Friday, July 18, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
A woman owes $20 to Kohl’s on a credit card. The debt collector allegedly started to “harass” the woman over the debt, calling her cell phone up to 22 times per week as early as 6 a.m. and occasionally after midnight. What would a reasonable customer do? Probably pay the debt, which the woman admits was only a “measly $20.” What did this woman do? Not to pay the small debt, telling the caller that they had “the wrong number,” and follow the great American tradition of filing suit, alleging violations of the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act which, among other things, makes it illegal to call cell phones using auto dialers or prerecorded voices without the recipient’s consent.
Consumer protection rules also prohibit collection agencies from calling before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m., calling multiple times during one day, leaving voicemail messages at a work number, or continuing to call a work phone number if told not to.
Last year, Bank of America agreed to pay $32 million to settle claims relating to allegations of illegally using robo-debt collectors. Discover also settled a claim alleging that they violated the rules by calling people’s cell phones without their consent. Just recently, a man’s recorded 20-minute call to Comcast pleading with their representative to cancel his cable and internet service went viral online.
The legal moral of these stories is that companies are not and should, of course, not be allowed to harass anyone to collect on debt owed to them or refuse to cancel services no longer wanted. However, what about companies such as Kohl’s who are presumably owed very large amounts of money although in the form of many small debts? Is it reasonable that customers such as the above can do what she admits doing, simply saying “screw it” to the company and in fact reverse the roles of debtor and creditor by hoping for a settlement via a lawsuit on a questionable background? Surely not.
I once owned a small company and can attest to the difficulty of collecting on debts even with extensive accurate documentation. The only way my debt collecting service or myself were able to collect many outstanding amounts was precisely to make repeat requests and reminders (although, of course, in a professional manner). As a matter of principle, customers should not be able to get away with simply choosing not to pay for services or products they have ordered, even if the outstanding amounts are small. If companies have followed the law, perhaps time has come for them to refuse settling to once again re-establish the roles of debtor and creditor. This, one could hope, would lead irresponsible consumers to live up to their financial obligations, as must the rest of society.
Wednesday, July 9, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
Recently, I blogged here on Aereo’s attempt to provide inexpensive TV programming to consumers by capturing and rebroadcasting cable TV operators’ products without paying the large fees charged by those operators. The technology is complex, but at bottom, Aereo argued that they were not breaking copyright laws because they merely enabled consumers to capture TV that was available over airwaves and via cloud technology anyway.
In the recent narrow 6-3 Supreme Court ruling, the Courts said that Aereo was “substantially similar” to a cable TV company since it sold a service that enabled subscribers to watch copyrighted TV programs shortly after they were broadcast by the cable companies. The Court found that “Aereo performs petitioners’ works publicly,” which violates the Copyright Act. The fact that Aereo uses slightly different technology than the cable companies does not make a “critical difference,” said the Court. Since the ruling, Aereo has suspended its operations and posted a message on its website that calls the Court’s outcome "a massive setback to consumers."
Whether or not the Supreme Court is legally right in this case is debatable, but it at least seems to be behind the technological curve. Of course the cable TV companies resisted Aereo’s services just as IBM did not predict the need for very many personal computers, Kodak failed to adjust quickly enough to the digital camera craze, music companies initially resisted digital files and online streaming of songs. But if companies want to survive in these technologically advanced times, it clearly does not make sense to resist technological changes. They should embrace not only technology, but also, in a free market, competition so long as, of course, no laws are violated. We also do not use typewriters anymore simply to protect the status quo of the companies that made them.
It is remarkable how much cable companies attempt to resist the fact that many, if not most, of us simply do not have time to watch hundreds of TV stations and thus should not have to buy huge, expensive package solutions. Not one of the traditional cable TV companies seem to consider the business advantage of offering more individualized solutions, which is technologically possible today. Instead, they are willing to waste money and time on resisting change all the way to the Supreme Court, not realizing that the change is coming whether or not they want it.
Surely an innovative company will soon be able to work its way around traditional cable companies’ strong position on this market while at the same time observing the Supreme Court’s markedly narrow holding. Some have already started doing so. Aereo itself promises that it is only “paus[ing] our operations temporarily as we consult with the court and map out our next steps.”
Monday, July 7, 2014
H/T to Eric Goldman for sharing with the list a new case from Judge Lucy Koh of the federal district court of Northern California. Tompkins v. 23andMe provides a detailed analysis of 23andMe's wrap contracts. The case involves the same Terms of Service presented as a hyperlink at the bottom of the website's pages, and then later, post-purchase and at the time of account creation, as a hyperlink that requires a "click" in order to proceed (which I refer to as a "multi-wrap" as it's neither browsewrap nor clickwrap but a little of both). The court says the former presentation lacks notice, but the latter constitutes adequate formation. Eric Goldman provides a detailed analysis of the case here.
Not surprisingly, the Terms contained a unilateral modification clause which was briefly discussed in the context of substantive unconscionability. It was not, however, raised as a defense to formation, i.e. to argue that the promises made by 23andme were illusory.
