Plaintiff could not have agreed to arbitrate claims over website before the website was even created

Ticketmaster.com terms of use did not govern claims arising from related ticket exchange website

Plaintiff sued defendants Ticketmaster and Live Nation asserting violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and a similar state law. He claimed that Ticketmaster’s NFL Ticket Exchange website did not provide information about wheelchair-accessible seating. Defendants filed a motion asking the court to compel the parties to arbitrate the case. The court denied the motion.

Neither party argued that the terms and conditions of the Ticket Exchange website governed the dispute between them. Defendants instead argued that the clickwrap agreement governing previous purchases defendant had made from ticketmaster.com for concerts applied to plaintiff’s use of the Ticket Exchange website.

This clickwrap agreement contained an arbitration provision that changed over time. Before November 2012, the provision contained broad language stating that the parties “agree[d] to arbitrate all disputes and claims between [them].” The language after November 2012 limited the arbitration provision to any “dispute or claim relating in any way to [plaintiff’s] use of the Site, or to products or services sold or distributed by … or through [defendants].” The definition of “Site” did not include the Ticket Exchange website.

The court rejected defendants’ arguments that the ticketmaster.com terms of service governed plaintiff’s use of the Ticket Exchange website.

The pre-November 2012 terms governed only “the use of ticketmaster.com and mobile versions thereof.” The court observed that at the time, the Ticket Exchange website did not yet exist, and that ticketmaster.com contained a “section” serving the same purpose as the now-existing Ticket Exchange website. Accordingly, the court held that plaintiff would not be deemed to have agreed to arbitrate claims relating to his use of a website before the website was even created.

As to the November 2012-onward terms, the court easily determined those did not apply, as they did, by their own terms, apply only to the Site (which did not include Ticket Exchange). And since Plaintiff had made no purchase on the Ticket Exchange website, the scope of the terms purporting to cover “products or services sold or distributed by … or through [defendants]” still failed to reach the Ticket Exchange website.

Long v. Live Nation Worldwide, 2017 WL 5194978 (W.D. Wash., November 9, 2017)

About the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Court reinstates SCO’s misappropriation claim against IBM in long-running lawsuit

For almost a decade and a half, SCO and IBM have been fighting over their collaboration gone wrong concerning the development of a new version of UNIX for Intel processors. The case has garnered much attention, including from the open source community. You can read the backstory here on the Wikipedia page for the dispute. The case has been on appeal to the Tenth Circuit, which released its opinion on October 30. The decision was a mixed ruling – the court affirmed summary judgment in favor of IBM on most of the issues, but ruled in favor of SCO on one important claim – misappropriation.

SCO sued IBM for the tort of misappropriation (a form of unfair competition) arising from IBM’s alleged use in its own product of source code that SCO had contributed to the joint efforts to develop the new UNIX version. The district court granted IBM’s motion for summary judgment on the misappropriation claim, holding that such a claim was barred under New York law’s “independent tort doctrine”. SCO sought review with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court reversed and remanded the case on the misappropriation claim.

This doctrine provides that a simple breach of contract is not to be considered a tort unless a legal duty independent of the contract itself has been violated. This separate duty must spring from circumstances extraneous to, and not constituting elements of, the contract, although it may be connected with and dependent upon the contract.

In this case, the court held that while IBM and SCO may not have had a formal partnership or joint venture as a matter of law, they surely enjoyed a business relationship in which each reposed a degree of trust and confidence in the other. In such a situation, there exists a duty not to take a business collaborator’s property in bad faith and without its consent in order to compete against that owner’s use of the same property.

SCO v. IBM, — F.3d —, 2017 WL 4872572 (10th Cir., October 30, 2017)

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Live by the browsewrap, die by the browsewrap

Company could not argue it was not bound by competitor’s browsewrap agreement, because it used a browsewrap agreement for its own website.

