Research shows divided opinion about the need for legal resources for small or independent online publishers in the UK, while 27 per cent of those surveyed have been involved in a legal dispute in the last two years.
The questionnaire, which 71 respondents completed, asked UK-based online writers, who publish independently or for sites with fewer than ten employees, to recount their interactions with UK law. The majority of the respondents write about specific topical issues or cover local (or hyperlocal) news.
Of the 19 online writers who were contacted over a legal matter in the last two years (27 per cent), only seven sought legal advice, which was paid for in four instances. The remaining 12 dealt with it alone.
However, only two of the cases reached court. For six of the publishers, the case was dropped at an earlier stage. Two published corrections or clarifications. Nine involved payment and/or removal of material, although in two cases this was only partial removal of material.
Of writers who cited legal trouble, 68% had been involved in defamation disputes; 37% copyright; 16% privacy; and 11% data protection. [NB: Some of these respondents had been involved in more than one type of action, so the total exceeds 100%]
Three of the 19 bloggers had been writing online for between one and two years; the other 16 had over three years experience – of these, three had been writing online for over ten years.
Seven of the cases involved local news publishers; nine involved bloggers who cover specific topics and three were in other areas: international news; a consumer blog about a particular company; and ‘off-beat news’.
On the whole, the 71 respondents had avoided initiating their own legal disputes: only eight had made their own legal complaints to other publishers; seven concerned copyright matters; the other concerned a spamming issue.
DO WE NEED MORE LEGAL RESOURCES?
The audience was completely divided: 46% said they did not think there was enough legal information and advice at hand; 54% said there was an adequate amount.
But the overall picture contrasted with answers from those who had encountered legal trouble in the last two years: only 32% of those 19 respondents felt they were able to access adequate legal information, 68% did not.
Click through the charts below to see the difference of opinion between those who had encountered trouble in the last two years, and those who hadn’t.
Of the respondents who cited the resources they used, the most popular was McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists,with 17 respondents mentioning the law title, now in its 20th edition.
“McNae’s for frontline advice,” one said. “I ring the NUJ if I need further help.”
Meanwhile, 19 said they used no legal resources at all. Several cited their own knowledge or media law training as a resource. For example:
“I have media law training myself from when I did my BA in journalism. I’ve still got an old copy of McNae’s kicking around. When I was accused of breach of copyright, I asked for legal advice via Twitter, and two separate media lawyers confirmed (for free) that I’d done nothing wrong. I also contacted [hyperlocal organisation] Talk About Local for advice, and they told me the same.”
Two respondents said they used paid-for advice; and several others cited informal, free guidance from helpful contacts, like this respondent:
“Friends and contacts within both the journalism and legal professions, on an informal, unpaid, unretained basis.”
Other resources listed and recommended by publishers included the National Union of Journalists, Press Gazette, Journalism.co.uk, online contacts and social media, search (eg. Google), unpaid lawyers, Out-law.com, and Media Guardian.
One writer said:
“I get a general sense of what I can/can’t do by following the example of the bigger blogs and would be prepared to retract stuff if people get in contact with me. If I had a problem I’d Google it and see what advice other bloggers in similar situations had done.”
Many felt the situation was manageable, and posed only a limited threat: “I have published over 7,000 articles of criticism in ten years and have only had legal action taken once, and that as part of a scam to get money from out of court settlements,” wrote one.
One publisher said a potentially tricky problem went away without any response on their part, after they were contacted by a company that had been the subject of a user’s comment on the site: “Chose to play dead and not respond to [the email] and wait and see… [we] would have removed item if legally threatened – not close enough to our own cause to be worth a big fight. Have heard no more though.”
Others felt their position was clear, especially on copyright and the use of images: “If in doubt take your own snaps.”
“Don’t often worry about legal aspects, am hoping common sense over not stealing content and not making unprovable accusations is enough.”
One respondent had an unusual approach:
“I don’t normally use sources as I don’t leave myself open to legal proceedings. Anything that may be a bit near the mark or risqué, I start ‘without prejudice’.”
Some respondents indicated that legal advice was not necessarily enough and did not always keep up with online developments:
“Legal advice is too slow and expensive, and to the best of my knowledge, fairly fuzzy on the topic of internet publishing. It is a slight worry sometimes, but on rare occasions.”
Another publisher made a similar observation and requested “access to informal advice from experts or even peers; an easy route to access paid advice from legal professionals with relevant experience and knowledge”.
“It’s no good getting advice from people who don’t ‘get’ the web and online publishing/social media.”
The results indicated it wasn’t just small publishers who were aware of the legal risks of online publishing:
“I also write for my employer, and the legal advice available to us regarding online content is pretty useless as well, so it isn’t just small publishers who are finding their way in the dark.”
