Category Archives: Contracts

Open source software and the covenant-condition dichotomy

[Note: This is a short essay I have written in conjunction with an upcoming presentation I will give at John Marshall Law School here in Chicago next week. I invite your feedback in the comments to this post. For formatting purposes, footnotes (which are mainly to case citations) have been omitted.]

Some of the peculiarities of open source software, like the requirement of author attribution, create intriguing questions about how an open source license should be enforced in the event of its violation. Though software distributed under a “free” or open source model has existed in some form for more than a quarter century, only in the past couple of years have some of the basic questions concerning the import of terms in an open source license been litigated. The Federal Circuit’s recent decision in Jacobsen v. Katzer addressed the question of whether the owner of the copyright in software distributed under an open source license may successfully pursue a claim of infringement against a party using the software in violation of the license. Answering that question in the affirmative, the court relied upon the distinction between conditions and covenants in an open source license. This essay examines that distinction’s effect on how an open source license may be enforced.

The Framework for the Analysis: Breach or Infringement?

Because software licenses (both open source and proprietary) are in the nature of a contract, one must look to principles of contract law when examining how the licenses apply. Which cause of action will be appropriate for a violation of the terms of a license depends on the legal relations between the parties. Has the licensee committed copyright infringement by its violation of the license? Or is there merely an action for breach of contract? Since the remedies available for breach of contract versus copyright infringement can differ greatly (i.e., expectation damages versus potential statutory damages, costs and attorney’s fees plus injunctive relief), an evaluation of the right way to proceed is important.

The licensor of software generally waives its right to sue the licensee for copyright infringement. Stated another way, “a licensee cannot be liable for infringing the copyright rights conveyed to it.” For a licensee to have infringed the copyright in the licensor’s software, the licensee must exercise a copyright right not granted to the licensee. We characterize this kind of use as being outside the scope of a license.

Covenants and Conditions in Software Licenses

The authority to exercise the copyright rights in software (like the right to distribute the source code and make derivate works), is established in the licensee through the operation of the license. The grant of authority is an “operative fact,” one that changes the legal relations of the parties. Drawing a familiar term from the lexicon of contract law, the authority for another to use software is a condition precedent – the operative fact that must exist prior to the existence of the legal relation of licensor and valid licensee. If this condition is not satisfied, the licensee’s authority to use the software is not there. Use of the software by another party in the absence of this authority will be an exercise of a right not granted, and, as already noted, a use of the software outside the scope of a license.

Covenants (also known as promises) in a license agreement can also affect the legal relations of the parties. Covenants are quite different from conditions precedent, however, because they refer to an intention related to a future event, not to an operative fact that must be present for authorization to exist. In the software licensing context, a covenant does not affect the authorization of the licensee to exercise the copyright rights in the software. In other words, a covenant in a software license does not define or alter the scope of the authorization.

So if a licensee merely violates a covenant of the software license agreement, the use is still within the scope of the license, and the licensor merely has a cause of action for breach of contract. But if the violation is a failure to satisfy a condition of the license, the use of the software is outside the scope (i.e., is the exercise of a right not granted). Under copyright law, exercise of rights without authorization is called infringement.

Appropriate Causes of Action in the Open Source Context

In a certain sense, the entire legitimacy of the open source model depends on the ability to successfully pursue an action for infringement of copyright. Since most open source software is distributed without the requirement for payment of a fee, a licensor would, for all practical purposes, be left remediless against unauthorized use of the software if the only avenue for recovery were for breach of contract. The appropriate measure of damages would be the amount of licensing fees that would have been collected. In the case of software distributed free of charge, that amount would be zero – not a strong deterrent to unauthorized use.

So for there to be any practical effect on how the source code is actually used, modified and distributed, the violator of an open source license must suffer liability for copyright infringement. This cause of action provides a much more robust (and therefore meaningful) set of remedies, including injunctive relief.

The Jacobsen v. Katzer Decision

Plaintiff Jacobsen wrote some software and made it available under an open source license known as the Artistic License. This open source license granted broad rights to members of the general public to do certain things with the software, including the right to distribute and create derivative works from the software and to use the software in a commercial product, provided that the licensee attribute the original creators.

Jacobsen sued defendant Katzer for copyright infringement, claiming that without permission or consent, Katzer copied the software into a commercial application without attributing the original creators. The district court denied Jacobsen’s motion for injunctive relief, finding that the terms allegedly violated were merely covenants and not conditions. The district court found the scope of the Artistic License to be “intentionally broad,” and that the requirement to insert a prominent notice of attribution did not affect the scope of the license. Therefore, the only viable cause of action was for breach of contract (for which injunctive relief was not appropriate).

Jacobsen sought review with the Federal Circuit. On appeal, the court vacated and remanded, holding that the Artistic License’s terms created conditions which Katzer failed to satisfy. The appellate court found that the license established conditions through the use of the term “provided that.” Further, the appellate court found that the district court’s interpretation did not credit the explicit restrictions found in the license that governed the right to modify and distribute the software. These restrictions successfully defined the scope of the license, and modification and distribution inconsistent with the requirements was unauthorized and therefore outside the scope. Such out-of-scope usage supported a claim for copyright infringement.

Reconciling Jacobsen

The Federal Circuit opinion in Jacobsen contains extensive praise of the open source model, noting that it “serves to advance the arts and sciences in a manner and at a pace that few could have imagined just a few decades ago.” The court went on to observe that through the collaboration inherent in open source software development, “software programs can often be written and debugged faster and at lower cost than if the copyright holder were required to do all the work independently.” One is tempted to speculate whether such a positive attitude to the concept of open source influenced the court’s decision, because there is other authority to support the proposition that an obligation to attribute does not define the scope of a license.

In Graham v. James, the Second Circuit held that the removal of a copyright notice (essentially a failure to attribute) was merely a breach of covenant and therefore did not support a claim for copyright infringement. It is difficult to ascertain how the licensor in Graham would have, in reality, viewed the use of his software without a copyright notice as being authorized (and therefore within the scope of the license). Perhaps the most plausible explanation for the contrary holding in Graham was the absence of a written agreement, and a presumption arising under New York law that the parties intend a covenant and not a condition.

Conclusion

The distinction between conditions and covenants is difficult to perceive. So much can depend on draftsmanship, as one can easily articulate the same set of circumstances to be rendered as a covenant, then a condition. The Artistic License in Jacobsen contained the magic “provided that” language. And it is a good thing it did, for the continued hope in the open source philosophy depended on the court deciding the way it did.

Shame on you, Facebook, for overreaching

Facebook, I hereby grant to you an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use the following content: “Go jump in a lake.”

The past few days people have been talking about how scandalous it is that Facebook changed its terms of service to grab up a very broad license in content its users upload. I’m sure that Facebook is counting on this controversy to go wherever it is that memes go to die, to be forgotten just like most controversies-du-semaine. It probably will, but as the sentiment finds itself already on the decline, I’ll comment.

Here’s what the offending section of the Facebook terms of service now says, in relevant part:

You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof. You represent and warrant that you have all rights and permissions to grant the foregoing licenses.

I was pretty peeved when I learned that Facebook had modified its terms to get a broader license. But I was even more peeved when I read founder Mark Zuckerburg’s blog post from yesterday which tried to justify the changes. Of course Facebook must make sure it has the rights it needs in order to “show [users’ content and information] to the other people they’ve asked [it] to share it with.” But isn’t the right to share that content inherent in the very “asking”? Why be grabby?

Facebook is being content greedy. It’s commandeering more than it needs to run the service. An example Zuckerburg uses in the post concerns the text of a messages sent between friends. If one user deactivates his or her account, a copy of each message will still exist in the other friend’s inbox. Fine. I see the point. So get a license to store and display a copy of private messages. There’s no problem with that.

The bigger rub comes with photos and video users upload. Why does Facebook need a perpetual license for that? I don’t see any reason, whether from a technological or other practical standpoint, why photos and video could not or should not be deleted — and the license to Facebook terminated — when a user deactivates his or her account. YouTube doesn’t demand a license for content after it has been taken down by a user.

Zuckerburg’s post contains the following interesting statement: “In reality, we wouldn’t share your information in a way you wouldn’t want.” Okay Mark, let’s talk about reality. I don’t want you using information about me, like my name, for commercial purposes. That’s reality. Why then do you demand to have the right to use my name and other information for commercial purposes? Are you suggesting that the terms of service as now written don’t reflect reality? I know they were written by lawyers, but surely your legal counsel can’t be that removed from the real world.

I like Facebook, and through it I have reconnected with old friends and made some new ones. But those connections are what’s important, not the intermediary. I may delete my photos off of there but I’ll probably keep using it, at least for now. But I’ll likely post less content. Shame on you, Facebook, and shame on you Mark Zuckerburg, for putting up a post just filled with platitudes, all while ignoring the fact there’s no reason for your new overreaching. That kind of stunt will invigorate those who want an alternative to Facebook, and will accellerate the process of making Facebook tomorrow’s Friendster.

Greedy photo courtesy Flickr user Gribiche under this Creative Commons license.

