Media Law

Paralegal Guide: Media Law

In an area as lucrative as the entertainment and media industry and in a society as litigious as ours, media law is a large and rapidly expanding area. Encompassing areas like copyright law and intellectual property protection, media law also incorporates elements of corporate law, telecommunications law, and First Amendment law. In this non-experts’ guide to media law, we explore the basics of this fast-growing realm of legal studies, and point the student to further resources for research.

What Is Media Law?

Media law is divided into two broad categories based on the type of medium. Broadcast media law covers the world of television and radio, while print media law covers books, magazines, and newspapers. Video games, film, the visual arts, and recorded music more generally fall under the category of “entertainment law,” while Internet law has fully evolved into its own subdiscipline. Media law often overlaps with entertainment law (especially in television and radio) and Internet law, but focuses on the media dissemination of information and image. Consequently, many media lawyers also practice Internet and entertainment law. Software and other media technology is generally within the purview of patent law, not media law. The term “telecommunications” law is sometimes used to apply to any area controlled by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Keep in mind all of these terms are non-exclusive and overlapping, and even when they are not overlapping, they are often kept as practice areas by the same lawyers. Many attorneys practicing Internet law will also practice telecommunications law, copyright law, or corporate law, for example.

Media Law and Copyright

Copyright law occurs at two levels, federal and international. Both are important to the practice of media law; media, especially in our globalized era, has a tendency to transcend national borders, and an understanding of copyright is necessarily going to involve an understanding of how copyright works both internationally and intra-nationally.

The principal document governing international copyright is the Berne Convention. This mutual copyright protection agreement has been signed by 164 of the world’s nations. The largest nations not signatory to the Berne Convention are Iran, Ethiopia, and Burma. On a global scale, the World Intellectual Property Organization is the United Nations organ responsible for overseeing copyright and other intellectual property.

Within the United States, the US Copyright Office is the principal organization responsible for protecting copyright and codifying copyright policy. In the United States, copyright belongs to an “author” a term that refers to the person or persons who hold a copyright and have the right to transfer that copyright to another person or persons. Copyright attorneys often mention “five pillars of copyright,” five rights that the author possesses. The copyright holder can reproduce a work, display it, perform it, distribute it, and use it as basis for derivative works. So within a media law context, we can imagine that a book is the copyrighted document. A media company that has this book copyrighted can make copies of it (reproduce it), authorize readings from it (display it), turn it into an audiobook (perform it), sell it (distribute it), or allow a movie to be made based on the book (use it as a basis for derivative works). However, certain stipulations have been made to allow “fair use” of copyrighted documents.

Media Law and Defamation

Media attorneys are constantly on the watch for defamation within the medium. Defamation is defined as the widespread dissemination of false information that damages the image of an individual or institution. If that defamation is transitory, it is considered slander, but in the media, it is referred to as libel. Libel applies to all media, broadcast or print.

Libel laws vary widely from state to state, and can be carried out on either a civil level or a criminal level. At the federal level, and in 33 out of 50 states, libel cases are restricted to the civil level. An individual or institution can sue an individual or a media agency for libel, but no criminal penalties are involved. However, in the remaining 17 states, the state can prosecute for libel. However, criminal libel cases are infrequently brought to trial, and only a handful of convictions have been made in the past few decades.

Libel laws have evolved significantly in the past 50 years. In the past, the legal system was much more favorable to the plaintiff, but the increasing openness of the media has led to a more First Amendment-conducive legal atmosphere. A set of Supreme Court decisions, beginning with the landmark New York Times Company v. Sullivan, has altered outcomes. In the post-Sullivan era, plaintiffs must prove “actual malice” for a report to be considered libel. Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. in 1974 confirmed that the First Amendment protects opinion, and that opinions cannot be classed as libel. And Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (yes, that’s referring to the notorious pornography magazine and the notorious televangelist) in 1988 stated that if a statement is so patently ridiculous that it cannot be said to make a truth-claim, it cannot be considered libel.

Further Reading

For those interested in more in-depth research into issues of copyright, libel, and other media law issues, we’ve included a few pertinent links.

  • The FCC is the primary body governing telecommunications in the USA.
  • The Media Law Resource Center provides news updates
  • Cornell University discusses the relevance of the First Amendment to broadcast media.
  • Recent media law decisions made by the Supreme Court.
  • On the international level, copyright is protected by WIPO.
  • Copyright duration has changed a great deal over time in the United States. This infographic explains it.
  • The official website of the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • “Fair use” is a major element of copyright law. Stanford University maintains a fair use portal here.
  • A glossary of technical terms pertaining to copyright, hosted by Cornell University.
  • Every copyright law passed into federal law in the United States since 1909 can be found in this index.
  • The Federal Communications Law Journal is a major legal journal published at the law school of Indiana University.
  • A portal on the Sullivan case, including Justice Brennan’s writing of the majority opinion.
  • A similar portal on the Gertz case.
  • The First Amendment Center is a First Amendment activist think tank based at Vanderbilt University.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons