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.

Tweet served as evidence of initial interest confusion in trade dress case

The maker of KIND bars sued the maker of Clif bars alleging that the packaging of the Clif MOJO bar infringes the trade dress used for KIND bars. Plaintiff moved for a preliminary injunction, but the court denied the motion. But in its analysis, the court considered the relevance of a Twitter user’s impression of the products. Plaintiff submitted a tweet as evidence in which the user wrote, “I was about to pick up one of those [Clif MOJO bars] because I thought it was a Kind Bar at the vitamin shop ….” The court found that this type of initial interest confusion was actionable and therefore the tweet supported plaintiff’s argument.

KIND LLC v. Clif Bar & Company, 2014 WL 2619817 (S.D.N.Y. June 12, 2014)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago, advising clients on matters dealing with trademark protection and enforcement, technology, the internet and new media. Contact him.

Another court puts an end to a social media discovery fishing expedition

480px-Old_photo_of_woman_holding_a_fisherman_caught_fishPlaintiff sued a construction company and certain municipal authorities for negligence and loss of parental consortium after her toddler son was seriously injured in front of a construction site. Defendants sought broad discovery from plaintiff’s Facebook account, to which plaintiff objected in part. But the trial court required plaintiff to answer the discovery. So plaintiff sought review with the appellate court. On appeal, the court overturned the trial court.

It held that defendants’ discovery requests were overbroad and compelled the production of personal information that was not relevant to plaintiff’s claims.

Defendants had sought copies of postings on plaintiff’s Facebook account dealing with:

  • Any counseling or psychological care obtained by plaintiff before or after the accident
  • Relationships with [her injured son] or her other children, both prior to, and following, the accident
  • Relationships with all of plaintiff’s children, “boyfriends, husbands, and/or significant others,” both prior to, and following the accident
  • Mental health, stress complaints, alcohol use or other substance use, both prior to and after, the accident
  • Any lawsuits filed after the accident by plaintiff

The court observed that one of the defendants’ arguments to the trial court essentially conceded it was on a fishing expedition. The attorney stated, “These are all things that we would like to look under the hood, so to speak, and figure out whether that’s even a theory worth exploring.” And the magistrate judge in the trial court (though ordering the discovery to be had) acknowledged that “95 percent, or 99 percent of this may not be relevant,” and expressed some misgivings at the possibility that large amounts of material might have to be reviewed in camera.

Finding that the trial court order departed “from the essential requirements of the law” because it was overbroad and required the production of irrelevant personal information, the court quashed the discovery requests.

Root v. Balfour Beatty Const. LLC, — So.3d —, 2014 WL 444005 (Fla.App. 2 Dist. February 5, 2014)

Does publication on the web give rise to “access” in copyright infringement analysis?

2003lookbackPlaintiff sued defendant for copyright infringement. Defendant moved for judgment on the pleadings (which is essentially the same thing as a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim except it is after defendant files an answer). Defendant asserted that plaintiff had not pled copyright infringement because under the Seventh Circuit’s “substantial similarity” test to demonstrate infringement, plaintiff had not pled defendant had “access” to the allegedly infringed work.

The court rejected defendant’s argument and denied the motion for judgment on the pleadings on this issue.

In some copyright infringement cases, a plaintiff may not have direct evidence that the defendant committed infringement. In those situations, a finder of fact may infer that infringement has occurred when it is shown that:

  • the defendant had access to the copyrighted work; and
  • the accused work is substantially similar to the copyrighted work.

In this case, defendant argued it never had access to plaintiff’s designs that it was alleged to have infringed. But the court considered the online publication, 11 years ago, of plaintiff’s designs, to find access for purposes of the motion for judgment on the pleadings:

With regard to online publication, in 2003, [plaintiff] first published the [allegedly infringed work] at [its website]. The Internet already was widely used and accessible at that time. Because the non-movant is entitled to reasonable favorable inferences in evaluating a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the online publication is enough to establish access for purposes of denying [defendant’s] motion for judgment on the pleadings.

The court’s decision provides no meaningful analysis as to why publication on the web gives rise to access. It states the finding above in such a conclusory manner as if to indicate it sets forth some per se rule. But one is left to wonder whether other factual nuance would change the answer to the inquiry: What if publication were in 1993 rather than 2003, at a time when many, many fewer people were on the web? What if the publication were behind a paywall for which defendant had no authorization to pass? What if defendant pled it did not utilize the web for this sort of information, or, even more compellingly, not at all?

Skyline Design, Inc. v. McGrory Glass, Inc., 2014 WL 258564 (N.D.Ill. January 23, 2014)

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