Posting Comments and Personal Stories on a Website

What’s the liability of a website for user’s comments?

Many websites invite and post comments from users. Sometimes these are in the form of comments, other times they are reviews, and in other cases, a site may invite opinions or stories that are aggregated over several pages.  What’s the liability of a website for user’s comments?

The good news is that your site can avoid most liability by abiding by the  Digital Millenium Copyright Act  (which shields you from claims of copyright infringement) and the rules set forth in  Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act  (which shields you from liability for statements published by others). Keep in mind, you must follow the rules for the shields to work.  In general, your concerns for posting comments personal stories are outlined below. The best way to implement these rules is to incorporate them into a set of terms and conditions that you post on one web page. Then as a condition of signing in to make comments, the user checks a box or clicks to accept the terms and conditions when submitting the comment:

  • Copyright:  You should obtain an assurance that the work is original to the author and that the author has the right to permit publication and that the author grants you the limited right to post it online. If you want more rights -- say to publish a collection of comments and stories in eBook format -- you should acquire those rights now, at the time of submission. The same is true if you want the option for additional rights – for example, to republish material at another site or in another language.
  • Invasion of Privacy and Trade Secrets:  Comments and personal stories often involve personal details that would be otherwise be private. You need an assurance that the posting won't reveal any personal or trade secrets that will cause your site to get sued.
  • Children's Privacy:  We would suggest avoiding taking any materials from children under 13.  (You should seek an assurance that person submitting the story is 13 or older.) That’s the approach facebook takes, for example. If you start taking information from children under that age, you'll need to deal with a law known as  COPPA  and that may not be worth the effort.
  • Defamation: Comments or personal stories that include untrue statements about others could lead to  defamation  suits. You need an assurance there's nothing defamatory.

So, in summary, you need permission to publish and assurances that the publications don't violate any laws. As noted, these assurances and permissions can be bundled in a click-to-accept statement that the user must agree to before uploading the information. Any electronic  method of assent  that can be verified -- checking a box, clicking to accept, etc. --  will suffice.

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