"I can't understand how anyone gets through the day without a law degree" - Ruth Gundle, Eighth Mountain Press
Publishing a magazine exposes you to a host of legal responsibilities. Even if at the beginning everyone associated with your magazine is a volunteer, and it's published out of your garage, there will still be some areas of law that affect you - libel, for example, or copyright, possibly zoning regulations.
Pretty soon you have to decide what kind of organization you want to be: you need to know the pros and cons of sole proprietorship, Chapter S, non-profit incorporation, and so on, to give your magazine an official existence that best suits its purpose. When you begin to collect money from the public (subscribers or single copy buyers) or from other organizations (advertisers, distributors, funders) the IRS and a number of other federal, state and local government departments immediately get into the act.
If you distribute copies of the magazine via the US Postal Service, then you're expected to know their elaborate rules whatever class of mail you qualify for. Once you start paying yourself or other people - vendors, freelancers - there's another layer of legality to cope with. The real hurdle is becoming an employer: taxes, withholding, labor relations, hiring and firing - all are governed by an increasingly complex body of rules, and it's part of your job to know what they are.
Legal requirements are most burdensome for magazines that are just large enough to be subject to wide areas of the law but too small to afford regular paid legal services, let alone an in-house lawyer. This document is not intended to remove that burden - in fact it may seem to be adding to it. Its purpose is not to provide actual legal advice on any topic (I am not nor have I ever been a lawyer), but to bring together a collection of Internet sites that contain accurate legal and regulatory information intended primarily for the non-lawyer who needs to know the law. Along with information specific to magazine publishing, I've listed a number of sites that focus on starting a business, consumer rights, labor law and other areas that any small business owner should know about. Some of them include useful sample documents - contracts with freelancers, assignments of copyright, or articles of incorporation for non-profits, for example; most of them include further links to related material.
In compiling this list I've tried to strike a balance between the unusably technical and the over-simplified. On-line encyclopedia sites such as Encarta, and AOL's business and legal reference pages, which provide only general explanations of their subject-matter, have been included for those who want to start at the beginning. For completeness, I've also included some key US government sites such as the Office of the Law Revision Counsel, where you can search the entire text of the United States Code. (I have not included sites specific to state or local laws, or to non-US law, except for a couple of Canadian sites.) I've also listed some general-resource portal sites for magazine publishers that I've found particularly useful.
Statement of principle: Perhaps because I come from a country (Scotland) that is generally much less anti-government than the US, I don't feel that law and regulation are inherently bad things. A free country needs a lot more law than an unfree one. My sense is that at least when it comes to publishing, the intent of the law is usually to protect the relatively powerless against the relatively powerful - the consumer, the writer and the employee against the company and the boss. That's fine with me. Although regulation is burdensome, I believe that being a publisher means taking on the responsibility for knowing what the regulations are. At least if you know the law, you can go ahead and choose to break it - out of principle or convenience - and be aware that you may have to deal with some consequences somewhere down the line. If you don't take the trouble to study up on it, who knows what complaint, lawsuit, or nice lady from the IRS is going to land on your doorstep tomorrow?
These listings were up to date in late July 2001.
A: General sites and portals
Microsoft's online encyclopedia, encarta.msn.com, includes concise entries for libel, intellectual property and pretty much every other topic you can think of.
AOL's legal reference section, www.aol.com/webcenters/legal/home.adp, has pretty brief information, but more detailed than an encyclopedia article. It also has links to other sites with more advanced information.
Assignment Editor, www.assignmenteditor.com, is a terrific portal site with resources for all aspects of magazine and newspaper publishing. Now requires registration but is still free and well worth going through the unintrusive registration process. Great for fact-checking and one-stop information shopping: in a few minutes I found out what the house next to mine just sold for, the current exchange rate with the Euro, and the phone number of a writer in England I'd lost touch with and wanted to assign an article to.
B: The horse's mouth: US government sites
These include the Office of the Law Revision Counsel (for the body of current Federal law), uscode.house.gov/uscode.htm, the Small Business Administration, www.sba.gov, the Department of Labor, www.dol.gov, the IRS, www.tax.gov, the Postal Service, www.usps.gov, and the Library of Congress copyright section, lcweb.loc.gov/copyright. These sites primarily provide the text of federal laws and regulations, so can be pretty heavy going.
However, most of them also contain more accessibly designed sections for the layperson: these are usually designated "Firstgov portals". (You can also reach these sections directly at www.firstgov.gov.) Firstgov focuses mostly on key areas of civil law - family, consumer, immigration, small business, etc. It's pretty well organized, with extensive links to other sites and sections including state-specific ones, and since it's the gummint's own site you can probably assume the information is accurate.
