Be Leery of Free Image Sites: You May Inadvertently Commit Copyright Infringement

Palm Sunset by Lawrence Rayner from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Palm Sunset by Lawrence Rayner from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I cringe every time I hear people says they use Google Images to find pictures for their websites because I know most of them are using anything they find in the search results without adjusting the settings to only show images that give them permission to use them. And I love it when people, especially entrepreneurs, use Creative Commons, seek out other sources for free images, or purchase a license to use images from iStock. Unfortunately, there are times when business owners think they are doing everything right, and they don’t realize they’re not until they’re threatened with legal action.

I have heard about a few situations over the years when someone has stolen images from a photographer and made their work available for free without the artist’s permission. Sometimes the person who steals the original image cuts off the photographer’s watermark or signature before posting them online. These photo thieves may post these images on their own site as free images or wallpaper. You might download this work and use it on your site, thinking that you are acting within the limits of the law.

When the photographer realizes that their work has been stolen, they’ll probably be angry – and they might send letters than demand payment or threaten legal action to every site where their work has appeared without their permission. And rightfully so – as the copyright holder, they have exclusive right to control where their work is copied and distributed. The fact that you didn’t know that you were doing anything wrong will not absolve you. If you’ve used an image where the watermark or other copyright notice was removed, they could accuse you of committing copyright infringement (punishable by up to $150K in statutory damages per violation) and removing the copyright management information to facilitate the infringement (punishable by up to an additional $25K per violation).

So what do you do if you receive one of these demand letters? Contact a copyright lawyer immediately. You want to verify that the claim is legitimate and strategically plan your response. If the claim is legit, the artist likely wants you to pay their licensing fee and/or stop using their image. It’s probably best to let your lawyer respond on your behalf but if you choose to respond to the letter yourself, it’s a good idea to have your lawyer at least review your response before you send it to make sure that it’s thoughtful and reasonable.

What should you do to avoid this type of problem in the first place? Be leery of free wallpaper sites. I have more faith in images I find through Creative Commons – though it is possible that someone could steal another’s image and make it available with a Creative Commons license. You can always run the image you want to run the image through the Google Image search engine to see where else it is being used online. That may help you determine if the image might be stolen. If there ever is an image that you want to use on your site and you’re unsure if you have permission to use it, explicitly ask the artist for their permission.

If you want to learn more about copyright issues on the internet, please check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. It has several chapters dedicated to copyright. You can connected with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Why You Have to Respond to Suspected IP Infringement

Cease and Desist by H.L.I.T. from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Cease and Desist by H.L.I.T. from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A few weeks ago we all had a good laugh when Jeff Briton, owner of Exit 6 Pub and Brewery in Cottleville, Missouri got a cease and desist letter from Starbucks when he named one of his craft beers “Frappicino.” Starbucks said this was too similar to their Frappuccino and even took the liberty of contacting the beer review website Untappd to get the Frappicino beer listing removed.

Briton responded with a letter and a check for $6 – the profit he made from selling the beer to the three people who reviewed it on Untappd. If you haven’t read this letter yet, go do it. It’s hilarious.

My hat’s off to Briton for writing such a brilliant response and turning this situation into an awesome opportunity to promote Exit 6. Some people might say that Starbucks’ lawyers were being jerks for sending a cease and desist letter to the little guy who wasn’t their competition anyway. But it was what Starbucks had to do to protect its intellectual property.

When you have a copyright or a trademark and you know that someone is using your intellectual property without your permission and you do nothing, you send a message that you don’t care about protecting your intellectual property rights. If you let the little guys get away with things like Frappicino beer and then one of your big competitors does something similar and you try to lay the smack down on them, your competitor will have an argument that your track record shows that you let others use your property without permission or penalty. By not protecting your intellectual property, you put yourself at risk of losing your intellectual property rights.

It’s because of this risk that Starbucks has to send cease and desist letters to Exit 6 Pub. This is why I tell clients to keep an eye out for other people using their intellectual property. In trademark situations, a cease and desist letter is usually the proper response, even in situations like Frappicino beer.

