5 Simple Legal Mistakes Freelancers Commonly Make

Mousetrap pictureFor a freelance writer, there is a lot of legal ground to cover. Copyright, trademark, privacy, libel and contract law are just some of the areas any freelancer needs to be familiar with to ensure that their rights are protected and they stay on the right side of the law.

The reason is that, in addition to signing deals and getting payment for a service, you are creating content that will be distributed to a global audience. This puts a lot of responsibility on you and everything you right to be accurate, non-infringing and non-invasive.

Still, we are all human and we all make mistakes. Combine that with the fact that many writers don’t fully understand the law or are misled by misconceptions, there is a lot of potential for danger.

With that in mind, here are just some of the more common legal mistakes freelancers made and, more importantly, how to avoid them.

1. Using Google to Find Stock Images

More and more writing contracts are asking writers to locate images to go along with their posts. Certainly not a challenge, but some freelancers use Google Image Search to find the images they are going to use.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of images in Google are copyright protected and are not available for use in such a manner, at least not without paying for a licensing fee.

To make matters worse, the stock photo industry has been on a very aggressive campaign against copyright infringers, and have threatened tens of thousands of sites over the past few years.

Grabbing the wrong photo could easily cost you more than a job, it could cost you thousands of dollars in settlement costs.

How to Avoid It: Use a free stock photo site such as MorgueFile or Stock.XCHNG. You can also look for Creative Commons-licensed images so long as you ensure your client provides proper attribution.

2. Working with a Bad Contract or No Contract

I discussed the dangers of working without a contract in a previous post but the risks bear repeating.

Whenever you write for someone without a contract, the terms of the agreement are not set in stone and, as a result, if there is a dispute the courts have to look at other conversations between you to find out what both sides intended. As such, you may find yourself giving away rights that you never actually meant to and you also have to go through a lot more hassle to find the boundaries.

However, a bad contract can be just as bad, if not worse. If you sign a contract without reading it, you can give away all rights to a work when you didn’t intend and have no real recourse as it was something you agreed to freely.

How to Avoid It: Always work with a contract and always review them carefully. You don’t have to be a legal expert to read your own contracts but, if you have any questions, definitely put it before someone else for a review.

3. Committing Self-Plagiarism

Self plagiarism isn’t illegal in the sense that it’s copyright infringement. After all, the person who would be suing you for infringement would be yourself.

However, most writing contracts, both written and implied, state that there is a need for the work to be original. If you simply turn in something that was written before, it would be a breach of those terms.

Think about it in this context. If the client wanted something you had written previously, they would have requested to buy the license to the work, not asked for a new assignment to be completed. In that context, simply handing in your old work could be a breach of contract and could be very costly in terms of your reputation.

How to Avoid It: Self-plagiarism is acceptable if your client says its ok but always ask and get clearance before reusing old work. Otherwise, you may find yourself at odds with them fast.

4. Being Defamatory

Defamation (libel and slander) might seem to be easy to avoid, but it is rarely so easy.

Most people believe that if you simply stick to the facts of a case you can easily avoid an allegation of libel. However, for example, if you quote someone out of context you can be sued for libel with a good chance that they will win.

If you do freelance editing you can also create a problem by editing a piece to make someone say something they didn’t intend. Even it being an accident may not be a complete defense because, unless the person is a public figure, they don’t have to prove any malice to have a claim.

How to Avoid It: Always speak the truth and stick to what you can prove. Also, remember that opinion can never be libelous though be careful when presenting facts in a way that may give people the wrong impression about what was said and meant.

5. Invading Privacy

There are many ways freelancers can unwittingly invade someone’s privacy, the easiest is through images. If you take a photo of someone without model release, use of their image in an article, especially if it’s on a site that promotes a product or service, could be a misappropriation of their image.

However, freelancers can also find themselves in hot water for publicly disclosing private facts the public has not legitimate interest in. What constitutes private data can vary from case to case and often depends on what has already been made public, but generally it isn’t wise to disclose might be considered embarrassing, isn’t already public and isn’t newsworthy.

How to Avoid It: Always either work with a legitimate stock photo agency for your photos of people or ensure that you get model releases when using photos where individuals could be identified. When writing about people, make sure to talk about information that is already public, preferably they disclosed by the subject, and don’t publicly post anything that they might see an an invasion, especially if it isn’t truly newsworthy.

Bottom Line

Freelance writing is, quite literally, a legal minefield at times. Fortunately, if you approach the industry with honest intentions and work on understanding the law, most of the major pitfalls can be easily avoided.

But even with that knowledge, many unwittingly step into situations that can get them in a lot of trouble and, though nothing comes of most legal goofs, it only takes one angry person with money and motivation to file a suit and completely ruin your life.

With what’s at stake, it’s worth taking a moment to understand the lay of the land just so you don’t walk into any traps.

Your Questions

Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private. This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.


I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.





4 responses
  1. Zahra Brown Avatar

    Great advice, especially the one about self-plagiarism.
    It’s disgusting when blogs post about rumours that turn out to be completely untrue e.g. when a former boyband members was accused on Twitter of being a paedophile. Luckily it was shown to be fabricated, but not many websites gave that important update. Always be careful what you say.

  2. VioletzSkin Avatar

    I found this article very helpful. I am new in the freelance writing market, and these information’s are tools opened good lights for me today.

  3. Veronica Shine Avatar

    Excellent post! I have been using Morgue File for several years now and it is perfect for finding artistic and professional still life photos. The biggest request I am getting especially in fashion related articles is for a photo(s) of a celebrity to be attached to the article. I am having a difficult time in finding these types of photos that are free use. Any suggestions?

  4. John Lister Avatar

    If you are going to use Google Image Search, the advanced settings section lets you filter images to only show those marked as being licensed for reuse (including with or without attribution, and with or without modification.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.