Do Social Media Sites Pose a Hidden Threat to Publishers?
For as long as I can remember, the idea of getting reputable Web sites to link to your content has been a rewarding search engine optimization (SEO) practice while helping to increase page rank. When Google announced this week that it would be serving ads on Google News results, all of a sudden the idea of "fair use" got a lot more attention.
Then there's the brouhaha that resulted last month when Facebook temporarily changed their terms and conditions regarding its rights to member content if and when they decide (or anyone figures out how to) leave the social Web site.
Both the Facebook and fair-use stories center around who owns the rights to published content.
I got in touch with the extremely smart Chad Bowman of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, the First Amendment, copyright and marketing counsel to the Specialized Information Publishers Association (SIPA), regarding what publishers and their employees need to know about the information that's voluntarily shared with sites like Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter. Chad will be leading a conference session at this month's Publishing Business Conference and Expo where he'll address fair use, but on the Facebook topic he confirmed what I have thought all along: It's absolutely critical for publishers to be aware of the various Web site agreements their employees are entering, particularly when they are doing so professionally.
"Depending on the circumstances, such agreements may be binding contracts on the employee and on the employer," he says. "Such terms may include contractual promises related to a company's marketing efforts, like a promise not to send marketing e-mails to users of the site, or the extent to which they may use or reproduce information, the breach of which might expose a company to liability.
"In addition, such agreements may give away intellectual property rights over posted content, something that may be undesirable for a publisher."
If publishers condone employee participation on a site like LinkedIn, which has become the top destination site for professional networking, your company could be exposed to lawsuits for defamation. "The issues are more nuanced where an employee is posting on their personal time," says Chad. "However, when the employee is well-recognized within a particular community, the line between personal and professional may be quite blurred."
One example could be an editor who chooses to make statements on a social site about a company executive. He or she could be interpreted as speaking in his or her professional capacity.
Chad urges "as a bottom line, social sites offer a powerful medium for publishers to communicate, but also involve new risks for companies that fail to consider the agreements their employees may be entering when using those forums."
Of course, you can take the extreme measure to block these sites from your employees, but each of them offers pretty decent mobile access so this could end up being a futile attempt to reduce risk and increase productivity. At the least, you should print their terms and conditions for review.
"As the Facebook example illustrates, any analysis risks being out of date the moment it's completed because Web sites frequently amend or update their terms," Chad says.