A writer’s obligations: ethics, law and pragmatism, Part 1: Law

aph.jpg
Fair Use? In a former career, I
designed the cover of this law book
and drew the illustration of the
column based on a design created by
a colleague for another book in the
series. Using the image to illustrate
a point seems to be fair use. However
if I had re-used the drawing of the
column as part of another design, be
it a book cover, poster or something
else, that would probably not be fair
because the publisher, my former
employer, maintains the copyright
for the illustration.

Last week I wrote about the different roles we may play as writers on the Web. This week I'd like to explore how those roles impact the obligations we have to our readers and how our understanding of those obligations can help us make choices regarding the content we publish online. While we can define our obligations any number of ways, I think for the most part they break down into issues of ethics, law and pragmatism. Today I'll focus on the law.

Disclaimer

I am not an attorney nor do I play one on T. V. None of the following should be construed as legal advice. I am writing this in the State of Ohio in the United States, however laws vary greatly by jurisdiction. Wherever you are writing in the world, on the Web, you should be cognizant of the laws and rules in your location. Given that what you publish online may be read anywhere, you should also be aware that what you publish legally in place A may be considered illegal in place B. Below are some of the more common legal issues that should be considered when writing online.

Commercial Law, Advertising and Fraud

If your Web site or blog includes a marketing component, whether it be event promotion, student recruitment, or advertising for a commercial product, you should be aware of regulations relating to fraud, bait and switch, and truth in advertising. If you state that a certain rock star will be performing and pizza will be served, make sure that is the case. If the rock star cancels and you must bring in a different performer, notify your audience as soon as possible. If you claim that your pizza is better than the pizza served across the street, be prepared to back that up. For more information visit the following sites.

Copyright

Copyright protection is granted to you automatically when you author an original work. While most of us understand that we can't directly copy someone else's work—I cannot go to your Web site, copy your article on parakeets then post it to my site—we don't always understand the boundaries between stealing a work, referencing a work and being influenced by a work. Mano Singham, in his article Why do people plagiarize?, offers some good examples of how paraphrasing and improper use of quotes and citations can result in unintentional plagiarism.

Proper use of quotations with accompanying citations are considered "Fair Use," but what is considered "proper" is harder to define. Whether or not your use of another's work is considered fair depends on your purpose, the nature of the work, the amount of the work you use, and the impact of your use upon the original owner. Online the issue becomes more complicated. Even the simple act of linking to another site brings up questions regarding fair use. If you have any doubts about your usage, you may find it is safest to contact the owner of the material and ask for permission to use it. Learn more about Fair Use and Copyright at the following sites.

Libel, Slander and Defamation

Defamation results when someone makes a false claim about another that publicly injures his/her reputation to the degree that it is considered damaging. If the false claim is made in writing, whether that be on the printed page or on the Internet, it is considered libel. If the claim is made orally and spread through broadcast media (including podcasts and streaming audio or video) or word of mouth it is considered slander. Laws vary greatly between countries such that in the United States the onus of proof is generally on the plaintiff, whereas in the United Kingdom it is on the defendant. Personal Injury Lawyer.com provides a good explanation of these issues.

As an example, if I were campaigning for John Brown to become the next Prime Minister of country A, and wrote in my blog that the incumbent, John Smith beats puppies, I could expose myself to a potential lawsuit. This would be particularly true if the puppy rumor spread and caused him to lose the election. If Smith happens to take excellent care of his two Basset Hounds then (according to the laws of Country A) it is quite likely that I will lose that suit. If he does in fact beat puppies, I may win, but at great financial cost.

Rather than stooping to name calling, I would be better served legally (and practically) by discussing Smith's track record as Prime Minister and taking the time to cogently explain and document why his policies are bad for the country. The following sites offer additional information on this topic.

Trade secrets, private information, etc.

Even if you write it yourself, there may be some information that you are not legally allowed to publish. Trade secrets, such as the recipe for Coca Cola and private information such as a person's sexual orientation may fall into this category. Learn more at the following sites.

Additional Resources

While questions of legality and ethics often overlap, some may feel that the publication of X, although legal, is unethical. I'll explore that and issues of practicality in upcoming articles.

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46 Comments
  1. Nice site actually. Gone to my favourites. Thanks for creation.

