Category Archives: Contracts

Daughter’s Facebook post costs dad $80,000

A recent case illustrates why (1) it is important for parties to abide by the confidentiality provisions of settlement agreements, and (2) people who learn confidential information should keep their social media mouths shut.

Plaintiff sued his former employer (a private school) for age discrimination and retaliation. The parties later settled the case and entered an agreement containing the following provision:

13. Confidentiality … [T]he plaintiff shall not either directly or indirectly, disclose, discuss or communicate to any entity or person, except his attorneys or other professional advisors or spouse any information whatsoever regarding the existence or terms of this Agreement … A breach … will result in disgorgement of the Plaintiffs portion of the settlement Payments.

After the parties signed the settlement agreement, plaintiff’s college-age daughter posted this on Facebook:

Mama and Papa Snay won the case against Gulliver. Gulliver is now officially paying for my vacation to Europe this summer. SUCK IT.

facepalmDefendant school district refused to pay a portion of the settlement payments ($80,000), claiming plaintiff’s disclosure of the settlement to his daughter violated the confidentiality provision. Plaintiff asked the trial court to enforce the settlement agreement, which it did. Defendant sought review with the Court of Appeal of Florida. On appeal, the court agreed with the school and reversed.

The court found that “before the ink was dry on the [settlement] agreement, and notwithstanding the clear language of section 13 mandating confidentiality, [plaintiff] violated the agreement by doing exactly what he had promised not to do.” And his daughter “then did precisely what the confidentiality agreement was designed to prevent, advertising . . . that plaintiff had been successful in his age discrimination and retaliation case against the school.”

Gulliver Schools, Inc. v. Snay, — So.3d —, 2014 WL 769030 (Fla.App. 3 Dist. Feb 26, 2014)

Photo credit Flickr user haikus under this Creative Common license.

Court sides with software developer in open source dispute

Case provides rare opportunity to get court’s analysis of GPL.

300px-Heckert_GNU_white.svgPlaintiff wrote an XML parser and made it available as open source software under the GPLv2. Defendant acquired from another vendor software that included the code, and allegedly distributed that software to parties outside the organization. According to plaintiff, defendant did not comply with the conditions of the GPL, so plaintiff sued for copyright infringement.

Defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The court denied the motion.

Plaintiff claimed that defendant directly infringed its copyright by distributing the software without any attribution to plaintiff, without plaintiff’s copyright notice, without reference to plaintiff’s source code, and without any offer to convey the source code.

Defendant argued that it did not violate the terms of the GPL because its “distribution” of the software was merely internal, mainly to its own financial advisors. Accordingly, defendant argued, the requirements under the GPL to, among other things, attribute plaintiff and provide the source code were not triggered.

The court rejected defendant’s argument, looking to the allegations in the complaint that defendant distributed the software to it vendors in India, as well as providing it to “thousands of non-employee financial advisors.”

Despite the popularity of open source software, not a lot of courts have interpreted and applied the provisions of open source licenses. This case — if it does not settle — provides a rare opportunity to see serious legal treatment of the oft-used GPL.

XimpleWare Corp. v. Versata Software, Inc., 2014 WL 490940 (N.D.Cal. February 4, 2014)

Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney helping software vendors and customers alike navigate the many issues pertaining to technology development and licensing.

“Right to audit” provisions in technology services agreements can benefit both parties

“Right to audit” provisions in technology services agreements are common. You’ve seen them. A typical section will read something like this:

Vendor will keep accurate and complete records and accounts pertaining to the performance of the Services. Upon no less than seven (7) days’ written notice, and no more than once per calendar year, Customer may audit, or nominate a reputable accounting firm to audit, Vendor’s records relating to its performance under this Agreement, including amounts claimed, during the term of the Agreement and for a period of three months thereafter.

Clearly these provisions generally benefit the customer, to give it some transparency and assurance that the vendor is performing the services according to the agreement and that vendor is charging customer for the services appropriately.

But a right to audit provision can benefit the vendor (and go against the customer) as well. As a recent court decision shows (Carlson, Inc. v. IBM, 2013 WL 6007508 (D. Minn. November 13, 2013)), a customer’s comprehensive audit rights can preclude it from claiming that vendor owes it a fiduciary duty.

In the case, the customer sued its software vendor alleging, among other things, that the vendor breached its fiduciary duty. The customer argued that it had to essentially “hand over the keys” of its operations to the vendor. But the court ruled that vendor did not owe customer a fiduciary duty because the customer had several important rights to know about and control the vendor’s performance.

The master services agreement between the parties reserved for the customer the right to audit the vendor’s performance and challenge its pricing and delivery of services. Under the agreement, customer had:

  • regular and recurring access to vendor personnel;
  • access to complete records and supporting documentation underlying vendor’s services;
  • the right to conduct operational audits to examine vendor’s performance of the services;
  • the right to audit performance for comparison to standards in the service level agreement;
  • the right to financial audits to verify the accuracy and completeness of invoiced charges.

The court found that “[t]hese audit and oversight provisions [were] meaningless if [customer] was as helpless as it [claimed].”

