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When I launched J-Lab in 2002, the best piece of advice I received was to have a lawyer draft a Memorandum of Understanding outlining the relationship between my center and its soon-to-be home, the University of Maryland. The agreement detailed how I would support my startup, who owned the intellectual property, how much the university would charge for administering my incoming grants — and how I might spin the center into its own 50s(c)3 or affiliate with another fiscal agent in the future. Thanks to that MOU, when U-MD changed its rules for grant-supported centers, I was able to seamlessly transition to American University. The MOU basically served as a pre-nup agreement. I never really expected to need the MOU — until I did. So, too, are new media startups finding themselves in situations where they need to know about, and plan for, an array of legal issues. Many of these issues particularly affect digital-first news sites. With this, and many more experiences under my belt, I approached Jeff Kosseff, a Washington, D.C., media lawyer and fellow AU adjunct, about co-authoring “Law for Media Startups.” We wanted to make it a user-friendly online guide to what news entrepreneurs need to know and also help them identify when they needed professional help. Next, I recruited CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for Journalism Entrepreneurship to help support the project. The result: our 12-chapter guide that we hope will be as helpful to educators teaching media law courses and it will be to startup founders themselves. A downloadable PDF is coming soon.
Most journalists are used to working with legal counsel for such things as pre-publication review of important stories. But legal issues for digital-first news startups extend far beyond such traditional First Amendment issues as defamation, privacy and open government. “New media has not changed the law of libel at all,” said Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s president and its resident lawyer. “But it has changed the breadth of laws entrepreneurs need to know about.” How should you respond when someone is demanding the IP address or the identity of a commenter on your sites. How should you flag sites that steal your content? How can your make sure, in a rush to add an image to an article, that you are not posting a copyrighted photo? How to deal with a freelancer’s request to use for another assignment research gathered for a story you commissioned? When is it OK for someone to be a freelancer, and when do they have a right to be an employee? “The No. 1 question by far that we hear from our members is about freelancer contracts and rights,” said Kevin Davis, executive director of the Investigative News Network. The IRS sets out very specific guidelines addressing who should be an employee and who can be an independent contractor. As important, it requires all unpaid interns to meet six specific conditions.