Turning in an assignment is the goal of pretty much every freelancer. It’s the moment where they can send their invoice, collect payment and, generally make a living. If you don’t reach this point regularly, you’ll likely soon find yourself looking for another career.
That being said, the moment you turn in your assignment is also something of a point of no return. Once you send the email, share the Google Doc or otherwise turn in what you have completed, you’ve not only submitted that work for revenue, you’ve also distributed it to a third party, an important step legally and it is generally the final step before the work is sent out to the much broader public.
As such, before you click “submit”, it’s worthwhile to take a moment, evaluate your work and make sure that you don’t find yourself in any legal trouble for your work.
After all, the last thing you want is for something you submit to come back and bite you and/or your client after it’s published online. With that in mind, here are five questions you should ask every time you get ready to submit a new article, just to make sure you’re on the right side of the law.
1. Does This Complete the Assignment?
Especially if you’re writing for a new client, go back and check one last time to make sure that what you are submitting meets all of the requirements for the assignment. Is it the correct word length? Is it on the right topic? Does it have the right keyword density? And so forth.
What you are trying to avoid, specifically, is a contract dispute. Though these disputes rarely reach the courts, few legal disputes do. However, you may find yourself dealing with payment withheld if there is a disagreement over whether the task was completed or not and, even if you do get paid, there will be a very unhappy client if he or she feels they didn’t get their money’s worth.
As such, it’s a good idea, one last time, to make sure you met the requirements of the post, especially with new clients with whom you aren’t familiar and don’t have a rapport.
2. Is it Copyright Infringing?
Next, look at the post and see if anything about it is copyright infringing? Did you copy content from somewhere without permission? Did you essentially rewrite another post and, possibly, just create a derivative work of it? If you submitted images with it, do you have licenses to share those?
In short, make sure that everything you submit is within the bounds of copyright law to the best of your ability. While there are always gray area issues, such as fair use, you can certainly avoid major missteps such as plagiarism or excessive copying.
If you’re uncertain, you may also wish to run your work through a plagiarism detector such as Plagium or Copyscape to ensure that you reused content appropriately.
3. Is it Libelous?
If you’re writing a review, talking about other individuals or otherwise speaking negatively about any person or company, you can find yourself in a libel suit if you say something that is materially untrue and harms their reputation.
While it is fine to express your opinion, you need to make sure that any thing you present as fact, especially anything negative, is true and that you can prove it to be as such.
Take a moment, go through your post and make sure that everything negative said others can be backed up with evidence, if it can’t be, you’re probably better off dropping it completely or finding the evidence you need.
4. Does it Invade Someone’s Privacy?
Privacy law is complicated, made more complicated by extra rights some states grant, but it should suffice to say that you know you shouldn’t reveal private facts about others without their permission. This isn’t a major issue for most freelance writing jobs, but if you’re doing profiles of individuals or writing news-related stories that might unveil private information, you should tread carefully.
The best way to avoid issues is, if you feel a piece of information might be embarrassing or harmful if it becomes public, is to ask permission to discuss it. Have your sources verify their quotes and facts (also good practice for libel reasons).
If you do this, you’ll likely find that people are willing to share private information, but only so long as they are asked.
5. Does This Feel Wrong?
This might not seem like a legal question, but in many ways it is the most important one to ask. A lot of times we know that something feels wrong even if we don’t know what the exact legal issue with it might be. For example, someone might not understand copyright law, but might know that it feels wrong to simply rewrite a post and republish it.
Before submitting a work, do a “gut check” and make sure you’re comfortable with the work. Are you proud to have this associated with your name? Would you still be proud if the world knew every detail about how you created the work? If not, you may need to reevaluate the work itself and consider a rewrite.
When an assignment is done, you should feel proud, not conflicted. If you do, take the time to figure out why, you may realize that you’ve created a legal problem for yourself, or that you just feel you can do better work.
The time to think about legal issues is before you send a work off to be published. Thinking about them afterward is simply too late.
If you have a legal issue with something after it’s been sent, the best-case scenario is that the client will catch it and give you a chance to quietly fix it. That may keep you out of hot water legally, but still means an unhappy client and, most likely, a missed deadline.
Do yourself a favor and check these issues before hitting submit, both you and your clients will be grateful.
Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private (However, please mention that it is a suggestion for Freelance Writing Jobs). This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.
I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.
Great piece Jonathan!
I had a new client this January and after 2 weeks of working for her, her husband got into a serious road accident and got him into critical condition. My client repeated her promise to pay me even after apologizing and telling me that she isn’t sure anymore if we could continue our business venture after the accident. And of course I understand. The problem is that she broke her promise and haven’t paid me until now. I know it would be insensitive to press her for my payment because of the accident. But she could use my submitted work anytime after she recovers from the accident. What would you do in my place?
Jennifer L says
Yay! Thank you so much for writing this. Also, I am glad to leran about Plagiarism Today, because one of my article was recently plagiarized, and so plagiarism has been on my mind.
Good post — a lot of this could be summed up by the knowledge that “The truth is a perfect defense against libel.”
Don’t make stuff up, be accurate, and you’ll stay out of trouble.
Ben G says
Thanks for the article, great tips on how avoiding plagiarism.
I use a website called Copyleaks – http://www.copyleaks.com to check for plagiarism. It’s free and you can be completely sure of the results.