    Comment by jack — January 8, 2007 @11:37 pm

  2. Hi I am from the UK and the laws regarding plagiarism and copyright are pretty stringent over here just recently quite a major law firm got sued for copying text from one site and putting it on theirs, additionally; as a webmaster I spend a lot of time ensuring my content is original and not just from a legal point of view but from a search engine perspective as well, search engines these days are becoming ever more complex and can soon find what is called “duplicate content” and either ban or de-list a site permanently because of it. So as a Webmaster it is extremely unwise to copy and that is without any of the legal implications involved! So much so I have built a section on my site especially for students and educators alike here: Student Plagiarism where you can use automated article and web page checkers to validate your work is unique. With copyscape you can even use their automated service for a fee which can help you find the plagiarizers that copy your site and sue them! After all, with all the hard work you invest would you want someone stealing your work, because that is what it amounts to! I hope this comment helps a few that may read it;~) Regards Paul

    Comment by Paul — April 23, 2007 @10:58 pm

  3. Great job. Of course, the internet is ripe for the pickings, and an unfortunate number of individuals will take advantage of that fact, particularly, perhaps, in the world of internet marketing.

    Comment by Vincent Harrison — April 27, 2007 @8:08 pm

  4. Hello Heidi, Content is King, and with the new search engine rules weeding out duplicate content, many site owners are looking for ways to get unique content. Using other peoples content can be acceptable where the author grants permission, such as posting articles, with the bio line. RSS feeds is another way to get content. Thanks for the great resource! All The Best, Steve Renner

    Comment by Steve Renner — April 29, 2007 @9:08 am

  5. Law is nowadays a bunch of papers which can understand just the one who studied it for years. Especially if we are talking about Germany and UK. To start with business you have to go through too much papers. It takes so long that actually your business idea may go to the "old" ones.

    Comment by Internet Marketing Agentur Stuttgart — May 27, 2007 @9:17 am

  6. Internet copyright & plagiarism is assuming mammoth proportions lately. Patent or,copyright is the right to use ideas or information created by a third party. The copyright law is meant to protect the rights of content developers and covers restrictions that can be placed on unauthorized use of such materials. As a matter of fact, if you create information, you should get due credit. This credit might be in the form of money if you sell the information in a book, CD, or subscription Internet service. Generally, copyright owners or, content creators may not be concerned about money, but they want that their names or organization is associated with the information. In other words, many educators are willing to share information for free, but they want to be sure that their work is cited. Thanks to Heidi and Case Western Reserve University for bringing such an important issue to the fore !!

    Comment by Tim Dillard — June 5, 2007 @6:18 am

  7. Relevant Content is the Real King !! Thanks for this great resource.

    Comment by Binod — June 18, 2007 @7:06 am

  8. Thanks, Heidi, for more useful information. As a professional writer who's seen her stuff plagiarized on a number of occasions, I believe that in some instances people are seriously not even aware that what they are doing is improper. In other cases, people are lazy and/or sloppy, jotting down notes that they then incorporate into their texts, possibly forgetting where they got them from. Jamie Clarkson

    Comment by Marketing Reviews — June 25, 2007 @2:35 am

  9. The web has brought both the good and the bad. You can quickly run a scan on any text document and determine if it has been plagiarized. On the other hand, it is just as easy to do a search for a topic, swipe it, and reproduce it in a different form and claim ownership (and receive the rewards of such). There are a lot of gray areas online, as far as the understanding of what is right and wrong, especially as the demand rises for more content. The law seems more clear about these issues, but then again the majority of the victims do not have the resources to fight back. Video copyright abuse has also become an accepted norm online and it seems that trying to control it is simply an exercise in futility. Great information Heidi. Thanks!

    Comment by Tim Berry — June 26, 2007 @11:05 pm

  10. I agree the Internet is a valuable tool but there are people who will blatently plagiarize and have no concern for the authors hard work and dedication. The need for information is massive and all authors want to see their hard work available to those who appreciate it, there is software that can find duplicated content to help find who is using your works without permission but it will never be stamped out completely. There are always those who are not interested in actually doing any research to formulate thier own work when they can just steal others.

    Comment by Charles Pentagon — July 14, 2007 @6:43 am

  11. plagiarism is simply unlawful, people work hard developing this content, and with a simple right click people copy and paste informations. Yes, I agree that content is king :) Im so happy for copyscape!