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
What would you say if you found out that Facebook used your kids’ names and profile pictures to promote various third-party products and services to other kids? Appalling and legally impossible as minors cannot contract? That’s just what a group of plaintiffs (all minors) attempting to bring a class action lawsuit against Facebook argued recently, but to no avail. Here’s what happened:
Kids sign up on Facebook, “friend” their friends and add other information as well as their profile pictures. Facebook takes that information and display it to your kids’ friends, but alongside advertisements. The company insists that they do “nothing more than take information its users have voluntarily shared with their Facebook friends, and republish it to those same friends, sometimes alongside a related advertisement.” How does this happen? A program called “Social Ads” allows third parties to add their own content to the user material that is displayed when kids click on each other’s information.
The court dismissed the complaint, finding no viable theory on which it could find the user agreements between the kids and Facebook viable. In California, where the case was heard, Family Code § 6700 sets out the general rule for minors’ ability to contract: “… a minor may make a contract in the same manner as an adult, subject to the power of disaffirmance.” The plaintiffs had argued that as a general rule, minors cannot contract. That, said the court, is turning the rule on its head: minors can, as a starting point, contract, but they can affirmatively disaffirm the contracts if they wish to do so. In this case, they had not sought to do so before bringing suit.
Plaintiffs also argued that under § 6701, minors cannot delegate their power to, in effect, appoint Facebook as their agent who could then use their images and information. Wrong, said the court. Kids signing up on Facebook is “no different from the garden-variety rights a contracting party may obtain in a wide variety of contractual settings. Facebook users have, in effect, simply granted Facebook the right to use their names in pictures in certain specified situations in exchange for whatever benefits they may realize from using the Facebook site.”
In its never-ending quest to increase profits, Corporate America once again prevailed. Even children are not free from being used for this purpose. The only option they seemed to have had in this situation would have been to disaffirm the “contract;” in other words, to stop using Facebook. To me, that does not seem like a difficult choice, but I imagine the vehement protests instantly launched against parents asking their kids to stop using the popular website. Of course, kids are a highly attractive target audience. Some already have quite a bit of disposable income. They are all potential long-time customers for products/services not directed only at kids. Corporate name recognition is important in connection with this relatively impressionable audience. But is this acceptable? After all, there is an obvious reason why minors can disaffirm contracts. This option, however, would often require intense and perhaps undesirable parent supervision. In 2014, it is probably unreasonable to ask one’s kids not to be on social media (although the actual benefits of it are also highly debatable).
Although the legal outcome of this case is arguably correct, its impacts and the taste it leaves in one’s mouth are bad for unwary minors and their parents.
Saturday, May 24, 2014
"You can stop using our Services at any time, although we’ll be sorry to see you go. Google may also stop providing Services to you, or add or create new limits to our Services at any time."
and this unilateral modification clause:
"We may modify these terms or any additional terms that apply to a Service to, for example, reflect changes to the law or changes to our Services. You should look at the terms regularly. We’ll post notice of modifications to these terms on this page. We’ll post notice of modified additional terms in the applicable Service. Changes will not apply retroactively and will become effective no sooner than fourteen days after they are posted. However, changes addressing new functions for a Service or changes made for legal reasons will be effective immediately. If you do not agree to the modified terms for a Service, you should discontinue your use of that Service."
Sunday, May 18, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
Recently, Jeremy Telman blogged here about the insanity of having to pay for hundreds of TV stations when one really only wants to, or has time to, watch a few.
Luckily, change may finally be on its way. The company Aereo is offering about 30 channels of network programming on, so far, computers or mobile devices using cloud technology. The price? About $10 a month, surely a dream for “cable cutters” in the areas which Aereo currently serves.
How does this work? Each customer gets their own tiny Aereo antenna instead of having to either have a large, unsightly antenna on their roofs or buying expensive cable services just to get broadcast stations. In other words, Aereo enables its subscribers to watch broadcast TV on modern, mobile devices at low cost and with relative technological ease. In other words, Aereo records show for its subscribers so that they don’t have to.
That sounds great, right? Not if you are the big broadcast companies in fear of losing millions or billions of dollars (from the revenue they get via cable companies that carry their shows). They claim that this is a loophole in the law that allows private users to record shows for their own private use, but not for companies to do so for commercial gain and copyright infringement.
Of course, the great American tradition of filing suit was followed. Most judges have sided with Aero so far, the networks have filed petition for review with the United States Supreme Court, which granted the petition in January.
Stay tuned for the outcome in this case…
Friday, May 9, 2014
Andrew Muennink, a senior at Round Rock High School in Texas, struck a deal with Cindy House, his art teacher: if he gets 15,000 retweets of a photo by noon on May 23, she will not require the students to take the art final exam. The photo depicts them shaking on the deal and the writing on the blackboard behind them sets out the key terms:
Apparently, Muennink's first offer to Ms. House was 5,000 retweets, but they ultimately struck the deal at 15,000. What if he reaches 15,000? Then, Muennink says, "I'd be the man!" As of this writing, he's reached 6,117 retweets.
