the most common legal mistakes made by bloggers.

Technically, you cannot publish an image on your blog unless you own it. There are exceptions however, such as images used in conjunction with editorial news stories and images that have creative commons licenses. In those instances, you usually just have to give attribution to the photo’s owner where it’s due.

But in general, the point is that you can’t just go to Google Image Search, download anything you want, and use it on your blog.

It becomes especially troublesome when sophisticated companies own the copyrights to the images (which they do for a lot of the high-quality images you will find online).

These companies have robots that scour the Internet in order to find every site where their images are being used without permission. They have lawyers at their disposal, and they have the financial resources to go to great lengths to enforce their rights. Basically, they will make you pay for it.

So make sure you have the proper license to use every single image displayed on your blog. Basically, that means you either took the photo or created the image yourself, you paid for the rights to use it, or it came with a creative commons or other license authorizing its use for free.

Flickr and CreativeCommons.org are good resources for bloggers because they offer the ability to search only for images with a creative commons license. The bottom line is, you should do everything possible to make sure you have the proper licenses for every image you post to your blog before you post it.

In Summary…

A lot of people get into blogging as a hobby, but it can end up turning into a lucrative business in some cases. Regardless of your reasons for blogging, you will be confronting a few legal issues along the way and it’s helpful to be aware of them to avoid mistakes.

Three of the most common legal mistakes made by bloggers are:

  1. Failing to have a privacy policy that governs the collection of information from your readers
  2. Failing to limit your personal liability by forming a limited liability entity like an LLC or corporation
  3. Unknowingly infringing on copyrights of others by using images without the proper licenses

All three of these mistakes can present the unwary blogger with unwanted lawsuits, fines, penalties, and other expenses. It’s a good idea to consult a lawyer to make sure your blog is compliant with the law and ensure that you are setting yourself up to avoid these costly legal mistakes.

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