Want your online agreements to be enforceable? Keep good transaction data.

Chicago internet attorney Evan Brown

A recent court decision underscores the importance of building online e-commerce platforms with the ability to reliably gather information about transactions. The case also says some troubling things about open source.

Plaintiff loaned money in exchange for the borrower assigning its accounts receivable to plaintiff. As part of plaintiff’s services, it provided a platform for its borrower to generate and send invoices to the borrower’s customers. The borrower began generating fake invoices, and one of its customers — the defendant in this case — refused to pay. There was a dispute over whether defendant had accepted or rejected the invoices using plaintiff’s invoice platform.

After a trial, the judge ruled in favor of defendant. The court found that the digital data showing whether defendant had accepted or rejected the invoices was unreliable. The court found credible the testimony of one of defendant’s employees that he never clicked “I agree” on the fraudulent invoices. And there was no good database evidence that he had.

Plaintiff sought review with the Court of Appeal of California. On appeal, the court affirmed, agreeing that the data was unreliable, and further commenting on the problematic use of open source software in plaintiff’s online invoice platform.

The court of appeal found that substantial evidence supported the lower court’s findings. Specifically, it agreed with the lower court’s findings that the defendant’s employee never clicked on the “I agree” button to accept the fraudulent invoices. The court also credited the lower court’s finding that the data was unreliable in part because plaintiff’s website was developed from open source code, and that the developer made untested changes to the software on a weekly basis.

The treatment of the open source aspect is perhaps unfortunate. One unfamiliar with open source would read the court’s opinion as an indictment against open source software’s fundamental reliability:

Open source code is problematic because anonymous people on the internet design it, and “holes” are not fixed by vendor updates. Notifications that there are issues with the code may not go out.

The lack of reliability of the data in this case was not due to the fundamental nature of open source. (We know that open source software, e.g., Linux, powers essential core features of the modern internet.) So it is unfortunate that future litigants may look to this case to argue against vendors who use open source solutions. Fortunately, the case is not citable as precendent (many California Court of Appeal cases are not citable). But the court’s negative treatment of the nature of open source is a troubling example of how a judge may be swayed by a technological red herring.

21st Capital Corp. v. Onodi Tooling & Engineering Co., 2015 WL 5943097 (Not officially published, California Court of Appeal, October 13, 2015)

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney advising enterprises on important aspects of technology law, including software development, technology and content licensing, and general privacy issues.

Photo by Flickr user bookfinch under this Creative Commons license.