Muennink's bargain has inspired high school students across the U.S. - with some negotiating a better deal (10,000 retweets for no final) and others negotiating a much more difficult goal (250,000 tweets - and this student really needs the retweets because she "barely went to . . . class").
These students were apparently concerned about the statute of frauds and included signatures on the blackboard:
If you are inclined to retweet and save a high school student from a final, the hashtag is #nofinal.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
By Myanna Dellinger
A class-action lawsuit filed recently against Amazon asserts that the giant online retailer did not honor its promise to offer “free shipping” to its Prime members in spite of these members having paid an annual membership fee of $79 mainly in order to obtain free two-day shipping.
Instead, the lawsuit alleges, Amazon would covertly encourage third-party vendors to increase the item prices displayed and charged to Prime members by the same amount charged to non-Prime members for shipping in order to make it appear as if the Prime members would get the shipping for free. Amazon would allegedly also benefit from such higher prices as it deducts a referral fee as a percentage of the item price from third-party vendors.
The suit alleges breach of contract and seeks recovery of Prime membership costs for the relevant years as well as treble damages under Washington’s Consumer Protection Act. Most states have laws such as consumer fraud statutes, deceptive trade practices laws, and/or unfair competition laws that can punish sellers for charging more than the actual costs of “shipping and handling." In some cases that settled, companies agreed to use the term “shipping and processing” instead of “shipping and handling” to be more clear towards consumers.
On the flip side of the situation is how Amazon outright prevents at least some private third-party vendors from charging the actual shipping costs (not even including “handling” or “processing” charges). For example, if a private, unaffiliated vendor sells a used book via Amazon, the site will only allow that person to charge a certain amount for shipping. As post office and UPS/FedEx costs of mailing items seem to be increasing (understandably so in at least the case of the USPS), the charges allowed for by Amazon often do not cover the actual costs of sending items. And if the private party attempts to increase the price of the book even just slightly to not incur a “loss” on shipping, the book may not be listed as the cheapest one available and thus not be sold.
This last issue may be a detail as the site still is a way of getting one’s used books sold at all whereas that may not have been possible without Amazon. Nonetheless, the totality of the above allegations, if proven to be true, and the facts just described till demonstrate the contractual powers that modern online giants have over competitors and consumers.
A decade or so ago, I attended a business conference for other purposes. I remember how one presenter, when discussing “shipping and handling” charges, got a gleeful look in his eyes and mentioned that when it came to those charges, it was “Christmas time.” When comparing what shipping actually costs (not that much for large mail-order companies that probably enjoy discounted rates with the shipping companies) with the charges listed by many companies, it seems that not much has changed in that area. On the other hand, promises of “free” shipping have, of course, been internalized in the prices charged somehow. One can hope that companies are on the up-and-up about the charges. Again: buyer beware.
Thursday, April 17, 2014
According to this article in today's New York Times, General Mills has added language to its website designed to force anyone who interacts with the company to disclaim any right to bring a legal action against it in a court of law. If a consumer derives any benefit from General Mills' products, including using a coupon provided by the company, "liking" it on social media or buying any General Mills' product, the consumer must agree to resolve all disputes through e-mail or through arbitration.
The website now features a bar at the top which reads:
The Legal Terms include the following provisions:
- The Agreement applies to all General Mills products, including Yoplait, Green Giant, Pillsbury, various cereals and even Box Tops for Education;
- The Agreement automatically comes into effect "in exchange for benefits, discounts," etc., and benefits are broadly defined to include using a coupon, subscribing to an e-mail newsletter, or becoming a member of any General Mills website;
- The only way to terminate the agreement is by sending written notice and discontinuing all use of General Mills products;
- All disputes or claims brought by the consumer are subject to e-mail negotiation or arbitration and may not be brought in court; and
- A class action waiver.
The Times notes that General Mills' action comes after a judge in California refused to dismiss a claim against General Mills for false advertising. Its packaging suggests that its "Nature Valley" products are 100% natural, when in fact they contain ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and maltodextrin. The Times also points out that courts may be reluctant to enforce the terms of the online Agreement. General Mills will have to demonstrate that consumers were aware of the terms when they used General Mills products. And what if, when they did so, they were wearing an Ian Ayres designed Liabili-T?
Monday, March 3, 2014
My student, Sam Henderson (who blogs here), directed my attention to this report on the Legal Informatics Blog about blockchain contracting and conveyancing systems. Blockchain technology is apparently one of the many things that makes Bitcoin transactions foolproof, genius-proof, and completely impervious to rampant speculation, financial catastrophe and the bankruptcy of major dealers in the virtual currency. So, like Bitcoin itself, applying blockchain technology could only democratize and decentralize commercial law, or so maintains this blog post on Thought Infection.
What a strange idea.
Contracts are private legislation. They are already about as democratic and decentralized as they could possibly be. Sure, they are governed by the relevant laws of the relevant jurisdictions, but blockchain technology would not change that. In any case, the law of contracts already permits the parties to choose the law that will govern them (within reason), so that's pretty decentralized and democratic.