This is also why I tell bloggers and photographers to be diligent about who is using their work. If they find that someone’s using their copyrights without permission, even if they’re ok with it, I often recommend they contact the alleged infringer and grant them a license after the fact and request an attribution if the infringer didn’t give them one. If they’re not ok with what the alleged infringer did, we discuss whether the artist wants to send a cease and desist, a DMCA takedown notice, a licensing agreement with a bill, or sue for infringement. There should always be a response.

If you have questions about your intellectual property rights or your strategy to protect them, please contact an intellectual property attorney in your community. If you have questions related to copyright or trademark and blogging, please check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed.

If you want to chat with me more about this topic, you can connected with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

To Watermark or Not To Watermark

How to Create a Watermark in Photoshop by Michele M. F. from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

How to Create a Watermark in Photoshop by Michele M. F. from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I was recently asked to talk about whether there are benefits to putting a watermark on your photos before posting them on the Internet. Is it worth the extra effort? Do they really prevent people from stealing your work?

Like all legal questions, the answer is, “It depends.” But let’s look at it.

When you take a photograph, you have copyright rights in your work the second the image is put on film or saved in your camera. You have the exclusive right to copy, distribute, display, and make derivative works from your picture, even if you don’t register it with the U.S. Copyright Office  or put the © [Your Name] [Year] on it. If you want to sue for copyright infringement if someone steals your work, you have to register your work and if that’s the case you should consult a lawyer to determine the best copyright protection strategy for your work.

I look at watermarks similarly to home security. Your home doesn’t have to be fortress; it just has to be less appealing than the other houses on the block. A watermark makes your photo less appealing to potential infringers who can probably find (and possibly steal) a similar image elsewhere that doesn’t come with a watermark.

For people who understand copyright, a watermark is a visual reminder that they don’t own the image and they should contact you if there’s an image they really want to use. The problem with watermarks is they can obscure the image itself and interfere with people’s ability to enjoy the image which was the purpose of posting it online in the first place.

You could try to avoid this problem by putting the watermark in the corner so it doesn’t obstruct the image, but then you open yourself up to the possibility that someone will steal you work and crop off the watermark before using it. If an infringer does this, it is a separate additional penalty to copyright infringement. If you sued the infringer you could ask for damages for the infringement which can be up to $150K if you qualify for statutory damages and up to an additional $25K for removing or altering the “copyright management information.

So, should you take the time to put watermarks on your photos? It’s your call. You can deter potential infringers with watermarks and/or using software that prevents them from downloading your images from your website. But if someone is dead set on stealing your work, there’s probably nothing you can do to completely stop them. The questions then become how much energy are you willing to put into prevention and how do you want to respond if someone steals your work. How you want the situation to be resolved usually tells you what you have to do on the front end to set yourself up for the desired outcome.

If you want to chat with me more about this topic, you can connected with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. I’m also available to speak at events on Copyright for Creatives.
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Burning CDs and Copyright Law

CD Reflections by spcbrass from Flicker (Creative Commons License)

CD Reflections by spcbrass from Flicker (Creative Commons License)

One of my favorite minimalists shared a post by Lindsay Schauer about the eight things you can live without on Twitter last week, and it kicked off a legal discussion and he asked me to comment. One of the things Lindsay said to get rid of is your CD collection – burn them to your hard drive and get rid of the physical CDs themselves. That makes a lot of sense. A single CD doesn’t take up much space but a collection of jewel cases does.

I put my CDs in a CD binder and chucked the cases years ago, but can you legally copy a CD you own and keep that instead of the disk?  Probably.

The copyright holder (likely the record label or the artist) controls when/where/how their work is copied, distributed, and performed. When you buy a CD, you only purchase the tangible object – not the intellectual property rights. Just like when you want to get rid of an old book you can give it away, throw it away, or sell it to a second hand store, the same is true for CDs. However, you can’t make a photocopy of the book so you can keep the original for yourself and give a copy to a friend. The same is true for CDs. (Yes, all those copies of CDs you burned from or for your friends are probably illegal.)

