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Unraveling the Mystery of Social Media Law

The next time Sheldon Cooper loses his battle ostrich, Glen, to a hacker, he’ll want to read Navigating Social Media Legal Risks to learn how the legal system views virtual goods. (“Their exact legal status is not precisely defined,” Sheldon may be unhappy to learn.) 

And Cooper, the exasperating geek/physicist from “Big Bang Theory,” isn’t the only one who’ll benefit from this comprehensive guide.

Navigating Social Media Legal Risks: Safeguarding Your Business by Robert McHale with Eric Garulay is for anyone who wants to understand current laws and legal thinking around business, marketing and engagement in the social media sphere. 

While social media persistently evolves, the laws that apply to these digital domains have lagged behind, McHale emphasizes. As a result, he says, “Businesses will need to be vigilant – and respond swiftly – to new legal challenges arising from social media, as the law governing this space continues to unfold almost on a daily basis.”

McHale, a corporate lawyer whose practice focuses on IP, trademark protection, data security, and digital, mobile and social media matters, performs a superb balancing act with this book: mapping out where federal and state law already has established rules for social media and what the uncharted legal territory looks like. He presents perceptive discussions of recent and ongoing cases, their potential repercussions for business, and how – without much legal precedent – companies can use policies and corporate governance to protect themselves.

McHale does an excellent job of delineating the types of issues businesses (and bloggers and PR/marketing agencies) need to know, including:

  •  social advertising
  •  trademark protection and brandjacking
  •  employee social media use and misuse
  •  endorsements, contests and online promotions
  •  user-generated content
  •  privacy and security compliance
  •  social media policies
  •  plus that fascinating discussion of the status of virtual goods

Depending on your business, you can read the entire book or study a specific chapter that concerns you. (When something is covered by a different chapter, McHale helpfully references where you’ll find the information.)

Chapter-by-Chapter Guide to Legal Issues

Each chapter highlights a legal area of interest to businesses, no matter what stage their social media program is in – fledging or seasoned. Note and Legal Insight sidebars provide additional context. Chapters conclude with a summary of key points in a “Dos and Don’ts” chart to further guide businesses on the nuances of the laws and best practices. Endnotes supplement with links to case law, news stories, and other reference materials.

Sixteen appendices provide the full text of the laws discussed in the book. (My one, very minor quibble is that dates aren’t included in this section; you will find them, however, when laws are discussed in the main sections of the book.)

McHale is especially detailed in describing existing laws, such as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, the FTC Act, copyright and defamation acts, and labor-relations governance.

The book deals exclusively with U.S. law, though, as McHale states, the most widely used social media sites – Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ – are based in the United States, as are the majority of users, so understanding how the U.S. government and courts view social media practice is essential.

McHale predicts the next few years will bring plenty more cases “as courts (and legislatures) wrestle with issues such as publicity rights, privacy, data security, online tracking, behavioral advertising and geolocation marketing, mobile payments, and ownership rights of social media accounts and followers.”

“Social media presents unique challenges to businesses trying to manage their litigation risks,” he notes. “Although social media might appear too risky for many companies protective of their brand and market positioning, it need not be so with a fuller appreciation of the laws in this space.”

Start with this book and follow McHale’s regular updates on social media legal matters on Twitter or Facebook.

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