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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Wrap Contracts Symposium, Part VI: Eric Zacks on Deciphering the Function of Form in Wrap Contracts

This is the sixth in a series of posts on Nancy Kim's Wrap Contracts: Foundations and Ramifications (Oxford UP 2013).   Our sixth guest blogger, Eric Zacks, is an Assistant Professor of Law at Wayne State University Law School. 

Deciphering the Function of Form in Wrap Contracts 

Zacks-webForm and function collide again and again in Professor Kim’s engaging Wrap Contracts. As Kim explains, the wrap contract’s form is deeply connected to its function, and her description and devastating critique of these varying forms illuminate the complexities of how we interact with, and are affected by, such contracts. She argues that the form ought to reflect the function of the wrap contract so that users better understand the nature of the contract. In this comment, I seek to address the ways form may already reflect function, albeit not in the manner that Kim necessarily would prefer.

As in industries utilizing paper consumer contracts, competition among businesses that employ wrap contracts demands that they develop a nuanced understanding of how the non-drafting parties and judges interact with contracts. For example, we should not be surprised by contracts that induce deference to the contract as written from the non-drafting parties. To that end, the prevalence of particular wrap contract features, such as the use of multiple hyperlinks to obtain the text of a license or lengthy and complex terms, are unsurprising because they make it more unlikely that non-drafters will try to (or actually) understand the content of the contract. Similarly, delivering the product prior to, or simultaneously with, the “execution” of the contract through the use of shrinkwrap or delaying the opportunity to review contract terms until the website user has sunk time and energy into filling out an order form, deter contract term detection or review and reflect drafters’ sophisticated understanding of individual decision-making processes.

Wrap contracts presumably also could be designed to make the adjudicator comfortable with enforcing the contract as written against the non-drafting party. The “click-through” on a website is a powerful device because it lends itself nicely to a particular counterfactual analysis that “but for” the click, the customer would not have been bound. Because the customer did click, adjudicators typically conclude that she should be held responsible for the terms of the contract. Importantly, this adjudicative response is triggered even though, as Kim notes, “adherents to these contracts to these contracts are typically oblivious to what they have done,” suggesting that the click triggers a psychological response similar to contracts with a more passive means of acceptance (such as simple disclosure of terms).  

Kim’s metaphors of the shield, sword, and crook to explain the different functions of the wrap contracts (Chapter 5) also are helpful because they can help identify the underlying motivation for certain provisions. By understanding whether the primary function of the contract is to protect the drafting party (the “shield”), obtain better transaction terms (the “shield”), or seek benefits beyond the scope of the transaction (the “crook”), we may then speculate as to which form of a wrap contract makes sense from the drafter’s perspective.

Wrap Contracts

If, however, the goal is to prevent the use of the software in a particular manner, then the form of contract as it appears to the adjudicator may be more important than a contract form that deters returns. Accordingly, the contract form may emphasize notice of the terms, if not outright acceptance. I suspect that a “click-through” box may help in this regard, although the blatancy of wrongful or inappropriate use, particularly of free software, may not require an additional volitional act on the part of the user (such as explicit assent to the contract) to convince an adjudicator to enforce the contract as written. The courts, as noted in Kim’s book, typically find notice of non-negotiated terms to be sufficient when such wrongful use has occurred.

Lastly, if the goal is to use the contract as a crook, then a contract that requires a more active acceptance of the contract terms (such as clicking “I agree”) may be preferable from the drafter’s perspective. By being able to point to the specific act of the click and a “better” assent, a drafting party may be better able to extract property rights unrelated to the transaction under adjudicative scrutiny.  The extraction of the property rights by the drafting party may appear wrongful to the adjudicator, but counterfactual analysis surrounding the “explicit” assent to the contract may point to a different result.

With respect to the metaphors described above, I do question whether the distinction between shield and sword holds up sufficiently in many cases. License agreements containing shields and license agreements containing swords essentially provide the user with a restricted license, and the difference between the two types is a bit unclear. For example, Kim describes the restrictions on copying and transferring software discussed in ProCD, Inc. v. Zeidenberg as a shield and the restriction on reverse engineering discussed in Davidson & Associates v. Jung as a sword. As each can be described as a shield protecting the licensor from unfair or undesired business practices or a sword preventing the licensee from exercising certain rights, it may be simpler to divide the world of wrap contract provisions into defensive (those that manage business risks related to the license or transaction) and offensive (those that extract rights unrelated to the license or transaction). In any event, the specific categorization does not undercut Kim’s more significant conclusion that the use of shield and sword provisions has enabled the use of crook provisions.

It also would be interesting to know whether these different contract goals and functions do, as an empirical matter, affect the form chosen by the drafting party as described above.  Of course, the judicial slide towards “notice that terms exist” as “consent” noted in Wrap Contracts could somewhat obviate the need for such planning, and the multiple goals of the drafting party also are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Wrap Contracts provides us with a welcome exploration into the connection between form and function in these ubiquitous contracts and suggests how understanding this connection can help us address problematic contracting practices in this still-developing context.  

[Posted, on Eric Zacks' behalf, by JT]

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/contractsprof_blog/2013/11/wrap-contracts-symposium-part-vi-eric-zacks-on-deciphering-the-function-of-form-in-wrap-contracts.html

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