What is not democratic and decentralized about commercial law is the fact that contracts tend to be drafted by the powerful and imposed upon people as take-it-or-leave it deals through form contracting. Given the complexity of the technologies associated with Bitcoin, it seems unlikely that adding layers of technology to commercial law would render it more democratic and less centralized.
Unfortunately, Thought Infection's post is misinformed about contracts. He writes
Whereas today contracts are restricted to deals with enough value to justify a lawyers time (mortgages, business deals, land transfer etc…), in the future there is no limit to what could be codified into simple contracts. You could imagine forming a self-enforcing contract around something as simple as sharing a lawnmower with your neighbor, hiring a babysitter, or forming a gourmet coffee club at work. Where this could really revolutionize things is in developing nations, where the ability to exchange small-scale microloans with self-enforcing contractual agreements that come at little or no cost would be a quantum leap forward.
Here are the problems with this as I see it:
- Contracts are not restricted; they are ubiquitous;
- Contracts do not require lawyers; they are formed all the time through informal dealings that are nonetheless legally binding so long as the requisite elements of contract formation are present;
- To some extent, Thought Infection's imagined contracts already are contracts, and to the extent that they are not contracts it is because people often choose to form relationships that are not governed by law (e.g., do you really want to think about the legal implications of hiring a baby sitter -- taxes, child-labor laws, workman's comp . . . yuck!); and
- Microloans are already in existence, and the transactions costs associated with contracts do not seem to be a major impediment.
Look, I'm not a Luddite (I blog too), but I also don't think that technology improves our lives with each touch. Technology usually makes our lives more efficient, but it can also make our lives suckier in a more efficient way. Technology does not only promote democracy and decentralization; it also promotes invasions of privacy by the panopticon state and panopticon corporations or other private actors, reification of human interactions, commidication and alienation. It has not helped address income disparity on the national or the global scale, ushered in an era of egalitarian harmony overseen by benevolent governments or pastoral anarchy.
As to contracts specifically, however, there are lots of ways to use technology that are available now and are generally useful. Last week, we discussed Kingsley Martin's presentation at KCON 9. Kingsley has lots of ideas about how to deploy technology to improve sophisticated contracting processes. But for the more mundane agreements, there is a nifty little app that a couple of people mentioned at KCON 9 called Shake. For those of you looking for a neat way to introduce simple contracts to your students, or for those of you who want to make the sorts of deals that Thought Infection thinks we need blockchain to achieve, Shake is highly interactive, fun and practical.
As reported here on Out-Law.com, the EU Parliament approved the proposed Common European Sales Law designed to apply to transnational sales conducted by telephone or through the Internet. Despite opposition from the German and UK governments, the new law found overwhelming support in the EU Parliament, passing by a vote of 416-159, with 65 abstentions.
The law is now placed before the EU's Council of Ministers, which can adopt the proposal into law. The EU's Justice Commissioner, Viviane Reding, spoke out in favor of the law, saying that he would cut down on transactions costs by creating a uniform sales law throughout Europe. The savings would be especially helpful to medium and small business, which account for 99% of all businesses in the EU.
We summarized the characteristics of the proposed sales law (in its then-current version) here.
You can find the version approved by the EU Parliament here (click on "texts part 3" and go to page 83 of the document that should open up).
Hat tip to Peter Fitzgerald.
Thursday, February 13, 2014
This is the third in a series of posts commenting on the cases cited in Jennifer Martin's summary of developments in Sales law published in The Businss Lawyer.
Professor Martin discusses two Statute of Frauds (SoF) cases. The first, Atlas Corp. v. H & W Corrugated Parts, Inc. does not cover any new territory. The second, E. Mishan & Sons, Inc., v. Homeland Housewares, LLC, raises more interesting issues and is a nice illustration of the status of e-mails as "writings" for the purposes of the SoF. The latter does not seem to be available on the web, but here's the cite: No. 10 Civ. 4931(DAB), 2012 WL 2952901 (S.D.N.Y. July 16, 2012).
In the first case, Atlas Corp. (Atlas) sold corrugated sheets and packaging products to H & W Corrugated Parts, Inc. (H&W). Atlas invoiced H&W for $133,405.24, but H&W never paid. Eventually, Atlas sued for breach of contract. H&W never answered the complaint, and Atlas moved for summary judgment. Although the motion was unopposed, the court considered whether the agreement was within the SoF, as the only writings in evidence were the invoices, which were not signed by the parties against whom enforcement was sought. Having had a reasonable opportunity to inspect the goods and not having rejected them, H&W is deemed to have received and accepted the goods, bringing the agreement within one of the exceptions to the SoF, 2-201(3)(c). The contract is thus enforceable notwithstanding the SoF, and H&W, not having paid for the goods, is liable for breach.
