How to Avoid Legal Trouble With Your Portfolio

Every freelance writer should have a good online portfolio, a place to showcase their best works and examples of the kinds of writing that they do.

However, creating a portfolio is not as simple as choosing the best writing that you’ve done for your clients and putting up copies or even snippets on your site. Not only might this be considered bad form on the part of your clients, but there may be legal issues that prevent you being able to do so.

So as many of us begin to look toward the new year and seek out ways to revamp our businesses for 2011, it’s important that we do so with care and respect.

Simply put, the best portfolio in the world won’t do any good if it’s been taken offline for copyright or other legal violations. So it’s worth taking a few moments to understand our legal obligations when assembling our portfolios and how we can best stay out of trouble.

The Potential Issues

When it comes to posting works from your various employers, the biggest issue that you’ll likely run into is copyright. Though every contract is different, you may not have the right to publish the work you create for a client as they’ve bought the needed rights to use it.

In fact, depending on the nature of the contract, you might even be barred from linking to it or mentioning that you wrote it. This often comes about when writing marketing copy for websites or pieces that don’t have bylines.

There’s also an additional copyright issue with the images and other elements that we often include or have included for us with our work. Though you might have rights clearance to use a stock photo on a single site, that doesn’t mean you also have the right to put it on your site, at least not without another fee.

Then there are potential trademark issues. If you, even accidentally, represent yourself as having a relationship with a company that doesn’t exist, they might be able to make a trademark claim, especially if you used their logo or company name. For example, if you hint that you were an employee for the company but were just a contractor, there could, at least potentially, be an issue if they feel you are trading on their name and trying to cause confusion.

Finally, virtually any other issue you might have to contend with when publishing works online also apply to what you post in your portfolio. Publishing private or confidential information, especially if the original piece was for some kind of internal use, or libelous material can easily get you in legal hot water.

So, how do you avoid these kinds of issue when assembling your portfolio? The answer is actually fairly easy if one is willing to take the time and ensure everything is on the level.

How to Avoid Trouble

Avoiding trouble when assembling your portfolio actually starts well before you sign your first freelancing deals. Though staying on the right side of the law isn’t hard, it’s definitely something you need to be thinking about from day one.

With that in mind, here’s what you need to do to ensure that your portfolio doesn’t end up causing more trouble than its worth:

  1. Read Your Contracts: Take a close look at your contracts and see what rights they give you, if any, over the work. This is a big part of why you need to make sure you have a written contract for your writing jobs as it is the first place to turn before putting your written works on a public portfolio.
  2. Don’t Take Deals You Wouldn’t Write for Yourself: This one seems obvious, but if you wouldn’t post your writing on your site under your name, don’t take the job. This is especially true if it is legally dicey as there is no telling if and how it can come back to haunt you. Worse still, even if it is some of your best work ever, you can’t use it in your portfolio as that only makes your liability even worse.
  3. Leave Out What You Didn’t Write: If you have permission to republish something on your site, be sure to leave out any content you didn’t create. This includes any images that you licensed for the work and any content provided by the client. If you can license those works independently, you can use them if you wish, but otherwise be wary.
  4. When in Doubt, Ask: If you don’t have a contract or it isn’t clear on the use of content in a portfolio setting, ask your client if they are comfortable with you using it. You may be able to suggest terms that could help them preserve control of the work, such as using a “noindex” meta tag to prevent the search engines from indexing both versions of the piece.
  5. If Still in Doubt, Don’t Use It: Finally, if after all else you can’t get clear permission to use a work, don’t do it. Not only might it raise legal issues but it could also upset your client. As the person who paid for the work, regardless of whether they have the needed legal rights to take action against you, there is certainly an ethical obligation on your part to ensure they have first say on how the work is used.

All in all, these are fairly simple rules to follow and they center around the basic idea of using only what is yours and making sure you have permission before you do so.

Legal obligation or not, it is just the right thing to do.

Bottom Line

Even with a legal contract, much of the client/freelancer setup is still built on personal relationships, trust and mutual respect. Those things should all take top priority when assembling your portfolio.

If you do that, keep your wits about when taking jobs in the first place and make sure to omit any content you didn’t create, you probably won’t see any legal issues. Problems usually only arise when a freelancer doesn’t respect a client’s wishes and posts works to their portfolio without authorization.

While not every case of unwanted portfolio use ends in a legal battle, it is a great way to upset a client and hurt your reputation.

After all, potential clients do talk to one another and angering someone who bought a work from you may be far worse than a DMCA notice or a cease and desist letter in terms of the actual damage to your business.

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 (However, please mention that it is a suggestion for Freelance Writing Jobs). 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.





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