CDs by borkur.net from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

CDs by borkur.net from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

If you legally purchased a CD, you can make a copy of it for “archival” purposes. This prevents you from having to buy a new one in the event the CD gets lost, damaged, broken, or used as a Frisbee, coaster, or for an art project. The same rule applies for making a copy of computer software that you’ve legally purchased.

So can you take Lindsay’s advice and copy all your CDs to your hard drive and chuck the originals? Yes, if you legally purchased the albums. You can only make one copy for yourself. You can’t make copies for your friends.

The purpose of the copyright law is to give artists rights in their work and allow them to profit from selling it. An archival copy is supposed to be a backup for the original, so some copyright holders may frown on people who make an archival copy of a CD and sell the original. (You’re starting to look like the guy who sells a book to a friend but keeps a photocopy of it for himself.) There’s an argument that you’re committing copyright infringement; however, the amount you’re making isn’t really cutting into their profits, and the artist might be happy that more people are being exposed to their music. If someone is concerned about their rights and maximizing profits, they might be less upset if you throw the CD away or repurpose it into a coaster so anyone else who wants the album has to buy it.

The good news in copyright infringement cases is the only person who can come after you for copyright infringement is the copyright holder. If they don’t know what you’re doing or don’t care, they will never come after you.

If you want to chat with me about this or any other topic, you can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.
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Guerrilla Movie Shot at Disney Parks

Escape from Tomorrow - Image from EscapeFromTomorrow.com

Escape from Tomorrow – Image from EscapeFromTomorrow.com

This is one of the most innovative projects I’ve heard about this year – Escape from Tomorrow – a film that was mostly shot at Disneyland and Walt Disneyworld without Disney’s knowledge. The cast and crew blended in with other park patrons by storing their scripts and communicating via their phones, using video cameras that were the same type that regular park-goers use, and they used natural lighting. Besides the fact that the cast wore the same outfits every day and they had to go on the same rides over and over again to get the shots, no one could tell they were up to something.

Escape from Tomorrow was written and directed by Randy Moore and it premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. The fact that the film was shot at Disney parks was kept under wraps until the premier and then it got a lot of attention from reviewers, many of which expected Disney to try to prevent the film from being shown during and after the festival. Disney has acknowledged that the film exists but hasn’t taken action against it yet. Escape from Tomorrow will be available in theaters starting October 11th.

I’m excited to see the film, not for the story itself, but to examine the legal arguments that Disney may have against the film.

What about Intellectual Property Infringement?
The general rule is “Don’t fuck with Disney” because they’re known for laying the smack down on anyone who uses their intellectual property without permission. Moore reportedly was diligent about removing excerpts from Disney movies and songs that were caught on film. Disney won’t likely try to claim copyright in everything it owns inside its parks and even if they did, Moore has a strong fair use argument.

Disney probably wouldn’t win on a trademark claim either, even though I’m sure Disney trademarks appear in the film. I bet Moore’s lawyers would make an argument that the film’s use of Disney is like Thomas Forsythe’s use of Barbie dolls in his work. Mattel lost the case against Forsythe because he couldn’t make the same artistic statement without using the iconic dolls. Tim Wu, professor at Columbia Law School also brought up the argument that no one would see this film and think that Disney was involved in it.

Shouldn’t this be a Non-Issue since Disney lets Visitors Shoot Photos and Videos in its Parks?
Of course Disney lets visitors take photos and videos inside the parks. It’s basically a form of free advertising for them. And even if they didn’t like it, they would have accepted that there’s nothing they could do to stop the hordes of people who visit every day from snapping photos or making home movies. This has become even more prolific now that everyone has a smartphone.

The issue isn’t that they were shooting video, but that they were shooting video for a commercial purpose. Disney parks are private property and they can require people to pay for a location release to use their property. I suspect their lawyers have contract templates ready and a fee structure for anyone who approaches them about shooting a movie at a park.

