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Laws to Know Before Adding User-Generated Content to Your Website

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on December 01, 2015 11:59 AM

The Internet has made consumer engagement easier than ever before. Consumers can tweet about your products, connect with your company on Facebook, or follow the brand on Instagram. Many companies also allow for users to generate content directly on the company website. Apple's Support Communities are a good example of this, as are FindLaw Answers.

But before you add user-generated content to your website, you'll want to make sure you're up to speed on legal protections and risks. Here are the laws to know before you start opening your corporate website to user-generated content.

1. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998

For companies hosting user content, the DMCA can provide important protections against copyright infringement. The federal law creates safe harbor for "service providers" who store information at the direction of users. That safe harbor can be an absolute bar to your monetary liability for a user's copyright infringement. It is why, for example, artists sue users who illegally trade music, instead of suing the platforms on which they trade.

To get those benefits, you must have a policy for removing infringing content and terminating repeat offenders. According to Andrew Boortz, of Reed Smith, those policies generally include four parts: the name of the service provider's copyright agent; a notice procedure for alleged infringement; how you will respond to notices; and the ability of user's to appeal content removal.

2. The Communications Decency Act of 1996

Like the DMCA, the CDA gives important protections to online service providers. (The law was originally intended to regulate pornographic content online, hence its name, but its censoring provisions were struck down by the Supreme Court almost immediately after its passage.) Section 230 of the act states that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." In short, it protects you from being liable for statements users make on your platform.

But the CDA has its limits. It doesn't protect against federal criminal liability or intellectual property claims, for example. If your company is also participating in the creation of content, not just hosting it, it may be liable under the CDA as well.

3. Everything Else

The DCMA and CDA are the two major laws governing user-generated content online. But they aren't the only ones. There may be applicable state laws or relevant federal protections for children online. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule, for example, applies to online services directed to children under 13-years old. You'll want to do a searching review of potentially relevant laws before bringing user-generated content onto your corporate website.

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