Sometimes the Internet seems like the new Wild West—but don’t be fooled. The long arm of the law still applies!
Ninety-seven percent of consumers search for local businesses online, according to Google. That means if you don’t have a website, then you’re missing out on possible customers. You’re also missing out on the opportunity to build and protect your company’s reputation. However, there can be drawbacks if you don’t play by the rules–especially if you don’t get things right from a legal perspective. By following these best practices, you can build an effective (and legal) website for your business.
1. Protect your domain
The first thing you’ll need in order to start your business’ website is a domain name. That’s the url (i.e. the .com, .net, etc.) used to access your website. The best domain names are short and easy to remember, and in the case of a business, your business name is often your best bet if it’s available. Because domain names are unique by their very nature, you need to find one that hasn’t already been registered. Once you have, you need to register your domain. There are plenty of services that provide for registration including Google and Go Daddy. Many businesses choose to register common misspellings of their domain to make it easier for customers to locate their business. However, remember that cybersquatting (registering a domain name with a bad faith intent to profit from another’s trademark or goodwill) is illegal.
While you’re at it, you’d be wise to register your business’ name on popular social media sites such at Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Even if you aren’t planning on currently using these services to promote your business, you may find that they will eventually become useful tools to market your business. Registering your business’ name now will make sure you maintain superior right to use the name early on.
Finally, although not required, it’s not a bad idea to apply for federal trademark protection for your domain once it’s been registered. Doing so strengthens your hand if a dispute ever arises down the road while simultaneously preventing others from registering the same name with the government.
2. Contract with a developer / web designer
If you want a professional looking website, you’ll probably need to employ a designer and/or developer to help you get your site off the ground. Most experienced developers and designers ask clients to sign a Web Development Contract or a Website Design Contract as a requirement of performing the work. However, whether or not your designer or developer asks you to sign a contract, you’ll want a contract to protect your business. After all, a contract can establish a timeline for the project, your expectations for the work, and how much the work will cost. Without a contract, these relationships can turn sour when a project drags on longer than expected or when the final bill exceeds the parties’ expectations.
4. Draft your Terms & Conditions
Depending on the nature of your site, you may want to include a listing of the Terms and Conditions of using your website. The specifics of the terms and conditions you’ll want will depend entirely on the specifics of your site. For example, if you sell goods, you may want to list the terms of sales through your site including how you handle returns and/or goods lost or damaged after shipping. If you allow others to post to your site or in a forum on your site, you may want disclaimers and statements limiting your liability for information posted by others. Because your terms and conditions should be specific to the nature of your business and website, you may want to consult with your attorney about the things you need to cover.
5. Exercise caution when using intellectual property
If you’re using images, logos, video, designs, etc. on your website, and you don’t own them, you’ll want to proceed with caution. Long story short, copyright protection extends to any creative work the moment it is created whether or not it contains a notice. You should also be aware that while copyright infringement is widespread on the Internet, that doesn’t make it either legal or safe. If you’d like to use a creative work including pictures and other images that you don’t own, you should always seek permission first. You can use a Copyright License Agreement or a Trademark License Agreement to get permission in writing. If you don’t then you may become liable for copyright and/or trademark infringement.
This is also true if you are allowing others to post to your website. When the popular image pinning site Pinterest launched, for example, a firestorm ignited because many people felt that the company’s terms of service actively encouraged the widespread infringement of intellectual property. Eventually, in order to avoid potential liability, the company amended its terms of service to address those concerns, but it left many copyright owners with a bad taste in their mouth.
6. Carefully monitor users and employees
If users and/or employees will be generating content for your company’s website, then you’ll want to make sure you carefully monitor their activity. As discussed above, you’ll probably want a disclaimer in your terms and conditions distancing yourself from material and commentary provided by users. If you have knowledge that your users are posting infringing or defamatory material to your site, best practices may include removing that material.
But while users occasionally pose problems for a company’s website, you’ll also want to carefully monitor your employees. After all, because employees are acting as your agents, it’s even more likely that you can be held liable for their activities. In order to limit your potential for liability, draft a clear code of conduct for your employees that outlines what is and isn’t acceptable on your website. Create a system that allows you to monitor their activities to make sure that they are adhering to that policy.
It’s true that there are unique risks involved in operating a business website. Nonetheless, the benefits to your business will almost certainly outweigh the risks. And if you implement some of the best practices outlined above, you’ll limit the dangers posed to you and your company.