Copyright Issues for Bloggers

Last week’s post was about the important role that blogs can play in an agency’s marketing plan.  If you decide to give blogging a try, there are some things you need to know about what can be done with content that was not created by you, both visual and text.  These things all have to do with the law of copyright, which essentially protects everything that a person creates from use by others without the creator’s permission, with some exceptions.

In a post I wrote over two years ago, I explained how the copyright law applied to the use of photographs on an agency’s website . The same rules apply to the use of photographs or any other visual object created by someone else in a blog post or other writing.  Just because something is on the internet does not mean that anyone is free to use it.  This is one of the top ten misconceptions about copyright law recently published by the Copyright Clearance Center, which acts as an agent for the holders of the copyrights for various publications.

Another related common misconception about copyright law is that the existence of buttons or other tools that permit the sharing of a blog post or other article found on the internet means anyone can use the content of the post or article for whatever purpose they want.  Not true, if those buttons or other tools were included in the post or article by the author.  Their inclusion by the author is a way to publicize the work and does not signify permission to use the content of the work for other purposes.

In addition, merely citing the source of content created by another does not give a blogger or anyone else the right to copy that content and include it in their work, except to the extent that doing so can be considered “fair use” of the content.  What qualifies as “fair use” is a complicated and fact specific question, but to be safe you should not use anything more that brief quotations from such content without obtaining the permission of its creator.  If you try to get such permission and receive no response, that does not mean you are free to use the content.  Under the U.S. copyright law, permission must be affirmatively granted, it cannot be presumed.

Having a paid subscription to a print or online journal or other publication does not necessarily mean that you are free to distribute the content provided to your customers or other third parties.  Your right to do so will be governed by the terms of the subscription contract, which should be carefully reviewed before redistributing the content provided to others.  Posting the content on your agency’s intranet to which only the agency’s employees have access is not necessarily a permitted use in this situation and would not be a permitted use for any other content for which a subscription was not paid.

My earlier post on the use of photographs goes into some detail on the financial penalties that can be levied for a violation of the copyright law.  They can be significant, so activity that may violate that law should be avoided.

Is Blogging For You?

According to most of the commentary I see on what agents and agencies should be doing to better market themselves and the services they offer, creating and maintaining a blog for your website is almost mandatory.  That was the advice I received from the consultant I hired a few years ago to help me with the marketing of my law practice.  Like many people, I lacked confidence in my technical ability to create a blog and I wondered how I would be able to continually come up with topics of interest for those persons who I wanted to reach with my blog.

Almost four years later, this will be the 190th blog post I have written.  The creation of my blog proved to be the easy part.  There are many good programs available that make that step doable for anyone who can follow directions.  Believe me, if I could do it, most anyone can.

Continually coming up with topics to write about has proven to be far more difficult.  But, as noted in a recent article on Property Casualty 360, one way to do that is to focus on topics that will be of interest to the people you are trying to reach.  The author of that article discusses this and nine other tips for writing a successful insurance agency blog.

One of those other tips is not to focus your blog posts on the sale of insurance.  Instead, as suggested in an article in IA Magazine at the end of last year, your posts should aim to explain potential risks or other problems likely to be faced by your target audience and how insurance can be used to help mitigate those risks or solve those problems.  Such posts can then be followed by what this author and others refer to as “a call to action”, which asks your reader to do something that can give you their contact information for later marketing efforts. Click here for another article that provides more technical ideas on how to get such contract information by the use of blog posts.  That article was written for attorneys, but the suggestions made apply to any blog.

I have enjoyed writing posts for this blog and have received some compliments, as well as some business opportunities, as a result of things I have written.  The same thing can be true for any insurance agent or agency who is willing to devote the time and attention necessary to create and maintain a blog.  If the commentators are correct, having a blog will soon be an essential part of every agent and agency’s marketing plan, so now is as good a time as any to get started.





Can an Agent Be Paid a Fee for a Personal Lines Health Insurance Policy?

In the past couple of weeks, I have received telephone calls through the IIAG Free Legal Service Program that I run in which I have been asked the above question.  My general answer is Yes, if certain conditions are met, but there is one large exception that I will discuss below.  Those conditions are (i) the agent must have a counselor’s license for life, accident, and sickness insurance and (2) ) the insurance being placed can only be issued without the payment of a commission or the issuance of such insurance without the payment of a commission has been approved by the Insurance Commissioner in a rate filing, rating plan, or rating system.