Court enforces forum selection clause in web hosting agreement

Bennett v. Hosting.com, Inc., 2008 WL 4951020 (N.D. Cal. November 18, 2008)

Bennett filed an astounding 30-count complaint against defendant Hosting.com. Though the Managed Hosting Agreement designated Jefferson County, Kentucky to be the sole and exclusive venue for actions brought in connection with the agreement, Bennet brought the action in federal court in Northern California. Hosting.com moved to dismiss for improper venue. The court granted the motion.

Kentucky on a map

The court held that Bennett failed to prove that the forum selection clause in the hosting agreement was unreasonable. The fact that Hosting.com may have had superior bargaining power and the agreement appeared to be non-negotiable was not enough to render the agreement unconscionable. Moreover, Bennett failed to demonstrate how the forum selection clause was against any public policy of California. And the court rejected her argument that the case belonged in California because Kentucky does not recognize certain of the causes of actions in the complaint. After all, a Kentucky court could apply California law.

The court also rejected Bennett’s argument that the forum selection clause shouldn’t apply because a number of the claims arose from tort law and did not involve the agreement. This argument was rejected because many of the tort claims would require the same findings of fact as the contract-related claims. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the forum selection clause was broad. All the claims appeared to be “in connection with” the agreement. That was enough in this case to bring them in.

(Missing Kentucky image courtesy Flickr user dog_manor under this Creative Commons license.)

Software distributor agreement violated New York’s Rule Against Perpetuities

McAllister Software Systems, Inc. v. Henry Schein, Inc., No. 06-0093, 2008 WL 922328 (E.D. Mo. April 2, 2008)

This case came out about three months ago, and I should have blogged about it then but it slipped by. It’s a quirky holding, what with the Rule Against Perpetuities, so it’s worth going back to pick it up. As it turns out, the Rule comes into play in real life, not just on the bar exam or in first year of law school Property class.

In 1990, McAllister and Schein entered into an Exclusive Distributor Agreement (EDA) whereby Schein would have the exclusive right to promote and sell veterinary management software. In 2006, McAllister sued, asking the court to declare the EDA void ab initio (from its creation), claiming that terms of the EDA violated New York’s Rule Against Perpetuities. (The EDA provided that New York law would apply).

McAllister moved for summary judgment on its claim, and the court granted the motion. And now for the legalese, because I know that’s the real reason you’re here.

The New York Estate Powers and Trust Law at Article 9, Section 1.1 prohibits the suspension of the absolute power of alienation of any present or future estate for a period beyond lives in being at the creation of the estate plus twenty-one years. Although usually thought of as a real property question, under New York law, the Rule applies to personal property as well. Yawn.

The court found that two provisions of the EDA violated the Rule because they permanently restrained McAllister from freely selling the software and developing and marketing new software in the same market space.

One provision provided that

Schein shall have the right to be the exclusive distributor of any other software designed for the Market that [McAllister Software] produces, develops, or acquires the rights to, hereafter.

Another provision stated that

McAllister Software will keep and maintain a current version of the Software’s source code and supporting documentation (“Escrow Materials”) in escrow with its attorney or a professional computer software escrow agent (“Escrowee”) …If [McAllister Software] fails to support the Software to the reasonable satisfaction of Schein and Schein’s customers or if [McAllister Software] ceases to do business, Schein shall have the right to immediately obtain the source code from the Escrowee, and [McAllister Software], by its execution hereof, hereby authorizes Escrowee to release the source code to Schein only under said circumstances.

Both the parties were corporations so there were no “measuring lives” to use for purposes of the Rule Against Perpetuities calculation. So the court simply considered whether the power of alienation was suspended for at least 21 years. This situation fit the bill, so the EDA was void.

No standing to sue Microsoft under XP EULA

Johnson v. Microsoft Corp., No. 06-900, 2008 WL 803124 (W.D. Wash. March 21, 2008).

A number of plaintiffs filed suit against Microsoft in federal court in Washington state, alleging, among other things, that the installation of Windows Genuine Advantage (“WGA”) (which enforces the validity of a user’s version of XP) violated the XP end user license agreement (“EULA”).

Microsoft moved for summary judgment against two of the plaintiffs, arguing that they did not own the computers at the time WGA was installed, and thus these plaintiffs lacked standing. The court agreed and entered summary judgment against these plaintiffs.

The court rejected these plaintiffs’ arguments that they had standing as computer users and business owners to raise the breach of contract claims. The plaintiffs had transferred their ownership to a company before WGA was installed. The parties were therefore not parties to the EULA and lacked privity with any party. Moreover, they could not be treated as third party beneficiaries of the EULA, so they lacked standing.

