While operating an online dating site does not generate the same high degree of legal risk as, for example, an adult website, online gaming site or online pharmaceutical sales site, an online dating site can create its own unique set of legal concerns. Some of these concerns are common to all Internet businesses while other items pertain specifically to the online dating industry itself.
Therefore, the online dating webmaster should be aware of the following:
The starting point for any business is its skeleton, or corporate structure. Operating as a sole proprietorship is strongly discouraged, and some form of corporate entity must be utilized when operating the online dating site. The type of corporate entity will vary, depending on a number of factors, including tax considerations, local legal climate, anticipated revenues and asset protection concerns. In some cases, the owners should consider offshore incorporation, given the potential for reduction of legal liability and tax exposure. Various options exist for incorporation, including Subchapter "S" or "C" Corporations, Limited Liability Companies (LLC's), Limited Liability Partnerships (LLP's), trusts, etc. Sometimes, more than one corporate entity is necessary to accomplish the goals and objectives. In consultation with your CPA and general counsel, the proper corporate structure should be discussed and implemented.
Unfortunately, many Internet entrepreneurs begin without some form of organized business plan. The days of being able to throw together a website and hope for the best are long since over. Various online resources exist to assist in creating a formal business plan, which should consider elements such as the operating budget, promotional tools, target market, niche, website structure, legal concerns, investment capital, growth and development of the site. Many times, the creation of a business plan will help identify the strengths and weaknesses of the business model, and may result in critical alterations before the site is launched. The single greatest reason why most Internet businesses fail is the lack of a coherent business plan, along with insufficient capitalization.
Implementation of well-drafted online legal agreements is critically important for the protection of your business investment. Users and members should be required to adhere to a set of Terms and Conditions which outline the relationship between the site and the user/member, and address such issues as disclaimers, waivers, limitations of liability, assumption of risk, dispute resolution, attorneys' fees, intellectual property, and a host of other legal and practical issues. Online dating sites, in particular, should include a comprehensive waiver of claims resulting from inappropriate and/or illegal behavior by and between individuals who met through the online dating site. One jury verdict can destroy a successful business, however, a comprehensive set of Terms and Conditions, implemented in a legal manner, can save the site operator significant grief in the event of a claim. Other online agreements should be considered including privacy policies (now required for all websites doing business in California), spam policies (necessary if promoted by bulk email or affiliate marketing), affiliate agreements, DMCA designation, warning page, etc. With proper online agreements, an ounce of prevention is truly better than a pound of cure.
Online dating sites are generally only appropriate for individuals over the age of 18. The Child Online Privacy Protection Act ("COPPA") also restricts the manner in which certain websites can interact with children. Therefore, some form of age verification should be implemented to screen minors prior to accessing the site. This author's BirthDateVerifer.com™ technology or some other form of age verification should be considered to avoid use of the site by children.
Your text, graphics, design and images, along with the overall look and feel of your website, are all capable of protection under copyright law. Generally, computer programs can also be copyrighted. Therefore, online dating site operators are encouraged to protect their business assets by registering all available copyrights with the United States Copyright Office. A relatively new procedure exists for registering copyrights, which allows the registration to include changes made to the site on an ongoing basis. You should familiarize yourself with the ways in which copyright laws can help protect your business, and prevent competitors from infringing on your intellectual property.
Protect Your Trade Name
Your trade name, generally your chosen domain name, is also your business brand, and the name by which you will be known in the industry. As your business grows more successful, that brand name increases in value, given the goodwill associated with it over time. Popular businesses are often imitated, and you can expect competitors to attempt to trade off of your established business name. In the event you select a distinctive brand name, any competing use that causes consumer confusion may be a violation of your trade name or trademark rights. You should consult with an attorney early in the process, to choose a business name that is capable of trademark protection so that you can prevent competitors from using similar brand names. Due consideration should be given to state and/or federal trademark registration and continued zealous enforcement of trade name rights, including protection against cybersquatters or typosquatters.
(©Lawrence G. Walters, PA 2005). Nothing contained in the forgoing article constitutes legal advice, and all specific legal questions should be directed to your personal attorney. Lawrence Walters practices in the areas of online dating, media and advertising law. The law firm of Weston, Garrou & DeWitt has existed for over 40 years, and has litigated media cases throughout the country, including 7 cases at the Untied States Supreme Court. Mr. Walters can be reached at Larry@LawrenceWalters.com, www.FirstAmendment.com, or via AOL screen name "Webattorney."