The Internet has become a notorious breeding ground for poaching others’ intellectual property. While all forms of IP infringement are discouraged, one in particular can create a massive headache for Internet businesses: misappropriation of another website’s Terms, Conditions, Policies & Disclaimers; and/or more broadly, legal web documents. While many may be enticed to simply swipe another’s Terms to avoid the legal costs of having an attorney draft brand new web documents, it’s simply not worth the risk.
Initially, there is the very obvious problem that another website’s Terms likely will not apply to your business. At the broadest level, different websites operate different business models and each set of Terms is ideally drafted for only one website running a specific business model. Similarly, even if the website operations are similar, there is always the possibility that Terms lifted from another website are outdated or flawed. The site that posted the stolen terms may, itself, have lifted them from another inapplicable site, or may be relying on Terms that were drafted before important legal development occurred. A few years is like an eon for Internet Law, and much happens in a short period of time. Cases decided in the last year have had profound impacts on how Terms directed at consumers should be drafted and implemented.
Even if parts of the lifted Terms are up to date and relevant to your business model, certain very specific clauses could be inapplicable, causing problems in relationships with your users. For example, billing provisions, dispute resolution options, and choice of law clauses are all areas which require specific and careful review before posting within legal web documents. Using another state’s (or nation’s) laws, or consenting to be sued in another remote jurisdiction, can have disastrous consequences for your business in the event of a dispute. Even claims brought by non-users can be impacted by these venue and choice of law provisions.
There is also a danger with broadly copying and pasting another website’s legal policies when it includes the name and contact information of the original company. Often this information is buried in the “fine print” or in a copyright disclosure, and easy to miss. Aside from being a clear indication of a copyright violation, this type of wholesale copying can invalidate the entire agreement because it is formed with a completely different entity than the actual website operator. Court’s will not overlook this type of plagiarizing.
A specific issue that our firm routinely sees with legal policy theft is inadvertent copying of a DMCA notice & takedown policy, identifying someone else’s designated DMCA agent. Posting someone else’s DMCA policy can result in a complete loss of DMCA safe harbor, and the fraudulent suggestion that someone is acting as your DMCA agent, when they are not. This is a large problem for “while label” programs, wherein the “white labels” erroneously presume they have permission to utilize the sponsor’s Terms or web documents, but usually, that’s not the case. More importantly, even in situations where the sponsor explicitly gives permission for the use of their Terms, use of the DMCA agent listed in the sponsor’s Terms is typically not part of the deal. Absent a specific agreement by the designated DMCA agent to act on your behalf, it is not likely that DMCA notices directed to your site will be processed in accordance with federal law. DMCA agents must file a designation with the U.S. Copyright Office listing all sites subject to the designation. Your posting of a copied DMCA policy will not suffice to trigger safe harbor protections, or give any notice to the DMCA agent that your site should be included in a designation. This form of copyright theft has severe consequences to any online service provider, even if the copyright holder never discovers the infringement.
As noted above, being sued for copyright infringement is a significant risk of stealing another website’s Terms. Merely changing a few words here and there will not prevent the stolen Terms from being considered a derivative work, and thus still owned by the original author. Statutory damages in a copyright infringement action can be anywhere from $750 to $30,000 per work, and up to $150,000 per work for willful infringement. Each stolen document would likely be considered a separate work. Attorneys fees will often be awarded in addition to damages. Risk of litigation isn’t the only consideration, however: the public perception that comes with using a competitor’s legal work can negatively and significantly impact credibility, both with consumers and in the industry, generally.
Developing your own set of website Terms and other legal web documents is important beyond the reasons listed above. A well-drafted set of web documents creates clearly established policies for both users of the site and third parties; the latter through documents outlining Subpoena Compliance and the site’s DMCA Notice and Takedown Policy. Legal protections like Section 230 protection, DMCA safe harbor, and sometimes Section 2257 exemptions, will be impacted by proper legal terms. Quality web documents can help outline potentially unlawful uses of the site, protect intellectual property, allocate liability, and provide important disclaimers. Finally, as noted, paying careful attention to important provisions such as choice of law, dispute resolution, and any applicable arbitration and/or mediation requirements is critical for protecting your online operation.
While an experienced Internet attorney will require compensation for drafting important legal terms, often the process of discussing these documents will lead to important modifications in internal operating procedures, as the legal consequences are evaluated.