Online courses are taking off! Everyone has one or every one wants to have one. That’s because it’s a win-win situation for everyone involved. The great thing about having an online-based business is that you can reach a wider range of people than if you were to operate your business locally. But, that doesn’t give you more hours in the day. An online course allows you to scale your business by reaching hundreds of people at the same time.
For that reason, an online course is a very valuable business asset. My goal is to help you protect that asset because the last thing you want is to put so much time and energy into creating your course and have someone rip you off by copying or redistributing your work, or end up suing you because of it. I came up with the idea of this podcast because last week, Nicaila Matthews of Side Hustle Pro did a podcast about How To Create Your First Online Course. I thought covering the legal aspects of offering your course would be a great complement to her podcast.
Below I’ve given some detailed explanation but make sure the download the cheatsheet for sample provisions.
Here we go!
NUMBER ONE: ADVERTISING
I know how excited you get when you can finally offer your course. You want to tell your audience about all of the wonderful results they will get if they participate. But I caution you to be very careful about any claims you make. Pursuant to the Federal Trade Commission Act:
- advertising must be truthful and non deceptive;
- you must be able to back your claims or promise with evidence; and
- advertising cannot be unfair (so unreasonable a consumer could not figure it out).
If your advertising is considered false or misleading, the FTC could fine you stiff penalties (as much as $45,000 PER DAY!). Furthermore, if you use testimonials, they must be testimonials from the average user. That means if 30 people buy your course and only two achieve the desired results then they are not your average user. You can still use these testimonials, but you must qualify it.
Cheatsheet includes sample testimonial language.
NUMBER TWO: REFUND POLICY
- Is there a refund? You could have a “no refund” policy. And that is something you want to consider when selling digital content. Just make sure you make it clear.
- The time frame within which to request a refund. Many people who buy online courses will not access it for weeks, sometimes months. So make it clear that if they want to request a refund, it is within X days of the purchase date.
- What kind of refund? Partial, full?
***SEE CHEATSHEET FOR SAMPLE LANGUAGE FOR REFUND POLICY
- Name of your course. State the name of your program and what you are offering – again, good to be specific.
- Fees. State how much the course costs and what the different payment options are if you have different payment options. You also want them to acknowledge that they are giving you permission to automatically debit their card each month to collect payment. And finally,explain what will happen if they stop making payments (i.e. their access will be terminated).
- Refund Policy. Already addressed above
- Disclaimers. You want to include the standard disclaimers notifying your buyers that the information in your course is for informational and educational purposes only and that you are not a financial advisor, lawyer, or doctor (and if you are, just say that even though I am a lawyer, doctor, or financial advisor, this still isn’t ____ advice.). You also want to include an earnings disclaimer explaining that you do not make any guarantee that they will earn a certain amount (or any amount of money) by participating in your online course.
- Intellectual Property Rights. Again, you do not want to simply cut and paste this provision because you want to make sure it explicitly states what your users are not allowed to do with your content. I’ve seen many that simply say: “this program is protected by intellectual property law.” You should enumerate exactly what they are NOT allowed to do with your digital content (i.e. cannot copy, sell, upload, redistribute, exploit, repackage, etc. your content for commercial use). You should also list what they do have permission to do (i.e. can download and print out materials for you own personal use or for your personal use in your business). They should agree that they will not infringe upon your copyright and trademark laws. Finally, because you can’t possibly think of everything they could do, you want to state that all rights not listed in your agreement are reserved for you.
***SEE CHEATSHEET FOR SAMPLE DISCLAIMERS
NUMBER FOUR: COPYRIGHT
Copyright protects original artistic expression, i.e. music, lyrics, books, etc. Digital content is also protected against copyright infringement. The moment you publish the content on your blog or release it on the internet, it has copyright protection. You don’t even need to put the “©” on your content. It doesn’t hurt to include the copyright symbol on your material though, because this way you can let readers know that you are claiming copyright ownership of the materials and if anyone wants to copy or redistribute it, they know who to contact. But, there is a benefit to registering your content with the US Copyright Office. If you register your copyright within three months of publishing it and someone infringes on your right AFTER registration, you are entitled to damages up to $150,000. If they infringe upon your right before it’s registered, you have to do more work to get damages.
NUMBER FIVE: TRADEMARK
Obtaining a trademark is more complex than copyright, and protects a business name, a logo, a phrase, or the name of a product. You should give serious consideration to trademarking your online course because not doing so could have a direct impact on your ability to even sell or use your own products. I know what you’re thinking, that means I have to hire a lawyer, or that means it’s going to cost a lot of money, but think about this, after putting in all of your hard work and resources, and marketing your product and then finding out you can’t use the name you were planning on using. Or that you’ve been selling your product of a year and someone contacts you with a “Cease and Desist” letter because you are infringing on their trademark. So before getting started, do a search to make sure the name you want to use is not taken. Start by searching the USPTO trademark database, then do a google search to see if anyone is using the name already because they may have a “common law” trademark and search your state entity forming agency (it’s the State Corporation Commission (“SCC”) in Virginia) to see if that name has been registered by someone.
Federal Trade Commission’s Brochure on Advertising and Marketing on the Internet
FTC – Health and Fitness Claims
Advertising FAQs – A Guide for Small Businesses
Copyright General FAQs
Copyright Registration Portal (application to copyright your material)
USPTO Trademark Search Database
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