How to Draft Terms of Service for Startups

If your company operates an online website, app or service, you need a Terms of Service (ToS) agreement.

A ToS agreement, sometimes referred to as Terms and Conditions (T&C) or Terms of Use (ToU), is an agreement that outlines the rules and guidelines that users must agree to in order to use a website, application or service (service). It’s essentially a contract between the service provider (e.g. a startup) and the user. For startups, having a well-drafted ToS is particularly important for several reasons:

  • Regulatory Compliance. A ToS helps startups comply with legal requirements, such as consumer protection regulations. Different countries or regions may have different laws that apply to online services, so it’s important to ensure compliance in all the regions the startup operates.
  • Liability Limitation. A ToS can include disclaimers and limitations of liability that help protect the startup from potential legal action. For example, if a user suffers losses or damages as a result of using the service, the ToS might limit the startup’s liability.
  • Protecting Intellectual Property. Intellectual property rights such as copyrights, trademarks and patents are often a startup’s most valuable assets. The ToS can specify how users can use the startup’s intellectual property and what actions will be considered as infringements.
  • Squashing the Trolls. By setting rules for acceptable use, a ToS allows the startup to define what types of behavior are permitted on their platform, and gives them grounds for terminating accounts or taking other actions against users who violate these rules.
  • Making Money. For startups with various monetization strategies (e.g., subscriptions, advertisements, data selling), the ToS can detail the specifics of these arrangements, ensuring that users are aware of how the startup makes money and what their own obligations might be.
  • Establishing Trust. A clear and fair ToS can help build trust with users. By being transparent about how the service operates and what’s expected of users, the startup can create a more trustworthy relationship, which is crucial for acquiring and retaining customers.

These agreements can take many forms, but below are the bare-minimum terms that your startup should include in its independent contractor agreement:

  • Access and Use of the Services
  • Intellectual Property Rights
  • User Content
  • Privacy
  • Payment Terms
  • Limitation of Liability / Indemnification / No Warranty
  • Disputes

Of course, every service/app is different, so you definitely want to hire legal counsel to draft a custom set of terms for your product and keep them updates as laws change and the startup evolves. If you are looking for legal counsel, feel free to reach out to us here.

Access and Use of Services

The “Access to Services” clause is critical because it defines the conditions under which users are allowed to access and use the service. Here are some common issues addressed:

  • Who Is Eligible to Use the Product. Some products have age requirements, which may be driven by regulations such as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in the United States. Some products are only available in specific regions or countries. This section would clarify any geographical limitations or restrictions for accessing the service. The product might be intended only for business use, consumer use or both. This would be specified to make clear the intended audience of the service. There might be other eligibility criteria such as not being a previously banned user, not being a competitor, or meeting certain qualifications or certifications.
  • Account Creation, Maintenance and Deletion. This sets the requirements for creating an account, including providing accurate information, setting up a username/password, and potentially completing a verification process. Users are often held responsible for maintaining the confidentiality of their account credentials and for all activities that occur under their account. This section would emphasize the importance of safeguarding login information and reporting any unauthorized use. This section might also include information on how to delete an account as well as how user data is handled upon account deletion or termination, including any data retention policies.

It is crucial for service providers to be clear and thorough in the “Access to Services” clause as it sets the foundation for the relationship between the service provider and the user. This section plays a significant role in ensuring both parties understand their rights and responsibilities concerning access to the service.

Intellectual Property Rights

The intellectual property (IP) clause in the TOS is crucial to protect the rights and interests of both the startup and its users. Here are some common issues addressed:

  • The Startup Owns All of Its Content. The startup owns all of the content and materials on the service, including text, graphics, audio clips, video clips, software and other elements. This includes copyrights, trademarks, patents, trade secrets and other intellectual property rights.
  • The User Has a License to Use the Service. The startup grants the user a limited, non-exclusive, non-transferable, revocable license to use the service for personal, generally non-commercial purposes.
  • User Restrictions on Content. The user may use the service but has some specific restrictions on how it interacts with the startup’s content. Common restrictions include prohibitions on copying, reproducing, modifying, distributing, displaying publicly, selling or creating derivative works based on the startup’s content without explicit permission.

The IP clause is vital for startups to safeguard their assets and control how their services and content are used. At the same time, it helps inform users of their rights and limitations regarding the use of the service and its content. It is advisable for startups to work with legal counsel to ensure that their IP clause is comprehensive and complies with applicable laws and regulations.

