Safety Net

Plan Ahead

Before designing an Internet presence, be sure you know what you're trying to accomplish so you can include the elements you need. Computer professionals can make your site appealing, but it's not their job to make business decisions. Consult a lawyer about legal issues that might arise in your particular application.

As with any other advertising materials, avoid false and misleading statements about your products or services because courts may interpret those statements as warranties. Kaminky's tips:

  • Internet site name: This is the address users need to get to your site. Chances are you'll want to include your company name, but there could be hundreds of other businesses worldwide with the same name. Contact InterNIC Registration Services in Herndon, Virginia, which will check for conflicts and register your name for a fee. Even then, it's best to conduct a full trademark search to make sure your site name doesn't infringe on another company's rights.

  • Copyright infringement: If you use text, music, graphics or other material in your site, find out who owns the rights to it and get permission to use it. Owners of those properties haven't been policing the Net as aggressively as other media, but that's changing, Kaminky says.

  • Ownership of creative design: Considerable effort goes into the creation of a Web site, which may include graphics, hypertext and interactive buttons. Before hiring someone to design one for you, draw up documents establishing your ownership of the finished property so you don't get into a lawsuit over who owns the site.

  • Bulletin boards: If you provide a bulletin board or newsgroup where people can post messages, upload images or chat, be aware that site owners have been sued for defamation and for copyright infringement because of messages and images appearing in their sites. Court decisions on the liability of the site owner have been inconsistent. Oddly, site owners who do not monitor and edit such uploads have been less likely to be held liable for the content of their bulletin boards.

  • Downloads: If you permit software to be downloaded through your site, remember that it could be downloaded to nearly any country in the world. Check into U.S. export controls, and be sure your contracts with any advertisers using your site address those controls.

  • Product sales: Make sure your product liability insurance covers online sales. If another business sells products through your site, draw up an agreement stating responsibility for product liability, warranties and taxes. Make sure all agreements between your business and its advertisers and users specify which state's or country's laws will apply in any dispute.

  • Confidential information: An increasing number of laws and regulations govern consumer privacy. If you compile a list of e-mail addresses for targeted advertising, review your intended use against these laws.

First and foremost, however, don't try this alone. Get experienced legal counsel to guide you through the Web.

Steven C. Bahls, dean of Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, teaches entrepreneurship law. Freelance writer Jane Easter Bahls specializes in business and legal topics.

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This article was originally published in the February 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Safety Net.

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