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Getting Sued for Libel

A Worry?

     
2:01 am on Mar 29, 2006 (gmt 0)

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I am wanting to start a site hat offers reviews of products. I know I don't need permission from the manufacturer to write about their product, but what are the chances of being sued for libel if the review is unflattering? There are a lot of review sites. How do they get away with writing negative reviews?
4:46 am on Mar 29, 2006 (gmt 0)

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Cost benefit analysis likely plays a role in determining how to allocate legal resources. Allocating a $350/hour lawyer to swatting reviews by a website that might get 100 visitors and not have much credibility is likely not the best use of legal resources.

Of course, you never know when it's going to be your lucky day, so be mindful that your reviews need to have some sort of reasonable basis in provable fact.

5:50 am on Mar 29, 2006 (gmt 0)

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I wouldn't think an intelligent-but-critical review, cogently and calmly presented, would cause any problems. For instance, "WidgetX, an update of WidgetCo's WidgetQ, was disappointing overall. While [list] are clearly improved over WidgetQ, [item] seems very poorly designed. We tested three WidgetXs, purchased from three different suppliers, and all failed in the same manner, as you can see in the graphic below...."

On the other hand, if you said something like "WidgetX will make you go blind and grow hair on your palms, and WidgetCo is run by child molesters and drug dealers; I hope they all die!", then you'd likely be in trouble.

Just make sure you're doing reviews and not "rants".

Eliz.

3:31 pm on Mar 29, 2006 (gmt 0)

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Thanks. I'll probably talk to a lawyer before starting this, just to be sure.
5:04 pm on Mar 29, 2006 (gmt 0)

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As long as your reviews are not stating anything that is just simply fasle, you should not have a problem. A review is your opinion and nothing more. You'll get in trouble if you start making false claims. But if you back up a particular negative claim with good reasoning then you should be ok.

It is never a bad idea to check with a lawyer though.

10:28 pm on Mar 29, 2006 (gmt 0)

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I can tell you from experience that if you run a review website, you WILL have people threatening legal action. This comes up several times a year, but none of them have ever filed a lawsuit.

The one thing that you absolutely must do is require your reviewers to back up everything they say, whether good or bad. They should also stick to the intended use of the product or service.

What we tell manufacturers is that the reviewer can say that something sucks, but only if they tell us why they think it sucks.

12:30 am on Mar 30, 2006 (gmt 0)

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How do they get away with writing negative reviews?

Here's how we got away with it in the magazine I used to edit:

  • Our reviews used factual language, not "this sucks!".
  • We didn't review products that were utter crap, so we weren't in a position of being unable to find anything good to say.
  • Since we had respected editorial content, vendors whose products we reviewed pretty much knew who we were beforehand; we weren't some random bozo spouting off on a website.
  • We were a Real Magazine, who knew how to retain a Real Lawyer, so it was fairly obvious to anyone that just trying to scare us with a lawyer letter wouldn't be a real good idea.
  • We always gave the vendor a chance to inspect the review before publication; our promise was to correct any errors of fact that they pointed out that we could confirm (a very good way to increase the accuracy of reviews and to get 1st publication of planned new features and price changes).
  • If the vendor disagreed with matters of opinion in the review, we offered them a modest amount of space to rebut. This was rarely taken advantage of by vendors.

No lawsuits, no threatening letters, we could state our product opinions without fear. For the most part, vendors were quite happy just to have an opportunity to correct mistakes (e.g., you got the price wrong, or this feature does exist -- you just didn't find it), even if the overall review contained serious criticism.

Of course, a website that lets anonymous people sail by and say anything they want about any product is probably at the opposite end of the spectrum from this experience.

2:13 am on Mar 30, 2006 (gmt 0)

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I would also suggest that you go to some of the top review-type sites and disect everything they do in the form of disclaimers, language for less-than-flattering reviews, etc.

The very big companies will probably have already done extenstive legal research.

The will be a good barometer, so try and stick to their format.

3:14 am on Mar 30, 2006 (gmt 0)

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I'll add a tip as well -

Only write reviews for products/services you actually used... or if you are accepting outside reviews by people - make sure you take reasonable care to make sure they used it (or place the proper disclaimers).

I can't stand, like most users, when a review site is so obvious that the product was never used - just a competitor that was trash talking or dropping the name of their product/service.