The official Small Business Administration site is a more detailed resource for both legal and business questions, including advice on how to write a business plan, www.sba.gov/starting/indexbusplans.html, SBA assistance for eligible businesses, www.sba.gov/financing/indexloans.html, and much more.
The IRS site, www.tax.gov, includes information on various employment-related regulations as well as tax law. Among the pages of the IRS site you might find useful are www.tax.gov/employees_hiring.htm, on rules about hiring and firing as well as required recordkeepng, withholding and paperwork. There is lots of key information, for example on how to apply for a federal tax ID number, www.tax.gov/ein.htm. While you're in the neighborhood, you might like to check out the "Kids Page," www.tax.gov/stawrs/kids/index.htm, for an interesting explanation of "Why We Pay Taxes." In addition to Federal requirements, this site includes state by state regulations.
The US Dept of Labor's "Small Business Handbook" is at www.dol.gov/dol/asp/public/programs/handbook/ main.htm. It contains information for employers or would-be employers on minimum wage, OSHA and other workplace regulations. The DOL site includes sections such as www.dol.gov/dol/osbp/public/programs/wtwbusinessguide.htm, which outlines the substantial benefits to an employer of hiring former welfare recipients, ex-felons and social security recipients.
C: Sites covering a range of publishing-related topics in law and general management (specific pages from some of these are listed again by category below)
The areas of law covered in these sites that are of most interest to magazine publishers include: small business, employment and independent contractors, trademarks and copyrights, internet law, debt and bankruptcy, and taxes. Most of these sites include a "Find a Lawyer" section; never having used these I have no recommendation as to their usefulness.
'Lectric Law, www.lectlaw.com, is a site with very extensive and well organized resources in all areas of civil law, for the layperson as well as the professional lawyer; don't be put off by the astonishingly puerile humor of the site managers. It includes sample consultant and sales rep contracts at www.lectlaw.com/formb.htm.
Nolo Press, www.nolo.com, is a long-established "law for laypeople" publishing company. Along with similar content to 'Lectric Law, it includes direct links and search tools for Federal and state legislation.
Findlaw, www.findlaw.com, is primarily designed for lawyers, but is very extensive and may be a first research step if you have an unusual legal question.
The Management Assistance Program for Nonprofits, www.mapnp.org, is based in Minnesota, and in addition to generally applicable information it includes a lot of Minnesota-specific stuff. Its Free Management Library, www.mapnp.org/library/index.html, is a very comprehensive set of well-organized resources on all aspects of running a small business, not exclusive to non-profits.
The National Writers Union site, www.nwu.org, includes news about current legal cases including Tasini, sample contracts with freelancers, discussion of electronic rights, etc. Look under "Journalists" and "Contract Advice." A members-only section includes salary surveys and other useful material.
The American Society of Journalists and Authors site, www.asja.org prowrite.php, has a Contracts Watch page with news of legal decisions affecting freelancers. It also has a Writer Referral Service.
Masthead Online is the site for Masthead, the Canadian equivalent of Folio:. Its legal section, www.mastheadonline.com/law.htm, covers some issues specific to Canada (for instance recent privacy legislation).
D: Intellectual property (copyright, trademark etc.)
There are hundreds of sites with copyright and fair use information and discussion, but much the best site I've found is maintained by attorney Lloyd L. Rich, www.publaw.com. As well as covering copyright and fair use issues, including electronic rights, he has articles on such topics as indemnification - how to be sure you're not liable for your authors' errors in the event that someone wants to sue. This site also includes some excellent articles on non-legal aspects of publishing, such as "What Does It Cost to Do A Mailing?" and "22 Ideas to Insure a Successful Journal Start-Up."
The Library of Congress site has downloadable copyright registration forms and instructions, including Form SE for periodicals registration, www.loc.gov/copyright/forms.
The government's trademark information and registration site is at the US Patent and Trademark Office site, www.uspto.gov/web/menu/tm.html. You can check to see if your magazine title has been trademarked, and apply for a trademark online. (This site also has a Kids Page, www.uspto.gov/web/offices/ac/ahrpa/opa/kids/index.html, evidently designed by someone on drugs.)
E: Libel (properly Defamation)
Minnesota attorney Greg Abbott has an excellent detailed explanation with legal references of what constitutes defamation (libel and slander) in the state of Minnesota, www.abbottlaw.com/defamation.html. Since he indicates wherever Federal law diverges from state law, this functions as a good guide for anyone. As he notes, "federal law only sets a constitutional floor below which state law cannot go. Nothing prevents states from providing more protection to opinions than the First Amendment requires." Abbott also discusses important ways to reduce the likelihood of being sued for defamation.