Homeland Housewares LLC (Homeland) manufactures the Magic Bullet blender. Homeland entered into an agreement with E. Mishan & Sons, which the Court refers to as "Emson," granting Emson the exclusive right to sell Magic Bullet blenders (not pictured at left) in the U.S. and Canada. Between March 2004 and March 2009, Emson ordered well over 1 million blenders from Household. Although the price fluctuated, it was generally about $21/blender, and Emson paid a 25% up-front deposit. After 2006, the parties operated without a written agreement.
In 2008-2009, the parties agreed to change their arrangement. Household sold directly to Bed, Bath & Beyond, Costco and Amazon, but Emson sought to remain as exclusive distributor to all other retailers. Emson alleges that the parties reached an oral agreement for a three year deal, the details of which were included in an e-mail confirmation that Emson sent on April 2, 2009. Homeland's principal responded the same day in an e-mail stating that Homeland "will need to add some provisions to this. We will [g]et back to you .” Although further discussions ensued, the parties dispute whether the disputed terms were material.
In any case, the parties continued to perform. Emson sought a per unit price reduction as called for in the e-mail confirmation. Homeland refused, citing increased costs. Emson did not push the point. That fact might suggest awareness that there was no binding agreement, or it might just suggest a modification of the existing agreement, which is permissible without consideration under UCC 2-209 so long as the parties agree to it. In March 2010, Emson learned that Homeland was soliciting direct sales to retailers. The parties tried to hammer out a new deal but the negotiations failed. By June 2010, Homeland had taken over all sales of the Magic Bullet in the U.S. and Canada.
Emson sued, and Homeland moved for summary judgment, claiming that the parties had no contract because the SoF bars enforcement of any alleged oral agreement for the sale of goods in excess of $500.
As I have remarked before, I find it curious that courts automatically apply the UCC to distributorship agreements. In this case, if I understand how the transaction worked, Emson may have operated as a bailee for goods that it passed on to retailers. Since it was dealing with large merchants, it likely would only order blenders that it already intended to pass on to merchants. It was basically just a broker. The court might well find that, because of assumption of risk and perhaps other matters, this agreement was in fact one in which goods were sold from Homeland to Emson and then again from Emson to retailers. But it is also possible that the goods passed through Emson and went straight to the retailers, in which case, I'm not sure the UCC should apply. But the parties agreed that the UCC applies to distributorship agreements and the court went along with that. Whatever.
Relying on the merchant exception to the SOF in UCC 2-201(2), Emson characterizes its April 2, 2009 e-mail as a written confirmation sent to a merchant, recieved and not objected to within 10 days. If that exception applies, the parties had a binding agreement. But Homeland argues that its response, referencing additional provisions, was a sufficient objection to take it outside of the ambit of the exception. The court did not resolve that issue but found that material questions of fact remained. The court denied Homeland's motion for summary judgment.
Monday, January 13, 2014
Over the past year, there has been an explosion of interest – and a frenzied up-swing in trading – in bitcoins. Writing in The New York Times in late December 2013, in an article called Into the Bitcoin Mines, Nathaniel Popper noted that “The scarcity — along with a speculative mania that has grown up around digital money — has made each new Bitcoin worth as much as $1,100 in recent weeks.” From a socio-economic perspective, this offers an unusual opportunity to observe the emergence and development of an entirely new, and so far unregulated, kind of market. Scholars like Wallace C. Turbeville interested in the law and policy of financial services regulation are now presented with an important opportunity to test assumptions we often blithely make about the ways in which regulation interacts with business and commercial activity.
Policymakers may confront a moment of truth – to regulate or not to regulate, and when, and how. Earlier this month, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson argued that the IRS should give taxpayers clear rules on how it will handle transactions involving bitcoin and other digital currencies accepted as payment by vendors. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held hearings on bitcoins and other “cryptocurrencies” several weeks ago, and may have a report on the situation early next year after further consideration, but Committee Chair Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.) seems to be taking a “wait and see” attitude. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China has already banned banks from using bitcoins as a currency, while U.S. regulators have not addressed the use of virtual currencies, even as an increasing number of vendors – including Overstock.com – have announced that they will accept them in payment for transactions.
One basic problem is the difficulty in determining what is involved in bitcoin creation and trading. Unfortunately, we are as yet at the mercy of metaphors. For example, within the first six paragraphs of his NYT piece, Popper refers to bitcoins as “virtual currency,” “invisible money,” “a speculative investment,” “online currency,” and “a largely speculative commodity.” In point of fact, bitcoins are book-entry tokens awarded for successfully solving highly complex algorithms generated by an open-source program, The program is disseminated by a mysterious, anonymous sponsor or group known only as Satoshi Nakamoto – the digital world’s version of Keyser Söze.
