When I started blogging, I was excited to express my creativity and try something new. In all that excitement, it NEVER occurred to me that I might accidentally break the law, cross the IRS, or flout FCC guidelines. (I didn’t even know what the FCC was back then!) I had no idea how to blog legally.
Luckily, my naiveté didn’t land me in the doghouse, but as my eyes were opened to the many legal pitfalls of blogging, I was horrified by stories of bloggers who were sued, fined, and audited simply because they didn’t know the rules of the game.
That’s why I’m writing this post. The legal side of blogging isn’t as complicated as it sounds. You just need to know the facts to avoid running into unpleasant and costly legal issues.
Here’s lesson #1: Always add a disclaimer if you’re offering readers some kind of medical, financial, or legal advice. Here’s mine: I am NOT a lawyer. Nothing you read here should be construed as legal advice. If you need legal advice, consult a licensed attorney. I’m just sharing stuff I’ve learned along the way and things I’ve done to protect myself from landing in hot water.
Also, please note that I am a U.S. citizen and the laws and guidelines mentioned here may not apply to you at all or you may have additional laws and guidelines you need to follow depending on where you live.
With that said, here are eleven things you need to do to blog legally and protect yourself from liability.
1. Don't use copyrighted images.
Did you know that every image on the web is automatically copyrighted unless the owner designates it “public domain” or “Creative Commons?” It’s true! And the owner of the image can sue you for thousands of dollars if you use it without explicit permission. It’s doesn’t matter if…
You didn’t know the photo was copyrighted.
You provide credit by linking to the owner’s website.
You comply with a DMCA takedown notice.
You don’t earn any money from your blog.
You have a disclaimer on your site.
If you have copyrighted images on your blog, you’re probably freaking out right now. Take a deep breath. It’s okay. Just make sure you delete them all–not just from your blog posts but from your media library too (if you’re on WordPress). As long as those images are sitting in your database, you’re liable.
You may be wondering, “Where can I find legal images to use on my blog?” and “Is this going to cost money?” Luckily, there are plenty of great websites with thousands of free, high-quality public domain photos you can use on your blog. Two of my faves are Unsplash and Pexels. See the full list of my favorite stock photo sites—free and paid.
You can also find Creative Commons photos on Flickr. Photos with a Creative Commons license are free to use but require attribution. Make sure you follow best practices for attribution guidelines and always double-check the license of any photo you use.
Copyright law also applies to written work such as blog posts and online articles, song lyrics, videos (this does not include embedded YouTube videos), and any other intellectual property on the Internet. When in doubt, link to it instead of reposting on your own blog.
2. Don't violate someone's trademark.
I didn’t know how easy it is to infringe on someone else’s trademark until I was preparing to launch my online marketing business. Originally, I planned to call it Spark Your Blog. I searched for similarly named websites on Google and nothing stood out. I even searched the USPTO’s trademark database. I couldn’t find any trademark that exactly matched the name I wanted to use, so I thought it was fine.
To be extra safe, I decided to hire an attorney to do a more thorough trademark search. I didn’t want any unpleasant surprises down the road. I’m glad I did because my attorney discovered there was another company with a similar trademark that had a reputation for taking legal action against anyone who encroached on their brand. It’s unlikely they would have sued me, but they could have demanded I change my company’s name at any time. Not only would that have been a huge pain in the neck but it would have undone all of the hard work I put into building my brand.
I read one story about a blogger who spent fifteen years building her business, only to have it all come crashing down when another company claimed she was infringing on its trademark. It's an extreme example, but it illustrates the fact that trademark infringement is not something to be taken lightly.
How can you avoid accidentally infringing on someone else’s trademark?
Navigating the ins and outs of trademark law is something I don’t recommend doing without professional help. If you can afford it, hire an attorney who specializes in this area of the law.
If hiring an attorney is over-budget, consider taking a course on how to do your own trademark search. Michelle Murphy over at the CEO Legal Loft has a course called Tackle Your Trademark, which covers this and teaches you how to file your own trademark.
The other alternative is to use your own name as your website and/or business name. That’s what I did after learning it wasn’t safe to use Spark Your Blog. Unless you share your name with a high-profile celebrity, it’s highly unlikely someone will sue you for using your own name.
