7 Easy Steps To Keep Your Content From Sending You To Prison

Governance of online content is critical. If avoided, it will make your online presence less effective, at best. At worst, you could be facing a $2,000,000 lawsuit. These seven quick tips will help provide a better experience online. And they just might keep you out of the courtroom.

A rare story about online content and the law appeared in the news last week. Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum ran into a bit of trouble. Intellectual property trouble. Unlicensed third-party content trouble.

Presidential hopefuls need websites. They are usually better at presidential hopefull-ing than information architecture and content strategy. So, they hire firms to help them out. However, Santorum’s situation proved more harmful than helpful.

A Dutch font foundry claims the Santorum site is using an “unauthorized derivative version” of one of their products. The story from Thomson Reuters says:

“Typotheque VOF is seeking at least $2 million in damages from RaiseDigital LLC, a Virginia-based consulting company that develops new media strategies for political campaigns and politicians..”

They are seeking $2 million in damages. TWO MILLION DOLLARS.

One day, you pay someone to create an online identity, and the next day your name is attached to a $2,000,000 infringement suit. How does something like that happen?

Know your content rights

Good online content takes components from many different places, minds, and sources. In the end, the best content is greater than the sum of its parts.

Some basic categories, plus an example of each:

  • Created in-house (user interface copy)
  • Created by contractors (text from a freelance writer)
  • Licensed from contractors (font from a type foundry, as in the news story)
  • Licensed from content providers (news stories from Associated Press)
  • Licensed user-generated content (image from a Flickr user)
  • Public domain (primarily images no longer in copyright)

Each one of these components may have different legal guidelines, terms, and potential implications. It’s a wonderful thing, really. These things ensure that content creators are properly attributed and/or compensated, in public or behind the scenes.

But, when one of these things is used without the proper permission, things get ugly. $2,000,000 ugly. How can a content team avoid that?

Avoid content lawsuits in 7 easy steps

  1. Inform staff about the basics. Parts of copyright law are impossibly difficult and arbitrary. Other parts are quite clear cut. Make no assumptions on what your staff understands. A quick explanation of rights, licensing, and their potential impacts will put them in a strong position to produce content with confidence.
  2. Provide clear guidelines for acceptable content. Style guides are a great place to detail an organization’s legal and editorial copyright rules. These decisions can affect tone and voice, so consider them as carefully as you would the rest of the style guide.
  3. Review current third-party terms of service. You know those monstrously large EULAs (end-user license agreements) that we sometimes accept without reading? That’s where third-party providers dictate their terms. Look at them again to ensure that you are using them within the agreed-upon terms of service.
  4. Remain cognizant of exclusivity clauses with other content providers. This separate yet still-complicated issue comes up on more complex projects. Some content providers require exclusivity. Sometimes that exclusivity is worth it. Other times, it’s an impediment to achieving your business goals.
  5. Enter into new content agreements carefully. Examine the track record of new providers and partners. Dig deep into their past projects and output. Read the fine print with an eye on concerns and issues from the past and present. And, eliminate any ambiguity before moving into that relationship.
  6. Note where things are, and who is responsible for them. A content audit should indicate if that page contains content subject to rights issues and concerns. Advanced wireframes should also indicate if, when, and where third-party content will be used. Assign appropriate staff to manage each content provider relationship and address any concerns or issues that may arise.
  7. Devise an exit strategy, NOW. Ongoing licensing agreements will change over time. Plan for those changes on all content that isn’t owned outright. Operating with a replacement plan and process or an overall reorganization in mind will allow you to focus your efforts on “What next?” instead of “What if?”.

[Image from Flickr user Mark Strozier (cc: by)]

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