Terms of Use

Terms of use (or "terms of service" or "terms and conditions") generally are a statement placed on an easily visible place on a website that governs the relationship between the site and its users or visitors. Users explicitly agree to the terms when they sign up for an account and, depending on how you write the terms, visitors may implicitly agree to them when they use the site.

The terms generally consist of a number of paragraphs describing what you expect from your users and what they can expect from your website. Among other things, terms of use identify what users may post onto or use from your site. They also specify what your obligations are, and what you can do in terms of editing, removing, and changing material. For an example, see the CMLP's Terms of Use.

Why Is It a Good Idea to Have Terms of Use?

Terms of use help you put your users on notice of what you consider to be an acceptable use of your site and what you do not. They enable you to reserve the right to deny access to users who engage in objectionable conduct and to remove content that you find offensive or that may subject you to liability from third parties. It also gives you an opportunity to put language up on your website that may help protect you in the event of a lawsuit.

Terms of use are especially important if your website gives out accounts because they help specify the mechanics of how the account system will work. But keep in mind that terms of use can also apply to visitors merely browsing the website or posting comments (assuming you allow comments without an account, which many do not).

Terms of use are also useful in dealing with user-generated content. When a user creates a comment (or any other original expression) and posts it to your website, the user owns the copyright to that comment. Absent an agreement or license (see the Allowing Others to Use Your Work section for details), you could be held liable for copyright infringement for editing or changing the comment. By posting terms of use on your website, however, you can specify (and make clear to users) that you will have a license to edit, change, and remove all content posted to the website. These provisions in the terms of use give you effective control of user-generated content on your site, even if users own the copyright to that content.

What Should You Include in Terms of Use?

As discussed above, terms of use should set out the ground rules for your site. Here are some key items you should consider including in your terms:

  • terms about creating and accessing accounts;
  • a disclaimer of affiliation and/or responsibility for material posted or linked to the website;
  • guidelines for acceptable user-generated content, such as:
Content may not be illegal, obscene, defamatory, threatening, infringing of intellectual property rights, invasive of privacy or otherwise injurious or objectionable.
  • a provision conditioning the posting of user-generated content on the grant of a license to the website to use and alter the content of the posting, such as:
By posting or contributing content using these Services, you are granting [name of your website] a non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, and worldwide license to use your content in connection with the operation of the Services, including, without limitation, the license rights to copy, distribute, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, reproduce, edit, translate and reformat your content, and/or to incorporate it into a collective work.
  • a provision or provisions reserving your right to terminate or restrict access to a user's account, and to delete any content posted through it;
  • a provision prohibiting the impersonation of another person (the point here is to stop a user from misleading others about their identity, not necessarily to prohibit anonymous or pseudonymous speech);
  • provisions relating to inter-user relations, such as clauses prohibiting on-site and offline harassment; and

You can find good examples of terms of use on the following sites: MinnPost.com; iBrattleboro.com; Google; and CMLP.


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