User Content

The User Content clause in the ToS addresses how users may contribute content to the platform on message boards, comments, blogs, chats or other interactive features. Typically, this covers the following issues:

  • User’s Responsibility for Content. Simply put, the user is responsible for the content they post. This includes any consequences, legal or otherwise, arising from the posted content, such as claims of defamation, invasion of privacy, or infringement of intellectual property rights.
  • License Grant to the Startup. The startup has a license to use, display, reproduce, distribute and otherwise exploit the user-generated content. The license might be described as non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicensable and transferable for the purpose of operating, promoting and improving the services, or for developing new services.
  • Content Standards. The user is prohibited from posting content that is illegal, defamatory, obscene, abusive, invasive of privacy or infringing on someone else’s intellectual property rights. Sometimes, there are also community guidelines that set the tone for the community and describe the types of contributions that are encouraged or discouraged.
  • The startup reserves the right to remove any user content that it believes violates the ToS or content standards, at its sole discretion. Besides content removal, the startup may also take further actions against users who violate content standards, which can include suspending or terminating the user’s account. The ToS might also provide information on how other users can report content that they believe violates the content standards.

This “User Content” clause is vital for maintaining the integrity and safety of the platform and its community. It helps to protect the legal interests of the startup while setting clear expectations for users regarding what kind of content they can post and what actions might be taken if they violate the rules. It also helps in ensuring that the startup has the rights necessary to display user-generated content and use it in ways that benefit the service.

Payment Terms

If your startup offers any paid services, it’s essential to include a section outlining the payment terms and conditions. This section describes how users will be charged for your services, as well as any fees or taxes that may apply.

For instance, you may offer monthly or yearly subscription plans, with different pricing tiers based on the level of service provided. You should outline how users can sign up for these plans and how they will be charged (such as automatic billing to a credit card).

Additionally, you should make it clear whether there are any fees associated with canceling or changing a subscription plan. For example, if users cancel their subscription before the end of the billing cycle, will they receive a refund for the remaining time? Will there be any penalties or charges for making changes to their plan?

It’s also important to address any taxes that may apply to your services. Depending on where your startup is located and where your users are located, there may be different tax requirements that you need to comply with. You should consult with legal counsel to ensure that you are meeting all applicable tax laws.

By including clear payment terms and conditions in your ToS, you can help avoid confusion and disputes with your users over billing issues. It also demonstrates transparency about how your startup generates revenue and provides value to its customers.


This clause serves to inform users that the website has a separate Privacy Policy, which is intended to protect their personal information. The Privacy Policy outlines how the website collects, uses and shares user data, as well as the measures taken to safeguard this information. By linking to the Privacy Policy, users can gain a better understanding of how their personal information is treated and can feel reassured that their privacy is being respected. If you would like to learn more about the importance of Privacy Policies and how they work, click here.

Limitation of Liability / Indemnification / No Warranty

The “Limitation of Liability,” “Indemnification” and “No Warranty” sections are common clauses that help to protect the startup from legal claims and define the extent of their obligations. These clauses are important for managing risks and setting clear expectations for the users. Here’s an explanation of each section:

  • Limitation of Liability. This clause restricts the amount and types of damages that a user can claim from the service provider in the event that something goes wrong, such as data loss, service interruption or any other issue that arises from the use of the service. It may include a cap on the monetary damages or may not allow monetary damages at all.
  • The indemnification clause requires users to protect the service provider against any claims, damages, losses, or expenses that arise from the user’s actions or violation of the ToS. It typically covers claims arising from things like user content, data they provide, violations of laws, and any other action taken by the user that causes harm to a third party or breaches the agreement.
  • No Warranty. This clause informs users that the service is provided “as is” and that the service provider makes no warranties or representations about the quality, reliability, availability, or functionality of the service. The user uses the service at their own risk and that the service provider is not responsible if the service does not meet the user’s expectations or requirements.

It is crucial for businesses to carefully draft these sections in consultation with legal counsel to ensure they are compliant with the laws of the jurisdictions they operate in and adequately protect the interests of the service provider. These clauses also serve to inform users of the limits of the service provider’s obligations and the risks they are assuming by using the service.


The Disputes section of the ToS agreement outlines the procedures and venues for resolving any legal disputes that may arise between the user and the service provider. Its purpose is to provide a predictable and orderly process for handling disagreements, often aiming to minimize the costs and complexities associated with litigation.

This section often specifies the jurisdiction’s laws that will govern the ToS agreement and any disputes that may arise from it. Many ToS agreements include a clause requiring that disputes be resolved through binding arbitration instead of court litigation. Arbitration is often seen as a faster and less costly alternative to going to court. By agreeing to arbitration, users often waive their rights to bring a lawsuit in court or to participate in a class action. Mandatory arbitration may vary by jurisdiction.

The Dispute Resolution section is essential for both the service provider and the user as it sets expectations about how disagreements will be handled. Users should pay careful attention to this section, as it can have a significant impact on their rights in the event of a dispute. Similarly, businesses should consult with legal counsel to ensure that their dispute resolution clauses are fair, enforceable and in compliance with applicable laws.

In conclusion, having a ToS agreement is essential for any startup that operates an online website, app or service. It helps to ensure regulatory compliance and limit liability, protects intellectual property, sets rules for acceptable user behavior, details payment terms and establishes trust with users. It’s important to work with legal counsel to ensure that your ToS is comprehensive and compliant with applicable laws and regulations. By including clear and transparent terms and conditions, you can help to avoid disputes and build a stronger relationship with your users.

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