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Oilpro filed a counterclaim for breach of contract against its competitor, DHI, arguing that DHI breached the agreement it had with Oilpro – such agreement being in a browsewrap agreement found on Oilpro’s website – to not scrape, crawl, or use other automated means to download data from Oilpro’s website. DHI moved to dismiss the breach of contract claim, arguing that Oilpro had insufficiently pled that DHI assented to the terms of the browsewrap agreement. The court denied the motion to dismiss.

In browsewrap cases, because there is no affirmative step to acknowledge assent to the agreement, the party claiming breach has to show that a valid contract exists by demonstrating that the breaching party had actual or constructive knowledge of the terms and conditions. Just having a link to the terms at the bottom of the page, or having them available for review (without having to affirmatively click on something) may not be enough (though there are exceptions to this).

Here, the court found that Oilpro was not relying only on the fact that the agreement was on the pages of the website and available. Instead, Oilpro pointed to DHI’s own web design practices to support its knowledge of the terms of the browsewrap agreement. In the court’s words:

Oilpro alleges constructive notice because DHI has a similar site with a similar browsewrap agreement. Thus, even if there are no allegations that DHI took affirmative action to acknowledge assent, the court finds that the allegations relating to DHI’s constructive knowledge provide more than that the agreement was available and raise the claim to plausible.

So the case stands for the proposition that a company that uses a browsewrap agreement on its own website is less likely to be able to argue it is unaware of other companies’ browsewrap agreements. Said another way, browsewrap-using companies may have a higher standard of diligence in their own online dealings.

It should be noted, however, that the conclusion in this case is likely to apply only in the B2B context, and will likely not affect the enforceability (or non-enforceability) of browsewrap agreements in consumer context. The court said “[t]his conclusion is confined, of course, to instances where both parties are sophisticated businesses that use browsewrap agreements on their websites.”

DHI Group, Inc. v. Kent et al., 2017 WL 4837730 (S.D. Texas, October 26, 2017).

Photo courtesy Flickr user Patrick Finnegan under this Creative Commons license.

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Reverse engineering of competitor’s software cost company big

Companies developing software to mimic the functionality of competitors’ products should beware the broad scope of what may constitute reverse engineering. A recent federal case from the Fourth Circuit underscores this idea.

Background – the Development Process

Plaintiff SAS and defendant WPL are competitors in the market for software used to manage and analyze large and complex sets of data. Plaintiff for many years has distributed its proprietary software applications (the SAS System) that run programs written in the eponymous language SAS. WPL sought to create an application to compete with the SAS System, namely, an application it could take to market that would run programs written in SAS. It successfully developed such an application (called the WPS), and customers began dropping the SAS System in favor of the WPS.

As part of its efforts to develop the WPS, defendant obtained a license to use the “Learning Edition” provided by plaintiff – an environment designed for programmers to learn how to code in SAS. Among the provisions in the software license agreement for the Learning Edition was a restriction against reverse engineering the software.

In developing the WPS, defendant did not try to decompile the Learning Edition, or otherwise “tear it down” or “look under the hood.” Instead, it would run SAS code through both the Learning Edition and the WPS, evaluate the outputs from both systems, and tweak the C++ code comprising the WPS to get the outputs to match.

Trial Court Litigation

Plaintiff sued defendant in both U.S. federal court and the U.K. alleging a number of claims, including copyright infringement, breach of contract, deceptive trade practices, and fraud. Of particular importance was the breach of contract claim – plaintiff claimed that defendant’s method of developing the WPS, through adjusting the WPS code based on output compared with Learning Edition output – was reverse engineering prohibited under the terms of the Learning Edition license agreement.

The lower court agreed with plaintiff, and found defendant liable for breach of contract due to reverse engineering, at the summary judgment stage. The case proceeded to trial on other issues where, along with the damages for breach of contract and for deceptive trade practices, the court awarded almost $80 million in damages to plaintiff. Defendant sought review with the Fourth Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed the lower court’s decision on the reverse engineering issue.