Determination of the proper legal characterization of bitcoins is essential if we are to choose appropriate transactional and regulatory approaches. For example, if bitcoins really are a “virtual currency” – a meaningless phrase, a glib metaphor – then fiscal supervision by the Federal Reserve might be the most appropriate approach to regulating bitcoin activity. Further, if they are in any significant sense “currency,” then treatment under the U.S. securities regulation framework would be problematic, since “currency” is excluded from the statutory definition of “security” in section 3(a)(10) of the Securities Exchange Act. Similarly, if bitcoins are viewed as some sort of currency, they would then likely be an “excluded commodity” under section 1a(19)(i) of the Commodity Exchange Act. On the other hand, if bitcoins are viewed as derivatives of currency or futures contracts in currency, then they may be subject to securities regulation, or possibly commodities regulation, depending upon the basic characteristics and rights of the financial product itself. The exact delimitation between treatment as a security and treatment as a commodity is currently the subject of study and proposed rulemakings by the SEC and the CFTC.
Recent news reports have noted that bitcoins are beginning to be accepted by more and more vendors as a form of payment. If in fact it becomes a commonplace that bitcoins operate as a payment mechanism, then we must deal with the possibility that they should be subject to transactional rules of the UCC and the procedures of payment clearance centers. It is at this point that the contractual aspects of bitcoins become critical features of our analysis.
Conceivably, we might go further and argue that bitcoins are functionally a type of note – relatively short-term promises to pay the holder – in which case, they would be subject to UCC article 3, exempt or excluded from securities registration requirements, but possibly still subject to securities antifraud rules. This is an attractive alternative, since it would give us some definite transactional rules to work with, plus antifraud protection against market manipulation – if we could figure out what “manipulation” should mean in the strange new world of cryptocurrencies.
Monday, December 2, 2013
Over at the Huffington Post, Sam Fiorella takes note of the egregious terms in Facebook Messenger's Mobile App Terms of Service. These terms include allowing the app to record audio, take pictures and video and make phone calls without your confirmation or intervention. It also allows the app to read your phone call log and your personal profile information. Of course, an app that can do all that is also vulnerable to malicious viruses which can share that information without your knowledge. But, of course, this is allowed only with your "consent."
Sunday, November 24, 2013
I want to thank all the experts who participated in last week's symposium on WRAP CONTRACTS: FOUNDATIONS AND RAMIFICATIONS . They raised a variety of issues and their insights were thoughtful, varied and very much appreciated. I also want to thank Jeremy Telman for organizing the symposium and inviting the participants.
Today, I’d like to respond to the posts by Michael Rustad, Eric Zacks and Theresa Amato. Eric Zacks emphasizes the effect that form has on users, namely that the form discourages users from reviewing terms. Zack notes that contract form may be used to appeal to the adjudicator rather than simply to elicit desired conduct from the user and that forms that elicit express assent - such as “click” agreements - help the drafter by aiding “counterfactual analysis surrounding the ‘explicit assent’” issue. In other words, drafters may use contract forms to manipulate adjudicator’s decisionmaking and not necessarily to get users to act a certain way. (This is a topic with which Zachs is familiar, having just written a terrific article on the different ways that drafters use form and wording to manipulate adjudicators’ cognitive biases).
Both Michael Rustad and Theresa Amato focus, not on form, but on the substance of wrap contracts – the rights deleting terms that contract form hides so well. Amato comes up with an alternative term to wrap contracts – online asbestos – to highlight the not-immediately-visible damage caused by these terms. As a consumer advocate and an expert on how to get messages to the general public, Amato understands the need to overcome the inertia of the masses by communicating the harms in a way that can drown out the siren call of the corporate marketing masters. So yes, a stronger term may be required to jolt consumers out of their complacency although the real challenge will be getting heard and beating the marketing masters at their own game.
Michael Rustad notes that my doctrinal solutions fall short of resolving the problem of predispute mandatory arbitration and anti-class action waivers. He’s right, of course, although I think reconceptualizing unconscionability in the way I propose (by presuming unconscionability with certain terms unless alternative terms exist or the legislature expressly permits the term) would reduce the prevalence of undesirable terms including mandatory arbitration and class-action waivers. Rustad, who has considerable expertise on this subject, mentions that many European countries are further along than we are in dealing with unfair terms. Many of those jurisdictions, however, also have legislation which limits class actions, tort suits or damages awards. In addition, they don’t have the same culture of litigation that we do in this country. Wrap contracts have their legitimate uses, such as deterring opportunistic consumer behavior and enabling companies to assess and limit business risks. In order to succeed, any proposal barring contract terms or the enforceability of wrap contracts must also consider those legitimate uses.
I believe there is a place for wrap contracts and boilerplate generally but their legitimate uses are currently outweighed by illegitimate abuses of powers. Wrap contract doctrine has moved too far away from the primary objective of contract law – to enforce the reasonable expectations of the parties-- and my solutions were an attempt to move the train back on track. My focus was on doctrinal solutions but the problems raised by wrap contracts are complex and my solutions do not foreclose or reject legislative ones. I’m a contracts prof, so my focus naturally will be on contract law solutions (if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, I guess). Doctrinal responses have the advantage of flexibility and may be better adapted to dynamic environments than legislation which can be quickly outdated when it comes to technology or business practices borne in a global marketplace.
