Web Documents: Contracting Content from Scratch

by in Articles on 29th Dec 2010 · Comments

Doing things for yourself is one of the primary motivation factors in our industry. Outsourcing can be quite expensive and if you’re trying to launch your own start-up or get your web design career out of the starting gate you’ll want to keep the costs as low as possible. As such, I believe when it comes to technical documents like privacy policies, license agreements and copyright statements, it makes better sense to draft up the documents yourself. How? Let me explain the perspective a bit further!

Note: It’s worth stating right now that I’m not a lawyer or legal professional, however I've been writing my own agreements for years and have yet to suffer as a result of doing things in this way. If you do have legal questions that require sound advice, I do still recommend seeking a professional!

Web Documents: Contracting Content from Scratch

Know Exactly What You Want

Before you begin writing such a document it’s important that you know exactly what you want to account for. Having a half baked agreement or contract is pointless! I recommend having a brain storming session to simply decide what you need to state in a document – and then once you have that document drafted you can either remove the stuff which doesn’t make sense or add extra clauses in as the needs become apparent. This task is more about common sense than anything else.

Know Exactly What You Want
Image credit: gun4hire

Figure 1: Irrelevant clauses are a waste of space, don’t include them!

In regards to specific clause recommendations, having a section which defines any necessary terms, the notation that the conditions are subject to change without notice allowing you to update the document, mention of any third party IP you’re working with such as trademarks or patents and something outlining the responsibilities and what both the client and you agree to are useful. You really need to do your homework and think ahead to ensure the comprehensiveness of your work.

Doing Your Research Properly

Taking notes from the above and considering what you need to include, there are some things out there to aid you on your journey. Looking to your competitors has been an ageless tactic to gaining new service ideas to keep up with the market demands, in writing documents for your site you can look at the kind of things they account for and decide if any are worthy of notation within yours. It’s also worth considering what kind of documents they host as to whether a specific one is relevant!

Doing Your Research Properly

Figure 2: Some policies are a declaration of your best practices such as accessibility statements.

While looking at how other websites have built up their own agreements, there’s also the option of perhaps adapting an existing template. A whole bunch of websites offer (some paid some free) pre-built documents that are generically written in order to simply be edited to meet a site’s needs. As these aren’t specific by nature they can be quite limited in their usage – so it’s worth adapting and enhancing the documents to make them better suited to your site or services own requirements.

Don’t Plagiarise, Evolve Instead!

Before we continue further, it’s important that we slap a big ole disclaimer sticker right here in the middle. If you’re going to take inspiration from other people’s documentation, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with doing so (as long as you don’t produce a copy-paste edit). Getting ideas from sources is one thing, but outright plagiarising or stealing their work isn’t smart. Taking such shortcuts will simply mean that you are breaking the law and you’ve a document not aimed at your site.

Don’t Plagiarise, Evolve Instead!

Figure 3: Some licenses like the creative commons encourage adapting and improving upon works.

The great thing about an opportunity to produce something new of your own is in the creativity and specific nature you can bring to the project. No-one other than you will understand your website’s own requirements and needs of visitors, and thus you are by nature the ideal person to set out such standards. If you do want to write such documents, it’s important that what you produce is unique to your own needs – otherwise you may as well pay someone else to write it for you instead.

Over Complicating is Your Enemy

One of the most common reasons I hear from people who are too afraid to produce their own terms of use documents (or something else) is simply because they feel those items need to be really long and complex and worded in some ancient language which last saw the light of day in the mid 1600’s! However this ideal to over complicate is just a myth. There is absolutely no reason why contracts of any nature should be so poorly written that they require a legal expert to understand them.

Over Complicating is Your Enemy
Image credit: porah

Figure 4: Don’t get caught up in wordy fluff which people won’t understand.

If a visitor cannot understand half of what’s in the agreement, they cannot comprehend what they are agreeing too and therefore cannot really agree to anything. When producing your agreements just consider the creative commons. They always outline the basics of what an agreement entails and use the simplest language possible. Removing the complexity and simply saying what you mean in clear and concise sections won’t weaken what you write – but it will instead strengthen it.

Have it Verified (If Possible)

Of course, with all this in mind I wouldn’t want to outright remove the option of seeking some assistance from someone who knows what they’re doing! One option could be to draft up the stuff you want to say yourself and then take that to a legal professional to suggest improvements and / or make tweaks to make it as bulletproof or accurate as possible. Getting something looked at is going to be cheaper by comparison to having them spend hours drafting something from scratch.

Have it Verified (If Possible)
Image credit: creation

Figure 5: Once you’ve written your document, get it checked over.

Perhaps some legal experts reading this may disagree with people writing their own agreements and in some cases I can see why as people often find it hard to say exactly what they mean. But with things that are as “trivial” as your site’s terms of use, accessibility or privacy policies or the statement of copyright you usually find giving additional details from the footnote of pages, I feel it’s useful for designers to produce their own documents to better understand what they’re asking of visitors.

The Best of All Worlds!

While getting a legal professional to verify your work is certainly a good methodology for anything which involves a contract, it’s quite easy to say that there’s no reason why you shouldn’t produce the contract in its basic form yourself – if you feel comfortable doing it of course. Not only will you save money in just having it read rather than drafted and written by the professional, you’re taking steps to improve your own working knowledge of the content that drives your website’s mission.

Gaining experience is a great thing and writing a contract isn’t much different to writing the copy for your website. Ensure that you’re clear with what you say, be specific to what the document should cover and (if needed) get some inspiration from others work (or even get a template). This will give you the best possible opportunity of making your policy an awesome success. Working with clients means knowing how to run a business and set agreements, this task is just an extension of that!

More Resources

Questions

Do you write your own agreements and policies for your websites? What kind of files do you draft up accessibility, privacy, terms of service, license agreement or something else? And what are your thoughts on self-sourced documents? Feel free to let us know in the comments!

Alexander Dawson is a freelance web designer, author and recreational software developer specializing in web standards, accessibility and UX design. As well as running a business called HiTechy and writing, he spends time on Twitter, SitePoint’s forums and other places, helping those in need.