Resale on eBay o.k. under First Sale Doctrine?

Last week the U.S. District Court in Seattle denied Defendant Autodesk’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff Vernor’s case, and held that under the circumstances, the sale of AutoCAD on eBay was protected by the First Sale Doctrine.

Vernor makes a living reselling goods on eBay. He found himself in hot water after trying to sell four copies of Autodesk’s AutoCAD on eBay, and sought a declaratory judgment from the Court that he was entitled to sell these copies of AutoCAD.

In 2005, Vernor bought a copy of AutoCAD at a garage sale. He then listed it on an eBay auction. When Autodesk found out about Vernor’s eBay auction, it sent eBay a notice and takedown request alleging that copyright infringement would occur if Vernor were allowed to sell its product. Vernor filed a counter-notice claiming his proposed sale was lawful. eBay reinstated the auction, and the sale was completed. Fast forward to 2007 when Vernor bought four copies of AutoCAD for sale on eBay. He was able to sell three copies after going through similar notice and takedown / reply correspondence as in 2005. When he tried to sell the fourth copy, eBay suspended his account for one month for alleged “repeat infringement.” He sued for a declaration that his proposed sale was lawful, and that Autodesk’s actions were unfair competition.

Vernor acquired his copies of AutoCAD from CTA who had acquired them from Autodesk as part of a settlement. Each copy contained a Software License Agreement which contained a “nonexclusive, nontransferable license to use the enclosed program … [including prohibiting] transfer … to any other person without Autodesk’s prior written consent.”

Contrary to Autodesk’s assertion, the Court held that Vernor did make out a valid cause of action, and that there is an actual case / controversy between the parties per the Declaratory Judgment Act. Moreover, the Court also held that “If It Applies, the First Sale Doctrine Immunizes Mr. Vernor” since “[t]he first sale doctrine permits a person who owns a lawfully-made copy of a copyrighted work to sell or otherwise dispose of the copy.” The Court also cited with approval Quality King Distribs., Inc. v. L’Anza Research Int’l, Inc., 523 U.S. 135, 152 (1998) which noted that “[w]hen a copyright holder chooses to sell a copy of his work, however, he ‘exhaust[s] his exclusive statutory right to control its distribution’.” The Court noted by way of example that “the first sale doctrine permits a consumer who buys a lawfully made DVD …to resell the copy, but not to duplicate the copy.”

Autodesk claims (as would arguably all software companies) that since it licensed AutoCAD, there was no sale, and thus Vernor is not an “owner” and the First Sale Doctrine does not apply. The Court points out the key question: “whether Autodesk’s transfer of AutoCAD packages to CTA was a sale or a mere transfer of possession pursuant to a license.” If it was a sale, Autodesk would be limited to a breach of contract claim against CTA. The Court notes that there is no bright-line rule as to what constitutes a sale versus a transfer, but that “[i]n comparing the transactions found to be sales in Wise with those that were not, the critical factor is whether the transferee kept the copy acquired from the copyright holder.” (emphasis added). Thus in this case, since CTA, and subsequently Vernor kept the copies of AutoCAD, there was a sale. The Court noted in a footnote that: “[e]ven if Autodesk could revive its “exhausted” distribution rights by reclaiming title to software copies it sold, Autodesk did not reclaim title. It merely required CTA to destroy its copies.” This might mean that software vendors will amend license language to avoid this issue in the future, along with more aggressively policing possession of their software requiring licensees to return copies of software so as to avoid First Sale issues (or that they could provide limited-term renewable licenses which contain a DRM-type “auto-destroy” feature – similar to the way iTunes limits via license the number of machines its customers can upload a song to).

The Court does note a series of decisions which run counter to the reasoning in United States v. Wise, 550 F.2d 1180, 1187 (9th Cir. 1977), but ultimately follows Wise in finding that “the transfer of AutoCAD packages from Autodesk to CTA was a sale with contractual restrictions on use and transfer of the software. Mr. Vernor may thus invoke the first sale doctrine, and his resale of the AutoCAD packages is not a copyright violation.” The Court also notes that other jurisdictions may have reached a different conclusion. This case has important implications for consumers and the software industry, and given the noted Circuit split, might not ride off into the sunset just yet.

William Patry provides an informative commentary here.

