March 9, 2015

Media law guide for today’s startups

Credit: Flickr / mango_sparrow

Credit: Flickr / mango_sparrow

One of the last things media entrepreneurs think they need to worry about when they prepare for launch is legal liability.

It’s a bad practice that can come back to bite them later.

To that end, the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism has just published one of the most comprehensive legal guides available: “Law for Media Startups.” Free on the web and detailed with resources and anecdotes, it covers everything from incorporation to copyright to privacy to defamation.

The legal issues involved in operating a new media venture involve much more than classic First Amendment law,” the authors—Jan Schaffer and Jeff Kosseff—write in the introductory chapter.

Kosseff is a communications and privacy attorney with Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C. Schaffer is executive director of J-Lab and Media Entrepreneurship professor at American University.

We talked to Schaffer about the genesis of this project and what readers can take away from this guide.

JOURNO.BIZ: Your guide serves as a “primer on the kinds of legal issues media entrepreneurs … encounter in running their day-to-day business operations and in their newsgathering activities.” Why is it so relevant now?

SCHAFFER: Media entrepreneurship is at an all-time high. But not every startup has a big angel investor or an infusion of venture capital. Hyperlocal sites, nonprofit investigative startups, single-topic sites may be bootstrapped to start. They need to know how to jumpstart forming their businesses without having to hire expensive legal help.

Or, if they need legal assistance, the guide may help them focus their questions or do some preliminary paperwork that might cut down on the services they need to buy.

How did you get involved in this project? And how long did you work on this?

I have wanted to do this project for a long time. I felt that media law courses, as now taught, are akin to history of journalism courseS. They focus on on the past—past history, past cases—and fail to focus on current needs.

I proposed this project to CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center and recruited Jeff, who also teaches at American University, to help me do it.  We began the project last October and wrapped up our reporting and writing in early January. CUNY worked on web production from there.

What are the thorniest legal issues that media entrepreneurs must face today?

There are several, but fair use looms large. News sites may not have many photographers on staff, so they need to know what photos they can use without violating copyright, or how much of someone’s else’s story they can cite.

As important, they need to know how to protect their own content, which is their major asset. As well, you cannot repurpose your content in books, video or other products unless you actually own it, so you need to attend to ownership for anything you commission.

The rules around hiring freelancers and interns can also trip up some startups, who understandably don’t want the commitments of full-time staff, to start.  And this is where you need to establish who owns copyright and whether a freelancer can use any part of their reporting for you in a blog post or something else.

Terms of use and privacy policies are things most people don’t read, but as a startup you need to adhere to the promises you make concerning data you collect from individuals.

What are some of the legal issues that are constantly changing due to technology or the adoption of technology?

Well, the FTC is supposed to come out soon with new guidelines around native advertising, or sponsored content, which is turning into a significant revenue stream for some startups. Right now, for instance, the sponsored posts labels often don’t travel with sponsored content that is shared in social media.

For-profit startups need to figure out state-specific rules for business formation, wherever they are located.

Was there anything in particular that you learned along the way that was surprising to you?

I welcomed the clarification on user-generated content. A site is generally not liable for user posts, no matter whether a site editor “touched” it or not.