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Law firm helps businesses navigate the confusing web of online sharing

From left: Stacy Wescoe, online editor for Lehigh Valley Business; Katie Burger, social media and communications manager for Discover Lehigh Valley; and attornies Kimberly A. Spotts-Kimmel and Nicole J. O'Hara participate on a panel discussion of legal challenges with modern social media.
From left: Stacy Wescoe, online editor for Lehigh Valley Business; Katie Burger, social media and communications manager for Discover Lehigh Valley; and attornies Kimberly A. Spotts-Kimmel and Nicole J. O'Hara participate on a panel discussion of legal challenges with modern social media. - (Photo / )

A few months back, Madlen Miller, marketing director for Allentown law firm Gross McGinley, asked if she could pick my brain.

The firm was looking to put together educational seminars on topics of interest to local business owners and professionals and was wondering if I had any thoughts on relevant legal issues.

There was one topic that’s on my mind almost daily. With ever-changing electronic and social media resources, I asked, “How does one keep track of the proper use of intellectual property such as photos, news and blogs?”

So, I was thrilled to participate in the firm’s “But Everybody Else is Doing it – The Risks We Take in Digital Marketing” seminar at the Renaissance Allentown Hotel, where such issues were addressed and fine legal lines clarified.

I did, of course, take a media law class in college, but that was in 1988. The internet was in its infancy. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was 4 and copyright and trademark laws over photos, stories and logos were pretty much as black and white as the newsprint they were published on.

In 2016, with sharing on social media so common, everything seems like fair game.

But Kimberly A. Spotts-Kimmel, an attorney focusing on marketing and promotions at Gross McGinley, cautions that fair game does not equal fair use, which is a very specific legal term.

It’s something I think about all the time.

When sharing a story from another publication, I’m keenly aware not to copy more than is legally considered fair use. And, as Spotts-Kimmel emphasized, always, always attribute the source.

Sometimes, I’ve wondered if I had the right to use a photo.

In some cases, I’ve received contributed photos that the contributor didn’t have permission to give me.

At the same time, I’ve seen my stories republished without permission and have had to politely ask the poster to either properly link to the story and/or attribute the story.

PLAY NICE

Polite is the key word. One can never forget that the people re-posting our material are likely doing it because they liked it. They’re probably fans of the paper. They most certainly meant no harm. We love it if they share our stories the right way.

I always thank them for sharing our story. It’s great to have exposure to new people and potential readers. But the story should be shared properly linked and attributed.

Spotts-Kimmel said any company that posts intellectual property online needs to make sure it is maintaining control of that content for legal purposes, so the content isn’t misused in a way that might reflect badly back on the company’s image.

To legally protect yourself, you need to show a court that you took consistent action to safeguard your content.

GOOD VIBRATIONS

Spotts-Kimmel re-emphasized the word “polite” and gave two examples – one where a takedown order for a copyright infringement helped a company’s image.

Jack Daniel’s not only got the response it wanted, but got retweeted by the object of a takedown notice, who was amused by the friendly nature of the request.

An author had designed his book cover to look like the Jack Daniel’s label, which of course the company doesn’t allow, it said.

“We are certainly flattered by your affection for the brand, but … we also have to be diligent to ensure that the Jack Daniel’s trademarks are used correctly,” the letter said.

The letter said it could wait for the next reprinting before any changes were made and even offered to help pay the costs associated with the redesign.

The request went viral and the brand got thousands of positive online impressions for being the gentle giant offering a fair compromise to the little guy.

BAD PUBLICITY

On the other side of the spectrum, Spotts-Kimmel cited the black eye Major League Baseball received – at least with dog lovers. MLB went after a T-shirt company that works with no-kill shelters that had raised about $375 through the printing of shirts that said “Doggers” with a “Dodgers”-like logo emblazoned over the image of a dog catching a baseball.

In addition to demanding the company cease production of the shirts, it demanded an accounting of any company or individual involved with the shirts’ sale. Some found it a little harsh for a little-known, local fundraiser that raised little.

As one online re-poster of the demand commented, “What’s the point of protecting your brand if you do it in a way that makes people hate your brand?”

Katie Burger, social media and communications manager for Discover Lehigh Valley, and Nicole J. O’Hara, intellectual property attorney for Gross McGinley, also participated in the forum.

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