3. Have legal policies on your website.
There are four basic legal pages you will probably need.
Let’s go over each one of these individually.
A disclosure lets your readers know about your monetary and material relationships. If you belong to an affiliate program, display paid advertisements on your website, publish sponsored posts, or accept free products to review, you need a disclosure. (You also need to disclose monetary and material relationships in individual blog posts where applicable. We’ll cover this below in #5.)
A disclaimer protects you from liability. It lets your readers know that they are responsible for their own decisions and should not rely on you for advice. If you write about legal, medical, or financial topics on your blog, you need a disclaimer, but it doesn’t hurt to have one anyway. Remember, you also need to add a disclaimer to individual blog posts where you offer specialized advice, just like I did at the beginning of this post.
If you're not a lawyer, I recommend using a template written by one. The Contract Shop* is my favorite place to find legal templates.
4. Comply with privacy and data laws.
You’ve probably heard of the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) or CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act), laws that require more transparency and consumer control over how personal information is used and stored online.
There's a lot of misinformation about these laws, so here are the basics you need to know as a blogger or online business owner.
You need a cookie banner. A cookie banner asks permission before tracking a visitor's cookies. Here’s the thing: not all cookie banners are created equal. In order to be fully compliant, your cookie banner must give visitors the option to opt out. The Squarespace cookie banner only does this if you don’t have any third-party cookies on your site (Google Analytics, for example). Most people accept this and use it anyway but if you want to level up your cookie game, consider a plugin like CookiePro.
You need to add consent checkboxes to your email signup forms. This can be easy or impossible depending on your email marketing provider. ConvertKit makes GDPR compliance a breeze. To enable form checkboxes in ConvertKit, just go to your account settings and select "Show only to subscribers currently in the EU (determined by IP address)" under "Subscriber Consent Options (GDPR compliance)."
No one really knows yet how enforcement of the GDPR and CCPA is going to play out. It's unlikely you'll be targeted if you're not compliant anytime in the near future but it's always best to be prepared.
5. Add your address to marketing emails.
If you use an email service provider like MailChimp or ConvertKit, you may be wondering why it automatically displays your mailing address in the footer of your newsletter. This is required by law to comply with the CAN-SPAM Act, which was created to protect consumers from spammy email marketing.
My first few years of blogging, I didn’t realize providing an address was a legal requirement, so I removed my address from my newsletter footer. I didn’t want random people on the Internet to know where I lived!
As it turns out, there was no reason to worry about my privacy. You don’t have to provide your home address. Just rent the cheapest P.O. box you can find and list that address instead. Mine costs about $80 per year. It’s a small price to pay for knowing that my privacy is safe and I’m complying with the law.
If you use ConvertKit* as your email marketing service, you can use their address instead of your home address or a P.O. box. This is a great way to save money when you’re starting out!
6. Properly disclose affiliate relationships.
Do you disclose your monetary and material relationships at the end of each blog post? In your footer? In your sidebar? On a dedicated disclosure page? If you do, I’ve got bad news. You’re violating the FCC’s guidelines for proper affiliate disclosure.
According to current FCC guidelines, your disclosure:
Should be obvious and unavoidable.
Should not be separated from the “triggering item” (i.e. affiliate link).
“Must be effectively communicated to consumers before they make a purchase or incur a financial obligation.”
What does this look like in practice?
Basically, your disclosure should be at the beginning of your blog post (not the end) and/or right next to the affiliate link itself. For example, you might add “affiliate link” in parentheses right after the affiliate link.
7. Report all blog income to the IRS.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but if you earn money through your blog, you need to report it as income on your taxes. You have to report ALL your income, even if you’re not issued any 1099 forms.
Here’s the silver lining: You can deduct your blogging-related expenses! I find it helpful to keep a spreadsheet of my blogging income and expenses to make things easier at tax time. You can design your own spreadsheet or buy a template.
Keep in mind that you may be required to pay estimated taxes on a quarterly basis. You can learn more about estimated taxes here.
8. Apply for a local business license.
If you earn income from your blog as a sole proprietor (meaning you haven’t formed an LLC or corporation) and don’t sell a product or service, you may assume you don’t need a local business license. In fact, many counties require sole proprietors to hold a license and pay any associated fees.