It was the future, rather than the present that concerned others:
“I answered ‘yes’ to Q on whether I have adequate [legal] information. Fuller answer would have been ‘yes, for now’. I have never felt much need to access lots of information but I may do in future and I’m not sure how easy this would be.”
“Not sure I would be able to trust online or free support if the chips were really down. I guess if mine was a bigger operation I would want to join organisation like the Newspaper Society for support.”
The respondents weren’t just mixed in their views between themselves; some were undecided in their own view: one respondent, who wasn’t personally concerned by a deficit in online information, said:
“I think there’s a real case, nonetheless, for an organisation that serves to help small-scale online publishers with legal cases when they do arise. I’d say that this shouldn’t be restricted to ‘professional journalists’, since one’s professionalism or otherwise doesn’t have much bearing any more on how often/much you publish and how much trouble you can get yourself into!”
WHAT RESOURCES WOULD PUBLISHERS LIKE?
Publishers offered many suggestions for resources:
- “Legal advice from professional body – say [one] free hour then paid, but from someone who really knows law and the cyber worlds – most don’t.”
- “Some form of low cost legal advice line for hyperlocal publishers would be an interesting concept.”
- “Either a libel lawyer or some protection, or both.”
- “Online site giving basic advice or cheap or free access to a lawyer.”
- “Independent advice, possibly online.”
- “Support for specific issue if one arose – if I were ever sent a ‘serious legal letter’ I’m not sure I’d know where to turn.”
- “Access to an informal network of experience, so that FAQ can be answered.”
- “Someone without an axe to grind who can sort out the various Creative Commons licences in relation to real work.”
- “A basic awareness training course would be great, plus access to an informal network of experience, so that FAQ can be answered.”
- “Online legal resource for UK-based bloggers. Q&A. Forum.”
- “More information on hosting forums/user comments – what publishers/hosters are liable for and what not.”
- “A basic online guide to copyright, defamation etc. Clear, easy to access, free guidelines on IP, copyright etc.”
- “Copyright issues and the use of images would be a useful area to get knowledge of.”
- “The key questions are ‘will I be sued’ and ‘how not to be sued’.”
- “Information on permissions (video, photo use).”
- “An answer to the question – ‘will I get into trouble for this?'”
- “A simple explanation of libel laws from an authoritative source.”
- “A really simple guide to what is legal and what isn’t.”
- “Regular updates on media law cases.”
- “Further advice for new media organisations about the right to publish, and the dangers of defamation.”
- “A change in UK libel laws where the onus is put on the truth, and justice, rather than wealth and the ability to buy silence through creating the impasse of risk which results from contesting libel claims.”
- “Libel law reform should be a top priority for a blogger of any type. Big corporations currently have far too much power in the libel court system.”
- “No independent blogger could ‘go the distance’ through the courts against a wealthy individual willing to pay for the likes of Schillings or Carter-Ruck.”
This was an initial and modest piece of research, but there are a number of ways it could be developed as a larger study with a bigger sample.
In order to assess the effect of the law itself, one would need to gather more geographical data: is there a difference between the experiences of those based in Scotland, which has separate defamation law, and England, for example?
Legal insurance is another area that needs examining. One respondent, a hyperlocal news blogger, suggested asking: ‘whether or not publishers have any insurance to cover any legal action might be another useful related question’. He said he is currently looking into the issue.
It would also be worth finding out whether any bloggers host their sites in different countries, in the hope of avoiding UK jurisdiction.
Thank you to the websites (listed at this link) and social media users who helped publicise this survey and to everyone who completed it.
- The online survey, built using Google Forms, was opened in August 2010 and publicised via social media and several industry blogs. It specifically targeted local and hyperlocal publishers.
- An extract of the ‘cleaned up’ data can be found in this public Google Document. The data used for this report was standardised in some parts, and amendents were made only for spelling and grammar. Percentages were rounded to the nearest whole number.
- Publisher/blogger/writer used interchangeably to indicate someone who publishes their work online.
- Backgrounds of respondents: 39 write about a specific topic (eg. media or the arts); 23 about a geographical area; one about a specific company; four about personal matters and four were categorised as miscellaneous.
- Online writing experience of the respondents varied from three months, to over ten years: Under 12 months, 3; 1-2 years, 24; 3-4 years, 21; 5-9 years, 15; Over 10 years, 8. Total, 71.
- Respondents had to be based in the UK, but no further geographical data was collected.
- The aim of this small survey was to get a feel of the legal ‘climate’ and resources available to independent online writers; and does not attempt to analyse the law or the need for reform.
- Answers were given anonymously, although some respondents provided email addresses for further follow up.
- The survey is part of an MA project at City University London and feeds into the online media law and ethics site, Meeja Law.
If you would like share your own experiences, or request further information about the data and the survey’s methodology please contact: jt.townend [at] gmail.com.