Checklist for Social Media Influencers

Selfie Stick by R4vi from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Selfie Stick by R4vi from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Some people, including a lot of average joes, have such a strong social media following that brands want to send them free products to review or to partner with them for a native advertising campaign. If you are lucky enough to get such an offer, you need to understand the rules and read the fine print closely to make sure you’re not setting yourself up to be accused of an FTC violation. Don’t count on the other side to educate you. As we saw in the Lord &Taylor situation, companies who seek to partner with social media influencers don’t always know and follow the rules themselves.

If I were presented with an offer to do a product review or be part of a native advertising campaign, these are some of the questions I would ask in regards to the offer.

Influencer-Company Relationship
What is the company asking me to do?
What is the company giving me in return?
Is there fair give-and-take between both sides? (If not, it’s not a valid contract.)
Are expectations and deadlines clear?
Who is my point person at the company if I have any questions?

FTC Compliance
Does the offer require that my review be truthful?
Does the offer require me to give an accurate review of the product? (Bonus points for companies that require reviewers to write what they like and dislike about the product.)
Does the offer require that me to disclose my relationship with the company – both in my review itself and also any promotions I do about the content on social media (i.e., use #ad or #sponsored)? (The FTC requires this so if the company doesn’t want you to do this, turn and run. They don’t know the basic rules about native advertising.)

Intellectual Property
Does the offer clearly state who owns the copyright in what I create under the agreement?
By accepting the offer, do I grant the company certain rights to use my work?

General Legal Provisions
Is there a written contract? (It’s avoids confusion when all the provisions are in a single document and has  provision that states, all the terms of this agreement are in this contract.)
Is there a severability clause so if one provision is illegal, the rest of the contract remains in place?
What are the rules for modifying the agreement?
Which state law governs the agreement?
If there’s a problem between the company and me, how will we resolve it?
Under what circumstances will the agreement be terminated?

Final Words of Wisdom
Contracts are relationship-management documents, ideally written to protect both sides. If a company offers me a contract with provisions I dislike, I request changes. (I’m the queen of changing liability waivers.)

And if there’s a word or provision you don’t apprehend, ask! Don’t sign a contract that you don’t understand, because as long as it’s legal, you’re stuck with it.

If you are a serious influencer and get offers to do product reviews or participate in campaigns, treat your social media activities like a business. Consider hiring a lawyer to create a contract template for these situations when the other side doesn’t have a written contract. At the least, use this checklist to do a preliminary review of the offers you receive.

If you want more information about the legal rules regarding your blog and social media, please check out The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you want to chat with me about social media law, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that’s shared only with my mailing list, by subscribing to the firm’s newsletter.

Treat your Blog as a Business

Office Hours by Tanel Teemusk from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Office Hours by Tanel Teemusk from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

If you are making money from your blog, or you want to make money from your blog, you have a business. Treat it like the business that it is. You are no longer a hobbyist; you’re an entrepreneur.

Form a Business Entity
Creating a business entity is a relatively straightforward process. In general, it takes paperwork and money. Check with your state’s corporation commission or the secretary of state office to determine how much it will cost – because they significantly vary from state to state. If you have questions about whether you should form a limited liability company (LLC) or a corporation or whether you should form your business in your home state or elsewhere, as your accountant. Most clients I work with in Arizona opt to form Arizona LLCs.

The purpose of having a business entity is to protect you (the person) from liability. With a proper business entity, if the company gets sued, only the business assets will be on the line. Your personal assets (home, car, stuff, dog, etc.) will not be at risk.

Separate Bank Account and Credit Cards
You begin to protect yourself from liability by forming a business entity. The way you perfect that protection is by having separate bank accounts and credit cards for the company. You need to have a clear delineation between where you the person ends and the business begins. This often referred to as maintaining the “corporate veil.”

When you receive money as income, make sure business income passes through the business accounts. Additionally, when you spend money, use your personal accounts to pay for personal expenses (mortgage, groceries, etc.) and use the business accounts to pay for business expenses (office supplies, webhosting, etc.). To steal a line from Ghostbusters, “Don’t cross the streams.”

See your Accountant
Unless you’re a CPA, no entrepreneur should do their own taxes. You can probably make more money if you take the time you would need to do your own taxes to work on your business while someone else does your taxes for you. Having an accountant has saved me a lot of time and headaches. A good accountant is worth their weight in gold.

