Do I need a Terms of Service agreement on my blog?

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[Note: the following is not to be construed as legal advice.  If you have concerns about blogging and the legal issues involved, please consult an attorney or check other legal resources available to you]

In today’s news is a small item (which no doubt will become much bigger as the day or week goes on!) about a woman being sued for over $50,000 because of what she said on Twitter.  The story interested me not only because the woman lives here in Chicago (and in my neighborhood, no less) but it reminded me why every genealogy blogger should consider posting a Terms of Service on his or her blog(s).

What is a Terms of Service Agreement?

A Terms of Service agreement, also known as a TOS, basically lays out the rules to your readers as to how things run on your blog and that your readers accept such rules merely by accessing your site.  There are many different types of TOS agreement and the actual text depends upon the site content. A site like Ebay or PayPal which involves financial transactions would have a very different TOS than a personal blog.

Why Do I Need A TOS?

A TOS is meant to protect you, the blogger and site owner, from the stupidity of certain readers and visitors.  Sorry, I hate to say it that way, but at a basic level that’s how I see it.  Most of us know how to behave online and we have certain expectations of how our readers and visitors should act.  A TOS simply outlines those expectations.

While in the genealogy community we usually maintain a very helpful and positive group of people all focused on finding our roots, it does not make our blogs immune from spammers or flamers (people who want to “stir up the pot” in the form of negative comments).  A TOS puts all visitors on notice as to what is and isn’t acceptable at your site and what the consequences are for not abiding by the rules.

I think my readers appreciate the reassurance that they are visiting a blog where there won’t be obscene comments or content, they can feel free to link to your content or even copy it under appropriate circumstances, etc.  A TOS sets the tone for your blog and your online reputation as well.

What Should Be Included In A TOS?

Even for a blog, it is the content and focus of that blog which determines the exact provisions of a TOS.

For example: a blog which acts as a review site (one in which visitors can contribute their reviews of companies, products or websites) should have a statement making sure that the opinions of the blog’s contributors/visitors do not necessarily represent the opinions of the blog owner.  However, a personal site which documents a blogger’s search for their ancestry would have different TOS provisions than a review blog.

Here are some recommendations on what a genealogy blogger’s TOS might include:

  • Copyright – ensure that others know that the posts in your blog are your content and the result of your creativity and hard work.  If you are using a Creative Commons License you should still spell out the terms of that license even though you might be displaying the Creative Commons banner in your sidebar.
  • Content – state that you are responsible for the content of the site but not the comments from your visitors.
  • Credit – ask that visitors link back to your content especially if it is used under the Fair Use provisions of United States copyright law.
  • Accuracy and Validity – make sure readers know that while you strive to make certain that “all t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted,” there may be mistakes in your content or on your blog.  As well, communicate to your readers that you will make every attempt to keep information current and up-to-date.
  • Images – if you use images on your blog, spell out who owns the images and how they can be used by others.
  • Comments – if you moderate comments, outline the way in which you will do so (not allowing personal attacks, obscene content, etc.)
  • Liability – unfortunately in today’s world where people sue companies and other people at the drop of a hat (or the drop of a hot cup of coffee stupidly placed in between your legs while driving), you must have some type of liability statement. Make clear to readers what you control (basically just the content) and can’t control (other sites you link to, for example) and that you aren’t responsible for how another person uses content found on your site (some people will do stupid things and then try to blame you).

Look at The Finer Print here at GeneaBloggers to get an idea of how a TOS can be constructed.

Would a TOS Have Helped the Twitter User?

In the case of the errant Twitter user from Chicago, Twitter does not let you post a TOS per se (although I guess you could include one on your Twitter background image if you really wanted to) and with a 140 character limit, one really has to “keep it short.”

I looked at what was “tweeted” and I probably would have done it differently: if I felt so strongly about mold and wanted to accuse the management company of mis-management, I would have tweeted a link to my blog or to another website where the issue was discussed.  Then I would have been covered by a TOS on my blog or the other website’s TOS.  But to simply tap out what could be seen as a potentially defamatory statement in 140 characters or less and not have some means of protection is, well, something I just wouldn’t do.

Next Steps

Here are steps you might want to consider to protect yourself and your blog from a similar fate:

  • Visit blogs and websites that you respect and admire and take a look closely at their TOS.  You may need to look for a Terms of Service link at the bottom of the site or some other wording.
  • If you do decide to copy a TOS per se, or much of it, check with the original author and send them an email.  They may agree and want a link back to their site.
  • Consider using a TOS generator like the one at Ben Nadel’s blog.  Simply enter your blog name (in the company name field) and your state and a TOS is generated.  Then take the content and edit it to suit your needs.
  • Think about joining Electronic Frontier Foundation which not only keeps you up to date on current legal issues concerning bloggers, but also fights for bloggers’ rights.  If you join, think about placing the EFF banner in your sidebar as well.

(Exhibit A: Will one Chicago woman’s Tweet cost her $50,000? via Chicago Bar-Tender)

© 2009, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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About Thomas MacEntee

What happens when a “tech guy” with a love for history gets laid off during The Great Recession of 2008? You get Thomas MacEntee, a genealogy professional who’s also a blogger, educator, author, social media connector, online community builder and more. Thomas was laid off after a 25-year career in the information technology field, so he started his own genealogy-related business called High Definition Genealogy. He also created an online community of over 3,000 family history bloggers known as GeneaBloggers. His most recent endeavor, Hack Genealogy, is an attempt to “re-purpose today’s technology for tomorrow’s genealogy.” Thomas describes himself as a lifelong learner with a background in a multitude of topics who has finally figured out what he does best: teach, inspire, instigate, and serve as a curator and go-to-guy for concept nurturing and inspiration. Thomas is a big believer in success, and that we all succeed when we help each other find success.

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