Social media such as Twitter and Facebook have opened new channels for businesses to connect with their customers, but they also have brought legal concerns.
The same advertising and intellectual-property rules that apply to traditional advertising also exist for its online counterpart. False and misleading claims aren't allowed, and neither is the lifting of others' content and claiming it to be your own. And endorsers, even bloggers, must disclose relationships with businesses.
So, as your company seeks to do business online, you should have an understanding of these issues to avoid walking into a legal minefield.
Infringement, brand protection and rules related to giveaways should be among the top concerns of business owners, said Lisa Greenwald-Swire, a principal in the leading intellectual property law firm Fish & Richardson.
Ready to take a quick quiz to test your knowledge?
Question: Who owns the user-generated content posted to your company's Facebook page or YouTube channel?
Answer: It depends. On Web sites and social media platforms, the general rule is the content's creator owns the underlying material; however, when a creator consents to a user agreement on the site, then the company obtains the rights to the content and can use it as it sees fit.
Q: Do you know what the rules are regarding sweepstakes and promotions on social media?
A: Social media platforms have specific guidelines for promotions. Many companies are using their Facebook pages for promotions, but Facebook has specific requirements, and many companies are either unaware of them or are ignoring them.
For example, companies are not allowed to publicize or administer a promotion that is open to or marketed to people younger than 18.
It's best to consult with an attorney on these matters.
Q: Do you know the Federal Trade Commission guidelines regarding bloggers and social media marketing?
A: FTC guidelines say that bloggers and social media marketers must disclose whether they are getting payment or free items to talk about your company's products or services. So if your company is giving a product to local bloggers, the bloggers must disclose in their posts that your company gave it to them.
So how can you protect your business?
It is important to have a social media plan in place that covers the platforms your company uses and who controls them and any endorsers. The plan also should address how you monitor the platforms to watch out for your brand and how you solicit and manage user-generated content.
You also should have written agreements with bloggers, endorsers and outside sales representatives to make sure you retain the right to monitor content and remove anything objectionable.
There are some free sites that generate customized social media policies, such as Policy Tool (Policytool.net) and Social Policy Generator (Socialpolicygenerator.com).
Greenwald-Swire recommends that companies consult with lawyers specializing in intellectual property. They can help you to navigate rules regarding copyrights, trademarks and promotions, and to draft written agreements for bloggers, endorsers and outside sales reps. To find a specialized attorney, go to the International Trademark Association Web site, INTA.org.
With the right preparation and monitoring, you can ensure that social media is a way to enhance your business rather than a way to open yourself up to lawsuits and other legal problems.