I love my accountant. He makes doing my taxes so easy. He’s been there to answer all my questions about what can and can’t claim as business expenses and what other information I should track, like mileage.

If you’re new to operating your blog as a business, or if you’ve been doing everything on your own up to now, do yourself a favor and hire a lawyer for an hour. Have a consultation to educate yourself about the legalities of running your business. As an entrepreneurial blogger, you want to be familiar with business formation, contract basics, privacy, copyright, trademarks, and the FTC rules regarding promotions and product reviews. There is a lot to know, but it’s not so complicated that a lay person can’t grasp and apply the concepts.

If you want more information about the legal rules regarding your blog and social media, please check out The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you want to chat with me about social media law, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that’s shared only with my mailing list, by subscribing to the firm’s newsletter.

Five Ways to be Legal Killed for your Blog

Batgirl on Jersey Ave. (behind bars) by margonaut from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Batgirl on Jersey Ave. (behind bars) by margonaut from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Yes, you can be legally killed because of something you post on your blog – just not in the United States. As a social media attorney, I deal with a lot of situations involving people behaving badly online, but none of them amount to circumstance where a post can result in crime punishable by death.

There are crimes you can commit via your blog that are punishable by death in certain countries:

Witchcraft: Saudi Arabia

Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood: Syria

Homosexuality: Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen

Atheism: Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, The Maldives

Opposing the Government/Treason: Bahrain, Belarus, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia, India, Libya, North Korea, Singapore, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, United Arab Emirates

This list makes me nervous for travel bloggers, including my friends The Opportunistic Travelers who trek all over the world. If you hit the authority’s radar in the wrong country, it could lead to some serious consequences – such as being caned in Singapore for graffiti. Before you pack your bags for your next adventure, make sure you research the laws that impact your actions in real life and online.

If you want more information about the legal rules regarding your blog and social media, please check out The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you want to chat with me, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that’s shared only with my mailing list, by subscribing to the firm’s newsletter.

Using Others’ Content – Legal Dos & Don’ts

Cut Copy Paste by Arthit Suriyawongkul from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Cut Copy Paste by Arthit Suriyawongkul from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I’ve received a lot of questions lately about how and when it is permissible to use other’s content without committing copyright infringement. This aspect of the copyright law is called fair use, and it’s a murky gray area. Each situation needs to be evaluated based on its merits as there few black-and-white rules regarding the legal use of others’ content.

Sharing a Post
If you like a post, you may want to share it with others. The legal way to do this is share a link to the original post with your audience. Sharing a link is the digital equivalent of pointing at something. It doesn’t create a copy of it. You will likely be accused of copyright infringement if you copy/paste the content from the original site to your website. Even if you have good intentions, you’re still interfering with the copyright holder’s right to control where their work is copied and distributed.

If you want to share a copy of a post, ask for permission. I get 2-3 requests a year from people who want to print and share copies of a post I wrote for training purposes or as part of a seminar. I’ve always allowed this as long as they include an attribution so the audience knows where it came from.

Commenting on a Post
If you want to quote someone in a post and add your own commentary to their thoughts, that is generally permissible. This is one of the things fair use is meant to protect. It’s best to quote the original post, provide an attribution and a link to the site, and then add your thoughts about it. By adding commentary, you’re more likely to be contributing to the conversation rather than committing copyright infringement.

One of the questions I was recently asked was whether they could write about the same topic as someone else. There’s no copyright protection for facts or ideas, so as long as you’re not copying someone’s working and claiming it as your own, you can write about the ideas as another writer, even without as attribution – unless you quote them.

Using an Image
This was an interesting question – someone asked when they write a post that comments on another person’s work, can they use the image from the original article. This raises a “red flag” for me because depending on the circumstances, it could be permissible or copyright infringement. If the article is about the image itself, then using the image is likely protected by fair use.

Otherwise using the photo from another’s post may be copyright infringement, especially if readers are seeking the original post and accepting yours as a substitute. I could see readers being confused because the image on the two posts are identical. If the image on the original post is not as essential aspect of the story, I recommend using a different image. I usually get my images from Creative Commons that come with the license to modify and commercialize the original.

