57.3, August 2010

Guest Editorial: Legal Issues in Global Contexts: Reconsidering Content in an Age of Globalization

Legal Issues in Global Contexts: Reconsidering Content in an Age of Globalization

Kirk St.Amant and Martine Courant Rife

Today, we are repeatedly told “the world is flat.” Of course, this idea of a flat earth applies not to geography but to the information economy. Advances in communication technologies and international trade agreements allow unprecedented access to people and organizations around the world. It is a context in which we can interact as quickly and easily with colleagues and clients in other nations as with neighbors down the street. But are global interactions really that easy? Is the world really that flat? Our response to these questions is “not exactly.”

While advances in information technology continue to erode barriers of space and time, the resulting “flat” terrain is far from frictionless. Obstacles still exist. These friction points are often human constructs that reflect deep-seated cultural perspectives on appropriate behavior. Such cultural differences are often codified into laws that govern how individuals should behave—legally—in relation to producing and sharing ideas and information.

Why Should Technical Communicators Care?

The caring relates to content. Most of the legal differences that generate friction involve creating and managing content. Copyright law is perhaps the greatest friction point affecting the flow of ideas and information. What rights individuals have over the content they create and how that content can be legally shared and used vary from nation to nation. When individuals try to share copyrighted materials across borders, legal systems can create friction that slows or stops the exchange.

Similarly, perspectives on privacy rights and who legally owns and can use an individual’s personal information (i.e., content) vary from one country to another. These variations can create content management problems (i.e., friction) when such information needs to be transmitted across borders to be compiled, collated, or archived. Differences in U.S. and EU laws, for example, affect what kinds of personal information can be shared freely via online media. In fact, the prospective restrictions that such differences could cause led to the development of principles governing how U.S.-based organizations should collect and treat information associated with EU citizens (see the Safe Harbor Principles, online at http://www.export.gov/safeharbor/).

Laws may also determine the language in which content must be provided. Organizations wishing to expand into EU markets, for example, are generally required to translate all product-related materials into the official languages of EU member nations.

How do Technical Communicators Fit Into All of This?

Technical communicators are central players in today’s content game. We are often the ones who create the original informational and instructional content that is distributed across the globe. We are also at the forefront of content management through our work in single sourcing, distributed or collaborative authoring, and document design. Our role as documentation specialists may put us in the center of global webs in which we collect, manage, and exchange content with technical experts, editors, and collaborators in different nations. We may work with translators and localizers to manage the process of converting content to meet the expectations of overseas audiences. Our increasing experiences with usability make us aware of the legalities behind collecting content from research subjects, while our work with proprietary company information makes us conscious of aspects of disclosure and ownership. As we branch out into areas such as medical communication and marketing communication, we increasingly deal with legal issues, including liability, misrepresentation, and negligence. Thus, our work makes us the content experts within our employing organizations.

And Now, the Important Question—What’s in It For Us?

The answers are job security and the opportunity for advancement. Those at the center of content creation and content management are ideally positioned to add value to their organizations by developing practices that address legal friction points associated with international interactions.

So What’s the Next Step?

To address global friction points, technical communicators must combine their knowledge of content creation and management with an understanding of international legal issues affecting those practices. The first step is to identify key international legal issues and then learn how they affect content-related practices in international contexts. The five articles in this special issue help you take this step.

Nicole St. Germaine-McDaniel examines how migration and immigration within the United States have resulted in new national statutes governing translation and technical communication practices. Tatiana Batova reviews the clinical trials process to shed light on how technical communication practices and legal issues can intersect during content creation activities. Heidi A. McKee and James E. Porter present an approach to researching international legal and regulatory issues affecting technical communication practices. Liza Potts uses Actor Network Theory to analyze international content distribution issues—and their legal implications—related to digital rights management. And TyAnna K. Herrington examines international copyright and fair use issues that can affect content creation and content management.

These articles provide a relatively broad-based review of legal issues affecting technical communication practices in global contexts. We hope that readers will use these ideas to create best practices and engage in research in the area of global legal issues. By working together to examine such issues, we can improve the flow of content across the flatter earth.

About the Authors

Kirk St.Amant (stamantk@ecu.edu) is an associate professor of technical and professional communication at East Carolina University.

Martine Courant Rife (martinerife@gmail.com) is a professor of writing and coordinator of the Business and Technical Writing Program at Lansing Community College. Martine also maintains an active license to practice law in Michigan.