Four Questions To Ask Before Suing Bloggers

TechCrunch‘s Michael Arrington wrote recently about a company that has sued TechCrunch "out of spite," laying into the people filing the suit using words like "absurd" and "frivolous" while threatening a countersuit.

Unlike Arrington I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not going to talk about the merits of individual cases. In fact, I’m going to set this particular case aside entirely. Instead, while remembering that every situation is unique, here are some things to think about from a communications perspective before you rush to take legal action against a blogger.

Are you prepared for negative coverage?

The odds are high that are the blogger has done already said something to upset you if you’re considering taking legal action. Be prepared, though, for even more negative coverage if you go ahead and take legal action. If the blogger does go public about the suit, the odds are high that it will get more attention than what they originally said about you. You also run the risk of being seen as the big company bullying "the little guy."

Arrington’s post, for example, has 131 comments and eight trackbacks (meaning eight other people have written about it) just a few hours after posting. Very few bloggers have the readership and reach of TechCrunch, but it serves as a useful reminder.

What’s more, remember that once legal action begins your communications options will likely become more limited, too, as it can be tough to get any communications past the lawyers and out to customers on the topic. Governments suffer greatly from this — once legal action begins, their lawyers effectively shut down any avenues of public communication on that topic. As a result, while governments often win lawsuits, they usually lose in terms of public opinion.

Is it really a problem?

Yes, you should feel that you can defend your intellectual property rights, your brand, your reputation and so on. Before rushing to a knee-jerk response, consider whether this is really a problem.

Does it matter that someone has posted your copyrighted ad on YouTube, or does it mean that a few more people will see your advertising? How many people are really going to see that scathing review of your company or will it be buried on page 100 of Google’s results?

This is where the experience and knowledge of a communications professional can come in. Anyone can run a Google search to see what people are saying about you (ok, our social media monitoring is a touch more complex than that, but moving on…) but you can benefit from a professional with the experience to tell you whether you should ignore issues, respond to them, address them on your own turf, or consider legal action or other approaches.

Will legal action solve the problem?

Will legal action solve your problem?

By this I mean, is this problem deeper than one case? If someone has a genuine issue with your company, might fixing the problem (especially if other people might experience it too) be better than confronting the person complaining or attacking you for it?

Can you work with them rather than against them?

This line of thinking is similar in a way to the previous question: can you reach out to your detractors and work with them to improve your business?

Dell (who I find myself continually citing when it comes to social media) does this well – not only does it respond to both positive and negative online comments, but its IdeaStorm website lets people put forward their own ideas for the community to vote on. The result: negative sentiment online reduced by more than half.

Conclusion

Of course, there’s another side to this coin — I’m not a lawyer, so get advice from them too. Just bear these questions in mind alongside that advice. Remember, while lawyers may think about the particular issue in question, they may not consider the long-term implications for your company’s fragile brand reputation, which you’ve spent years building-up.

What other questions would you consider in situations like this?

  • IPAttorney

    I am an intellectual property lawyer, and I must say that your position on this is somewhat myopic. One of the reasons behind obtaining a patent is protecting an idea or invention.

    After reviewing the claims, I have to say that Loopt seems to be standing right on Earthcomber’s patent.

    Generally, what happeens is the party in violation ends up purchasing a licensing fee from the holder of said patent. That’s usually how it works to avoid litigation on both ends.

    But it’s a more solid patent than I initially thought.

    Good luck to all parties.

  • Hi “IPAttorney,”

    Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure if you’ve read the actual post above or not — if you did, you’ll have seen that I set the Loopt/Earthcomber post aside and did not pass judgement on the case.

    On the other side, given that you’ve stayed anonymous and masked your domain name, I’m more inclined to think you’re not exactly impartial to this case.

    Still, I’d love to hear any comments you have on the actual post…