Copyright and fair use are complicated issues that permeate the blogosphere. Before using another’s content, consider whether what you’re doing is likely to be legal and whether it might be best to request permission before using another’s content. If you have any question regarding using others’ content and fair use, please contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. If you want access to my exclusive content that’s shared only with my mailing list, please subscribe to the firm’s newsletter.

Legal Side of the No Pants Subway Ride

No Pants Light Rail Ride 2014 - photo by Devon Christopher Adams (Used with permission)

No Pants Light Rail Ride 2014 – photo by Devon Christopher Adams (Used with permission)

Charlie Todd and Improv Everywhere announced the cities that are participating in the 8th Annual Global No Pants Subway Ride (15th ride in New York, 8th ride with global participation). On Sunday, January 10th, people all over the world will be riding their public transit sans pants, and acting as if nothing is out of the ordinary. Phoenix has participated every year with the No Pants Light Rail Ride, organized by Improv AZ.

The No Pants Ride was my first flash mob and the event that launched my interest in flash mob law. Whenever I tell people about this event, one of the common questions I hear is, “Is that legal?” Given that this is a global event, the organizers and participants in each city should review their local laws related to this event and act accordingly. I’m sure it is not fun to be arrested when one is not wearing pants.

Indecent Exposure
Each city/state has its own laws regarding indecent exposure. In Phoenix, we don’t have to worry in general because it is not uncommon for people’s underpants to be bigger than what many people wear to the beach or pool. To violate the Arizona decency law, you have to expose your genitals, anus, or female areolas. This is why Improv AZ advises participants not to wear see-through fabric and to wear briefs under boxer in case the fly separates. Additionally, organizers in multiple cities have a “no thongs” rule. (Remember, you’re on public transportation. Do you really want your skin touching those seats?)

Transit System Rule Violations
Given that participants are expected to act as if nothing is abnormal, following the rules of the transit system is expected. Be courteous and don’t interfere with others’ ability to ride the subway, light rail, or bus. And the fact that your outfit doesn’t have pockets does not absolve you from the requirement to purchase a ticket.

Disorderly Conduct, Public Nuisance, Riot
Many cities have a broadly written catch-all for behaviors that may disturb the peace. If you’re going to organize or participate in a No Pants Ride or other flash mob, always apply common sense to your shenanigans. If you encounter law enforcement, be calm and respectful, and know what information you are required to provide. In the U.S., the police are allowed to briefly detain you if they suspect a crime is occurring or is imminent. And although you have the right to remain silent, you may be required to identify yourself if requested.

Of course, the goal of any flash mob is to surprise and entertain an unsuspecting audience. Ideally, the police should never have to be involved. They have real crimes to investigate. It’s up to the organizers and participants to educate themselves on how to pull off their shenanigans without violating the law or anyone’s rights.

I’m excited for this year’s No Pants Subway Ride. If one is occurring near you, I highly recommend you participate. If you want to chat about the legalities of flash mobs and pranks, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

FTC & Promotions – Always Disclose Relationships

My box of Mental Mojo - love this stuff! (Thanks to the owners for sending me free product!)

My box of Mental Mojo – love this stuff! (Thanks to the owners for sending me free product!)

My friends own a company called Mental Mojo – it’s a powder that contains caffeine and cognitive enhancers that you mix in water. I drink it when I’m tired – it helps me get my work done without making me jittery. (I love that it turns my water super nerd green, which reminds me of this infamous exchange between Data and Scotty on Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

Because I talk about it so much online, I usually get my Mental Mojo for free (and they’ve invited me to the taste test for the new flavors). I’m not a paid spokesperson for this company, but I do get benefits from promoting the product. As such, every time I talk about drinking free product, I need to disclose my relationship with this company – not just because it shows transparency, but because the federal law requires it.

FTC Rules about Promotions
The Federal Trade Commission has strict rules about making “clear and conspicuous” disclosures when a person has a relationship with a company. These rules apply to spokespeople, online contest participants, product reviewers, and companies that use affiliate links on your site. When you are compensated for giving an opinion, you have to disclose your relationship.

If you fail to disclose a relationship with a company, the FTC can fine you up to $11,000. And they can go after you or the company.

Even in 140 Characters
And don’t think for a second that tweets or other micro-form social media sites are exempt from this rule. At the very least, you have to include “#ad” on your post. It’s not enough to include a link to a site that includes the disclosure of your relationship.