This gets into a gray area when people go to Disney for personal/recreational purposes, shoot videos, and then post them on YouTube. If the patron monetizes their videos and they get enough hits, they could make money off of their Disney experience. I suspect the amount in question would be too low for Disney to care, but it raises the question of how much financial success can you have via YouTube before you have to worry about legal repercussions.

What about People in the Background?
Moore and his people didn’t get releases from anyone who was caught in the background of any of his shots. He might be accused commercializing their images without their consent if he doesn’t blur them out. I wonder if there are enough pissed off people who were caught on film that they would pursue a class action against Moore.

If I heard that Moore was filming at a Disney park the same time I was there, I’d be running to the theatre to see it, hoping that I made it in the background. I suspect some people would be excited to be on it and may only ask to be listed in the credits for posterity if possible.

It’s uncharacteristic of Disney not to respond to a potential legal fight. On one hand I wonder if they’re waiting to see if the film will be a commercial success before deciding if they’re going to pursue it because there’s often no point in winning a lawsuit (besides pride) against someone who can’t pay up. Alternatively, Disney may be ignoring the film out of fear that if they respond that it will lead to more attention, and more people will see the film, and Moore will make more money.

You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.
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Poor Man’s Copyright Doesn’t Work

Self-Addressed Envelope after it's been through the Mail

Self-Addressed Envelope after it’s been through the Mail

Every time I speak about copyright to a group of artists or writers, someone always asks me about how poor man’s copyright works and whether it’s valid. Poor man’s copyright is the idea that you can establish that you created something first by mailing a copy of your work to yourself and using the date on the postmark as proof of when you created it. If anyone copies your work and claims a creation date that’s after your postmark, you can use the postmark to show that you created the work first.

To anyone who’s been sending their work to themselves, you can stop. Poor man’s copyright is crap and a waste of your time and money. A postmark on an envelope tells you when the post office processed the envelope, not what was inside of it. You could easily send an unsealed envelope to yourself and put your work in it later and seal it.

Self-Addressed Unsealed Stamped Envelope Ready for the Mail

Self-Addressed Unsealed Stamped Envelope Ready for the Mail

You get the exclusive rights to copy, distribute, display, perform, and to make derivative works based on your work the second you’ve fixed your work in any tangible medium. (Sorry, there’s no copyright protection for ideas that only exist in your head.) If you want to maximize your rights in your work, including the ability to sue for copyright infringement and collect statutory damages, you need to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. You can do it online and most application fees are only $35.

To demonstrate why poor man’s copyright doesn’t work, I recently addressed an envelope to myself and sent it, unsealed, through the mail. I made a video about the result. You can see it below or here.

If you want more information about how you can protect your rights in your work, please contact me or a copyright attorney in your community. You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

How Work Made for Hire Contracts Work

Photographer Devon Christopher Adams at Ignite Phoenix #10, photo by Joseph Abburscato used with permission

Photographer Devon Christopher Adams at Ignite Phoenix #10, photo by Joseph Abburscato used with permission

If you have ever hired a third party to do photography, video work, web design, graphic design, or to create website or marketing materials for your company, you should check your contracts. If you didn’t draft it correctly, there’s a good chance you don’t own the copyright in what they created.

When you hire a freelancer or a company to create this type of content for you, you need a work made for hire contract. This contract should state that the person being hired is a contractor (not an employee) that they are being hired to create a works made for hire, and that you will own the copyright in everything they create under the terms of the contract. This contract needs to be in writing and signed before the contractor begins work on your project.

If you don’t do this, you will not own the copyright in the work. You will only have an implied license to use the work in ways specified in your verbal or written agreement. The contractor will still own the copyright in the work. If you repurpose the work in another way without the contractor’s permission, there’s a chance that you will be infringing on the contractor’s copyright. The contractor could sue you for copyright infringement or force you to buy another license to use the work. They could offer to sell you the copyright in the content too, which basically means, from your perspective, you’ll have to pay for the same work twice.