See also www.publaw.com /warranties.html, as noted above, for a good article on indemnification, "Publishing Contract: Warranties, Representations & Indemnities Clauses."
F: Consumer law
The general legal sites listed above include extensive sections on consumer law, primarily from the perspective of the consumer. They deal with topics such as: Do I have to pay for merchandise I never ordered? (such as an unsolicited magazine or subscription) and How do I dispute a credit card charge?
G: Mailing rates and regulations
There's an excellent primer on bulk mail preparation and requirements at Postage $aver Software, savepostage.com/bulkinfo.html. You can also download a complete postal rate chart from this site.
The Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers has a very helpful site with a section called Tools for Nonprofit Mailers, www.nonprofitmailers.org/tools/basics.htm. It covers nonprofit bulk mail rates, eligibility, and regulations, and links to further articles and resources. It doesn't have anything much to say about nonprofit Periodicals mailing, however; the focus is on Standard A.
The Direct Marketing Association has comparative charts of new and proposed postal rates, summer 2001, at www.the-dma.org/government/postalratedecision.shtml.
You can access the text of the Domestic Mail Manual and other USPS manuals and forms at pe.usps.gov.
If there's a good site parallel to Postage Saver that interprets postal regulations for Periodicals class in a less forbidding way than the DMM, I'd love to know about it!
H: Tax law
Findlaw is good on tax issues for small businesses: smallbiz.biz.findlaw.com/finance/taxes/articles.htm l?finance. This section includes much need-to-know information, including a page called "Can you believe..." smallbiz.biz.findlaw.com/finance/taxes/be11_9tax.html ?finance, which outlines the bad things that will happen to you if you don't withhold and/or pay federal employment taxes.
See also the Government and general law site listings above.
I: Incorporation/non-profit regulation
The Internet Nonprofit Center, www.nonprofits.org/npofaq, is a dynamite site with detailed information on many aspects of non-profit incorporation and regulation. As it points out, most law applies equally to for-profits and non-profits, so much of what's on here is valuable for any magazine or other small organization.
The Management Assistance Program for Nonprofits, www.mapnp.org, listed above, is also extremely useful for information on a wide range of legal, management and financial topics, especially but not only if you live in Minnesota.
'Lectric Law offers sample for-profit and non-profit Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws at www.lectlaw.com/formb.htm.
Guidestar, www.guidestar.org, has a lot of useful legal/financial information for non-profits, including copies of all non-profits' most recent tax returns, advice on tax preparation and on fundraising. This site currently posts part of an interesting report on non-profit salaries, www.guidestar.org/services/comp_preview1.pdf; it also provides information on a little-known issue referred to as "Intermediate Sanctions" - what the IRS does to officers or contributors to non-profits whose compensation is judged to be excessive; see www.guidestar.org/services/compstudy2.stm.
Print-only publications: a brief list of reference titles for the non-lawyer
The Writer's Legal Companion: The Complete Handbook for the Working Writer by Brad Bunnin and Peter Beren, 3rd edition 1998, 368 pages. Perseus Publishing, ISBN: 073820031X
Publishing Law Handbook by E. Gabriel Perle and John Taylor Williams, 2nd edition, 1992, Aspen Publishers, ISBN: 0130356018 (since this costs $285 you may want to consult it at the library)
Accounting for Dummies, Dummies Trade Series, by John A. Tracy, 2nd edition 2001, 388 pages, Hungry Minds, ISBN: 0764553143
Small Business for Dummies, For Dummies Series, by Jim Schell and Eric Tyson, 1998, 432 pages, Hungry Minds, ISBN: 0764550942
Tax Savvy for Small Business, by Attorney Frederick W. Daily, 4th Edition, 2000, 352 pages, Nolo Press. ISBN: 0-87337-534-3. Also available in PDF format (Acrobat File) for immediate download from their web site.
A long bibliography of books about all aspects of publishing (chiefly focused on books but with many titles relevant to magazine publishing) appears at www.pcisys.net/~stanford/reading.htm, the web site of an editorial services company called Stanford Creative Services. In addition to what is listed here, Nolo Press publishes many layperson-law books relevant to publishers: check their site at www.nolo.com under Small Business, Trademarks and Copyrights, etc. The Dummies series also features other titles of interest, including Everyday Law Kit For Dummies, Incorporating Your Business for Dummies: check out the complete list at www.hungryminds.com.