3:15 am on Mar 30, 2006 (gmt 0)

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I've been operating a reviews site for almost six years, and probably the worst you'll have to worry about is getting on some PR person's khah-khah list if you write a review that is critical of one of their product. :\
3:29 am on Mar 30, 2006 (gmt 0)

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First, I'm not a lawyer so this is just practical, not legal advice. I don't think you need to worry about it. I've run review sites for 9 years, one which is the leading site in it's industry - a fairly large one with deep pockets. We're notorious for tough, hard hitting reviews and while we get calls from the manufacturers we've never gotten a libel suit. They are virtually impossible to prove, and as long as you feel what you are writing is honest and it is factual you'll have no problem.
9:58 am on Mar 30, 2006 (gmt 0)

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As the previous post, I'm not a lawyer - but I've worked for an online magazine that once attacked a sports person (rather well known) for using dubious techniques to enhance his performance - they triple-checked the article with their in-house lawyer to make sure they won't get sued.

Beyond the financial costs of paying compesation, you will also lose a lot of credibility if you write bad reviews that are not fact based.

Legal advice is often not justified for a small business/private individual; so just be careful to write reviews that are non-polemic and well grounded in terms of facts. If you receive threats by e-mail or phone, don't panic as long as they don't come from a lawyer.

11:07 am on Mar 30, 2006 (gmt 0)

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These are public companies you are reviewing and do not have the same protection as private citizens do.

If you were to write: "Amalgamated's Blue Widget's were responsible for the deaths of 15 people in 2005," and it wasn't true, yes, that's libel.

If you write: "Amalgamted's Blue Widget's lack the quality and diversity that General Corporation's Blue Widget's do..." - That's not libelous. That's your opinion which you are entitled to.

Private figures (me and you) actually have more protection then public figures or companies.

Some other things to keep in perspective: The first salvo in a libel matter is a C and D. Which costs you nothing. Just take it down if you don't want to fight. If you do want to fight, then only 1 in 10 libel cases go to trial. From there, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, not you. If it does go to trial, only 1 in 10 plaintiff's win. If they do win, the judgement is usually lowered on appeal.

Most corporations know this and if they want you to remove your review, they will try to scare the crap out of you with a C and D. But that's usually as far as they can take it - unless you wrote something like Amalgamated's Blue Widgets cause lung cancer, and you couldn't prove it.

I'm not a lawyer, just took a lot of media law courses while I was in Journalism School.

And I slept in a Holiday Inn last night.

1:47 pm on Mar 30, 2006 (gmt 0)

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I've been running a review site for almost 7 years now. I probably get about 10-20 emails a year with threatening legal jargon rambling on about libel and such. I take them all very seriously and review the posts in question and remove them when it is an obvious case. For unobvious cases, I usually remove the posts anyway just to save myself the headache.

From a legal perspective, you should be sure to have a user terms and conditions that covers you, and puts the owness on the writers of the reviews (and not you).

Moral of the story, yes you will get an occassional email about removing a post here or there, but overall you should be fine if you take the time to put together a good user agreement.

Good luck!

3:58 pm on Mar 30, 2006 (gmt 0)

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I think you have to be very vigilant if you intend to run the kind of review site that accepts reviews from the general public. Most people don't understand the ins and outs of libel laws, and will forever be crossing the line between opinion and defamation. Libel trials tend to affect big-name publishers much more often than ordinary people, so I believe a lot of people think that the law just doesn't apply to what they write on the internet.

The easiest way to avoid problems is to read up on this yourself, and hire reliable writers who you know how to avoid litigation. It can't hurt to have a "what is libel" page up, with simple explanations and links to further reading. You could make a point of directing your writers to this resource before they put anything on your site.

4:03 pm on Mar 30, 2006 (gmt 0)

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From a legal perspective, you should be sure to have a user terms and conditions that covers you, and puts the owness on the writers of the reviews (and not you).

This is a good thing to have, but don't assume that it will cover your liability in all territories. This is why you will also have to remove libellous statements as soon as you become aware of them.

10:07 pm on Mar 30, 2006 (gmt 0)

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I'm in the UK, I don't know where you are, but here our freedom of speech laws only apply when we are not making money off of what we're saying.

So the real question is, how is revenue generated from your site? If you have a bad review of a product with an advert for a similar product from a different manufacturor then they will get upset.

If you are running a free site that relies on donations then a short terms and conditions will cover you just fine and no-one should bother you anyway - even if you do rant! For libel they would have to prove that your review damaged their sales .... that's pretty impossible to do ... but if they see bad-mouthing of their product next to an ad for someone elses product then there are all sorts of actions the aggrieved party can take.

