"I'm planning to set up a fashion accessories website.
"I think I will be selling mostly on Amazon, eBay and other online platforms, but after watching your YouTube video 'Doing Business on the Internet' (www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7eRDI2_pMU), I realize it's going to be tough to build a distinctive brand without my own website.
"What are some of the legal things I need to think about before my site 'goes live.' Do I really need the 30-page Terms and Conditions document that I see on other websites? Nobody reads those things, in my opinion."
I've said this before (on YouTube and elsewhere), and I'll say it again: Every small business needs a website of its own, especially if the business owner is looking to build a distinctive brand. There are three reasons:
--Everybody expects you to have one (if your company name were, say, Suzie's Fantasies and www.suziesfantasies.com weren't your website, it would be an instant credibility kill).
--There is only one place on the internet -- only one -- where you can sell stuff and keep 100 percent of the profits, and that's your own website.
--When you sell from your own website, you make the rules. When you sell on Amazon, eBay or anywhere else online, you have to follow their rules, and you may not agree with their rules.
What's more, all of your pages on social media, eBay, Amazon and elsewhere should have one primary goal: to drive traffic to your website.
The legal documents you need for a retail website are fairly straightforward.
Copyright Notice. OK, strictly speaking, this isn't a document. But the federal copyright notice should appear as a footer on all pages on your website, not just your home page.
If you have a corporation or a limited liability company, the copyright should be in the company's name, not your name.
The "all rights reserved" part of the notice isn't required by law, but it's good to have -- translated into layperson's English, it means "Unless I've given you permission to use any of this stuff, you don't have permission, so don't use it unless you have a high tolerance for pain."
Terms and Conditions AKA "the User's Agreement." Yes, you are right: Very few people read the legal documents on websites. There is, however, one who does: a lawyer representing someone who wants to sue you and is looking for loopholes to crawl through to make your life miserable.
For this reason, I'm not a fan of legal documents on my clients' websites being written in plain English. Plain English is not precise enough to prevent lawsuits. Give me old-fashioned legalese any day of the week. Since nobody is reading your agreement anyway, why are you concerned about making it easy to read? These documents exist for one reason only: to protect you against liability. Let your lawyer go crazy here and make the document as tight and ironclad as possible.
Be sure the customer accepts your agreement terms as part of the checkout process. I really like the feature that requires customers to scroll down to the end of the document before the "I accept" button is enabled.
Returns and Exchanges Policy. Go to any UPS store any day of the week and count the number of boxes with merchandise being returned to Amazon, Zappos and other online retailers. Your customers expect to know exactly when they can and can't return merchandise.
Many retailers bury this information in their website terms and conditions document, and I think that's a mistake. The returns and exchanges policy should appear as a link at the bottom of each page on your website. That way, the customers can easily find the information they need, and it will help stave off claims like "I didn't know I couldn't return the dress a year later."
Wholesale Terms. If you allow other businesses to have wholesale accounts, then your wholesale terms and conditions should be spelled out in a separate policy document, again with a link at the bottom of each webpage.
Other Policies. If you have lots of content on your website, consider a copyright and permissions policy that lets people know when and how they can use your copyrighted material. If you have blogs or other social media features on your site, you may need a separate social media rules and regulations document outlining acceptable behavior.
No two websites are exactly alike in their legal needs, so try not to borrow another site's legal documents. Tell your lawyer what you're planning to do on your website, and have him or her tailor the documents you will need. It will be well worth the expense.
And if you do decide to borrow someone else's documents, please be sure to change the company name before you post them online.
Cliff Ennico (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.
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