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Law in Cyberspace

Evolution of social media has changed world of law

These days, most people can’t go a day without coming in contact with social media.

It has become as much a part of the fabric of our society as anything else, and living in the “digital age” has become the norm. The last 10 years have seen immense expansion and evolution of social media, and the world we live and work in has been forever altered.

The realm of law has not been immune to social media’s influence, and, in fact, has been greatly impacted by its growth and development. Whether it’s copyright law, trial law, criminal law, sports law, intellectual property law or even family law, the profession has been affected at every turn.

With platforms like Facebook and Twitter growing exponentially in recent years and becoming more and more entrenched in every aspect of society and business, the law profession has had to pay considerable attention to the legal ramifications of social media’s reach. Throw in the fact that most social media tools have come on the scene quickly in the last decade, and law has been behind the curve in many ways.

“The law is sometimes slow to catch-up with some issues, although there are some provisions that have changed in the last decade,” says Brenda Speer of BL Speer & Associates, who handles intellectual property cases on a regular basis. “It’s like anything that’s new and exciting – it has its benefits and its disadvantages. The biggest disadvantage is people think, ‘I’m on the Internet, and I’m anonymous.’ No, no you are not.”

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 was designed to “criminalize production and dissemination of technology, devices, or services intended to circumvent measures that control access to copyrighted works,” but most social media platforms popular today came about after it became law. LinkedIn (2003), Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006) and Instagram (2010) are the current hot social media tools, but it is an ever-changing world that has been chameleon-like in recent years.

The expansion of social media has made it more difficult for entertainment industry professionals, among others, to protect their intellectual property. Quick downloading capability, point-and-click sharing options and the easy ability to copy articles, music, photographs and other creations has given many people a false sense of entitlement to the property.

“With the digital age, everything is really easy to find, and it’s really easy to cut and paste and download,” Speer says. “People do it willy nilly without realizing they’re using someone else’s content without permission. If they were to do the exact same thing in the physical ink-and-paper world, they would probably realize it’s not OK.

“They don’t have the same analogous thought in the digital world.”

However, direct links to published work, sharing other people’s Facebook posts and “re-Tweeting” are perfectly appropriate ways for individuals to use social media to promote and disseminate the creations of others.

“Linking back directly to the source is fine,” Speer says.

But trying to pass off another’s work or creation as one’s own, or using it without permission, is not acceptable.

“The biggest issue I see that is getting people in trouble is they assume that, because something is on the Internet, they can take it and use it without permission or for free,” Speer said. “That is not true. Just because you can find it and copy and paste it or download something and save it, doesn’t mean it’s yours to use.”

The realm of social media has become so important that many universities offer social media majors, and thousands of professors nationwide teach classes that involve social media.

“It’s definitely integral in everything we’re doing now,” says Dr. Lauren Brengarth, an associate professor at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs who teaches public relations and social media classes. “Because of social media, everything is different. It’s changed the whole way public relations and reporting works.”

Social media has also been involved in defamation and libel suits, as people now have lightning-fast ways to share their opinions with the rest of the world. Of course, it is a double-edged sword that can lead individuals into hot water.

“There are more and more venues for people to trip themselves up and create legal problems,” Speer says. “The biggest way people get tripped up with social media is they don’t think before they fire off and do it. You hear in the media about celebrities battling each other on Twitter. It’s easier to be impulsive and just post something, and once it’s out there, good luck trying to take it back.”

Criminal attorneys have also used social media to evaluate their clients, their opposition’s clients or people they may be cross-examining on the stand in court. Whether it’s establishing motive, challenging the character of key witnesses or entering posts as evidence, social media has become a major player in the courtroom.

Brengarth, a former TV reporter, sees the world of social media continuing to change in the future.

“I think it’s only going to expand, and if you look at just the last five years, it’s amazing,” she says. “If you think about it, we haven’t had these technologies for that long, so we’re only going to continue to use them and expand our capabilities with them.”

And as that happens, attorneys everywhere will have their hands full.