Legal · Legal agreements

Are Legal Documents Public Domain?

Ioannis MSc IT professional

January 30th, 2017

Is is OK to take the terms of service from a website and just change the details, such as names? This might not be advisable, but it seems like a nice shortcut to save some initial legal fees.

In other words, are terms of service and other legal documents public domain?

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Joleen Hughes Your Lawyers Should Rock!

Last updated on January 30th, 2017

One follow up comment: I disagree that it is easier and less expensive to have a legal advisor review your edits to someone else's form. The reality is, most legal advisors have their own forms to pull from and it will be far less time-consuming and expensive if you have an hour long phone call to go over the details of what you are doing and let an expert draft something that will meet your needs. I guarantee it is cheaper and more protective than the alternative.

Irwin Stein Very experienced (40 years) corporate,securities and real estate attorney.

January 30th, 2017

The terms of service and most other legal documents vary deal to deal and jurisdiction to jurisdiction. If you get it wrong and get into a lawsuit later, it will cost you a lot more than you will save. That's the professional answer. On a personal level, some company paid a lawyer to write what you propose to steal. If a theft is the way you chose to start your business, then watch out for karma down the road.

Juan Zarco Managing Director, Silicon Valley Ventures Growth Partners llp

February 1st, 2017

Since some commentators are using "programming code" as analogies, let me add that even computer software game designers, programmers can insert certain standard subroutines such as "pinging balls" as part of the programming. Not originally written by the programmer, this subroutine becomes part of the overall program. Other programmers abandon assembly language for other developed languages with standard subroutines to speed up the work. In answer to liability, it would be the final work product.

Joleen Hughes Your Lawyers Should Rock!

January 30th, 2017

No to both questions. First, documents created and posted on a website are generally owned by the website owner, and once published are the copyrighted materials of the website, so copying theTOS is copyright infringement. Second, the terms are not going to be completely relevant to your website and services offered so you have potential consumer legal problems (depending on what you do) at both the state and federal level. If you provide goods and services and/or collect certain data from your visitors outside the US you have international law to comply with too. Find a law firm that knows this type of law specifically and will workmwith you on a flat rate,. Ultimately you will save yourself potentially tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars by protecting yourself.

Irwin Stein Very experienced (40 years) corporate,securities and real estate attorney.

January 30th, 2017

I find the attitude expressed to be troubling. Is it OK for someone to just steal the code for an app? Its out there, isn't it? The forms that are found in law books tend to be bare bones and in almost every case need to be adopted for specific situations. If you will steal the work of someone's lawyer, will you also steal an hour or two from your own employees? How about cheating on your taxes? Anyone who suggested that it was OK to cut and paste TOS from another site without paying your own lawyer should not call themselves professionals. You are thieves, plan and simple.

Juan Zarco Managing Director, Silicon Valley Ventures Growth Partners llp

January 30th, 2017

Does a published TOS have exclusive ownership of the English language? I doubt it. I would not be surprised that even attorneys take a published TOS and tailor it for their clients. Indeed law school libraries have many books of standard forms and contracts to conform their clients. But I do agree with responses commenting on the specific needs of the client that vary by jurisdiction. I call that legal googling when copying online as the non-lawyer is not aware of the granular legal issues. So it is a major risk. And I myself have witnessed that scenario and the individual suffered a lot more than having paid a lawyer to write the document.

Dane Madsen Organizational and Operational Strategy Consultant

January 30th, 2017

I agree with all this - but if you copy it, modify it to meet your needs, then run it past your counsel disclosing the source, you will likely not have an issue.

Juan Zarco Managing Director, Silicon Valley Ventures Growth Partners llp

January 30th, 2017

Every law library of major law schools contain books that show sample contracts, boiler plate (like TOS), that are used as the beginning of the drafting of specific contracts for clients. Many CLE courses also provide sample legal language even for TOS. I certainly used them. Now, if anyone feels that it is "stealing", then I suggest to begin a legal claim of violation of copyright laws to begin such actions. Not every word of the English language is protected by copyright. And then demand that every publisher that publish compendia of legal phrases and standard contracts to "cease and desist." Good luck on that. Again, I never suggest to adopt every word verbatim. Each TOS must be tailored for the specific website, but it doesn't have to start from scratch.

Lester de Souza Building community for entrepreneurs

February 1st, 2017

The law in each jurisdiction can and usually is different. Sometimes editing someone else's work may be expedient. Question: Who is ultimately liable for the legal documents you use? If it is you then others here have covered the answer. If it is the lawyer, the lawyer accepts responsibility for the product regardless of whether it is starting from scratch or editing someone else's work. The risk either way is a bit like editing someone else's code or writing the code from scratch. Would you charge less for editing some code given to you rather than writing it from scratch and then claim the credit / responsibility for the result?

Juan Zarco Managing Director, Silicon Valley Ventures Growth Partners llp

January 30th, 2017

Let me add that you can take a sample TOS that fits your situation and discuss it with an experienced TOS counsel in that space. First, you save time in understanding the TOS, and, second, it should reduce the legal expenses as it means that the outside counsel will simply edit that sample to fit your needs.