Online Community Management: How to Create a Terms of Use for Your Online Community

Community Strategy // Terms of use outline an online community member's rights. Find ways to create your own terms of use for your community.

Katie Bapple
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Where online community moderation guidelines are your community’s code of conduct, Terms of Use are its governing bylaws.

Terms of Use describe an online community member’s rights and responsibilities regarding the use of your online community. By using the community, they agree to enter a legally binding agreement on all the terms outlined in your Terms of Use.

However, even when certain terms are unstated, organizations reserve the right to change Terms of Use at any time. Also, governing copyright and intellectual property laws are always in play, even when not clearly expressed.

Therefore, a Terms of Use agreement not only holds the member accountable for proper online community usage, but protects the organization from reasonable liability.

Creating these terms can be overwhelming, so to get you started here are some basic elements to consider:

Personal Information

Since online communities usually have a personal networking component via online member profiles, its important individuals are held accountable for providing accurate information. Impersonation or sharing of account details are actions members should be held personally liable for; they should not be representative of negligent practices on behalf of the organization.

This might seem like a trivial matter, however the nature of some communities can have a large impact on an individual’s personal brand, livelihood, and reputation within key networks. Users should know that your organization takes these matters seriously.

Use of Content

There is a wide variety of content shared within online communities. Instead of detailing proper usage for each type, relegating its purpose for personal use only should minimize a majority of misconduct – such as external sharing of member profile information, lead generation materials, or private downloads.

Of course, selling, plagiarizing, or circumventing security measures to steal content should be expressly forbidden.

As user-generated content can often be of a delicate nature, protecting organizations from disagreeable opinions expressed by others is paramount. Make reference to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the United States Copyright Act of 1976. The former expressly protects organizations from legal disputes resulting from third-party user-generated content.

Finally, it’s important to express that once content is submitted to an online community, it becomes property of the community – not solely the member nor the organization, but all those with a vested interest. Why? When someone posts content in an online community it doesn’t singularly benefit the organization, nor the original poster. It benefits the entire online community.

However, to stick with legalese, by contributing content to an online community, members should realize that they grant a royalty-free and irrevocable right to the organization to publish, distribute or revise content (with exception to the disclosure of personal, private information).

Content Management

In online communities, it’s important to acknowledge that content largely represents the collective work of individuals with varied backgrounds, viewpoints and ideologies. In choosing to use an online community, members should acknowledge that instances of extreme disagreement might arise. While these instances should not be viewed as a personal attack or cause contention between members, oftentimes grievances run wild. Terms of Use should reinforce the realities that the organization cannot be held liable for disputes resulting from content posted by other users. If this language alone doesn’t silence legal threats, refer people to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act mentioned above.

Tie back to the private online community’s moderation guidelines to reference appropriate behavior, but use the Terms of Use to explain that members are fully responsible for any negative actions resulting from their contributions. Organizations have no obligation to review content before it is submitted, but may edit or remove content if it is deemed to violate community moderation guidelines, to disobey laws or regulations, or to put into question the integrity of the online community or other members.

Disputes Between Users

This might sound like playing with fire, but it’s a fact – organizations have no obligation to mediate or resolve disputes between community members. Community administrators reserve the right to act under their own discretion, whether it be taking an active role in a disagreement, modifying or deleting content, or removing the offending individuals’ access to the community altogether.

Terms of Use Take Away

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the items that can (and in some cases, should) be covered within an online community’s Terms of Use.  Specific language and terms will depend on the nature of the community itself. If your organization employs legal counsel, it’s highly advised to work with them on this process. This article shouldn’t be taken as legal advice.

With any luck, your online community with be a productive, active, and respectful space with members who truly want to get the most out of their participation and experience. However, in the event that you do have to deal with legal threats, inappropriate content, and undesirable behaviors, you want to have the proper policies in place to aid in de-escalation. Setting the standards of behavior for your online community is an important aspect of online community management that shouldn’t be overlooked. Lay the basic groundwork to protect the community and your organization; rest assured that you can always update and amend your policies as needed.

Katie Bapple

Sr. Director, Agent Experience, Liveops, Inc.

Katie is Sr. Director, Agent Experience at Liveops, Inc. She has been directing the growth and development of communities since 2008. She’s worked with communities ranging from Fortune 100s to associations and non-profits. Prior to Higher Logic, Katie spearheaded the portfolio of communities at Ziff Davis, Inc., with more than 2.3 million members.

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