Freelance writers are, by definition, people who earn their livelihood from their ability to produce and sell words. In order to protect themselves, their reputations and their markets some knowledge of the law is necessary. As professionals, they will be expected to have some understanding of both copyright and libel laws.
In the case of libel, this distinction is crucial. It is reasonable for readers to expect a professional writer to be able to distinguish between fact and opinion, and to write accordingly; it is equally reasonable for a judge to concur with that expectation. In other words if professional writers publish defamatory material they may be denied the defense that this was not fact but opinion.
Libel is a form of defamation, usually in print. ExpertLaw defines it as “the making of defamatory statements in a printed or fixed medium, such as a newspaper or magazine.”
Defamation can include attacks on a person’s character. In Britain, this might entail damaging a person’s reputation or, according to the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, 2006, bringing a person “into hatred, ridicule, contempt, dislike or disesteem with society.”
In both America and Great Britain an absolute defense is truth. If what is published is demonstrably true it can’t be libelous. It is thus strongly advisable for writers making controversial statements to be very confident of their facts, and to keep their evidence on file. To put it crudely, don’t badmouth anybody unless you can back it up.
Whilst libel can bring about criminal prosecution this is rare in England, although when it happens the individual journalist, the editor and the magazine or newspaper can all face charges. Criminal libel is not about compensation but about determining guilt and awarding punishment. Obscenity and incitement to racial hatred are two offences that fit this category.
It is much more common in Britain for civil proceedings to be taken. It is worth remembering that civil actions in Britain do not qualify for the legal aid system. Any case that ends up in court is likely to be very costly.
It is so easy to be published on the Internet with few, if any, editorial checks. At the click of a button an article can be read anywhere in the world. Is it safe? Reputable print newspapers and magazines will normally have teams of copy editors checking articles before they go to press and controversial stories will often be given the go ahead by legal advisers before publication. Even if the story proves to be wrong it can be demonstrated that reasonable safety measures were taken.
Freelance writers, who go it alone, forego many of these precautions, and might find themselves liable for prosecution in more than one country.
Understanding copyright is more straightforward. Plagiarism, basically passing someone else’s work off as one’s own, is theft, plain and simple. Always use trustworthy sources, double check them and cite them. It is alright to quote other people, but within reason and with due credit. If in doubt ask for permission.
It is not possible to copyright ideas, just the actual words that another writer has published. Facts are normally in the public domain, although when a writer has unearthed a fact previously unpublished it could be construed as breach of copyright if another writer publishes this without proper accreditation.
An awareness of the legal issues, coupled with commonsense and strong journalistic ethics should normally be sufficient to keep writers out of trouble. Write with accuracy and courtesy; don’t write anything about anyone without verifiable facts; and don’t copy another writer’s work.
Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2006, A&C Black. London, ISBN 0-7136-7173-4