    Comment by Internet Solutions — July 23, 2007 @8:26 am

  12. I think a lot of bloggers walk a thin line they don't even know they are on because they never learned about copyright or plagiarism. I'll send some of them here. This is a great resource for both protecting your rights but also staying out of trouble if you don't know what "stuff" from other people you are and are not allowed to use by law. Great job!

    Comment by Blog Marketer — July 26, 2007 @9:40 pm

  13. But for every problem, there is a way around it. It's not hard to fight against or write something that backs you up for most of the common problems you stated. But it's very true stuff you are saying here, and I think that not enough people really realize these kind of potential problems. Great post Heidi!

    Comment by Jarod - Area 51 Marketing Review — August 1, 2007 @5:45 am

  14. Hi Heidi, I've just being doing some research and I've found this post a helpful introduction to copyright law. It's a scary world ! BeckyS

    Comment by PreBlogging — August 17, 2007 @11:15 am

  15. where can i find the tool for checking duplicate content? Whet is it called? That would be a very useful tool for me.

    Comment by africa safari hotel and destination reviews — August 26, 2007 @10:13 am

  16. Great post. I run an email course on Internet Marketing and occasionally find a great blog post about some aspect of Internet Marketing that I would really like to use in my course. And it is very tempting to take that content, use it as my own and most likely no one would ever know. But I instead email the rightful owner of the material and ask for permission. Frequently they say no, but occasionally they say yes. From this I end up establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with those people that say yes. In the end I end up earning a lot more through cooperation with others than if I had just plagiarized someone's material.

    Comment by Free Ebooks — August 30, 2007 @3:05 pm

  17. The legal risks and liabilities around advertising and delivery of services become harder to differentiate when they converge on a website..... plus there is also the issue of stretch ethical boundaries of what’s fair or permissible.... having your disclaimer displayed in your website is one of the smartest initial steps to undertake in any case...

    Comment by Rowell — August 31, 2007 @5:42 pm

  18. i totally agree, original content should not be plagiarised and passed off as somebodys own work. university's cannot stress the importance of referencing properly under harvards reference system.

    Comment by internet marketing services — September 5, 2007 @2:48 pm

  19. Hi Heidi, thanks for your great explanation. I believe, a lot of "duplicators" out there, who want to be succeess without effort. Hopefully, your explanation can give good motivation to them. Regards

    Comment by Henry — September 17, 2007 @3:55 am

  20. Hello You have some very usefull stuff, in this article. Since I am doing a school-paper, I'd like your permission to use some of the text and / or quotes in this project. Please let me know soon:-)I will of, course list this article as source

    Comment by casper — September 24, 2007 @9:31 am

  21. Unintentional plagiarism is the worst. I really appreciate all the copyright links you included in your post. I'm new to the world of internet blogging and article writing and your information is very helpful. This site is offically bookmarked. Thanks.

    Comment by nfl picks — October 8, 2007 @4:35 am

  22. It is more or less impossible to enforce 100%, most of the low quality websites using plagerized content from my sites are from webmasters based in the far East where copyright doenst mean anything. Also most regular webmasters do not have the money to properly pursue plagerizers. Regards,

    Comment by Peter Puday — October 8, 2007 @5:26 am

  23. RU Sirius of Mondo 2000 Magazine fame published a very interesting article on 10ZenMonkeys about how modern writers are responding to the internet. It goes into this very topic and has responses from a few well published writers. Great site!

    Comment by Humemes — October 8, 2007 @2:46 pm

  24. I got a lot of help out of the "Getting Permission to Publish: Ten Tips for Webmasters" I'd recommend others check it out -Sunny

    Comment by Sunny D — October 8, 2007 @4:07 pm

  25. They were discussing this very issue today in class. Believe me, I've taken quite a few notes and will be intelligently vocal tomorrow. Thanks everyone.

    Comment by Film Schools — October 8, 2007 @4:53 pm

  26. I battle stolen content daily webmasters are just too lazy these days. This is very helpful. Thanks Ryan

    Comment by Sports Betting — October 8, 2007 @4:56 pm

  27. You bring up some good points. I don't know what happened to the business ethics of old. Now, it seems to be all about making money, without much thought to morals. In regards to copyrights, I think there is a lot of gray so its hard to draw the line. We should all start thinking more about the ethics of proper business conduct, instead of trying to cut corners and make quick cash.

