Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Publishing Personal Stories: What Permission is Needed?


Dear Rich: I am creating an online platform for people to share their personal stories that I am going to publish. What kind of legal document do I need to put together? Personal stories? We have a personal story we'd like to post. It's about a blogger who ordered some T-shirts but there was a problem making the registered symbol -- ® -- appear properly on the back (we're not assessing blame just yet) and so the blogger spent a lot of money on shirts with a misplaced ®. It started as a sad story but after some exchanges with customer service, we're starting to think that it will have a happy ending.
Right, you had a question. The good news is that your site can avoid most liability by abiding by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (which shields you from claims of copyright infringement) and the rules set forth in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (which shields you from liability for statements published by others). Keep in mind, you must follow the rules for the shields to work. In general, your concerns for posting personal stories are outlined below:
  • Copyright: You should obtain an assurance that the work is original to the author and that the author has the right to permit publication and that the author grants you the limited right to post it online. If you want more rights -- say to publish a collection of stories in eBook format -- you should acquire those rights now. The same is true if you want the option for more rights. You should learn more about acquiring publishing rights 
  • Invasion of Privacy and Trade Secrets: Personal stories involve personal details. You need an assurance that the posting won't reveal any personal or trade secrets that will cause you to get sued.
  • Children's Privacy: We would suggest avoiding taking any materials from children under 13.  (You can seek an assurance that person submitting the story is 13 or older.) If you start taking information from children under that age, you'll need to deal with a law known as COPPA and that may not be worth the effort.
  • Defamation: Personal stories that include untrue statements about others could lead to defamation suits. You need an assurance there's nothing defamatory.
So, in summary, you need permission to publish and assurances that the publications don't violate any laws. These assurances and permissions can be bundled in a click-to-accept statement that the user must agree to before uploading the information. Any electronic method of assent that can be verified -- checking a box, clicking to accept, etc. --  will suffice.