So while vendors may find right to audit clauses to be a nuisance, they should remember that the presence of such a clause could provide an important defense in litigation over the technology agreement.

Evan Brown is a Chicago attorney helping businesses negotiate and draft technology services and development contracts. He also handles many other issues involving the internet, copyright and trademarks, and new media. Call him at (630) 362-7237 or email ebrown@internetcases.com.

Jury finds in favor of IMDb in case brought by actress over published age

Hoang v. IMDb.com, No. 11-1709, W.D.Wash. (Jury verdict April 11, 2013)

Actress Junie Hoang was upset that IMDb published her real age (she was born in 1971). She sued IMDb claiming it breached its Subscriber Agreement (particularly its privacy policy) by using information she provided to cross-reference public records, and thereby ascertaining her correct age.

The case went to trial on the breach of contract claim. The jury returned a verdict in favor of IMDb.

Though we don’t know the jury’s thinking (we only have a simple verdict form), IMDb had argued, among other things, that its investigations of plaintiff’s birthday were in response to requests she had made. In 2008, plaintiff had asked IMDb to remove a false (1978) birthdate plaintiff had submitted a few years earlier. When IMDb conducted its own research, it found plaintiff’s real birthdate in public records, and published that. The jury found this did not violate IMDB’s Subscriber Agreement.

GoDaddy outage reminds us why limitation of liability clauses are important

The legal team at GoDaddy today probably had more than one conversation about Section 13 of the company’s Universal Terms of Service. That Section contains pretty widely used language which limits how badly GoDaddy could get hurt by an epic failure of its system like the one that happened today.

We are conspicuously told that:

IN NO EVENT SHALL Go Daddy, ITS OFFICERS, DIRECTORS, EMPLOYEES, OR AGENTS BE LIABLE TO YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON OR ENTITY FOR ANY DIRECT, INDIRECT, INCIDENTAL, SPECIAL, PUNITIVE, OR CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGES WHATSOEVER . . .

Language like this is critical to technology service agreements. Today’s huge blackout illustrates the extent to which GoDaddy would be on the hook if such a limitation were not in place. Thousands of sites were offline for hours, losing uncountable pageviews and ecommerce sales. Holding GoDaddy responsible for those millions of lost dollars (which would be in the categories of indirect, special and consequential damages) could put a company into bankruptcy. GoDaddy would be big enough (probably) to pick up the tab in such a situation once or twice. Smaller enterprises would likely not be as lucky.

This kid is like GoDady inasmuch as he's trying to limit his liability.

To illustrate the effect of limitation of liability clauses, I have often used the example of similar language in Microsoft’s end user license agreement for Office. Because that is there, you cannot go after Microsoft for the business you lose if Word fails on your computer and you miss the deadline for submitting that big proposal. After today we have a new, perhaps more relevant example. GoDaddy would be pretty protected if you claim that you missed out on that million dollar client because your website was down.

So if you were looking for me through my site today, let me know, so I can send a bill for what you would have paid me to GoDaddy. Then again, I guess I’ve already shown why that won’t get paid.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Mikol under this Creative Commons license.

DMCA takedown notices are not just for content

Apple using the DMCA to stop early sales of iOS 6.

The infamous Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown process gets quite a bit of press when content owners such as movie studios and record companies use it to take infringing copies of films or music offline. The safe harbor provisions of the DMCA are at the heart of content-distribution platforms’ defenses against infringement occasioned by users of the platform. (Think Viacom v. YouTube.)

Apple reminds us, however, that the DMCA gives all copyright owners — not just those who own copyrights in content – a mechanism for getting infringing works off the internet. According to this piece on Engadget, Apple has been contacting hosting providers of sites that offer unauthorized copies of the forthcoming iOS 6 for sale.

So the DMCA, acting in the name of copyright protection, provides a remedy for software providers to keep the clamps on parties who may have access to software for their own use (in this case, iOS developers) but go outside the bounds of such use and offer the technology for sale to others.

Megaupload takedown reminds us why website terms and conditions can be important

Kashmir Hill pointed out that at least one erstwhile file sharing service has changed its business model in response to the federal government’s action against Megaupload. She observes that:

FileSonic users can’t be too happy to have one of the main features of the site taken away. But the company must be less worried about its breach of contract with existing users than it is about the possibility of getting the Megaupload treatment, i.e., arrest, seizure of its property, and a criminal indictment.

This raises an important point. Any kind of online service that pushes the legal envelope may want to build in some mechanisms to pull back with impunity if it gets freaked out or loses its envelope-pushing courage. Said another way, that service should not make promises to its users that it cannot keep in the event the service wants to change what it is doing.

Some well known user generated content sites do this pretty well already in their terms of service. For example:

  • Dropbox: “We reserve the right to suspend or end the Services at any time, with or without cause, and with or without notice.”
  • YouTube reserves the right to discontinue any aspect of the Service at any time.”
  • Reddit: “We also reserve the right to discontinue the Program, or change the content or formatting of the Program, at any time without notice to you, and to require the immediate cessation of any specific use of the Program.”
  • Facebook (being kind of vague): “If you . . . create risk or possible legal exposure for us, we can stop providing all or part of Facebook to you.”

