Read the fine print; 'Sharing' can get you sued

Social networking sites put the burden on you

Photo courtesy Pinterest.com
Photo courtesy Pinterest.com

ORLANDO, Fla. – I asked my intern, Lekita, to read the legal terms and conditions required to open an account on Facebook. I timed her. A half an hour later, she was still reading, and she was far from the end.

Let's be honest. Most of us don't go to the trouble. We scroll through all the legal language with the patience of a gnat, and we hit 'Agree.' Yes, we agree; we agree to everything and anything just to get started.

We shouldn't, says Orlando attorney Stephen Luther. Luther specializes in intellectual property law, and has authored many online terms and conditions agreements. He says those agreements are really no different than a physical contract.

"Virtually any court you may be in front of, if it ever becomes an issue, will find [the terms and conditions] to be enforceable, so you need to know what you're agreeing to," he warns.

Consider the warning applicable to any site you do business with, particularly Internet mega companies like Google, Facebook, or Pinterest. When you click "I agree" on Facebook, you agree to hold the site harmless against damage and losses.

The same is true for your account on YouTube. To hold a website harmless really means you take responsibility for what you post. The site is not responsible for your content; you are.

Perhaps that is why new social media phenomenon Pinterest is getting tricky for some users. The cyber bulletin board allows users to pin photos, ideas, recipes, or anything they want to share with others. But users should be aware of this warning on the site: "Pinterest values and respects the rights of third party creators and content owners, and expects you to do the same."

That warning is not simply good manners; it's an instruction. It tells users not to steal intellectual property. The site also includes in its terms and conditions the "hold harmless" clause. So, you can't blame Pinterest if you get sued for something you posted.

Luther says it's not enough to simply credit the writer, photographer, or artist whose work you're posting. You need to get official permission from the source, because sites like Pinterest, YouTube and Facebook likely won't stand behind you in a lawsuit.

"Facebook will say, 'we didn't realize that was posted without permission, and as soon as we realized that was posted without permission we took it down,'" Luther explains. Then, he says, the problem is all yours for posting copy written material without true consent. "And this comes up many instances with stock photo houses like Getty Images. They threaten people with litigation all the time."

The same standard applies to any intellectual property including books, music and video.

Best advice: if it's not yours don't post it, don't share it, and certainly don't alter it.

Also, terms and conditions are worth reading beyond their implications for intellectual property. The fine print can help you make money-saving decisions. Have you checked your cell phone account lately? Do you understand the policies about data overages? What about added fees on your bank or investment accounts? Studies show that ignoring the fine print can cost each American family and average of $3,000 a year.