The above questions were prompted by the decision of many health insurance companies to stop paying any commissions on individual and family health insurance polices.  A fact that has gotten the attention of at least six Georgia legislators.  Representatives Shaw Blackmon, John Meadows, Bubber Epps, Trey Rhodes, Richard Smith, and Chuck Efstration have co-sponsored a bill in the House of Representatives, HB 838, that will mandate the payment of at least a 5% commission for the sale of a group health plan by an agent and at least a 4% commission for the sale of an individual health plan.  These minimum commissions would be required for each renewal of such a plan as long as the agent “reviews coverage and provides ongoing customer service for such plan.”

HB 838 was passed by the House of Representatives on February 24, 2016, but has sat in a Senate committee since then.  The bill has two exceptions to the requirement to pay a minimum commission on the sale of health plans.  No commission would be owed for the sale of an individual health plan during a special enrollment period or for the sale or renewal of a group health plan to an employer who has “more than 50 bona fide employees on at least half of its working days.”

The above exceptions may have something to do with the regulations that govern Obamacare, which leads me to the large exception to my general Yes answer to the question posed in the title of this post.  Although not crystal clear on this point, those regulations seem to prohibit agents from charging a potential insured for services related to assisting the insured in obtaining a health insurance plan through a marketplace exchange that is run by the federal government, which is the case in Georgia.  Those regulations contemplate that any compensation received by agents for such services will be paid in the form of a commission by the insurance company that issues the policy obtained through the federal marketplace exchange.  The regulations specifically prohibit Navigators from charging a fee to the potential insured for providing help with the federal marketplace exchange and state that any “non-navigators” who give such assistance are subject to the same prohibition.

Even if HB 838 is passed by the Senate and signed by the Governor, the above federal regulations will take precedence over any contrary state law.  It appears the best hope for agents who want to help their customers with obtaining health insurance plans through the federal marketplace exchange will be to amend the provision of Obamacare that lumps in the commissions paid to agents with other administrative costs of the health insurance companies.  There are bills pending in Congress that do this, but unfortunately they do not seem to be getting anywhere.



Cyber Security Revisited

I began the year by writing two posts about the challenges and opportunities presented to insurance agents and agencies by cyber security issues.  During the last week of February, I attended a webinar that focused on what agents and agencies should be doing to protect themselves. (Click here for a link to that presentation.)  Next week, on March 16 at 2 p.m., Steve Anderson will be giving another webinar devoted to that topic. (Click here for a link to register for that webinar.)  Those who have been following my blog this year will recognize his name, as he is a nationally recognized expert in the use of technology by the insurance industry.  I wrote a couple of posts last month about a presentation that he made at a conference I attended on the use of social media in an agency’s marketing efforts.

It seems that cyber security will be the hot topic of 2016.  It is something that cannot be ignored by agents and agencies any longer.  If the practical reasons for paying attention to it that I explored in by blog posts earlier this year are not enough to motivate agents and agencies, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (“NAIC”) is doing what it can to make sure that you have no choice.  It has proposed 12 principles for consideration by state insurance commissioners in enacting regulations that will govern what insurance agents and agencies, as well as others in the industry, must do to protect the data they collect.   Among these principles is a mandate that they have systems in place to alert consumers in a timely manner if there is a cyber security breach and that a minimum set of cyber security standards be enacted for all who are physically connected to the Internet and/or other public data networks, regardless of the size and scope of their operations.

The NAIC has also adopted a Consumer Bill of Rights related to cyber security that will be incorporated into its model laws and regulations and thus, will likely find its way into state regulations.  One such right is that every agency have a privacy policy posted on its website and available in hard copy for anyone who asks. This privacy policy should explain what personal information is collected, what choices consumers have about this information, how they can see and change or correct that information if needed, how that information is stored and protected, and what they can do if the agency does not follow its privacy policy.  The NAIC also thinks that consumers should get at least one year of identity theft protection paid for by the company or agent involved in a data breach.

The regulations are coming, so it makes sense for agents and agencies to get ahead of the curve and be ready for them.  One way to begin the process is by reviewing the webinar I attended and signing up for Mr. Anderson’s webinar next week.  Both of those will give agents and agencies the knowledge needed to create and implement appropriate cyber security policies and practices.