How to Protect Yourself and Your Online Program – Transcript

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[Intro Music] This is Office Talk with Annette Stepanian.


Welcome back to another episode of Office Talk. In this week’s episode, I want to talk to you all about online courses and the things you need to be thinking about when you launch an online course, at least from a legal perspective. 

Now, we all know course creation isn’t a new thing. In fact, it’s more than a $300 billion industry. That’s billion with a B. This includes free and paid online courses from universities and different institutions. But business owners are also creating and teaching those courses to and some of them have built very, very lucrative businesses doing so. 

If course creation is something that you want to get into, or maybe you’ve already taken the leap and you have a course of yours under your belt, there are some important things to keep in mind from a legal perspective. 

And look, you’re putting a lot of time and effort to creating a learning opportunity for your audience. Which means that like any other business venture, you’re putting yourself at risk if you don’t have the right protections in place ahead of time. 

So in today’s episode, I want to tell you about a few things to consider when creating a course and how to protect yourself and your students in the future. 

Now, I think one of the easiest and best things that you could do is to have a terms of service for your online course. Just to be clear, this isn’t the terms of service or terms and conditions that are included in the footer of your website that you place kind of next to your privacy policy. No. The terms of service for your website, cover the terms and conditions that govern the use of your website, by website visitors. In contrast, the terms of service for an online course, govern the terms of service for your online course. Surprise, surprise. These are the terms that are very specific and unique to the sale and the use of that online course. 

So I’m going to run through a few issues that you want to be thinking about if you haven’t done so already. The first one is confidentiality. A lot of courses these days have a live component to it, where students gather together in a Facebook group or a Slack channel to communicate and learn from one another. Or maybe you host a regular call on Zoom or Skype where your students can get together and they can ask you questions, and you provide them coaching or different answers. And with those, I mean, there’s a video component, right, you’re recording their voice, their face, their what they’re saying. And these are all really great tools and a really great way for your students to get the most out of the course. 

But students need to trust that they can share freely, that what they say and the questions they ask and those a-ha moments that they share with others in the course, won’t be repeated or shared outside this virtual classroom. This is why I want you to decide what are you going to guarantee if anything at all regarding confidentiality? You want to outline that in your terms of service. What is the expectation for sharing or maybe not sharing information that’s talked about in the course or program. Are students are allowed to Instagram story and tag others online? You and the other students in the course need to be considerate of what are the ramifications on the students’ confidentiality when they participate in a course. And just set that expectation upfront. 

Another hot topic is all about refunds. There are a number of reasons why somebody might want to refund. With obviously, the big one being that they’re just not happy with the product itself. Maybe they’re not seeing results, or I don’t know, maybe they just had buyer’s remorse. And they decided that the pricing no longer fits their budget. Knowing that this is going to happen, we want to have a plan in place. So we want to have a written policy about refunds when you’re signing up people for courses. Now there are a lot of different ways you can approach this and what you pick is going to be a personal business decision. You know, you could say there are no refunds ever. You could say I’m gonna give you a refund within a certain period of time. Or another popular one is you’ll give them a refund, but it’s conditioned upon them showing you that they’ve done a certain amount of work and they haven’t gotten the results. 

And of course, there’s other different ways that you could set this up. But the key here is you want to have a policy and you want to do what you say you’re gonna do. So you want to think about – do they need to prove that they did the work for a certain portion of the curriculum? Is there some sort of time limit on the refund? Do they have to contact a certain person and provide certain documentation? But what if it’s not because someone’s not satisfied with the course. What if they’re engaging in certain behavior that proves to be disruptive or is just not creating a conducive community amongst the students of your course? What are you going to do there? Do you need to refund their money if you decide that you want to remove them from the course? What are the terms of that? Are you going to give them notice? Do you give all of their money back? Do you give some of their money back? Or do you just assume that hey, you didn’t hold up your end of the contract o they’re out the full amount of the course.

Something that is very tangentially related to refunds is payment plans? What happens if someone defaults on a payment plan? Do you immediately revoke their access to the course materials? Or is there a grace period on late payments? Including payments and refund terms in your contract will save you loads of time and frustration, if you ever get into the situation where someone needs to be removed, or they want to refund. It’s also super helpful in the event that you ever get a disputed payment charge from your credit card processor. 

So for example, let’s say you use PayPal or Stripe, and they send you a notice that say, “Hey, your student, you know, Jane Doe is disputing a charge that you made for your course.” And so what they’ll do is that credit card processor will usually give you the merchant, an opportunity to submit evidence showing why that charge was in fact, a legitimate one. And you have to submit documentation in support of that. 

Well, if you have a terms of service that outlines what the policies were, what the payment plans were, what the refund policies were, that’s really, really valuable documentation, that’s going to help support your case that claimed disputed charge was in fact, a legitimate one. 

Of course, there are tons of other terms that you should spell out in a contract for an online course or group program. And another term that I want to talk to you about is intellectual property. Obviously, you’ve invested a lot of time and money. And you’re know-how into developing this course. And you don’t want other people to just be copying it and sharing it with people. You don’t want them to be giving away the password and having multiple people accessing the course, when only one person has actually paid for it. So this is another thing that you want to think about is how do you address who owns that intellectual property? How that intellectual property can be used and shared, and what kind of limitations are there on that intellectual property?

Now, I know I said at the beginning of this episode, but I’ll say it again, your website Terms of Service does not a contract make, okay? That is really addressing how website visitors can use your website. You do need to have a dedicated contract for the program or the course that your students are signing up for. And the higher the price of your program, the greater your liability, right? I mean, if you’re charging $2,000 for a course, that’s a lot of money on the table there. And so you want to make sure that you have these all outlined and either signed or acknowledged by a student prior to purchase. 

When outlining your terms of service keep in mind that it’s not only for your protection, but also the protection of your students. And just because you have something in your contract, like no refunds, doesn’t mean that you have to always stick to that right. Sometimes you want to make a wise business decision for yourself. So for example, if someone asks for a refund, and then becomes a specially disruptive or a burden on your time, it might be better for you to go ahead and issue that refund just to get some space back in your life, even though your policy was no refunds. 

On the other hand, if you state in your contract that you’ll honor refunds, if the client proves they’ve given the content a try and they do that, then you must be prepared to honor that. 

The general rule that I like to live by is say what you’ll do, and then do what you said you’re going to do. 

I love the idea of creating a course as a way to turn a one on one service based business into a one to many model. I have been honored to work with some clients who are killing it when it comes to online course creation. And I just love to see the type of opportunities and freedom that it’s afforded them in their life. 

Now, I know sometimes people refer to it as passive income. And I kind of have air quotes here because it’s truly not passive. Even though you create that course maybe once or twice, you still have to spend a lot of time and money marketing it improving it. It’s not something you do once and then it just you know the money comes rolling in. But having said that, it is a great option if it works for you and your business to create an alternative revenue stream for yourself.

So as you prepare to launch your course or maybe you’ve already launched one before, be sure to have a terms of service for your online course ready to go to protect everyone involved. My goal in life is for contracts not to be difficult. There is a template for online course terms of service that you can buy, download and customize to meet your needs. Over on my website at I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of great online course you have up your sleeves. Thanks so much and I’ll talk to you next week with a brand new episode of Office Talk.

[Outro Music]