Admittedly, when it comes to wrap contracts, doctrinal flexibility hasn’t really worked in favor of consumers, but that only makes it more important to keep trying to sway judicial opinion. I know there are those who question whether judges read legal scholarship, but I know that there are many judges (and clerks) who do. The case law in this area has spiraled out of control so that it makes no sense to the average “reasonable person” and has opened the door to the use of wrap contracts that exploit consumer vulnerabilities.
My book was not intended as a clarion call to rid the world of all wrap contracts; rather, it was intended to point out how much damage wrap contracts have done, how much more they can do, and to provide suggestions on how to rein them in and use them in a socially beneficial manner.
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to hear the insightful comments of last week’s highly respected line-up of experts and to share my thoughts with blog readers.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
It’s my pleasure to respond to Tuesday’s posts from Juliet Moringiello and Woodrow Hartzog. Juliet Moringiello asks whether wrap contracts are different enough to warrant different terminology. Moringiello’s knowledge in this area of law is both wide and deep and her article (Signals, Assent and Internet Contracting, 57 Rutgers L. Rev. 1307) greatly informed my thinking on the signaling effects of wrap contracts. The early electronic contracting cases involved old- school clickwraps where the terms were presented alongside the check box and their signaling effects were much stronger than browsewraps. Nowadays, the more common form of ‘wrap is the “multi-wrap,” such as that employed by Facebook and Google with a check or click required to manifest consent but the terms visible only by clicking on a hyperlink. Because they are everywhere, and have become seamlessly integrated onto websites, consumers don’t even see them. Moringiello writes that today’s 25-year old is more accustomed to clicking agree than signing a contract. I think that’s true and it’s that ubiquity which diminishes their signaling effects. Because we are all clicking constantly, we fail to realize the significance of doing so. It’s not the act alone that should matter, but the awareness of what the act means. I’m willing to bet that even among the savvy readers of this blog, none has read or even noticed every wrap agreement agreed to in the past week alone. I wouldn’t have made such a bold statement eight years ago.
Woodrow Hartzog provides a different angle on the wrap contract mess by looking at how they control and regulate online speech. With a few exceptions, most online speech happens on private websites that are governed by “codes of conduct.” In my book, I note that the power that drafting companies have over the way they present their contracts should create a responsibility to exercise that power reasonably. Hartzog expands upon this idea and provides terrific examples of how companies might indicate “specific assent” which underscore just how much more companies could be doing to heighten user awareness. For example, he explains how a website’s privacy settings (e.g. “only friends” or authorized “followers”) could be used to enable a user to specifically assent to certain uses. (His example is a much more creative way to elicit specific assent than the example of multiple clicking which I use in my book which is not surprising given his previous work in this area).
Hartzog also explains how wrap contracts that incorporate community guidelines may also benefit users by encouraging civil behavior and providing the company with a way to regulate conduct and curb hate speech and revenge porn. I made a similar point in this article. I am, however, skeptical that community guidelines will be used in this way without some legal carrot or stick, such as tort or contract liability. (Generally, these types of policies are viewed in a one-sided manner, enforceable as contracts against the user but not binding against the company). On the contrary, the law – in the form of the Communications Decency Act, section 230- provides website with immunity from liability for content posted by third parties. Some companies, such as Facebook, Twitter or Google, have a public image to maintain and will use their discretionary power under these policies to protect that image. But the sites where bad stuff really happens– the revenge porn and trash talking sites – have no reason to curb bad behavior since their livelihood depends upon it. And in some cases, the company uses the discretionary power that a wrap contract allocates to it to stifle speech or conduct that the website doesn’t like. A recent example involves Yelp, the online consumer review company that is suing a user for posting positive reviews about itself. Yelp claims that the positive reviews are fake and is suing the user because posting fake reviews violates its wrap contract. What’s troubling about the lawsuit, however, is that (i) Yelp almost never sues its users, even those who post fake bad reviews, and (ii) the user it is suing is a law firm that earlier, had sued Yelp in small claims court for coercing it into buying advertising. To make matters worse, the law firm’s initial victory against Yelp (where the court compared Yelp’s sales tactics to extortion by the Mafia) for $2,700 was overturned on appeal. The reason? Under the terms of Yelp’s wrap contract, the law firm was required to arbitrate all claims. The law firm claims that arbitration would cost it from $4,000-$5,000.
I agree with Hartzog that wrap contracts have the potential to shape behavior in ways that benefit users, but most companies will need some sort of legal incentive or prod to actually employ them in that way.
Monday, October 7, 2013
I’ve been meaning to blog about a Fourth Circuit opinion that went under noticed, although it should have raised alarm bells. That opinion, rendered in Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, Inc. v. American Home Realty Network, Inc.,722 F.3d 591 (July 17, 2013) held that copyright could be transferred via a clickwrap.
The TOU states:
“All images submitted to the MRIS Service become the exclusive property of (MRIS). By submitting an image, you hereby irrevocably assign (and agree to assign) to MRIS, free and clear of any restrictions or encumbrances, all of your rights, title and interest in and to the image submitted. This assignment includes, without limitation all worldwide copyrights in and to the image, and the right to sue for past and future infringements.”
