Is Your Content Putting You at Risk?

For B2B companies embracing their new role as publishers, the content marketing community has produced a huge archive of valuable advice. There is at least one topic, however, that is rarely discussed: the legal risks and responsibilities of publishing.

The silence is understandable. Most of the time, the kind of publishing that content marketers do isn’t very risky. But that doesn’t mean there’s no risk, and the more publishing you do, the more likely you are to encounter that one-in-a-hundred legal issue. So you may want to think about this sooner rather than later.

My purpose here is not to offer legal advice, but to suggest a framework for reviewing these issues, along with some resources for further research. The following three questions, based on your relationship to your content, your audience, and to the people and companies you cover, should get you started.

Who owns your content?

If the people that create your content are employees of your company, it’s pretty simple. Your company owns the content. But what happens when you use freelancers or other nonemployee contributors? Unless you specify otherwise in writing, you most likely don’t own that content. That may not be a problem, but if you plan to reuse the content in any way (let alone five ways), it could be.

Even if you create your own content, you should ask yourself how much of it you borrow. If you quote extensively or borrow images from other blogs, do you have the right to do so? Is what you’re doing copyright infringement or fair use? Are you giving appropriate credit to the creator of what you borrow? A basic understanding of copyright law will help.

How open is your relationship with your audience?

Though ethics is not a frequent topic of discussion among content marketing thought leaders, a key principle that is widely accepted is the importance of transparency. Likewise, openness and disclosure will serve you well in legal areas, whether in observing FTC guidelines or in deciding whether you need to include a privacy policy and terms of service on your Web site. (Did you know, by the way, that if you use Google Analytics, you are expected to have and post a privacy policy?)

How much do you write about other people or companies?

In 25 years of publishing, I’ve had to deal with claims of defamation five or six times. None of the instances went much beyond the accusation stage, and all were quickly resolved. Even though my employer in each case was on solid ground, the experience was pretty ugly, and wasted a lot of time.

The risk of committing libel in a content marketing context is pretty low compared with a general news operation. But if you talk about people or companies other than yours, the risk is not zero. No matter how benign your intent, people will be sensitive to their reputations. You owe it to yourself to minimize your risk—without crimping your freedom of expression—by understanding the basics of libel law.

Resources: Where Can You Go for Help?

Unless you face an immediate threat, you probably don’t need a lawyer. But if you do consult one, make sure he or she specializes in publishing law.

When you can, use experienced journalists to create or edit your content. Although it’s true that they may tend to push things in the interest of getting the story, they usually are finely tuned to legal risks.

Two valuable reference works I’ve used for years are the Associated Press Stylebook, which includes a 40-page “Briefing on Media Law,” and The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers by Lloyd Jassin and Steve Schecter.

An excellent online resource is the Citizen Media Law Project’s Legal Guide. Although its focus is on citizen journalists, it is useful to anyone new to online publishing.

If this discussion has sensitized you to legal issues, great. But beware of going overboard. It’s easy to worry so much about your risks that you don’t publish anything interesting. Aim for a middle ground: understand the legal issues but don’t obsess about them.