Case is: CASE NO. C07-1189RAJ (U.S. Dist Court of Washington at Seattle)

Court upholds forum selection clause in YouTube’s terms of use

Bowen v. YouTube, Inc., No. 08-5050, 2008 WL 1757578 (W.D.Wash. April 15, 2008)

Plaintiff Bowen, a registered YouTube user, sued YouTube over some harassing comments others had posted about her on the site, as well as for some sort of dissatisfaction about misappropriation of her intellectual property rights. (The opinion is not clear about exactly what Bowen’s claims were.)

YouTube moved to dismiss the complaint for, among other things, improper venue, invoking a provision of the site’s Terms of Use which read:

You agree that: (i) the YouTube Website shall be deemed solely based in California; and (ii) the YouTube Website shall be deemed a passive website that does not give rise to personal jurisdiction over YouTube, either specific or general, in jurisdictions other than California. These Terms of Service shall be governed by the internal substantive laws of the State of California, without respect to its conflict of laws principles. Any claim or dispute between you and YouTube that arises in whole or in part from the YouTube Website shall be decided exclusively by a court of competent jurisdiction located in San Mateo County, California.

Looking to the cases of Pebble Beach Co. v. Caddy, 453 F.3d 1151 (9th Cir.2006), Rio Properties, Inc. v. Rio Int’l Interlink, 284 F.3d 1007, 1020 (9th Cir.2000) and Cybersell, Inc. v. Cybersell, Inc., 130 F.3d 414, 418-20 (9th Cir.1997), the court observed that “for the proposition that when a ‘website advertiser [does] nothing other than register a domain name and post an essentially passive website’ and nothing else is done ‘to encourage residents of the forum state,’ there is no personal jurisdiction.”

The court found that Bowen’s allegations arose from her use of YouTube, and no conduct was alleged to provide the “something more” necessary for rendering YouTube subject to jurisdiction in the Western District of Washington.

Network Solutions’s forum selection clause enforced


Doe v. Network Solutions, LLC, No. 07-5115, 2008 WL 191419 (N.D. Cal. January 22, 2008)

Plaintiff Doe alleged violations of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and similar California statutes when he discovered that personal and financial information about him had allegedly been obtained from a webmail account he established with Network Solutions. Citing to the forum selection clause in the click-wrap agreement Doe had entered into several times, Network Solutions moved to dismiss the action under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(3) for improper venue.

The court granted the motion to dismiss, finding that the claims brought by plaintiff were within the scope of the clause, and that enforcement would not be unreasonable. The matter was dismissed without prejudice to refile in the Eastern District of Virginia.

The forum selection clause provided, in relevant part, that it governed “any disputes between [customer] and Network Solutions under, arising out of, or related in any way to this Agreement. . . .” In holding that the claims fell within the scope of the clause, the court observed that although there were no claims for breach of contract, the claims arose out of plaintiff’s status as a customer and related to the services, thus implicating the contractual relationship. Moreover, the language “under, arising out of, or related in any way to [the] agreement” led the court to conclude that the clause was to be construed broadly.

In determining that enforcement of the clause would not be unreasonable, the court rejected plaintiff’s argument that it would contravene public policy, as the choice of law provision (naming Virginia) would preclude recovery under various California statutes. The court noted that California law had not expressed any policy against enforcement of a forum selection clause in the context of the claims asserted, and that a clause providing a forum which permits different or less favorable remedies is not, alone, a basis for invalidating the clause.

Ownership of domain name grounds for civil contempt and award of attorney’s fees

But mere ownership of domain name, without “use,” was not enough to give rise to infringement.

Careylicensing, Inc. v. Erlich, No. 05-1194, 2007 WL 3146559 (E.D. Mo. October 25, 2007)

Plaintiff Carey International and defendant International Chauffeured Services are competitors in the limousine industry. Carey sued International back in 2005 for trademark infringement, and the parties settled the case. They entered into a consent judgment, which is, essentially, like a contract between the parties that was made an order of the court. The consent judgment prohibited, among other things, the defendant from owning any domain name containing the word “Carey.”

In February 2007, the plaintiff noticed that the defendant owned a domain name careylimousine.net. The plaintiff eventually went back into court, asking that the defendant be held in contempt for violating the consent judgment and, pursuant to the terms of the consent judgment, be awarded attorneys fees and “liquidated damages,” for breaching the agreement.

The court found that ownership of the domain name by the defendant warranted a contempt citation. It also found that that ownership was a breach that made an award of attorney’s fees proper. But the court declined to award liquidated damages.

The consent judgment provided that liquidated damages be awarded for any “infringement” of the plaintiff’s mark. But in this case, there was no infringement. The court found that merely owning the domain name, without having an active site there, was not a “use” in commerce as required by the Lanham Act. Without the requisite element of use, there could be no infringement.