I work with companies and freelancers on both sides of this issue. I encourage companies to make sure they have a proper works made for hire in place with their contractors and to not let their contractors lift a finger until that contract is signed. I often suggest that they have provision in their contracts that states the contractor will indemnify the company against any infringement claims made against the company because of the contractor’s work. The company should make the contractor cover the attorneys’ fees and any damages if it turns out the contractor ripped off someone else’s work instead of creating the work themselves.

On the flip side, I frequently write contract templates for freelancers to ensure that they understand what rights they are retaining and which ones they are giving up. Many freelancers want contracts that give the hiring party the copyright in their work and that also give the freelancer a license to put a copy of their work in their portfolio so they can use it to obtain other jobs.  Without this license, the contractor can’t use their work in any way without risking violating the copyright that the company now owns, even though they created it.

If you are a freelancer or a company who hires third parties to create content, please contact a copyright attorney to make sure your rights and interests are protected by the terms of your contracts. You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.

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New Stance on Blog Copyright Registration

Hey you! by QuinnDombrowski from Flickr

Hey you! by QuinnDombrowski from Flickr

Grrr . . . It seems like every time I call the Copyright Office with a question about blog copyrights, I have to change my stance on how and whether anyone should register their blog’s content. Mind you, when I wrote the Legal Side of Blogging last year, my research and ideas were approved by my cyberspace law professor and another internet/copyright attorney. We all got it wrong.

I used to think that bloggers should register their new content every three months because the Copyright Act says you’re eligible for statutory damages in a copyright infringement lawsuit if you register your work within three months of publication or one month of learning of the infringement – whichever is first. In a previous call to the Copyright Office, the representative said it was permissible to register all your content as one work and that subsequent registrations would be derivative works of the prior ones.

A few months ago I was informed that content that is only available online (including blog posts) doesn’t count as “publications,” so that rule about registering within three months of publication doesn’t apply. For unpublished content, you have to register you work prior to the infringement occurring to be eligible for statutory damages. If you wait until after your work has been stolen to register you work you can only collect actual damages, which will be low unless you or the person who stole your work has a financially successful site.

I called the Copyright Office yesterday and was told that you can’t register posts that are released on different days as one work (though my experience is proof that you can) and you can’t register the same post as an individual work and as part of a larger work, (though I think there’s some wiggle room here).

So here’s my new stance – registering your blog content is not worth it for most people. The exception to this rule is you might want to register your work if you think it will be stolen by someone who can afford to pay potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and attorneys’ fees. If you’re in this boat, or think you might be, you should submit your application to the Copyright Office before you release the post on your site to ensure that your application will be in before any infringement can occur.

This is more proof of how behind the times the law is and that you can’t apply logic to copyright on the internet. I think it’s moronic that online content isn’t “published” when it’s released on the internet. I think this definition will change in the near future with so many publications switching from paper to being online only. As the law is written and applied the law seems unfair because it makes it harder for online writers to protect themselves.

There is a special copyright registration for “serial works” but so far the Copyright Office says blogs, including those that are released on a strict schedule like other serial publications, do not qualify. I think this is wrong and needs to be challenged.

For now, I’ve added a disclaimer to my ebook on Amazon that states that the copyright registration chapter is inaccurate and will be updated this summer. I hope to add the revised chapter to the book in the next month once it gets through legal review and editing.

Should Star Wars Fans Fear Disney Cease & Desist Letters?

Yoda statue outside Lucasfilm - The Presidio by kennejima from Flickr

Yoda statue outside Lucasfilm – The Presidio by kennejima from Flickr

May 4th is Star Wars Day. May the 4th be with you! In light of this geeky holiday and the fact that I will be speaking about the legalities of fan fiction and fan art at Phoenix Comicon this year, I’ve been thinking about what the impact of the Disney buying Lucasfilm in 2012 will have on Star Wars fans.