    Comment by Credit Cards — October 8, 2007 @5:22 pm

  28. For not being an attorney, you sure do your homework. =)

    Comment by WordHugger — October 8, 2007 @5:28 pm

  29. I must agree, you know your stuff!

    Comment by Ryan Canfield — October 8, 2007 @5:35 pm

  30. Omg, great site. :)

    Comment by TESOL — October 8, 2007 @10:21 pm

  31. Relevant Content is the Real King !! Thanks for this superb resource.

    Comment by Boulderdash — October 9, 2007 @10:27 pm

  32. I'm trying to do some research on copyright for my blog. One issue that many, and I mean many, bloggers seem to overlook is photos. Just because a photo has appeared on another website it does not mean its fair play for everyone to use. Copyright also extends to photos even if the photo was taken out in the open.

    Comment by db — October 9, 2007 @10:30 pm

  33. Copyright can be hard when it comes to bloggers they seem to just through up pictures and quote people without any thought to copy write and its consequences

    Comment by Joel — October 10, 2007 @5:06 am

  34. Thanks for your great explanation. I believe, a lot of "copiers" out there, who want to be succeess without effort. Hopefully, your explanation can give good motivation to them.

    Comment by Restless Legs — October 11, 2007 @11:50 pm

  35. hello, Nice points there, am facing a lot of problems due to copy cats. people these days copy down my content without even giving a backlink, and even edit the content which i don't allow. nice article.

    Comment by uttoransen — October 13, 2007 @2:06 am

  36. As the Internet has gained popularity, we've seen some of the destructive power this anonymity seems to give people. Your points are right in line with this view. Take, for example, the extreme levels of spam and hacking that are currently tracing their packetly paths around the web as I write these very sentences. People devote large amounts of time into building programs and machines with the sole purpose of destroying other people's programs and machines. I wonder, would these people be doing such malicious things if they had to stand in front of the person their actions harm? I doubt it. We all learned this as children. We'd do something stupid or harmful with our friends and then scream "RUN." Why? Two reasons: a) we didn't want to face the consequences of what we'd just done and b) we knew we would be embarrassed by the judgment of adults should they connect the behaviors with our faces. We were particularly concerned with how our parents would respond. I think the same lack of responsibility applies to stealing copyrighted material....

    Comment by Work at home — October 15, 2007 @8:29 pm

  37. The anonymity of the Internet simply does something to the brain. I think we just need the social influences around us of people we know, a community that will judge us, to keep us in line. Without this, you see this kind of stuff (like stealing content, spamming, etc).

    Comment by Work at home — October 16, 2007 @7:57 am

  38. You can use copyscape, automated service for a fee which can help you find the plagiarizers that copy your site. You bring up some good points. We should all start thinking more about the ethics of proper business conduct, instead of trying to cut corners. Some great articles here, thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Samantha — October 19, 2007 @10:43 am

  39. Great site!! Very well done and great information. Thank you for taking the time to do it right!@!

    Comment by Ambit Energy — October 20, 2007 @2:00 am

  40. It is so easy these days to copy other people's work and believe that you will not get caught!! So if no one catches you, is it still stealing!! I believe yes! Thanks for the topic!!

    Comment by FrequenSea — October 20, 2007 @2:07 am

  41. Stealing is stealing!! If you take someone else's work and call it your own then you are stealing!!

    Comment by HCG Weight Loss — October 20, 2007 @2:09 am

  42. That absolutely right. Stealing is stealing, whether its cash or a piece or art work or literature.

    Comment by Arpit — October 24, 2007 @4:52 pm

  43. Difference between writing and stealing an article (or any other form of content writing) can't be defined. Because even if we write by our own, it is always possible that the content we wrote matches to the content present in some other related website.

    Comment by Bead 'n Shop — October 26, 2007 @10:00 am

  44. Plagiarism and stealing someone else's material for commercial benefit is one of the biggest crime. When a writer work so hard and some idiot just steals his articles and pose that as his own is utterly disgusting. In future, hopefully we have a way to address this issue in a more technical and logical way.

    Comment by Free VOIP — October 29, 2007 @6:04 am

  45. This is a gret topic. Nothing bothers me more than someone who is willing to call someone esle's thier own. In todays world and of fast food, text messages, amd tv dinners I believe a lot people have lost realy with right and wrong!! Stealing someone elses work is just wrong!!

    Comment by Noni Juice — October 29, 2007 @2:16 pm

  46. Great article, I hate it when people steal work that you have tried so hard to perfect :(

    Comment by Poker Forum — October 30, 2007 @6:34 am

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