How Not to Do Website Terms of Use

Client: Hi Paul, we need website terms of use and a privacy policy. We want to save money, so we’ve copied the terms of use and privacy policy for XYZ company, which has a similar product. Please review it for us so we can post it when we launch next week.

Me: [facepalm repeatedly]

This is the classic and all-too-common scenario, and it’s completely the wrong way for a startup to do their website terms of use and privacy policy. First, it’s blatant copyright infringement. Just swapping out your company name for their company name isn’t exactly going to fool anyone.

Second, just because XYZ has a similar product, or operates in roughly the same space, doesn’t mean that they operate exactly how you operate in every single respect. Nor does it mean that their policies and practices will suit your tastes. So unless you plan on copying all of XYZ’s internal policies and practices and operating procedures, much of what is in that terms of use and privacy policy simply won’t be an accurate reflection of your company.

Third, who’s to say that the terms of use or privacy policy that you copied from someone else’s website is any good? It could be a hot mess. They could have copied their terms of use from some company that’s completely unrelated in every way.

As the CEO of a startup, your job is much bigger than just writing software code. You have to run the company. That means putting the time into things like what will go into your terms of use, and developing information collection and handling practices that are accurately reflected in your privacy policy. You have to be intentional about this. When you just send me a terms of use that you copied from someone else, I’m going to push back, and ask you to describe your business model and practices. If you can’t do that, it tells me you haven’t put the time into it yet.

This is an important process, and you cut corners at your risk, and the risk of your investors. Terms of use, if done right, form a binding contract between your company and its customers, a contract that favors you and puts your company in a strong position. Done poorly, and you’re litigating with a customer in a court in Fairbanks, Alaska in February. Privacy policies are increasingly important as states like California, with 38 million residents, pass more and more restrictions on how you can collect and use customer data. You don’t just face the risk of class-action lawsuits, you also have to worry about FTC investigations and fines. Spending your time and money to do things right from the start will save you money, time, and headaches down the road.

 

Vermont Passes Strictest Subscription Renewal Law

Companies that offer subscriptions that renew automatically now have to pay attention to tiny Vermont, which just passed the strictest automatic renewal law in the country. Several states, including California, have laws governing subscription renewals that require sellers to clearly and conspicuously present the terms of the offer, get express consent from the consumer, provide an easy method to cancel, and send a reminder prior to the start of a renewal term. Vermont’s law adds two new twists, however. First, the auto-renewal provision must be presented in boldface type. Second, consumers have to take two actions to accept the renewal offer.

California, which prior to passage of the Vermont law had perhaps the most restrictive law on the subject, gives companies a great deal of latitude in deciding how to meet the “clear and conspicuous” standard – it can be boldface, larger type face than surrounding text, contrasting color or font, or text that is set off by surrounding text by symbols or other marks. Vermont’s law will give no such latitude. If the renewal plan text is larger font, contrasting color, and surrounded by symbols, but is not in boldface, it will not comply.

The two-action consent requirement means that in both online and written offers, the company must get a consumer’s consent through both:

  1. A check box, signature, or other similar method that shows consent specifically to the auto-renewal terms, and
  2. A separate consent (like a “Submit” or “Purchase Now” button) to the overall order.

The Vermont law covers both business-to-consumer and business-to-business subscriptions, although there is an exemption for insurance contracts and contracts between a consumer and a financial institution or credit union. By including B2B, the Vermont law goes well beyond California’s law, which only protects consumers. This means a wide variety of SaaS businesses need to look at their subscription and renewal practices, if they are doing business with Vermont companies.

Vermont’s new law will take effect on July 1, 2019, and only applies to contracts with an initial term of one year or more, and subsequent terms that are longer than one month. So, if a company offers a product or service with an initial term of less than a year, and the term renews on a monthly, quarterly, or semi-annual basis, the company is not covered. Similarly, companies that offer simple monthly subscriptions, like many streaming services and subscription boxes, are not covered. Many magazine subscriptions have an initial term of one year, and typically renew for terms of a year, so these most likely will be covered by the new law.

 

California’s Subscription Renewal Law About To Change

On July 1, 2018, California’s subscription auto-renewal law is about to change in a couple of important ways. This law applies to e-commerce vendors who sell to consumers on a subscription basis, where the subscription renews automatically. For example, companies that offer subscription box services are generally subject to this law. Under the law as it currently stands, vendors must disclose the terms of the automatic renewal policy in a clear and conspicuous manner at the time of the original purchase, get the consumer’s affirmative consent before charging the consumer, and explain how to cancel the subscription.

