Social Media and the Law – 5 Things You Need to Know

Social Media and the Law – 5 Things You Need to Know

by Lisa C. Johnson, Esq., October 2014

There’s no doubt that we are living in the age of social media. You may remember a story last year of a woman very much focused on Facebook. The Guardian reported that she was so focused that she walked off a pier, fell into the water and was rescued while still clutching her phone. The moral of the story is to pay attention.

Various social media legal issues arise when website users share content online across different platforms like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, Google+, Reddit, Wikipedia, personal blogs and more.

Social media laws relating to who owns the content being shared, when and where sharing is appropriate and what limits may be imposed on sharing often raise issues relating to trademark infringement, copyright infringement, social media marketing, labor relations and more.

Here are five tips that may keep you from finding yourself in trouble when it comes to different social media platforms.

1. Online Contests & Promotions: Look at the Terms of Service (TOS) or other similar guidelines posted by the platform that you are using. These are the rules to follow. Facebook has some very specific guidance. “Promotions may be administered on Pages or within apps on Facebook. Personal Timelines must not be used to administer promotions (ex: “share on your Timeline to enter” or “share on your friend's Timeline to get additional entries” is not permitted).”

2. Reviews: Sites like Yelp allow users to share their experiences and provide ratings for different businesses. Negative ratings can be harmful and some business owners may be wary of these review sites. However some may have pushed against the reviews a bit too hard by adding clauses into consumer contracts that would prevent their customers from making negative comments against them online. California recently passed a law protecting the rights of consumers to leave bad online reviews. An article in The Washington Post says, “The bill bans businesses from forcing consumers into contracts in which they waive their right to comment on the service they receive, and it also bars businesses from otherwise penalizing customers for such statements. It imposes fines of $2,500 for the first violation and $5,000 for each thereafter. If a violation was willful, intentional or reckless, an additional fine of $10,000 could be levied.”

3. Endorsements: When bloggers and others write online about products and services, disclosure is key. If they were paid and/or received free items by a company and then wrote about these items, then that relationship must be disclosed in a way that is clear to the reader. The Federal Trade Commission revised its Endorsement Guides to include social media to make sure that endorsements are honest and not misleading to the public.

4. Photographs: Social media and the law often collide when it comes to pictures that are being shared online. Cute baby animal pictures and beautifully decorated cupcakes can be irresistible. Not only do we want to look at them, but we want to share them with our friends. Before you use that picture, don’t assume that it’s yours for the taking just because you found it online. Many if not most photographs are copyrighted and owned by the person who took the picture. Try to find the source and seek permission before you use it. On sites like Pinterest, where photos are shared by Pinning, owners of copyrighted material may request to have it removed. “If you receive a notification that a Pin has been removed due a copyright complaint, it means that the Pin's content has been deleted from Pinterest at the request of the content's owner. If your account receives too many copyright complaints, you may lose the ability to Pin new content on Pinterest, and your account may be disabled completely,” according to Pintrest’s Copyright page.

5. Employee Rights: Employers should take a second look before deciding to fire employees based on negative comments on social media. Similar to the issue of consumers having the right to write negative reviews about a business online, employees may sometimes have the right to vent about their employers online as well. A Nixon Peabody blog post discusses a recent ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regarding employees who were found to be wrongfully terminated by their employer for activity on Facebook. According to the NLRB analysis, “The NLRB concluded that the two employees did not disparage their employer’s’ products or services, rather they engaged in social media to seek and provide mutual support for a group activity addressing the terms and conditions of employment.”

Paying attention as the law surrounding social media evolves is the best way to keep from walking off that metaphorical pier.

If you have questions about social media and how to best protect your company, you can speak to an attorney through the LegalZoom business legal plan.