What legal documents do I need for my new website?

Website legal documents are like vitamins: you know they're good for you, but you probably don't know exactly what they do.  With a bit of research you could find out what they do - but, let's face it, even lawyers can find legal research a little boring.

There are legal aspects to all websites.  Legislation requires that specific categories of information be disclosed on most websites.  There are procedural hoops that some kinds of website must jump through.  The law also regulates the kinds of content that can be published on a website, and controls the legal nature of the publication itself.

Legal documents on a website can help deal with these issues in various ways. A well-drafted website legal notice, policy or terms and conditions document can (amongst other things):

  • help a webmaster to comply with his or her legal disclosure obligations
  • ensure that the webmaster does not improperly abridge customers' (especially consumers') rights
  • ensure that website content is licensed to users on an appropriate basis
  • limit (or at least attempt to limit) the website owner's liability in relation to the website
  • set out the legal basis upon which products and services are supplied to customers
  • remind a website owner of the procedural obligations that the law places upon him or her
  • show that the webmaster is serious about legal compliance (important from a marketing perspective)

So, what legal documents do you need for your website? In considering the appropriate documentation for a website, I usually differentiate between:

  • the use of the website
  • the sale and supply of products and services
  • the collection and processing of personal data

All websites should have some kind of terms and conditions governing the use of the website.  See, for example, the range of website terms of use at Website Contracts.  At a minimum, the terms of use should deal with basic disclosure obligations, include a disclaimer of liability, and provide for the licensing of the website content to users.  Documents fulfilling these functions have many different names.  For example, they may be called terms of use, terms and conditions, terms and conditions of use, website terms, website legal notices, disclaimers, and so on. Websites that sell anything - goods, services or licences - must also include terms and conditions governing the sale. 

Where customers are consumers, the terms and conditions must comply with applicable consumer protection legislation.  Where all customers are businesses, there is greater freedom of contract. 

Again, the nomenclature is not exact.  Documents governing the sale of products may be called terms and conditions of sale or terms of supply or simply terms and conditions.  Documents governing the supply of services may be called terms of service, terms of business or service agreements.  See for example: ecommerce terms and conditions.

Data protection legislation (as interpreted by the Information Commissioner) provides that website owners must disclose specific categories of information to users.  For example, they must disclose details of what data is collected, how it will be used, and how it will be kept secure.  Generally speaking, websites that process personal data should include a privacy policy for the purposes of making these disclosures.  Privacy policies can also be called privacy statements or privacy notices - or more rarely data protection policies, statements or notices. See: website privacy policy. Whilst terms governing website use and terms governing sales can be incorporated into a single general terms and conditions document, the (non-contractual) privacy policy should be kept separate. 

Comments

Does this mean a terms and conditions and a privacy policy covers you if you are not selling anything?

If it's information only content a basic t&c and privacy policy is normally sufficient. If you have interactive elements to the site you may need something more complex. Worth getting some legal advice.

I want to know exactly what you mean by interactive elements... do you mean interactive like flash software and the like? or something else??

I think Will was referring to features that move a website beyond a simple publisher-reader/viewer/listener relationship (excluding contact forms). When users can publish material on a website or by means of a web application, communicate through the website, buy things from the website publisher or via the website, etc - then the legal issues become more complex and interesting.

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