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.

Court provides guidance on how to effectively communicate online terms of service

Are online terms of service provided via hyperlink in an email binding on the recipient of that email? The Second Circuit recently addressed that question, and the decision gives guidance on best practices for online providers.

Plaintiff booked a trip to the Galapagos Islands using defendant’s website. When she purchased her ticket, she got a booking information email, a confirmation invoice and a service voucher. (It is not clear how plaintiff got the confirmation invoice and the service voucher – the court’s opinion says they were sent as emails, but the PACER record does not show them as emails. In any event, plaintiff did not dispute that she received all three documents, nor did she dispute all three documents contained a hyperlink to defendant’s “terms and conditions” which were available online.)

One evening during the trip, a tour guide allegedly assaulted plaintiff. She sued defendant for negligently hiring and training that tour guide. Defendant moved to dismiss, pointing to language in the online terms and conditions that called for disputes to be heard in Canadian court. The district court dismissed the action, and plaintiff sought review with the Second Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed. It held that defendant had reasonably communicated the forum selection clause to plaintiff by using hyperlinks and the appropriate language in the terms and conditions.

Each of the documents contained an underlined hyperlink, and accompanying language advising plaintiff to click on the hyperlink. The booking information email contained a standalone provision with the heading “TERMS AND CONDITIONS”. This section stated that “[a]ll . . . passengers must read, understand and agree to the following terms and conditions.” The hyperlink immediately followed. Both the confirmation invoice and the voucher contained a link to the terms and conditions, preceded by “[c]onfirmation of your reservation means that you have already read, agreed to and understood the terms and conditions. . . .”

The actual structure and language of the terms and conditions also served to reasonably communicate the forum selection clause. The second paragraph stated that the terms and conditions “affect your rights and designate the governing law and forum for the resolution of any and all disputes.” Later in the terms and conditions, a standalone section titled “APPLICABLE LAW” provided that all matters arising from the agreement were subject to Ontario and Canadian law and the exclusive jurisdiction of the Ontario and Canadian courts.

The decision validates the notion that an e-commerce provider can rely on establishing valid and binding contracts with its customers without having to actually transmit a copy of the terms and conditions that would apply to the transaction. Though the facts of this case dealt with email, there is no substantive reason why the best practices revealed by the court’s decision would not apply to providers of mobile apps and other online platforms.

Starkey v. G Adventures, Inc., — F.3d —, 2015 WL 4664237 (2nd Cir. August 7, 2015)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago helping clients manage issues involving technology and new media.

Forum selection clause in browsewrap agreement did not bind parties in bitcoin fraud case

We all know that clickwrap agreements are preferable to browsewrap agreements, assuming, of course, the objective is to establish binding contracts between participants in online transactions. Nonetheless, some online platforms still (try to) rely on browsewrap agreements to establish terms of service. That avoidance of best practices gives us situations like the recent case of Hussein v. Coinabul, LLC, in which a federal court in Illinois refused to enforce a forum selection clause in a “bitcoin to gold marketplace” browsewrap agreement.

Plaintiff alleged that he sent about $175,000 worth of bitcoins to defendants in June 2013, expecting to get gold in return. (Plaintiff alleges he transferred 1,644.54 BTC. The average exchange value in June 2013 was $107.82/BTC. You can get historical bitcoin price data here: http://www.coindesk.com/price) When the gold never arrived, plaintiff sued for fraud.

Defendants moved to dismiss, citing a forum selection clause contained in a browsewrap agreement found on its website. That purported agreement required all disputes to be heard in the state courts of Wyoming, and for Wyoming law to apply. The court denied the motion to dismiss, finding that the browsewrap agreement afforded plaintiff neither actual nor constructive knowledge of its terms and conditions.

The court observed that the hyperlink that directed users to defendants’ Terms of Service was listed among ten other hyperlinks at the bottom of each page. (See this Wayback Machine capture of the website from June 2013).

As for lack of actual knowledge, the court credited plaintiff’s allegations that he did not review or even know of defendants’ Terms of Service when he entered the bitcoin transaction. And there was no evidence to the contrary in the record.

And as for lack of constructive knowledge, the court found that the hyperlink, “buried at the bottom of the webpage – [was] without some additional act of notification, insufficient for the purpose of providing reasonable notice.”

Hussein v. Coinabul, LLC, No. 14-5735, 2014 WL 7261240 (N.D. Ill. December 19, 2014)

Limitation of liability clause in software license agreement did not excuse customer from paying fees

Customer did not like how software it had bought performed, so it stopped paying. Vendor sued for breach of contract, and customer argued that the agreement capped its liability at $5,000. Both parties moved for summary judgment on what the following language from the agreement meant:

NOTWITHSTANDING ANYTHING TO THE CONTRARY, THE TOTAL DOLLAR LIABILITY OF EITHER PARTY UNDER THIS AGREEMENT OR OTHERWISE SHALL BE LIMITED TO U.S. $5,000.

Customer argued that the sentence meant what it said, namely, that customer would not be liable for anything over $5,000. But the court read otherwise, holding that construe the language as excusing customer’s payment of fees would render those provisions calling for fees (which were much more that $5,000) meaningless.

The court observed that when parties use the clause “notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained herein” in a paragraph of their contract, they contemplate the possibility that other parts of their contract may conflict with that paragraph, and they agree that the paragraph must be given effect regardless of any contrary provisions of the contract.

In this situation, the $5,000 limitation language was the last sentence of a much longer provision dealing with limitations of liability in the event the software failed to function properly. The court held that the rule about “notwithstanding anything to the contrary” applies if there is an irreconcilable difference between the paragraph in which that statement is contained and the rest of the agreement.

There was no such irreconcilable difference here. On the contrary, reading in such difference would have rendered the other extensive provisions dealing with payment of goods and services meaningless, which would have violated a key canon of construction.

IHR Sec., LLC v. Innovative Business Software, Inc., — S.W.3d —, 2014 WL 1057306 (Tex.App. El Paso March 19, 2014)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago, advising clients on matters dealing with software licensing, technology, the internet and new media.

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