All good examples of foresight in drafting website terms and conditions that help innovative sites with damage control.

Wedding photographer not responsible for risque photos of bride posted online

Bostwick v. Christian Oth, Inc., 2012 WL 44065 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept. January 10, 2012)

Plaintiff bride logged onto her wedding photographer’s website and saw photos of herself wearing only underwear. She emailed an employee of the photographer, who promised to take the offending photos down. But they remained on the website even after plaintiff shared the online password with her family and friends.

So she sued the photographer for breach of contract, fraud and concealment, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The trial court threw the case out on summary judgment. Plaintiff sought review, but the appellate court affirmed.

Breach of contract

The court found that defendant was authorized by agreement to post the photos. Defendant owned the copyright in the photos and otherwise had the right to put the proofs online. Any demand by plaintiff that the photos be taken down did not serve to revoke any of defendant’s rights, as plaintiff never had the rights to make such a determination to begin with. Moreover, the court found that because the agreement between the parties had an integration clause which provided that any amendments had to be in writing, the subsequent communications between plaintiff and defendant’s employee did not serve to amend the contract. (This decision by the court is puzzling, as the communications about taking the photos down were apparently by email. Other New York courts have held emails sufficient to amend written contracts.)

Fraud and concealment

To have been successful on her fraud and concealment claim, plaintiff was required to show, among other things, that she reasonably relied on defendant’s statement that the underwear photos had been taken offline before she gave the password to her friends and family. The court found in favor of defendant on this point because plaintiff could have checked to see whether the photos were actually taken down before she allowed others to access the photos. What’s more, the court found that the failure to take the photos down was not “concealment” but merely an oversight.

Negligent infliction of emotional distress

Despite its sympathy with plaintiff, and an acknowledgment that having others see the photos would be embarrassing and upsetting, the court found that plaintiff failed to establish a case of negligent infliction of emotional distress. This part of the case failed because plaintiff did not show that she had been exposed to an unreasonable risk of bodily injury or death. There was nothing in the record to cause plaintiff to fear that she was exposed to physical harm.

Court enforces online terms and conditions incorporated by reference in invoices

Clickwrap and browsewrap agreements are not the only enforceable online contracts.

Fadal Machining Centers, LLC v. Compumachine, Inc., 2011 WL 6254979 (9th Cir. December 15, 2011)

Plaintiff manufacturer sued one of its distributors over unpaid invoices. Defendant moved to dismiss, citing to an arbitration provision in the terms and conditions on plaintiff’s website. The district court dismissed the complaint and plaintiff sought review with the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed.

It held that the district court did not err in concluding an arbitration agreement existed between the parties. Though the language of the hard copy distribution agreement did not address arbitration, it provided that plaintiff could unilaterally establish terms of sale from time to time. Each invoice referred to plaintiff’s website’s terms and conditions. The court found that these referred-to terms and conditions “clearly and unmistakably delegated the question of arbitrability to an arbitrator.”

The decision supports the notion that contracting parties (particularly merchants selling goods) may rely on provisions not spelled out in any documents exchanged between them, but appearing online and incorporated by reference. In other words, certain online contracts other than clickwrap and browsewrap agreements may be enforceable.

Website terms and conditions were unenforceable because of fraud

Duick v. Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., 2011 WL 3834740 (Cal.App. 2 Dist. August 31, 2011)

Someone signed plaintiff up through a Toyota website to take part in a “Personality Evaluation.” She got an email with a link to a website, and on the second page that she had to click through, she was presented with the well-known check box next to the words “I have read and agree to the terms and conditions.”

Later plaintiff started getting creepy emails from an unknown male calling himself “Sebastian Bowler” who indicated that he was on a cross-country road trip to come and visit plaintiff. He even listed plaintiff’s physical address. One of the emails had a link to Bowler’s MySpace page, which revealed he “enjoyed drinking alcohol to excess.” A few days later plaintiff got another email from someone purporting to be the manager of the hotel in which Bowler had trashed a room, and attempted to bill plaintiff for the damage.

As one would expect, plaintiff was disturbed by these messages. She finally got an email with a link to a video that said Bowler was a fictional character and that the emails were part of an elaborate prank, all to advertise the Toyota Matrix.

Plaintiff sued Toyota for, among other things, infliction of emotional distress. Toyota moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the online terms and conditions contained an arbitration provision, so the case did not belong in court but before an arbitrator. The court rejected this argument, finding that the terms and conditions were void, because plaintiff’s agreement to them was procured by “fraud in the inception or execution.”

The court found that the terms and conditions led plaintiff to believe that she was going to participate in a personality evaluation and nothing more. A reasonable reader in plaintiff’s position would not have known that she was signing up to be the target of a prank. For example, the terms and conditions were under the heading “Personality Evaluation Terms and Conditions” and made vague and opaque references to terms such as “interactive experience” and a “digital experience.” Simply stated, plaintiff, through no fault of her own, did not know what she was getting herself into.

For these reasons, the court held that the terms and conditions were void, and all the provisions contained in those terms and conditions, including the purported agreement to arbitrate any disputes, did not bind the parties.