Terms of Service documents are an important part of business’s operation, whether it’s a brick and mortar business or a digital one.  These documents are essentially contracts between your business and the various parties – including consumers, users, affiliates, and providers – with which it interacts.  They provide a structure to the business and also offer some protection against lawsuits and other punitive actions filed against your company.

However, that doesn’t mean these documents have to be dense, completely opaque, and impossible to understand.  Terms of Service documentation should be both user friendly and iron-clad.  Below you’ll find five tips for writing (or creating) the best Terms of Service possible for your business.

Enhance the Readability

The simple truth is that users won’t read your Terms of Service if they’re too complex, too lengthy, or worded in much-dreaded legalese.  There’s no reason that Terms of Service documentation can’t be written in plain language that retains all of the same legal power that dense verbiage holds.  Plus, if you do use stilted and obscure terminology, you’re going to have to waste time (and space) explaining what all of it means anyway—better to make it easy to understand in the first place.

For a great example of a company doing this well, check out the TOS page on the website of 500px (a competitor to Flickr).  On the left-hand side of the page, the terms are laid out in lawyer-speak, while the right-hand side of the page contains easily understandable translations.

terms of service

Keep It Simple

In order to keep the documentation brief and to the point, write just enough to cover what you’re offering now.  Don’t write the terms for services you may or may not ever offer.  That’s a temptation that can get you into trouble, especially if those predicted services never come to fruition.

Also, don’t try to take too many rights away from your users—only claim those you need.  For example, don’t claim the perpetual rights to any user-created content that’s shared on your company’s website.  Retain the rights for as long as you see fit and then allow them to revert back to the original owner.  If some content is especially valuable—such as an unsolicited testimonial you want to use in an advertising campaign—you can always negotiate specific rights with the individual creator later on.

Add Simplifications/Examples

The Next Web advocates breaking your Terms of Service into sections (which most of us do anyway) and offering plainer-than-plain language simplifications inside each section so your users can “get the gist” of what each section means, without reading the whole text.  Not only does this make your Terms of Service easy to understand, it provides a visual break so that the document doesn’t look like an excerpt from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

On the other hand, Editorially, the writing/rewriting collaborative website, recommends offering clear examples of what each statement really means as it pertains to your specific business.  For example:

“We will store your personal information, but will not share it with any third parties, except as necessary to provide the services offered. For example, we may store your personal information along with your files and data on a third party server such as Amazon Web Services.”

Feedback is Your Friend

Of course, the first step when it comes to drafting great Terms of Service is to have your internal team read the document.  Ask them to pay special attention to clauses they don’t particularly understand or that sound hostile.  These people are the ones on your side and should be the ones who know the most about what your business does.  If they can’t understand your TOS, nobody else will be able to either.

Next it’s a good idea to have your lawyer read it (use UpCounsel’s services to find one if your company doesn’t yet have legal representation).  They should be able to spot glaring holes, omissions, or contrary clauses without skipping a beat.

Lastly, give your users on opportunity to chime in (such as in a forum or through email communication).  The last thing you want your Terms of Service to do is confuse or alienate your customer base.  The documentation is supposed to be designed as legal protection for you and them – not as a roadblock to doing business.

One Policy to Rule Them All

While it may be tempting to keep your Terms of Service short and sweet, you shouldn’t let the size of the document dictate the content.  It is, after all, an important and legally binding contract between you and your users.  As such, it should contain all of the necessary “Do’s and Don’ts” associated with your business.  These may include:

  • Payment Terms
  • Consequences for Non-Payment
  • Ownership Rights (to user info and user-created content, as well as business info and business-created content)
  • Termination of Services Documentation
  • Litigation Rights

Although it might sound cost prohibitive to hire a lawyer to write your company’s Terms of Service documents, UpCounsel can help get your statements reviewed by someone with an expert’s eye.   Remember, the last thing you want is to find out down the road that you’re not actually covered for some contingency you never even thought of while starting your business!

About the author

Matt Faustman

Matt Faustman

Matt is the co-founder and CEO at UpCounsel. Matt believes in the power of online platforms to change antiquated ways of life and founded UpCounsel to make legal services efficiently accessible. He is responsible for our overall vision and growth of the UpCounsel platform. Before founding UpCounsel, Matt practiced as a startup and business attorney.

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