moderate commentsAt least that is the message denoted by the latest high court ruling which places website and blog owners at risk of liability from the user generated content displayed on their sites.

The verdict was delivered after Labourhome.org owner Alex Hilton was sued by Johanna Kaschke. Kaschke was objecting to a libellous comment which appeared on the labour home site which was written by a user.  The content was accusing her of having had links with Baader-Meinhof, a German terrorist group.

Although Hilton did not write the comment or make it live, the fact that he actively moderated other areas of the website by …”exercise(ing) some editorial control on parts of the website and in particular on the homepage.” held him liable.

Because the web sphere is so diverse, understanding the legalities surrounding websites can often be very complex, and the average user might be a bit worried after reading these claims.

Zeta offers an overview of the situation as well as some helpful tips for blog and site owners who may be concerned about the recent revelations:

Today, many companies run interactive web sites where users can participate and provide comment either through commenting on content or blog posts through to interactive forums and chat rooms.

It has been the norm for most companies to pre-moderate any comments that users make and decide if they are suitable before they are shown on the website. This is particularly important in order to stop spam etc.

The High Court ruling acts as a reminder that you must be aware that you risk losing your safe harbour protections and can become liable for user generated comments that have been posted if you do anything other than just display them as they are submitted.

If you for instance moderate comments and choose if they are displayed, or if you perform any kind of editing or correction of a typo or spelling mistake, then you can no longer be classed as an information storage service and become liable for the user generated content as if it was your own.

Struan Robertson, a legal director with Pinsent Masons LLP and editor of the firm’s legal information site, www.out-law.com claims that when dealing with user generated content libel and copyright infringement are the most common problems.

We asked him, How can site owners who want to keep user interactivity at the heart of their site/blog do so without losing their safe harbour protections?

The safest approach is to let comments go live without checking them before or after they appear. To be absolutely safe, don’t delete spam or offensive comments unless and until you receive a complaint. As soon as you start to check comments for spam, you run the risk of being liable for other content too. Obviously this approach makes for terrible quality control, and blogs become a spam fest, so there has to be a trade off. Sites that can’t afford to implement technical filters to block spam or profanities are often the ones that receive fewer user contributions – and moderating comments manually may be a risk that the site owner feels is worth taking.

But as a site owner or publisher there is no need to stop user generated content all together. The safest approach suggested by Struan is really for extreme cases. We believe as long as you are aware of the potential issues you shouldn’t incur any problems.

Sarah Pantry, project manager at Zeta adds:
“So make sure that if you moderate your user generated content that you make sure there is nothing there that you will be held responsible for by not approving anything risky”.

Copyright Infringement
Copyright infringement is another unlawful act common to websites and blogs.  Often arising from republishing someone’s content without permission or using copyrighted images.

When writing content for blogs it is common practice to read other articles/sites online to inform your own content development, but you must be careful not to directly copy any of this content as this would put you at risk of copyright infringement. If you want to use content that someone else has written or said always cite the source and date (e.g. BBC, 2009). Copyscape is a free online tool enabling to scan your own website/blog posts to ensure that your content is original and has not been duplicated by anyone else.

If you find that your content has been duplicated without your permission the first thing to try and do is contact the offending site/user and request that they remove the content. If there is any disagreement or they are uncooperative then you might think about going down the legal route. Check out the Digital Millenium Copyright Act for more information.

However there are certain websites where you CAN directly copy content from: these are normally regarded as free article sites/free press release sites. Cite the original source to be on the safe side if you duplicate any copy from these. Whilst the content may be of interest to your readership audience, something to remember is that using content from free sites may in some instances have less SEO value to your own site because Google tries hard to remove duplicate content from its index .  The SEO experts at Zeta always prefer to use 100% original content.

The use of images is another copyright risk. Avoid using Google image search and copying images to your own blog/site – if there is a particular one you want check the owners website to see if they allow use of images or logos. Many big brands and companies will allow use of their images for PR and related purposes – or you could contact them for permission to use an image.

The best way to ensure your images are legit is to purchase from a stock photography site – there are many online, some give free stock photos. You must ensure you have legal right to use imagery. There are various different ownership options from ‘rights-managed’ to ‘royalty free’ or annual subscriptions. There are plenty of Stock Photography sites that provide great images at various different prices. Try www.gettyimages.com, www.istockphoto.com and www.shutterstock.com.  Getty being the most expensive but at the same time probably provides the best images. The rise of Flickr has born a new generation of young budding photographers that will allow their images to be used to gain more exposure or for a small fee. Why not find a photo on Flickr and get in touch with the author for a cheaper alternative.

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