Beginning July 1, vendors will have to allow online cancellation if the subscription was originally commenced online. Such vendors cannot require that their customers use phone or snail-mail to cancel. Also, if the subscription offer includes a free gift, trial subscription, or promotional pricing, vendors must notify consumers how to cancel before they are charged (or before the promotional pricing expires and they are charged full price). Vendors must explain the price to be charged when the promotion or free trial ends. If the initial offer is at a promotional price that will increase later, the vendor must obtain the consumer’s consent to the non-discounted price prior to billing.

Auto-renewing subscriptions have been fertile ground for California class action attorneys, who have made a cottage industry out of shaking down vendors that fail to comply with the state law. Consequently, it’s important for any company whose business model is based on consumer subscriptions that renew automatically to update their terms of service and selling processes before the new law takes effect. It doesn’t matter if the company isn’t based in California, either – the law applies if the consumer is a resident of California. Finally, keep in mind that more than half of US states have a law dealing with auto-renewing subscriptions.

New Federal Law Prohibits “Anti-Yelp” Contract Terms

Congress recently passed a new law that restricts a company’s ability to include an “anti-Yelp” type of non-disparagement provision in a standardized contract. The new law, called the Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016,” is designed to protect individuals who post negative online reviews. The CRFA applies to reviews of goods and services made by an individual who is a party to a “form contract.” The CRFA defines a form contract as a contract with standardized terms used in the course of selling or leasing goods or services, and imposed on an individual without meaningful opportunity for that individual to negotiate the standardized terms. Because the act repeatedly refers to “individuals,” it seems directed more at the B2C arena, and will likely not apply to business-to-business contracts. In addition, the act specifically exempts employment agreements and independent contractor agreements.

A covered non-disparagement provision in a form contract will be void from the start if it prohibits or restricts the ability of an individual who is a party to engage in a review of the goods or services. The CRFA also voids any provision in a form contract that would impose a penalty or fee against an individual for engaging in a review of the goods or services.

The CRFA does not affect the right to pursue a claim for defamation, libel, or slander, however. Nor does the CRFA prevent any party’s right to remove or refuse to display on a website owned by such party any content in a review that:

  • Contains the personal information or likeness of another person, or which is libelous, harassing, abusive, obscene, vulgar, sexually explicit, or inappropriate with respect to race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or some other intrinsic characteristic;
  • Is unrelated to the goods or services offered by or available at the website; or
  • Is clearly false or misleading.

The CRFA doesn’t just void these provisions, however. It makes it a violation of law to offer a form contract containing a provision that would be void under the law. Such a violation also will be considered an unfair or deceptive act or practice, The CRFA gives the Federal Trade Commission the power to enforce the act, and also grants individual states the power to pursue violations.

Consequently, we recommend that companies that sell goods or services to individuals review all of their standard contracts, including their website terms of service, to ensure compliance with the CRFA.

Follow me on Twitter @PaulHSpitz

Copyright Office To Require Online Registration of DMCA Agents

If you have a website with any user-generated content, you want to take full advantage of the protection provided by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). This has two components. The first is posting (and following) a takedown policy for potentially infringing content in your terms of use. The second, often-overlooked, component is registering an agent with the US Copyright Office. The agent is the person designated to receive notices of claimed infringement. If you fail to do both, you lose the benefits of the safe-harbor protection under the DMCA. In the past, registering an agent required filing a paper form and paying a fee of at least $105, plus $35 for each group of 10 additional names (such as alternate domain names). This process is about to get a lot easier, and less expensive too.

Starting December 1, 2016, you will be able to register an agent online, bringing the Copyright Office into the late 20th century. Even better, the registration fee will be $6, and there will be no additional fee for alternate names. This online registration process, and the lower fee, will make it easier to keep your registrations up-to-date – for example, if your designated agent was an employee and that employee quits. There are two catches, however. The first catch is that you will have to renew your agent listing every 3 years. That’s designed to ensure that the listings are current and accurate. The second catch is that the Copyright Office will be phasing out the current directory, populated by paper filings, by the end of next year. Every company that has already registered an agent will need to update their registration with a new online filing, which must be done by December 31, 2017.

So I strongly recommend that you mark your calendar for the first week of next month, to update your existing registration with an online filing. If you let it go, thinking that you have plenty of time, you will likely forget to take care of it. And if you haven’t registered an agent, I strongly recommend that you do so in early December. As I mentioned above, it is an essential element of insulating you from claims of copyright infringement.