It’s pretty circular for a legal blogger to write a blog post about — blogging. But bear with me: there’s a legal ethics issue in here. Thomson Reuters recently introduced a new product for busy lawyers who “do not have time to write articles,” but want to produce a blog. (Hat tip to @kevinokeefe over at Real Lawyers Have Blogs.)
Called the “Content Store” (I kid you not), Thompson Reuters promises that “we have developed thousands of articles that you may use to boost your thought leadership quotient without spending too much of your valuable time.” You can “easily search, find, purchase and download professionally-written articles on a wide variety of legal … subjects for less than it would cost to write it in-house.”
The idea is that you pay Thomson Reuters by the piece or by the year to have access to these articles, which you then push out as your own in your blog. Increased “thought leadership quotient” is supposed to result.
Lest you think that this smacks of rank copying, Thompson Reuters says that you can easily edit the articles, to “tweak, embellish, [and] customize” them. However, the bold-face slug at the top of the webpage says “I don’t have time to brainstorm blog topics, much less write the posts.” Presumably you might also be too busy to “tweak” or “embellish” your store-bought “content.”
So is this kosher?
I can think of a couple ethics rules that strongly suggest that you can’t pass off someone else’s written “content” as your own writing — even with permission. First, Model Rule 8.4(c) says that a lawyer can’t engage in dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation. Second, to the extent that a law blog may be deemed to be a communication about the lawyer’s services, Model Rule 7.1 says that you shall not “shall not make a false or misleading communication”
Lawyers can get into trouble for playing fast and loose with the truth when it comes to identifying who wrote documents submitted to a tribunal — for instance, ghostwriting a brief and having a pro se party sign it as the party’s own. See, e.g., Ostevoll v. Ostevoll, 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS (S.D. Ohio Aug. 16, 2000) (agreeing that ghostwriting involves dishonesty and deceit on the part of the lawyer); Gordon v. Dadante (N.D. Ohio 2009) (“This Court will continue to strike ghostwritten submissions from any party and will, in the future, entertain motions for contempt against a party submitting ghostwritten material.”); Laremont-Lopez v. Southeastern Tidewater Opp. Ctr., 968 F. Supp. 1075 (E.D. Va. 1997) (ghostwritten pleadings constitute misrepresentation).
The same should hold true with blog content. Buying it and passing it off as your own is a form of lying.