Truthfulness and Transparency
Whenever you write a product review, whether it’s on a review site like Yelp, a product review blog post, or providing a quote for their website or LinkedIn profile, you must provide a truthful and accurate review of the product or service. Posting fake or embellished reviews (positive or negative) violates the FTC rules.

I’ve written product reviews and I appreciate that my editors respect the FTC rules by asking us to describe the benefits and drawbacks of each product we try.

Video Disclosures
If you do reviews in video form – including unboxing videos – you need to disclose when you get free product and provide honest reviews. The FTC says it’s not enough to have the disclosure in the video notes. You have to say it or post verbiage to that effect at the beginning of your video and possibly repeat this information throughout the video depending on its length.

This disclosure doesn’t have to be complex. It can be something like, “The guys at Mental Mojo sent me this free box of their product. Let’s try it out.” (If you are trying Mental Mojo for the first time, the flavor may be a bit strong. Until you get used to the taste, you may want to mix it with club soda instead of plain water. The carbonation helps take the edge off.)

Final Thoughts
Disclose disclose disclose. If you get a benefit from talking about a product or company online, disclose it. Whether it’s your employer, a client, or a company that sends you stuff for free – it should be crystal clear to anyone who sees your posts that you have a relationship with the company.

If you work with spokespersons or campaign partners, make sure part of your relationship includes an educational component about their obligation to disclose your affiliation whenever they talk about you on any platform.

I spoke about this topic earlier this year at Content Marketing World. Be sure to check out the follow-up article about this panel by Northeast Ohio Media Group.

If you want more information about this topic, please check out 6 Things to Know About FTC Disclosures When Working with Influencers or my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you want to chat with me about a specific question related to the FTC rules and promotions, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Fair Use Victory!

Bambi vs. Godzilla (211/365) by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Bambi vs. Godzilla (211/365) by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The Ninth Circuit of the Federal Court handed down an important ruling regarding fair use this week. In Lenz v. Universal, aka the “Dancing Baby” case was about copyright, DMCA takedown notices, and fair use. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sued Universal Music Publishing Group after Universal sent a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice when a mother uploaded a 29-second video of her baby dancing to a Prince song.

The key element of this court ruling is that the court declared that “copyright holders must consider fair use before sending a [DMCA] takedown notice.” Prior to this case, fair use was regarded as an “affirmative defense.” If you’ve seen my YouTube videos, you have seen this one where I declare, “Fair use is a defense, not a permission slip.” This court said that’s not the case, but rather that fair use is authorized by the Federal Copyright Act. There is no copyright infringement if your use of another’s copyright-protected work is permitted by fair use.

If you’re interested in learning more about fair use, I wrote a post that includes a mnemonic device for the fair use factors for a panel I did at Phoenix Comicon on fair use and fan art/fiction.

There are two downsides to the case (at least for now):

  1. Although the court said that copyright holders must consider fair use before sending a DMCA takedown notice, they only have to have subjective good faith belief that the use of the copyrighted work is illegal, even if this belief is objectively unreasonable.
  2. This ruling only applies to the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit is comprised of Arizona, California, and most of the western United States. However, this ruling is not binding on the other ten Circuit Courts, but they can take it under advisement in future cases.

This case is a step in the right direction and will hopefully lead to fewer abuses of the DMCA. You can read the EFF’s full report about the case here.

Footnote: This case took eight years to reach this ruling. Sometimes pursuing a lawsuit is the right decision, but you have to be prepared to be in it for the long haul.

How the copyright laws apply to the internet is a legal issue that is constantly developing. If you need a resource about how the law applies to social media, please check out The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you want to chat with me about a specific question related to copyright or internet law, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Working with People who Don’t Understand Copyright

Sentinel vs. Jawa (88/365) by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Sentinel vs. Jawa (88/365) by JD Hancock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Here’s the scenario: You are a newly hired third party content creator for a company. You learn that your client has a habit of copying pictures from Pinterest or Google Images searches without verifying that they are allowed to use the images on their website and/or social media posts. They want you to do the same. What should you do?

Option #1: Your Client Needs an Education about Copyright
Some people truly believe they can use any image they find on the internet, particularly if they give an attribution and a link back to the original. There are so-called “gurus” who will tell you this is ok. It’s not.

