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5 Key Steps to Legally Protect Your Online Course

Oct 19, 2023
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As an online course creator, you have a lot to protect in your online course. Digital products are the core of your business, so you want to take steps to legally protect your online course(s) and your business. Getting your course from a nugget of an idea in your brain to the checkout page where your customer is paying you to purchase it is no small feat. It takes a lot of work to get your course into the hands of your students, so you want to be sure you are taking the important steps to legally protect your course, and at the same time your online business. 


words terms and conditions written on chalkboard 


Start with Course Terms and Conditions


When your customers click the buy button on the checkout page, you’ll want to be sure that they are agreeing to your online course terms and conditions. This is a type of contract that your customers agree to before purchasing your course. The process to obtain your customers’ agreement to your course terms and conditions is a “click and accept” process.  They need to check a box that they have read and agree to the terms of enrolling in your course prior to purchasing it.  If they don’t want to agree to these terms, then they can choose not to purchase the course.


Here are some important concepts that should be in your course terms and conditions. Ideally you should have terms and conditions for each course you sell, especially if things like your refund policy or benefits that you provide vary from course to course that you sell.  Here are 10 key provisions you’ll want to include:


  1. Intellectual Property ~ Tell your customers your course is protected by intellectual property rights, such as copyright and trademark, and that there are consequences for stealing or misusing your content. 


  1. License to Use ~ Let your students know how they can legally use your content, and under what circumstances they might lose those rights, like breaching the terms and conditions. 


  1. Confidentiality and User Accounts ~ This comes up in a few ways. Your content itself is confidential and proprietary. Your students may participate in group settings where the information provided is expected to have a certain level of confidentiality. Students should also be expected to protect their login credentials and not share these with anyone else. 


  1. Payments, Refunds and Cancellations ~ To manage expectations and avoid potential disputes, identify your policies regarding payments, refunds and cancellations. You’ll want to have these clearly defined, especially if a dispute arises with one of your students. With a policy clearly in place, you’ll be in a much better position to fight back against claims for refunds or chargebacks with a student’s credit card issuer. 


  1. Disclaimers ~ There are a few types of disclaimers you’ll want in your terms and conditions. Most importantly, you’ll want your students to know you are providing informational and educational content, and not any kind of professional advice. Disclaimers help set realistic expectations with your students and help minimize potential liability for the course creator arising from user dissatisfaction or misunderstandings.


  1. Limitation of Liability ~ To further protect your interests, your course terms should include a limitation of liability clause. This provision sets reasonable boundaries on your liability and can potentially reduce financial risks associated with unforeseen circumstances or user claims.


  1. Course Access ~ Your course terms should make it clear that you expect certain behavior inside of your course, and that if customers violate community standards it may become necessary to terminate or suspend a user's access to your course. This provision protects your ability to maintain a safe and supportive learning environment for all of your students. 


  1. Privacy and Data Collection ~ Privacy and the protection of personal information are important topics to cover in your course terms and conditions. Although your website privacy policy will cover these topics in much more depth (discussed below), you’ll want to be transparent and build trust with your customers by stating your commitment to protecting their privacy. 


  1. Indemnification ~ To help protect yourself from potential legal claims, include an indemnification clause in your terms and conditions. This provision helps shift responsibility and potential liability back to the user, reducing your risk if there is a legal dispute and claims are made against you.


  1. Disputes ~ Your terms and conditions should contain information about how disputes are handled. Will your customers be able to file a lawsuit in court, or are they required to use alternative dispute resolution, such as binding arbitration? 

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Ensure Your Website Policies are Up-To-Date


Your website should have 3 policies in place: website terms and conditions, a disclaimer, and a privacy policy. Your website terms and conditions differ from your course terms and conditions.  While there may be some overlap between them, they serve different purposes.  Your website terms and conditions cover use anywhere on your website, whereas your course terms and conditions apply to use of your course. Students enrolled in your course may end up navigating other parts of your website, and visitors to your website may end up purchasing your course. To learn more about website terms and conditions, read my Blog, Your Website Trilogy of Legal Documents: Creating Trust, Legal Protection and Compliance - Part II Essential Terms of Use


Your website also needs a disclaimer. Although you’ll also want disclaimer language in your course terms and conditions, your website needs disclaimer language, too. Visitors to your website should have access to your disclaimers as they may consume your free content and you’ll want to let them know up front that your content is educational and informational only. To learn more about website disclaimers, read my Blog, Your Website Trilogy of Legal Documents: Creating Trust, Legal Protection and Compliance ~ Part III: Bulletproofing Your Website ~ Harnessing the Power of Disclaimers


Finally, your website is legally required to have a privacy policy. While the other two website documents, the terms and conditions and disclaimer, are legally important to your website, they are not legally required. This is not the case with the privacy policy, which is legally required if you collect any personal information, such as an email address, from your website visitors.  To learn more about website privacy policies, read my Blog, Your Website Trilogy of Legal Documents: Creating Trust, Legal Protection and Compliance - Part I Privacy Policies.


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Consider Copyrighting Your Course


Your original course is your intellectual property as soon as you create it and put it in tangible form, whether your content is videos, PDFs, workbooks, audio files or other kinds of course assets. You can always use the copyright symbol, the ©, on any of your original content, but to get the most protection for your course, you’ll need to register it with the U.S. Copyright Office.  Without registering your course, you would not be able to sue someone for infringement of your intellectual property. There is a fee required to register your work with the copyright office, so you’ll want to select your most important content to copyright, and you’ll want to be sure it’s in good shape before you file. While you can correct minor mistakes without filing a new registration, a remake or significant change in your work would require a new registration, and a new filing fee. 


Consider a Trademark for Your Course Name


A companion intellectual property right to copyright is trademark. While copyright protects the expression of your ideas, trademarks protect your brand. When you trademark the name of your course, or a tagline you use with your course, you have the right to exclusive use of that name in the category where the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted you protection. You can claim a common law trademark when you are using a name or tagline with your course, and use the symbol ™ with it.  To use the ® symbol, however, you must have received official trademark protection. Although you can file for trademark protection on your own, the process can be tricky to navigate and you might consider hiring experienced trademark counsel. Not all names and taglines are eligible for protection, and some may receive lower forms of protection and you might not want to spend the funds to protect it.  


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Tie It All Together and Be Consistent


When you are putting all of your course assets together, including all the parts of your funnel, advertising, sales page, emails and social media posts, make sure you are consistent across all of them. If you are launching for the 3rd time, make sure you change the price everywhere, and that your email sequence isn’t promoting a higher price and your sales page the price from the last launch. You’ll also want to check the bonuses and benefits of what’s included with your course. If you make a promise on your sales page to include a bonus, but you didn’t really intend to offer it or it isn’t available any longer, this can create several problems for you. It can open you up to demands for refunds, and it breaches trust with your customers. Take the time to double check and proofread all parts of your offer, sales process and course. 


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Legally Protect Your Course with These Five Steps


Course terms, website policies, copyrights, trademarks and consistency are 5 key steps you can take to legally protect your online course. While you may not be able to implement all of these at once or right away, any steps you can take will enhance your legal protection for your course and your business. 


Do you need Online Course Terms and Conditions or Website Documents?  Head on over to the Step Up Your Legal™ Template Shop so you can legally protect your online course. Be sure to take all of these steps before you launch your online course - you can’t get these protections after your customers buy from you.