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Reducing the Risks of User-Generated Content

Understanding user-generated content and how it can both help and hurt you is a great asset to your business. Social media is a method of connecting with people, meaning providing your own user-generated content to communicate interest, link content and even share business ideas. This article explains the types of risks involved as well as how to protect yourself against negative content. This is important for every successful business online. – WST

By: Jeremy Gislason

User-generated content (or “Participatory Media” as some call it) can be a great way to boost the value of your website, and the traffic that’s driven to it. Many website owners have already found that developing online communities greatly increases their financial bottom lines. Sometimes, as has been the case with YouTube, user-generated content can even be a great business model in itself.

But user-generated content can also be a great source of risk and exposure. Again, there’s probably no better example of this than YouTube. YouTube was sued by the Viacom studio in 2007 for $1 billion in damages, for allegedly distributing Viacom’s copyrighted materials without permission.

If you understand the risks associated with user-generated content, you can take steps to reduce your exposure and protect your online assets, while at the same time increasing the value of your website.

What is User-Generated Content?

User-generated content is a broad term that includes any material that a website user posts on the website for others to see. This can include not only blog comments, but also pictures, videos, articles, or anything else that a user might post in a forum or bulletin board section of your website, or as part of their own personal profile on the website.

What are the Risks with User-Generated Content, and How Can I Address Them?

There are a number of legal issues that you will need to become familiar with if you permit or promote user-generated content on your website.

a. Intellectual property infringement. There are two primary types of intellectual property infringement issues that you should be aware of. The first is copyright infringement. Key elements of liability include knowledge of the infringing activity, inducing or contributing the improper conduct, and attaining a direct financial benefit in the infringing activity when you have the ability to supervise the direct infringer.

Copyright holders generally try to enforce their rights by means of “takedown notices” that are sent in accordance with the requirements a particular Federal law (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act). You’ll have to decide what position to take once you receive takedown notices. Do you evaluate each and respond notice as you feel appropriate? Or do you simply honor all takedown notices immediately? It’s a balance between avoiding legal risk of a lawsuit by those who claim to hold a copyright to the material that someone else posted, versus possibly alienating your users if you aren’t giving any consideration to their “fair use” rights in that content.

Trademark law prevents the use of trademarks of others in a manner that creates a likelihood of confusion about the source of goods or services or in a manner that dilutes the value of the trademark. User-generated content sometimes falls afoul of trademark law.

b. Defamation. You should also be aware that there is potential liability for allowing users to post defamatory statements about others on your website. There is a Federal law (The Communications Decency Act) which can provide some protection against defamation claims based on what your users do on your website, but the scope of the protection is still somewhat uncertain, so you should not ignore the possibility of claims against you based on user generated content.

c. Obscenity and Child Pornography. The Federal laws that provide protections to website owners generally exclude protections for obscene materials that appear on such websites, even if the materials are posted by users themselves.

How Can I Reduce My Risks?

One common technique for a website operator to reduce their risks of legal liability for user generated content is to not actively monitor the user activities on the website. While this may seem counter-intuitive, the relevant Federal laws provide a greater degree of protection (through a so-called “safe harbor”) for passive web services that do not actively manage or supervise user content.

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Filed under: Business Networking, Online Business, Social Media, Uncategorized, Web Content, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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