What your client is likely doing is committing copyright infringement. Inform your client that he/she is running the risk of getting a cease and desist letter, a bill with a license, or a lawsuit. In the worst-case scenario, they could face a lawsuit for $150,000 per image they use, plus attorneys’ fees. Tell your client to thank their lucky stars they haven’t faced one of these consequences yet and advise them that the prudent thing to do would be to replace all images on their site with pictures they can legally use.

Use this an a teaching experience to educate your client about the importance of asking permission, using Creative Commons, and possibly exploring whether what they are doing in some situations qualifies as fair use.

Option #2: Your Client Understands but Disregards Others’ Copyright Rights
Fire your client.

This person is obviously an idiot. No money is worth being affiliated with this company. Run away as fast as you can.

Footnote: Every company should have a “No Jerks” rule when it comes to employees and clients. If you find someone violating this rule at a genetic level (not just having a bad day), cut all ties with them immediately.

The same rules about copyright that apply to your website also apply to your social media posts:

Whenever I work on a contract for the relationship between a company and an outside content provider, I always recommend that my client require an indemnity clause that will protect them if they are accused of intellectual property infringement based on material provided by the other party. Your contract is the master document for your working relationship. It should clearly define the parties’ obligations to each other which should include deadlines and deliverables and also how you will resolve problems when they occur.

If you want to know more about the complex issues related to copyright and the internet, please check out The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. If you want to chat with me about this topic, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Protect Yourself from Cyberflashers

Lens Flare by Lee Netherton from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Lens Flare by Lee Netherton from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Eww eww eww!

If you or your child has an iPhone, adjust the settings for AirDrop now to avoid being targeted by cyberflashers.

Apparently this is a thing – the default setting for AirDrop allows people in your vicinity to send you photos. It displays a small version of the image with the option to Accept or Decline. So if somebody wants to send you a picture of their junk, even if you Decline, you’ve already seen the image! That’s cyberflashing.

If you have an iPhone, please read this article from Sophos that explains step-by-step how to adjust your AirDrop settings to avoid being cyberflashed.

This is so disturbing. If your AirDrop allows anyone in the vicinity to see you, it lists to as “[First Name’s] iPhone” so the cyberflasher can target people based on their assumed gender. It doesn’t tell you anything about the recipient’s age. Indecent exposure is a crime in Arizona, and it’s a felony if you flash someone who is less than 15 years old.

Eww eww eww! It is absolutely vile and wrong to invade unsuspecting people’s iPhones (including children’s iPhones) and inflict your naked photos on them. I hope Apple realizes how wrong this is and changes the default settings on their phones.

If you want to chat more about privacy and cybersecurity, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Bring Back Streaking!

John by J0NU from Flickr (Public Domain)

John by J0NU from Flickr (Public Domain)

Did you see the clip of the streaker on American Ninja Warrior?

He was pretty impressive until he was stopped by security! I was bummed to learn that this was a stunt and not a true streaker. This video made me wonder – whatever happened to streaking? I’m sure some people think it’s offensive, but I think it’s hilarious. Now that everyone has a smart phone in their purse or pocket, I suppose fewer people are inclined to strip down and run. But it still happens on occasion – i.e., Portland’s Naked Bike Ride, Bay to Breakers, etc.

In Arizona, streaking is illegal under the indecent exposure law. It is a felony if you expose yourself to a child who is under 15 years old, and you have to register as a sex offender if you commit this felony  two or more times.

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am against the sexual abuse or sexual assault of any person, and I think it makes sense to differentiate between people who expose themselves to commit a sex crime (including flashing) and people who have other motives. When I think of “flashers,” I think of people who do what these two guys are insinuating:

In my mind, a traditional streaker has no sexual motive, but rather is violating a social norm. I have heard of other states where a public nudity is permitted as long as you are not sexually aroused, masturbating, or the like. Streaking should fall into this latter category.

Do I think the rules or going to change anytime soon? No. Arizona is a conservative state in general, and our legislature has more important issues to tackle than legalizing streaking. But it would be awesome if they did. Of course, if you are going to streak, be mindful of the likelihood that you will be videotaped or photographed while you’re doing it, and you may be at risk of being arrested for additional crimes such as trespassing and disorderly conduct.

If you want to know more about pulling off shenanigans like this legally, please check out my book Flash Mob Law, or you can contact me or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.