For some people, thinking about legal stuff may not be at the forefront of their minds when they’re developing, designing, launching or adding content to a WordPress website or developing and releasing a theme or plugin. I suspect it’s also not at the forefront of the minds of some people who launch commercial theme and plugin shops, release WordPress ebooks, produce WordPress podcasts, and so on. It’s easy to get caught in the moment and the excitement of developing, writing or releasing something new. I know what that’s like. Just as a lawyer building a website may pay little attention to something that a developer would consider crucial, so too can developers, designers, bloggers and entrepreneurs pay little attention to things that lawyers consider important if not crucial. And, of course, in some cases people want to do what’s right or in their commercial interests but just don’t know what the relevant laws are or how they apply.
The legal stuff does matter
There are various reasons for sticking to the right side of the law and being mindful of legal issues that may help or hinder you depending on how you approach them. But what do I mean by “law”? Let’s break it down. When I refer to law here, I’m usually referring to one or more of the following areas of law:
- Contract law: Depending on your situation, contract law and the content of your contractual arrangements can affect the rights and obligations you may have with WordPress developers, designers, web hosts, commercial theme and plugin providers, support shops like codeable and WerkPress, Automattic Inc (if you use WordPress.com, VaultPress or the like) and any other person or organisation with whom you may transact for the purchase or supply of a WordPress-related (or other) product or service.
- Tort law: Without getting into the niceties, tort law is essentially the law of non-contractual civil wrongs. The content of tort law depends on each country’s laws. In many countries (most notably those with common law legal systems) torts are the creation of the courts; in some countries some torts have been partially or fully codified in legislation; and in other countries, such as certain countries in Europe with civil law legal systems, the equivalent of torts are set out in legislation. In general terms, if A commits a tort against B, B usually has a cause of action (right of complaint) against A for which it can seek remedies in court, such as damages or an injunction (an injunction is an order requiring the defendant to stop doing something). Examples of torts relevant to online activity are defamation, negligent misstatement, deceit and injurious falsehood, breach of privacy or confidentiality and intentional infliction of emotional harm. I should stress that, as with other areas of law I’m mentioning, these torts are not at all specific to WordPress itself or your use of WordPress in particular. In the present context, they generally relate to the nature of your site content. The same issues could arise with any publication through any medium. I mention them, though, because they are relevant to an assessment of site content and consideration of site content is relevant to the broad subject matter of this blog.
- Privacy law: To the extent relevant here, privacy law relates to the content you obtain and publish where that content includes information about individuals, that is, personal information. It can also affect what you do, for example, with the information you may have on customers or clients. Privacy law, or data protection law as it’s commonly referred to in Europe, is increasingly important and is increasingly coming under the spotlight in the context of online activity. The key point, in very simple terms, is that you need to be careful how you handle and what you do with the personal information you may collect or that is otherwise provided to you. Depending on the laws that may apply to you given the countries in which you live or do business, this can apply to both individuals and organisations alike.
- Anti-spam law: Anti-spam laws are becoming increasingly common around the world and are invariably statutory, that is, the rules are set out in legislation. They are another set of laws to bear in mind when ‘cold calling’ people via the likes of email or text messages (which some WordPress businesses might do), creating email lists and sending emails to list members (which WordPress plugins and third party services that integrate with WordPress make very easy these days) and using plugins that enable you to send text messages to people’s mobile phones.
- Consumer protection and trade law: Aspects of consumer protection and trade law can be relevant to the way in which WordPress businesses conduct themselves and market and sell their products and services. In some counties it is important, for example, for businesses not to act in a misleading or deceptive manner, e.g., by making misleadings statements in trade on your website or as to the nature, features or functionality of a theme or plugin, for example, that you may be selling. In countries that have ‘fair trading’ style laws, such conduct could invite intervention by regulators or give affected consumers a statutory right of action against you. (Such conduct might also have contractual consequences, e.g., enabling an affected consumer to get out of a contract by which he or she would otherwise be bound.) And some countries have laws or regulatory guidelines which require you to disclose that an affiliate link is in fact an affiliate link.
Other areas of law may crop up from time to time as well. (When they do, I’ll try to mention them.)
Ultimately, keeping on the right side of the law and taking legal issues into account that may affect you or your business is desirable not only for peace of mind but to enable you to avoid legal problems, protect your assets and reputation, obtain the rights you may need, and safeguard your time and resources (having to clean up legal problems after the event can drain them). The last thing you need is having to spend precious time and hard-earned money getting out of a legal bind or obtaining rights that you might have already obtained if you’d taken relevant issues into account at the outset.
I’m not giving legal advice in this blog but I do hope to be able to help WordPress users and businesses keep on the right side of the law and take legal issues into account that may affect them or their businesses. And as I said in the previous post, let me know if you have any questions.