Creating Terms of Use for Your Online Community

Online community Terms of Use are essentially the legally binding terms that apply to the users and members of your community. This is different from the community guidelines that we discussed in the previous post. Guidelines dictate how members should conduct themselves in the community and works as a template for the moderators to run the community operations.

Crafting a robust Terms of Use is critical as it clearly describes the user’s privileges and permissions when they use your online community. This becomes an agreement that they have to adhere to legally when the community is accessed or used.

That said, even if certain pointers are not explicitly mentioned, the community owner can always modify the Terms of Use whenever the need arises. Also, by default, the use of community is always ruled by the copyright and intellectual property laws — direct mention is not required.

Hence, the Terms of Use has tremendous legal importance to ensure that your community is used fairly and members are held responsible. Above all, it shields your company from liabilities.

It can be a daunting task to write a full proof Terms of Use agreement, so we have compiled a list of important factors to list for your online community.

Personal information and authenticity

Every online community has a member profile component for networking and member discovery. That requires the users to submit personal information, so adding a clause to ensure that the members submit authentic information. Your community or the organization must not be held liable for any discrepancy in the information submitted by the members. If the members are impersonating someone or giving out the account information to others, they should be held accountable.

In the beginning, this can come across as an insignificant matter, as your community grows it can prove consequential to the reputation of your organization. Anyone joining the community must be made aware that things related to personal information are taken very seriously.

Protecting the content

Your community is a treasure trove of a wide range of content — members, as well as your team, would be creating the content. Your community Terms of Use must protect the content from members who might want to use the content for personal or commercial use. This can lead to the harvesting of personal data, sharing, or copying without due credit.

Hence, duplicating context, selling data or reproducing without permission must be prohibited explicitly. Especially considering that your community would be dealing with user-generated content (UGC), this can often fall in the grey zone. There can be several conflicts related to the ownership of the content. For instance, who owns the content – the members who post content or the organization that created a platform for the users to share content.

So, from the very beginning, your organization should be protected from any spurious claims regarding data ownership. Check out the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to ensure that you have covered the pointers associated with UGC.

When someone creates content in the online community, it would be actually serving anyone using the community. So, ensure that the terms categorically state that the content created in the community would be completely owned by the community — it won’t completely belong to the original member or the company. Just to safeguard your organization from a legal standpoint, you can include a clause that any member creating content in the online community would give irrevocable permission to edit, download, and distribute the content. And the members will be forbidden from claiming any royalty.

Of course, personal information must not be distributable.

Managing the content

Every community consists of members from diverse backgrounds although they are bound some common goals. That also means people come with their own notions, prejudices, and ideas. When the members create content sometimes it might not adhere to other members’ viewpoints. That can lead to disagreements.

Although your community guideline must state that there should not any attack on the member because of the differences in ideologies, the Terms of Use should legally protect your organization from disputes between members because of content and resulting actions.

For example, if a member posts something and in turn they are attacked and there is personal damage to that member, your community should not be tied to the issue and the member should be completely responsible. You should not be obliged to review all the content instantly — but, the organization must have the right to modify or delete content that doesn’t adhere to the rules and regulations.

Handling conflicts

Conflicts are an integral part of communities — could be both internal or external. That said, when you have internal conflicts, as an organization would be playing a part in mediation? There should not be a blanket rule around this, but as a community owner, the terms should clearly state that you’re not bound to resolve disputes.

Community managers and moderators should be able to make decisions independently to edit, update, delete posts, or even ban a member.

Conclusion

The points mentioned in this post don’t form a comprehensive list — based on the use cases some of these factors might or might not get included in the Terms of Use. The legal terms and the language will vary based on your business. As a company, it is in your best interest to get legal advice from trained professionals.

Ideally, you should be able to build a safe and secure online community for your members where there will be mutual respect and collaboration. In the unfortunate instance, if your community gets intertwined with toxic user behavior or legal issues, your Terms of Use and community guidelines should act as a firm place to build your case.

It is always paramount to lead by example, so set the culture of your community from the beginning. Your community manager should be able to lay the foundation by setting up a blueprint. Also, note that the policies should continuously evolve and prone to amendment with time.

Also, as mentioned at the beginning of the article, make sure to check the post on writing community guidelines.


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