Fees vary. I didn’t need to pay a fee and it’s unlikely you’ll have to part with more than $10 to obtain your business license. Check with your county clerk to make sure you’re meeting all the requirements.
9. Make your website accessible.
If you own a business, the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requires that your website be accessible to people with disabilities. If your website doesn’t comply with WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), you can be sued. And ADA lawsuits are becoming more and more common.
Many business owners assume that an ADA plugin like AudioEye or UserWay will solve their accessibility problems. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. These plugins can actually make the problem worse, causing more issues for screen readers (technology used by the visually impaired to read web pages). Furthermore, despite marketing that would indicate otherwise, these plugins do nothing to protect you from a lawsuit.
There are a few basic things you can do yourself to take steps toward ADA compliance.
Add descriptive alt text to images. This helps screen readers describe visual content on your website.
Add captions to your video content. This makes video content accessible to the hard of hearing.
Do not autoplay any audio on your site. This can mess with screen readers and startle people.
Remove any flashing lights or images. This makes your website safe for people with epilepsy.
Make links and navigation clear. This helps everyone navigate your website with ease.
The suggestions above are essential but they are not enough to comply with the ADA.
I’ll be honest, this is a frustrating issue because major website platforms like Squarespace and others do not make it easy to achieve full ADA compliance. Unless you’re a developer with full access to your website code and a deep understanding of web accessibility guidelines, you’ll probably need to hire professional help—and that isn’t financially accessible to a lot of small business owners who are just starting out.
For my Squarespace folks out there, SquareADA is your best bet. They provide audits, monitoring, and help you make changes when needed. Pricing ranges from $30 - $80 per month and they do offer a certain amount of legal protection. You can even use the free tool on their website to get a quick snapshot of how your website is measuring up right now.
10. Use contracts for everything.
You’ve just sold your first advertising spot. Or maybe you’re collaborating with a blogger you’ve admired for a long time. Or just landed a new client. Congratulations! It’s time to make sure this amazing new opportunity doesn’t leave you open for legal trouble!
Partnerships—between two business owners, a service provider and client, or a publisher and advertiser—can open up a world of possibilities, but they can also leave both parties vulnerable to disputes and legal action. That’s why it’s important to put all of the terms of your agreement on paper.
Not sure where to start or if you even need a legal template? Check out my list of legal templates for solopreneurs and small business owners.
Hiring a lawyer is expensive, which is why I love The Contract Shop* so much! It offers contract templates for bloggers and creative entrepreneurs written by an attorney (Christina Scalera—the same attorney I hired to do my trademark search). Christina is an entrepreneur herself, so she gets it!
11. Don't run illegal lotteries.
If you host a giveaway on your blog, you could be running an illegal lottery without even realizing it.
It might surprise you to know that “giveaway” is not a legal term. Your “giveaway” legally falls into one of these three categories: a sweepstake, contest, or lottery. Here’s a quick definition of each.
Sweepstakes: A giveaway where a winner is chosen at random. No purchase or consideration (thing of value) is needed to enter a sweepstakes.
Contest: A giveaway where a winner is chosen on merit. For example, if you ask your readers to submit a photo and choose a winner based on which photo you like best, that would be a contest.
Lottery: A prize drawing where a purchase or thing of value is needed to enter and a winner is chosen at random.
The important distinction between a sweepstake and a lottery is the “thing of value” needed to enter a lottery. This could be money, which is how lottery tickets are traditionally purchased, but it could also be time or some kind of action. For example, asking someone to subscribe to your newsletter in exchange for an entry counts as a thing of value.
Here’s the bottom line: You can’t legally ask for anything in return for entries.
You also need to comply with the laws of all the countries where you’re granting access to your giveaway. For example, sweepstakes are illegal in Canada but contests are not. So if you want your giveaway to be open to Canadians, it has to be merit-based. This can get very complicated very fast, which is one reason why so many bloggers limit their giveaways to U.S. entrants.
What to Do If You’re Not Blogging Legally
If you’re panicking because your blog isn’t as legally sound as you thought it was, take a breath and don’t worry. It’s unlikely you’ll be fined or sued. Just work your way through this list one thing at a time and soon your blog will be bulletproof.