Appellate Court: This Was Reverse Engineering

More specifically, defendant had argued on appeal that the lower court’s summary judgment on the breach of contract/reverse engineering claim was improper because the term “reverse engineering” in the license agreement was ambiguous. Plaintiff and defendant offered competing definitions for what they thought reverse engineering ought to mean. Defendant proposed a narrow definition – essentially, that reverse engineering must have as its objective the re-creation of source code. Plaintiff, however, offered a broader definition, encompassing other efforts to “analyze a product to learn the details of its design, construction, or production in order to produce a copy or improved version.”

The differences in definitions were important – defendant had not sought to, nor did, access or copy the source code of the Learning Edition. If the definition of reverse engineering were limited to the re-creating of source code, then the development of the WPS should be okay.

But the court did not agree with defendant. Finding the language in the software license agreement to be unambiguous, the court observed that “nontechnical words are to be given a meaning consistent with the sense in which they are used in ordinary speech, unless the context clearly requires otherwise.” The court then consulted dictionary definitions for the term “reverse engineer” and also evaluated the broad vs. narrow definitions proposed by the parties in light of other prohibitions (e.g., against “reverse assembly” and “decompilation”) in the same provision of the license agreement. Simply stated, the court found that the agreement was clear on what conduct constitutes reverse engineering, and defendant’s actions fit within that scope.

SAS Institute, Inc. v. World Programming Ltd., — F.3d —, 2017 WL 4781380 (4th Cir. October 24, 2017)

See also:

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Online terms of service restricting competitor access to website were unenforceable

If you are in the habit of reading online terms and conditions, you may have encountered a provision that looks something like this:

You may not use the site to gain competitive intelligence about [Provider] to compete with [Provider] or its affiliates.

A court recently held that a provision containing essentially this language was not enforceable against a competitor accused of accessing and copying website content. The court found the provision to be an overly broad non-compete covenant under applicable state law, and likely against public policy. For this reason (among others), the court denied the plaintiff website owner’s motion for a temporary restraining order against the defendant competitor.

The court observed that the restriction was without any geographic or temporal limit. Nor was the provision saved by the requirement that use of “competitive intelligence” be the subject of restricted use. In this particular case, plaintiff was complaining of defendant’s use of information on the publicly-visible portions of plaintiff’s website. Under Illinois law, in order for a covenant not to compete be enforceable, the covenant must secure some “protectable interest” such as a trade secret. For purposes of denying the motion for a temporary restraining order, the court found that a covenant restricting the use of such widely disseminated, freely available information is likely unenforceable.

TopstepTrader, LLC v. OneUp Trader, LLC, 2017 WL 2798397 (N.D. Ill. June 28, 2017)

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Florida court rules that online seller’s terms and conditions were not enforceable

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Beware the browsewrap.

A Florida state appellate court recently held that an online seller’s terms and conditions, appearing in a “browsewrap” agreement linked-to from the bottom of its web pages, were not enforceable.

Plaintiff, an online purchaser of defendant’s dietary supplements, sued defendant seller over liver damage plaintiff allegedly sustained from the products. Defendant filed a motion with the trial court seeking to enforce an arbitration clause in its online terms and conditions. Plaintiff objected to that motion, arguing that he never agreed to the arbitration clause contained in the browsewrap agreement.

The lower court denied defendant’s motion to compel arbitration, finding that the terms of the browsewrap agreement were not incorporated into the sales agreement. Defendant sought review with the Florida appellate court. On appeal, the court affirmed the denial of the motion to compel.

This was a case of first impression in the Florida state courts.

The court observed that in other jurisdictions, browsewrap agreements have generally been enforced only when the hyperlink to the terms and conditions is conspicuous enough on the web page to place a user on inquiry notice of their terms. (Inquiry notice, simply stated, is, as its name suggests, notice sufficient to make the user aware enough of the terms that their natural inclination is to inquire further as to what the particular terms are.)

The court distinguished this case from the case of Hubbert v. Dell Corp., an Illinois case in which the court found a browse-wrap agreement to be enforceable.

