The Digital Media Law Project

Sections of this topic

    [Editor’s note: We’re pleased to bring you this description of the Digital Media Law Project, written by Jeff Hermes, its director. We’re sure you’ll see the relevance to the field of crisis management.]

    Providing Legal Resources to Online Journalism

    Although some sectors of the journalism industry have recently shown signs of recovery, the future of investigative journalism remains uncertain and many local news markets remain undeserved. And yet, this is a period of striking innovation; experiments with new business models abound as innovators in the journalism space attempt to fill the information gap left by the contraction of traditional news organizations. Professional journalists have discovered a new voice through independent online ventures. Organizations and individuals without professional journalism training have launched services that perform functions similar to those carried out by traditional media.

    But unlike established media organizations that have the resources to pursue reporting in the face of legal challenges, many online journalism ventures lack the legal expertise and financial resources necessary to protect themselves. Without assistance, one threatening letter can close an important avenue of reporting, and one lawsuit can shut down a promising journalism site. Access to experienced counsel can guide these parties through the risky early stages of a venture, and allow them to stand up for their First Amendment rights.

    The Digital Media Law Project (“DMLP”), based at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, works to ensure that individuals and organizations involved in online journalism and digital media have access to the legal resources, education, tools, and representation that they need to thrive.

    The DMLP carries out its mission through five core initiatives: (1) maintaining a detailed legal guide for non-lawyers; (2) compiling a searchable database of legal threats directed at online publishers; (3) facilitating access for online publishers to legal representation through its nationwide attorney referral service; (4) engaging in research and responsive activity to address breaking issues in digital media law; and (5) publishing regularly on current issues in media law, technology law and journalism.

    Legal Guide: Our Legal Guide provides guidance on a wide array of state and federal law topics, in a manner accessible to digital media creators and others without formal legal training. The Legal Guide is comprised of more than 600 detailed articles divided into six major topics: business formation; risks of operating an online business; newsgathering and privacy; access to government information; risks associated with publication; and intellectual property.

    Threats Database: The DMLP maintains a publicly available database of lawsuits, subpoenas, and other legal threats directed at online publishers. The database currently contains over 900 entries, each consisting of a plain-language description of the case or threat and links to blog or press coverage. Most entries also contain the underlying documents, including copies of cease-and-desist letters, lawsuit complaints, legal briefs, and court orders. The database has been cited in more than thirty-five law journal articles, including articles by leading scholars in First Amendment and intellectual property law.

    Attorney Referrals: For more than two years, the DMLP has operated the Online Media Legal Network (“OMLN”), a free legal referral service that connects digital publishers directly with experienced business and litigation counsel on a pro bono or reduced fee basis. We currently have more than 250 attorneys, law firms and legal clinics in 49 states plus the District of Columbia, and have assisted over 185 clients in finding legal advice with respect to more than 375 separate matters. The legal needs of OMLN clients are diverse, and have included issues such as for-profit and non-profit business formation, transactional and licensing issues, intellectual property disputes, newsgathering rights, and defense of defamation claims and other content liability issues. Neither clients nor attorneys are charged any fees by the DMLP; you can request legal assistance with your digital journalism or publishing project through the OMLN website.

    Research & Response: Our central vantage point on issues affecting the journalism industry enables us to detect urgent issues affecting digital journalism as they arise. Our attorney and client networks, together with our tracking of legal threats, serve as an “early warning system” for urgent legal needs affecting the digital journalism community. This permits us to respond with relevant information and legal resources in an informed and timely manner, collaborating with our wide array of partner organizations where appropriate. We have drafted issue guides, filed amicus curiae briefs, spoken to the press and to audiences at conferences and universities, and served experimental journalism projects in an advisory capacity.

    DMLP Publishing: Through the DMLP Blog, our staff and contributors comment on breaking news and current affairs in law and media. Contributors to the Blog include a diverse group of lawyers, law professors, law students, and others with an interest in digital media. We also publish a monthly newsletter, the Citizen Media Law Brief, which updates subscribers on the activities of the DMLP and provides links to media law-related news items from other sources.

    For more information about the DMLP, please visit our website!

    For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management

    Jeff Hermes is Director of the Digital Media Law Project, Berkman Center for Internet & Society