The defendant, AHR, operates a website, NeighborCity.com which displays real estate listings using a variety of sources, including photographs taken from the MRIS website.
MRIS sued AHR for copyright infringement. Photographs are protected under the Copyright Act. Section 204 of the Copyright Act requires that transfers of copyright ownership require a writing that is signed by the owner. AHR argued that MRIS did not own the copyright to the photographs because its TOU failed to transfer those rights. The issue then was whether a subscriber who clicks agreement to a TOU has “signed” a “written transfer” of the copyright in a way that meets the requirement of Section 204. The Fourth Circuit found that “(t)o invalidate copyright transfer agreements solely because they were made electronically would thwart the clear congressional intent embodied in the E-Sign Act. We therefore hold that an electronic agreement may effect a valid transfer of copyright interests under Section 204 of the Copyright Act.”
Given the reality that few read wrap contracts, holding that an author/creator can give up copyright with a click is alarming. The opinion is a prime example of a court doing what is arguably the right thing for reasons of business competition but creating an alarming precedent in the process. Shades of ProCD! Online businesses will certainly benefit from this decision, but creators - not so much. They may realize too late that when they clicked to upload content, they also assigned their rights to their work. This is especially problematic since the primary reason creators use some of these sites is to get publicity for their work. The bargain, in other words, may be quite different from what the creator might have intended.
So - all you creators out there - BEWARE and check out those terms before you click. They may not be as harmless as you think.
H/T to my former student, Leslie Burns and her blog.
Monday, September 30, 2013
Modelmayhem.com (“Modelmayhem”) is a nationwide modeling industry website. Shana Edme (“Edme”) joined the site to further her modeling career. After several photographs of Edme modeling lingerie were disseminated and viewed without her permission, Edme commenced an action in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of New York (“EDNY”) against Modelmayhem (among others). Edme claimed that the site violated her right to privacy under New York State statutes.
The court began with a discussion of contracting and the Internets:
The conclusory statement by Modelmayhem that "New York law specifically recognizes 'Terms and Conditions' posted on a website as a binding contract" (Modelmayhem's Mem. at 6) completely ignores the developing discussion within this Circuit (and courts nationwide) regarding what actions by an internet user manifests one's asset to contractual terms found on a website. "While new commerce on the Internet has exposed courts to many new situations, it has not fundamentally changed the principles of contract." Register.com, Inc. v. Verio, Inc., 356 F.3d 393, 403 (2d Cir. 2004). "Mutual manifestation of assent, whether by written or spoken word or by conduct" is one such principle. Specht v. Netscape Commc'ns Corp., 306 F.3d 17, 29 (2d Cir. 2002). As Judge Johnson of this District previously explained:
The Court then discussed Modelmayhem’s failure to explain how Edme became bound to the terms on the website. Modelmayhem could have presented Edme with the terms in a number of ways:
Edme v. Internet Brands, 12 CV 3306 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 23, 2013)(Hurley, J.).
[Meredith R. Miller]
Friday, July 19, 2013
Apple had a MFN clause in its contracts with five major book publishers. Last week, Judge Denise Cote (SDNY) held that this clause was part of a conspiracy to fix e-book prices. The contracts required the publishers to give Apple’s iTunes store the best deal in the marketplace on e-books.
What does this decision mean for MFN clauses, which are used in a number of industry contracts? The WSJ took up this topic in a recent article:
Defendants in antitrust cases have liked to have the sound bite that no court has found an MFN to be anticompetitive," said Mark Botti, a former Justice Department antitrust lawyer now in private practice. "They can no longer say that."
Apple, meanwhile, has strongly denied that it conspired to fix prices, and has said it will appeal the decision.
Judge Cote avoided a broad denunciation of MFN clauses, but her decision could haunt contract negotiations in industries as diverse as entertainment and health care, legal experts said. In recent years, the Justice Department has sued a few companies over the use of MFN clauses and is investigating others.
"While most favored-nation clauses can be competitively benign, when they are used as a tool to engage in anticompetitive conduct that harms consumers, the Antitrust Division will take enforcement action," said Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer, who oversees the division at the Justice Department.
MFN clauses guarantee the recipient the lowest prices or rates charged to any buyer. While in theory that could encourage competition and lower prices for consumers, in practice such agreements sometimes end up establishing a minimum price, according to antitrust lawyers and government officials.
Apple said the provisions guaranteed its customers would get the lowest price for new and popular e-books. But Judge Cote offered a less-flattering interpretation.
"[The MFN] eliminated any risk that Apple would ever have to compete on price when selling e-books, while as a practical matter forcing the publishers to adopt the agency model across the board," she wrote in her 160-page ruling.
The article reports that the Justice Department is expected to request that the court “impose a variety of conditions on Apple's business, including barring the company from using MFN clauses,” sending the viability of MFN clauses into doubt.
More of the article here on the WSJ site (subscription required).
[Meredith R. Miller]
Thursday, May 2, 2013