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Website legalities

Published 4 months ago
 in the category 

Websites, you and the law

Before we go any further, I am not a lawyer, I’m a web designer and developer.  If you have any specific concerns about the legality (or otherwise) of your website I would strongly advise seeking professional advice.  This article also applies to businesses in the United Kingdom, although it’s true to say the same rules apply across the EU but with some notable nuances.  In the United States, there are similar legal requirements but huge differences in some areas.

Are you legal?

So, you have a business website and you’ve probably put a lot of time, effort and money into making sure it works for your business but how much time did you spend ensuring it’s legal?  I would guess that probably 40% or more small business websites in the UK fail in even the most basic of requirements and most have no idea that there are legal requirements at all.  A full compliance audit would probably reveal 95% of UK websites breach some standards.

This isn’t scaremongering but no matter whether you’re selling online or not or whether you’re a sole trader, limited company, charity, community organisation or a global PLC with a website, you have obligations.  Some of these obligations are legal, some are moral and some fall into grey areas but, for simplicity and for the purposes of this article, we’ll lump them all together under a single word – compliance.  Is your website compliant?

Let’s be clear it’s quite possible to break criminal laws by being the owner of a website but you’re much more likely to fall foul of civil law.

Before we start then, let’s look at who owns your website.  It may sound like an obvious question but as some civil cases have revealed, there is a great deal of confusion but, in reality, you do.  You own your website if it represents you or your business and/or you built it or asked for it to be built and it doesn’t matter a jot who did the coding, where it’s hosted or whether you paid for it, or not.  The buck rests with you and it’s your responsibility to make sure it’s as compliant as it can be.  Of course, clever and expensive lawyers could argue those points until the cows come home but, would you want to foot the bill?  Unlikely, I would think.

Here are some of the things you could fall foul of

Copyright law

If there is one area which is most likely to catch you out it is copyright law, largely because there are a whole lot of myths, folklore and untruths surrounding copyright laws in the UK.  In essence, though, it’s dead simple – you are not allowed to use any content;  be it text, photos, graphics, icons or logos or code on your website unless you have explicit rights to do so.  That means either you created it yourself or you paid someone to create it for you who granted you rights to use their work for a given purpose.  In some cases, you might ask the original creator for the right to use their work and, in this case, it’s wise to keep evidence if they agree.

Here are some common myths
  • If there’s not a copyright mark, I can use it
  • If it’s on the internet, it’s in the public domain and can be used freely
  • If I just credit the copyright owner, it’s ok (only if you explicitly have their permission)
  • If I change it in some way, the original copyright doesn’t apply
  • I can legally copy 10% without it being infringement
  • It’s hard to prove copyright infringement
…and, in respect of the latter, this is absolutely not the case, copyright law is principally civil not criminal law. Civil law requires a lower burden of proof, actually making it easier to prove infringement. In a criminal case, the defendant is innocent until proven guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. However, in a civil case, the plaintiff must simply convince the court or tribunal that their claim is valid and that on balance of probability it is likely that the defendant is guilty.In simple terms to avoid a copyright infringement case, don’t ‘steal’ photos, images and text off the internet.

Copyright infringement scams

This is a relatively new and abhorrent ‘scam’.  Technically there’s nothing illegal about it  – it’s a bit like no-win-no-fee legal firms cold calling about an accident you never had – not illegal but morally questionable.  This is how it works, just so you’re aware. A person will scour the internet looking for photos which occur on multiple websites.  They will then try to track down the real copyright owner, perhaps the photographer who took the original photo and say “Someone is in breach of copyright of your photo.  We will pursue them and share any damages with you”.  The first you know will be a package of documents arriving through the post which, at first glance, look very ‘legal’ – certainly legal enough to get you worried.  They will demand an out of court settlement of thousands of pounds but reduce the bill for quick payment.  If challenged or the claim is refuted, they will often reduce the claim further – this is where you should really smell a rat.
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Nigel Hancock T/A Grass Media Web Design and Herne Bay Web Design.  All content copyright Grass Media Web Design 2019-2022

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