P.S. Also, I am not a lawyer, I am just a guy who runs several review sites and has had to deal with this alot! This message cannot be used in a court of law ... especially if you tell them who said it. ;)

10:27 pm on Mar 30, 2006 (gmt 0)

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As far as I am aware libel only applies to living people, not products.
7:09 am on Mar 31, 2006 (gmt 0)

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It seems as though it would be the poster who could be held liable, not the publishing site. The review site is just a place where people express their own opinions.
8:33 am on Mar 31, 2006 (gmt 0)

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if you run a review website, you WILL have people threatening legal action

I've been putting reviews online for fifteen years now (by ftp before there was a web!) and have never received threats of legal action.

But I review books, and mostly academic and literary ones. And my few very negative reviews have all been of very famous authors - David Eddings, Tom Clancy, etc. - and I figure if one of them sues me the publicity I'll get will be worth more than the costs. (I did get personal email from Clancy complaining about my review.)

9:31 am on Mar 31, 2006 (gmt 0)

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ispy, are you stating that as a legal fact? I think you are wrong in doing so.
3:15 pm on Mar 31, 2006 (gmt 0)

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I'm in the UK, I don't know where you are, but here our freedom of speech laws only apply when we are not making money off of what we're saying.

That's completely wrong, but a common misconception. In the UK there are certain acceptable defenses you can make for libel, but not making a financial gain from it is not amongst them.

There's always a good summary of UK libel law in The Writer's Handbook each year.

6:43 pm on Apr 1, 2006 (gmt 0)

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I used to have a website where I reviewed the writing of False Prophets. My reviews always compared what they said with scripture to prove them false. I took it down because I got tired of the hate mail from false prophet worshipers and was trying to make a living as a web designer and didn't have the time to keep it up anymore, but was never threatened with a lawsuit because of my "proof".
8:12 pm on Apr 3, 2006 (gmt 0)

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If you write a review of a product sold by a publicly traded company and that affects the stock price...and you own that stock and you profit by it....That could be a problem.

At least in the US.

6:09 pm on Apr 5, 2006 (gmt 0)

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I'm in the UK, I don't know where you are, but here our freedom of speech laws only apply when we are not making money off of what we're saying.

That's completely wrong, but a common misconception. In the UK there are certain acceptable defenses you can make for libel, but not making a financial gain from it is not amongst them.

I certainly didn't mean it in the way you just described - I'll try to rephrase it:

"You can't claim any sort of freedom of speech if the slanderous things you/users have posted involve you making money at the expense of the product/company being slandered."

If anyone else managed to twist what I said to mean that, even with the explanation attached after the statement, then my guess would be they're the same people sending me cease and desists every damn week ... and not one of them has ever been successful either ....

5:01 pm on Apr 11, 2006 (gmt 0)

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If you're approving/denying reviews manually, you can dodge a lot of foolishness by writing down your guidelines for a review and making them clear. My favorite review requirements are:

1.) It must make an observation about what is being reviewed. (a Fact)
2.) It must make a qualitative assessment of what is being reviewed. (an Opinion)

Sounds trite and simple, but this eliminates the vast majority of useless reviews, and by requiring a fact and an opinion, you've done a little bit of CYA.

3:56 am on Apr 30, 2006 (gmt 0)

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As long as your reviews are not stating anything that is just simply fasle, you should not have a problem.

The problem is not losing a suit; the problem is being sued in the first place. It can cost an astounding amount just to get a trivial dismissal on something obvious like venue.

3:57 am on Apr 30, 2006 (gmt 0)

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As far as I am aware libel only applies to living people, not products.

You don't remember Oprah being sued in Texas for libeling beef?

3:20 pm on Apr 30, 2006 (gmt 0)

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You don't remember Oprah being sued in Texas for libeling beef?

She probably should have been sued for slander, which is defamation by the spoken word, rather than libel, which is defamation in writing.

The defamation can be of a person, a group, or "an entity such as a corporation" (taken from this page which tells you more than you want to know - [answers.com...] You can't "defame" a product, but you can defame the corporation that makes it. IIRC, Oprah was sued by a beef producers' association - not by a steer. ;-)

8:25 pm on Apr 30, 2006 (gmt 0)

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She probably should have been sued for slander, which is defamation by the spoken word, rather than libel

Do try not to be so pedantic. It hardly matters in this context.

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