How to Keep Your Blog from Getting Sued

Disclaimer: Deposit Photos provided product in exchange for review. All opinions are my own.

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Best Practices for FTC Disclosure and Other Legal Pitfalls

In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published legal guidelines for bloggers to use when writing sponsored posts in exchange for compensation or products.  In May, 2013, they updated those guidelines to include social media and shared more advice on how to handle these types of posts. (You can download the “.com Disclosures” document.)  As a long time blogger, I see a lot of questions on this topic, and I also see a lot of common mistakes that can get bloggers into legal trouble outside of this issues. I’m going to set the record straight by sharing with you the list of best practices for bloggers to protect themselves from getting sued or in any legal trouble.

Blogging for Compensation

First let’s define sponsored post.

This is the act of writing a post on your own blog endorsing a product in exchange for a fee.  The FTC requires that you explicitly state when you have written a post on your blog for a fee.  A review post that you have done in exchange for a product is still considered compensation, but it’s not called a sponsored post.  This means that you still need to declare that you have received a product in exchange for the review.  The FTC also wants you to declare that before any links to the product or sponsor’s site – or, more accurately, they want you do disclose so that the disclosure is clear and connected to your link, rather than a disclosure just at the bottom of your post, which may not be seen by readers.  The logical way to think of it is that you are advertising for this sponsor or product, and you want your readers to be aware that it’s a form of advertising before clicking on to their site.  (This is in direct contrast to when you are simply referring a site or product that you like on your own, and no disclosure or placement is required).

It’s been recommended that you place a line about sponsorship at the top of your blog like so:

Sponsored post verbiage for top of post

Example of sponsorship mentioned before and near product link. Includes “#ad” in title for automated social media promotion.

And then another reference at bottom, especially if you want more detail, such as opinions being your own, is good to post:

Sponsored post verbiage for bottom

Proper annotation at bottom of post. Example is for both compensation and product received.

sponsored post image

 

I also recommend you use a “nofollow” link here because can be search engine ramifications if you don’t.  It’s also perfectly fine to create an image (if you are worried about duplicate text content) to use in these cases, but the top and bottom reference will still apply.

Disclosure and Social Media

Readers need to be aware that this disclosure requirement is necessary even when you share your post on social media.  In addition, many people are using the hashtag “spon” or “sp” with their social media, to mark out what is a sponsored or reimbursed post, however, the FTC believes this is unclear, as readers may not be aware what those terms means.  They prefer you use the “#ad” or “#paid” hashtag, because it is short and clear.  Again, the FTC prefers that the hashtag be entered before any links.  The concern here is that readers may get distracted before seeing the sponsorship information, by links or information or photos.  It has to be truly clear and visible, and it has to appear on your social media each and every time you send it out.  That means that if you autopost, you will need to put “#ad” or “#paid” in your title (see first image).  Of course, if your tweet claims the sponsorship itself (i.e., “brought to you by”), then you do not need the hashtag, such as:

Disney bought me a weekend in their resort, here’s my review!

In my opinion, that’s less elegant than #ad or #paid, but if you can word it properly, it may be a better fit for your writing style.

Finally, information or claims provided by the vendor should be marked as such.  An example, “This supplement claims that it may support weight loss.  Here is my experience.”  This is preferred rather than, “The supplement will help you lose weight,” unless you have peer-reviewed support (i.e., FDA approval).

Legally Using Images

deposit photo

A trend that I still see around the blogosphere is the illegal use of images that are protected by copyright.  If you’ve been contracted to review a product, you need to take your own photos of the product, or have copyright available ones sent to you by the company itself.  (You cannot be sure of a third party so if you’re working with a PR firm, you’re best sticking to your own photos.)  Review clients often want to see you or your family and friends engaging with or using the product in some way.

The bottom line for online image usage in general is: if you did not take the photo yourself, you do not own the copyright. The good news is that there are free sources where you can get free, legal images to use on your posts.  Here are a few:

  1. Deposit Photos This resource has a vast collection of stock photography. You can subscribe for 5 images a day for $69 a month (or less if you purchase bulk months), which is relatively affordable in terms of stock photography, or pay as you go credits, for as low as $32 for $30 credits. This is one of the most cost-effective stock photo resources you’ll find.
  2. Stock Exchange  This is a great service where people post photos for free.  Be sure to read the licensing on them, and it is common courtesy to sign up for an account and tell the photographer where and how you are using them.   Make sure that a credit is not required if you are using these.
  3. FreeDigitalPhotos.net This site provides a good selection of images, however, you MUST credit the photographer with a link back to their page, and you can only download the smallest size for free, but still a great resource in a pinch.
  4. Wikiepedia CommonsCreative Commons have a selection of photos and other items as well, but again, it is up to you to read the licensing. Even if it is a public domain photo, it may have some restrictions.  You may also use photos in the public domain; Wikipedia has an extensive list of resources where to find public domain photos.

Using your own photos is the safest route, however, you cannot legally post photos of other people’s faces (other than your own children under 18) without their permission.  Stay away from trademarks and brands as well.  And finally, you might want think twice about using photos of your family, or at least set up some boundaries.  A photo of you breastfeeding or of your child in nothing but a diaper may seem like a great idea at the time and it’s not illegal, but you should consider if it can come back to haunt you or your child at a later date.  To protect yourself, you can use a Copyright mark or watermark with your name, blog name, or business name on all your images.

Using and Curating Content Legally

As a long time blogger, it’s hard to believe that not everyone wants you to share their content on your website but it’s true.  I recently worked with a client, who found an article from a source, only to discover that the source had rules about their content being used for profit.  Since I was paid was to write the article, and the article itself would sell a brand, I felt that using a quote was a violation of their rules and told the client.

If you are curating content, how can you be sure that you are doing so without violating copyright?  First of all, find out if the website has an area called “Terms of Use” or “Content”. They generally list any rules they have about use of their content and how to attribute it.  If you don’t find such an area, it’s still your responsibility to search the site and find any guidelines.  Finally, it’s good practice to contact the author or blog owner or editor, if you can, to let them know how you are referencing them.  If you have a visible blog and or a large target audience, many bloggers and authors would be happy to share their information in a positive manner.  Do make sure you tell them if you are working on a controversial topic.  And one word of caution: if you’re using information in such a way that you don’t want to tell them about it, don’t use it at all.

These are the basics you need to know to keep your blog legal if you are writing for some kind of compensation or using content and images you have found online. If payment or products are involved, that changes the scope of what you are writing, and requires disclosure or permission.  If you are using images and content this are not your own, you need to have appropriate copyright permission and author attribution.

Image Credit: http://www.morguefile.com/creative/manuere