Here, unlike in the Hubbert case, the defendant’s website allowed a purchaser to select a product and proceed to checkout without seeing the hyperlink to the terms and conditions. The website user could complete the purchase without scrolling to the bottom of the page where the link to the terms and conditions appeared.

In this situation the court found that the online seller’s website failed to advise the plaintiff that his purchase was subject to the terms and conditions of the sale, and did not put him on the required inquiry notice of the arbitration provision.

Vitacost.com, Inc. v. McCants, — So.3d — 2017 WL 608531 (Fla.Ct.App. Feb. 15, 2017)

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Cruz campaign still facing copyright and breach of contract liability over songs used in political ads

Court denies motion to dismiss copyright and breach of contract claims over songs used in YouTube and TV political ads.

Months after Ted Cruz ended his presidential bid, his campaign, and the advertising company hired to create ads for the campaign, still face liability over two songs used in YouTube and television ads. A federal court in Washington state has denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss copyright infringement and breach of contract claims brought against them.

An employee of the Cruz campaign’s advertising company allegedly downloaded two songs from Audiosocket, and then used those songs in two separate campaign ads. Audiosocket and the copyright holders sued for infringement and breach of the licensing agreements under which the songs were provided.

The court rejected the defendants’ arguments. It held that the plaintiffs had adequately pled the existence of their copyright registrations, and that the claims for breach of the licensing agreement were not preempted by the Copyright Act. Because the licensing agreement expressly prohibited the songs to be used for political purposes, the breach of contract claims were not “equivalent” to a copyright infringement claim, and therefore not subject to preemption under 17 USC 301.

The case is a reminder of the risks that companies and organizations face when hiring outside vendors to procure and create content. The hiring party should seek, at minimum, to ensure that the vendor has obtained the appropriate rights in the content it will integrate into the deliverables provided under the arrangement. And the vendor should utilize appropriate internal protocols and form documents to help ensure that the content it provides to its customer does not infringe. That kind of diligence will help avoid unpleasant situations between vendor and customer that arise when third parties claim against both of them that intellectual property rights have been infringed.

Leopona, Inc. v. Cruz For President, 2016 WL 3670596 (W.D. Washington, July 11, 2016)

Court holds browsewrap agreement not enforceable

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Plaintiff filed a consumer fraud class action lawsuit against defendant, the operator of an ecommerce website. Defendant moved to have the case heard by arbitration, arguing that the arbitration provision in its website’s terms of use required the dispute to be arbitrated instead of heard in court. The terms of use were in the form of a “browsewrap” agreement — viewable by a hyperlink displayed at the bottom of each page of defendant’s website.

The court denied the motion, finding that the hyperlink to the terms of use (containing the arbitration provision) was too inconspicuous to put a reasonably prudent internet consumer on inquiry notice. Since the agreement was not enforceable, plaintiffs were not bound by the arbitration provision. Defendant sought review with the California Court of Appeal. On appeal, the court affirmed the lower court.

It observed that for a browsewrap agreement to be enforceable, a court must infer that the end user assented to its terms. This may be more difficult to show than in situations involving “clickwrap” agreements, which require the user to affirmatively do something, such as check a box, to indicate his or her assent to the terms of use.

In this case, the court held that although an especially observant internet consumer could spot the defendant’s terms of use hyperlinks on some checkout flow pages without scrolling, that quality alone was not all that was required to establish the existence of an enforceable browsewrap agreement. Rather, as the Second Circuit observed in Specht v. Netscape, 306 F.3d 17 (2d Cir.2002), “[r]easonably conspicuous notice of the existence of contract terms and unambiguous manifestation of assent to those terms by consumers are essential if electronic bargaining is to have integrity and credibility.”

Here, the defendant’s terms of use hyperlinks — their placement, color, size and other qualities relative to defendant’s website’s overall design — were simply too inconspicuous to meet that standard.

Long v. Provide Commerce, Inc., — Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2016 WL 1056555 (Cal Ct. App., March 17, 2016)

About the Author: 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 courtesy Flickr user Patrick Finnegan under this Creative Commons license.

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.

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