What To Do If You Get a Legal Threat Online
The Internet, for better or worse, is the largest meeting place to have ever existed in history. It’s a place where millions of people, from all backgrounds, can get together and exchange ideas, news, artwork and pictures of cats.
However, it’s inevitable that, with so many people in one “place” that there are going to be disagreements and some of them are going to get quite heated. Just as you don’t always get along with your “real world” neighbors you probably won’t get along with some of your virtual ones either and, also like physical world problems, virtual world ones also, at times, disintegrate into legal disputes.
So, if you blog long enough, especially if you routinely discuss or use work from other people on your site, there’s a chance that you’re going to be the subject of a legal threat.
For the unprepared, this can be one of the most terrifying experiences one can have online. Such threats often come with fears big legal bills, huge settlements and more. It’s pretty easy to paint a worst-case scenario that is either unrealistic or completely impossible.
Still, these are matters that should be taken seriously and knowing what to do is important. Though I’m not a lawyer and certainly can’t provide legal advice, there are steps that most attorneys advise you to take and I’ve outlined them below.
Step 1: Don’t Panic
The first step is, much like with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is to not panic. The truth is the majority of legal threats go nowhere, never escalating beyond words.
You need to take a deep breath and not react out of fear or out of anger. Even though the odds of something serious happening are very slim, obviously, you don’t want to make the situation worse. So take a few moments to calm down and return to rational thought.
A few minutes spent on the front end can save you days and weeks of headache later on.
2. Read the Threat Carefully
Next, you need to read the threat itself very thoroughly. Specifically, you need to understand the following things:
- Who Made The Threat? Who is the threat from and did they have an attorney send the letter? Obviously, threats from attorneys need to be taken more seriously than an off-the-cuff one from someone who’s angry. But it’s important to know who sent it and on who’s behalf.
- What do they Claim You Did Wrong? What is the claimed act that injured them and when did they say it took place?
- What Do They Want? What, in their view, would set things right? In short, what are they demanding?
- How Long Do You Have? Most letters like this offer a time limit to respond, how long do they give you?
- What is the Threat? What do they claim will happen if you don’t meet their demands? There could be a wide range of legal actions including a lawsuit, a takedown and more depending on the situation.
With this information, you should have a handle on what the legal threat says, the motivation behind it and what your role in it might be. From there, you can move on and work on a proper response.
3. Comply With the Notice, If Possible
Once you know what’s in the threat, you need to decide how to respond to it. Most of the time, that response includes complying with it, at least briefly.
Though there are some legal threats you can dismiss out of hand, most have at least some grounding in the law. While the other person may not be right in their theories, they probably genuinely believe that they are and may escalate the situation on that belief.
As such, if the request is reasonable, such as remove a post or an image, you can probably comply without putting yourself out too far. While you certainly don’t want to admit to any wrongdoing nor do you want to do anything too far out of your way, complying the best that you can not only helps defuse the situation but gives you time to research the notice and determine what the best course of action long term is.
4. Seek Legal Counsel
With all of that being done if you aren’t an attorney, you need to make sure that you are right about your viewpoints on the matter and, as such, the best thing you can do is seek professional counsel. Most attorneys will agree to a brief consultation for free and will even draft a letter on your behalf for a reasonable fee if needed.
It may not be fun to spend money dealing with the threat, but the peace of mind is usually well worth it. Plus, if the attorney gives you the approval to ignore the threat, you can move on comfortable with your opinion.
That, in turn, can include putting the post or other content back online if appropriate or otherwise undoing anything you did in the third step.
As I mentioned above, with the vast majority of legal threats, nothing comes of them. Only a tiny fraction of such threats escalate to anything beyond words on the Internet and a lot of that has to do with the difficulties one has in actually taking legal action against someone, especially when they could be in another state or another country.
The truth is, even in cases where there was some level of legitimate wrongdoing, lawsuits are just usually not worth it. Even much less in cases of minor injuries or imaginary ones. If you’ve worked hard to follow the law and haven’t done anything egregious, most likely nothing will come of it.
Though you should always take legal threats seriously, you shouldn’t lose sleep over them. With a good nose for law and a good attorney willing to help out, you shouldn’t have much to fear.
Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private (However, please mention that it is a suggestion for The Blog Herald. This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.
I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.
Jonathan Bailey writes at Plagiarism Today, a site about plagiarism, content theft and copyright issues on the Web. Jonathan is not a lawyer and none of the information he provides should be taken as legal advice.