George Lucas was known for encouraging fans to create fan art and fan fiction. This is an expression of love for Star Wars and gives fans a chance to connect in new ways. In contrast, Disney is known for sending cease and desist letters when they find that a day care or school shows Disney films or if a child-centered business has a mural of Disney characters painted on the wall.

I tell my fellow geeks who want to create fan art or fan fiction to do their research on whose work they want to emulate to see if the copyright holder will be likely to come after them if they discover what they’ve created. I haven’t heard of any Star Wars fans receiving a cease and desist letter from Disney since they’ve acquired Lucasfilm. I’ve sent a message to Disney corporate office asking about their official policy regarding Star Wars fan art and fan fiction.

If you get a cease and desist letter from Disney for your Star Wars fan fiction or fan art, you could try to make an argument that you’re not committing copyright infringement because what you created is protected by the concept of fair use. This is part of the Copyright Act that permits people to add original and transformative content to existing works. This law protects things like parodies.

Never forget that fair use is a defense, not a permission slip. To make a valid fair use argument, the copyright holder will sue you for infringement and then you’ll have to demonstrate to the court that your work qualifies as fair use. The court will consider four main factors:

  1. Purpose and character of your use of another’s work (Are you transforming the original?)
  2. Nature of the copyrighted work you’re copying
  3. Amount and substantiality of the copyrighted work used
  4. Effect on the market (Is your work a substitute for the original?)

This is somewhat a dangerous quest to take on. The general rule is “Disney never loses” when it comes to legal battles. I know of only person who fought Disney and won in a copyright situation.

If you create fan art or fan fiction or are considering creating original work based on an existing work and need to understand the legal risks that accompany your work, please contact a copyright attorney in your community. You can also check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed for my thoughts on fair use.

You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

FAQs about the Legalities of Social Media

Carter Law Firm's Official Postcard - let me know if you want me to send you one.

Carter Law Firm’s Official Postcard – Let me know if you want me to send you one.

I had the pleasure of speaking at the Public Relations Society of America’s Western District Conference last weekend. I led two sessions: “So you want to do a flash mob” and “The Legal Side of Blogging: 10 Questions to Ask Before you Hit ‘Publish.’” Both sessions were great and I wanted to share some of the frequent questions I get when I talk about the legalities of social media.

What should you do if you’re outsourcing your blog content?
You need a kick ass contract that clearly states who owns the copyright in the content that is created. If the hiring company obtains copyright, does the blogger get permission to put a copy of the work in their portfolio to obtain other work? The contract should also state who is responsible if there are any problems related to the work (i.e., copyright infringement claim) or if there are any disputes related to the contract.

What should you do if you want to use a photo from a company’s site, such as if want to write a positive review of their company?
There’s a chance that using the photo could qualify as fair use; however it’s probably best to avoid the possibility of being hit with a copyright infringement claim by asking the company if you can use their photo. You never know who owns the rights to an image and if there are any restrictions related to using it.

What’s the worst case scenario if you use an image from Google Images without verifying that it was available for use with a Creative Commons license or had been released to public domain?
You could be sued for tens of thousands of dollars for copyright infringement. I always say that just because someone sues you that it doesn’t mean they’re going to win, but in this case, they might. You can still be sued and lose even if you didn’t mean any harm.

I get permission to use every photo on my blogs or use photos that are available under Creative Commons licenses that allow me to modify and commercialize each image.

What if you’ve been using Google Images or you haven’t kept track of what images you’re allowed to use?
Probably no one wants to hear this, but I’d rip every image out of your site and start over, making sure that you own or have permission to use every image on your site.

These are my rules of thumb when it comes to social media:

  • Assume everything you post online will be seen by your best friend, your worst enemy, your boss, and your mother. If you’re not ok with one of those people seeing what you want to say, don’t post it.
  • Don’t post anything online that you wouldn’t put on the front page of the newspaper.

For more information about the legalities of social media, please check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed.

You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.