Media law is law that regulates media production and use. Media law can encompass many different types of media including broadcast television, internet and print media. The practice of media law may involve all of the types of legal issues that might arise during the production or consumption of various types of media.
Not all types of media are created the same
The government treats different types of media very differently when it comes to regulations and oversight. Broadcast media has the greatest amount of regulation. Broadcast media is media that’s intended for a general audience and mass consumption like radio and basic television. By contrast, subscription radio and the internet have far fewer regulations.
A media lawyer who works in film might help their clients with option agreements, distribution contracts and issues with talent. Multimedia lawyers may need to work on software licensing or sale regulations. Attorneys who practice media law need to understand their client’s business in order to provide legal advice that’s pertinent to the type of media involved.
Media law often intersects with other types of law
In addition to laws that directly regulate the use of media, media law involves other types of laws. One of the fields that’s often an issue in the use of media is intellectual property law. With piracy and image reproduction commonplace today, media producers and other organizations struggle to protect their trademarks and copyrights. In addition, media law may involve many other types of law including:
- Employment issues
- Contract laws
- Labor issues
- Tax laws
- Insurance regulations
Federal Communications Commission regulations and Free Speech
One of the biggest questions in media law is the question of federal regulations and the constitutional limits of free speech. Even though the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees an individual’s right to free speech, there are limitations on broadcast speech that the Federal Communications Commission considers obscene. In the 1973 Miller v California case, the U.S. Supreme Court said that there are obscenity limitations to free speech in broadcast media.
The FCC continues to regulate speech in free-to-consumer broadcasting like radio and television. Internet content providers, satellite and cable providers don’t have corresponding limitations. The FCC may issue fines for words they consider obscene. In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the FCC’s power in this regard in the FCC v Pacifica Foundation case.
Another example of FCC content regulation is the fine that the FCC levied against CBS for content broadcast during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show. In the case, MTV blamed Janet Jackson for acting without authority when she exposed her breast during her halftime performance with Justin Timberlake. Because of outrage following the performance, the FCC increased fines for a violation from $27,500 to as much as $325,000 for each violation.
Regulations in print media
Media law includes regulations in books and newspapers. In 1991, in the Simon and Schuster Inc v. Members of the New York State Crime Victims Board case, the U.S. Supreme Court declared a law invalid that allowed the state to confiscate income from a book written by a person convicted of a crime. The court said that the law singled out income from a convicted person’s behavior. They said that they didn’t want to limit speech that’s helpful to a society. They said that important books that have contributed to the public dialogue may not have been written if the law was in place.
Media law continues to change and grow. Media lawyers are a part of the developments in the legal niche. One modern media law debate is net neutrality. The issue of net neutrality surrounds whether media outlets like internet providers should be able to give certain types of content priority over other types of content when they operate their networks.
Proponents of the policy say that giving preference based on content is tantamount to censorship. Opponents of net neutrality say that some consumers, like internet-based visual media company Netflix, use a disproportionately large amount of bandwidth that can slow down other users. Media lawyers advocate for their clients on this issue that impacts almost everyone in the United States.
While most media lawyers work for larger media outlets, even a local lawyer in a smaller city may encounter media law in their practice. Local television stations employ on-air talent for their local news shows. An on-air talent might rely on a local lawyer for contract negotiations. Local television stations often include a non-compete clause in their contracts that prevent personalities from appearing on-air for a local competitor for a period of time. A local media lawyer may carefully negotiate a non-compete clause for their client, or they may even challenge the validity of a non-compete clause in a media contract.
In addition to on-air talent, local television stations may occasionally have disputes with their network companies. Most local television stations are independently owned and operated. Although they may receive content from a network like ABC, NBC or CBS, they usually aren’t directly owned by these companies. When a network has a dispute with their local affiliate, the local affiliate may turn to a lawyer in the community to help them resolve the issue.
International media issues
In addition to uniquely local media law issues, there are also international issues to be aware of. Other countries may have more or fewer content limitations for media than exist in the United States. There may be different rules and customs regarding piracy and intellectual property rights. Media law may even involve helping a media outlet lawfully send a reporter to another country in order to prepare a report. Media lawyers must be prepared to give their clients sound advice about how to effectively work in the media industry in another country.
Advertising and the legal profession
Media law impacts lawyers too. Whether lawyers should be allowed to advertise and how they can use the media to advertise has been a subject of debate for many years. In Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court said that lawyers may advertise including on television.
Opponents of the practice say that legal advertising is distasteful and brings the legal profession into disrepute. They say that advertising may lead to an increase in frivolous litigation. They say that lawyers may pass the costs onto consumers in the form of higher fees. However, advertising proponents say that an increase in the number of lawyers makes advertising necessary for lawyers to find clients.
Today, most law firms advertise their services. Lawyers advertise using websites, online ads, television, radio and even print ads. Laws that apply to defamation and fraud apply to legal advertisements in addition to other media laws that may apply.
Who practices media law?
Media lawyers may work in private practice or for the government with the Federal Communications Commission. Most media lawyers work as in-house counsel or they work for mid-size and large law firms. However, lawyers who represent individual talent may work either as a solo practitioner or directly for a talent agency.
Media lawyers are both transaction lawyers and litigation specialists. Lawyers in media law spend a great deal of time advising their clients about how to comply with the law. They may also negotiate contracts. Lawyers may also work as advocates for their clients as they seek new laws or modifications to existing law.
Serving as an effective media lawyer likely requires a diverse skill set. When a media organization has a dispute that may result in litigation, they’re likely to reach out to the same attorney that helps them negotiate a contract or comply with regulations. In addition, when disputes arise, media lawyers need litigation skills as well as alternative dispute resolution skills.
Why Become a Media Lawyer?
Media law is exciting. Media lawyers can work with the companies or the talent that they see on television. In addition, media lawyers perform critical work that contributes to society’s understandings of free speech laws and the limitations that can be placed on various types of media production. Lawyers who specialize in media law must be great communicators as they advise their clients in the many different types of law that impact the media including trademarks, copyrights, employment law and dispute resolution. Lawyers who are looking for excitement and a challenge may enjoy media law as a legal specialty.
When media law takes a leading role
From complying with government regulations to negotiating agreements, media lawyers perform important and diverse services for their clients. Media law encompasses a number of different types of law, and both transactional lawyers and litigation specialists may thrive in this area of law. Media lawyers may find the area of law challenging and exciting as they apply their skill set to represent the best interests of their clients.