by Aliza Sherman
If you're managing a blog or more traditional discussion forums where an online community is forming, you should have a Terms of Service document in place. What is a Terms of Service document?
Before I tell you about the TOS or T-O-S that every online community needs, here's a word from our sponsor.
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What are Terms of Service?
If you're hosting or managing an online community, you should already have all of your community policies in place. I know some of you are getting that guilty look, but have no fear. I'm here to explain exactly what a Terms of Service document is, what you should include in it, as well as where you should place it within your online community, website or blog.
Terms of Service let your members know the rules of good, fair, and legal behavior within your forums.
Though most Terms of Service are posted online as one long document--often in legalese--you can also craft more user-friendly terms and link to the legal speak. Many communities will make agreeing to the Terms of Service part of the registration process. Other sites simply link to the terms, most often as a pervasive link at the bottom of every page of their site.
Should You Make Reading the Terms of Service Mandatory?
Although I'm not a lawyer, I have been told by lawyers that making it mandatory for new members to click “okay” and accept your Terms of Service is the safer method in case there is ever a dispute. The best method would be some kind of digital signature that a new member would have to sign before gaining access. With the advent of e-signature services, such as DocuSign and EchoSign, getting signatures on agreements entirely on the Web is fast becoming not only possible but also secure and legally binding.
The least legally-binding method of sharing the Terms document is simply by having a link on your site to it. As long as the link is prominent, there is a certain degree of implied consent when someone joins and participates in someone else's community.
If you aren't sure where to start to get a template for your Terms of Service, try the Creative Commons site or do a search for Terms of Service and see who uses the Creative Commons Share Alike license--which means you can repurpose the content for your own use. WordPress.com, for example, shares theirs freely.
What Should You Include in Your Terms of Service?
There are a lot of parts to a Terms of Service but you will want to include
1. A clear definition of your company and the property or properties--meaning the site or sites you are hosting and managing.
3. A statement about age limits, if applicable, in order to comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) applicable to children under 13 years of age.
4. A list of the responsibilities of community members when it comes to commenting on your blog posts or communicating with other commenters, etc.
5. An outline of the illegal behavior you will not condone, such as guidelines that state members cannot violate copyright or trademark laws or risk being banned from the community.
6. Specifications as to what you consider inappropriate behavior, such as spamming or posting pornographic materials or links to such.
7. A statement about fees, if there are any, and what the services or products are in return for such fees.
8. A clause about intellectual property and who owns what content and materials that members might upload or share.
9. The ambiguous “change” clause where you state that you reserve the right at your sole discretion to modify or change any part of the agreement. This statement should also placethe onus on the members to check the terms regularly.
10. Termination information related to when you would ban someone from a community-- which is basically any time you want, with and without cause.
I know some of these things sound onerous, but if you consider the major responsibilities you take on as a community host or manager, you’ll realize these elements are in there for your protection. There are a lot of other legal clauses and terms so I always recommend that--when in doubt--you get a lawyer to look over anything that could have repercussions on your business in the future. Better to be safe than sorry, as they say.
Bottom Line: Before you launch an online community, get all of your policies in place both internally and externally and then publish your Terms of Service to let your members know the rules of good, fair, and legal behavior within your forums. If you don't already have a Terms of Service, go forth and get one today!
That's all we have time for today.
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DocuSign – http://www.docusign.com
EchoSign – http://www.echosign.com
WordPress Terms of Service - http://en.wordpress.com/tos/
Creative Commons - http://creativecommons.org/