Monday, April 22, 2013
The FTC recently charged a company, Wise Media, with unfair and deceptive business practices. The FTC complaint alleges that Wise Media charged unwitting mobile phone users for “premium" text services, or junk text messages (horoscopes, love tips, other “useful” information…) that consumers never authorized. The practice is referred to as “bill cramming,” and consumers often failed to notice the indefinitely recurring charges of, in this case, $9.99/month. Even when they did and sent a text to “stop” the messages, the company often failed to comply with the request.
Consumers often miss these charges because they aren’t aware that their mobile phone bills contain charges by third parties and because the charges are not clearly indicated. The result? Wise Media has made millions of dollars by surreptitiously charging consumers.
What I find particularly interesting and troubling is the potential interaction of contract law in the area of electronic contracts and consumer protection. What distinguishes a deceptive business practice (although not necessarily an unfair one) from a “hard bargain” is consent. The FTC complaint, for example, was filed because the charges were “unauthorized” by consumers - they were signed up "seemingly at random" without consumer "knowledge or permission." The FTC has, in my view, done a pretty terrific job of protecting consumers given the lack of resources and the wide range of consumer-harming activities out there. Courts have not done so well. What happens where contractual “consent” (such as in the form of a clickwrap”) is obtained for an unfair practice, such as bill cramming? What if the consumer had clicked "I agree" on a clickwrap to the premium service? Would the contract law notion of “consent” mean that the consumer had authorized the “premium text” service, even when we all know that nobody reads clickwraps and browsewraps? Or would the commonsense version of consent championed by the FTC prevail?
I talk about this disjunction between, what I refer to as “wrap contract doctrine” (since, let's face it, the digital contract cases are not consistent with traditional contract doctrine despite what Easterbrook and others claim) and the FTC’s more commonsense approach to consumer perception and business practices in my forthcoming book on wrap contracts. (Did you know a plug was coming? I actually didn’t but there it is.) The conclusion I reached was that there appears to be a disconnect between contract law notions of “reasonable notice” and the FTC’s notion of “reasonable notice” (which I find more reasonable….) The takeaway for businesses – just because you obtain consent for a particular business practice via an online contract which may meet the surreal standards of contractual consent set forth by courts doesn’t mean that the practice in question won’t be viewed as an “unfair and deceptive” one by the FTC.
Monday, March 4, 2013
( H/T to Ben Davis -and his student - for posting about the article to the Contracts Prof list serv).
This article indicates that the average Internet user would need 76 work days in order to read all the privacy policies that she encounters in a year. (Unfortunately, the link to the study conducted by the Carnegie Mellon researchers and cited in the article doesn’t seem to be working). But you don’t need a study to tell you that privacy policies are long-winded and hard to find. That’s one of the reasons you don’t read them. Another is that they can be updated, often without prior notice, so what’s the point in reading terms that are constantly changing? Finally, what can you do about it anyway? Don’t like your bank’s privacy policies – good luck finding another bank with a better one.
So, what’s the difference between a contract and a notice? The big difference is that the enforceability of a notice depends upon the notice giver’s existing entitlements, i.e. property or proprietorship rights whereas a contract requires consent.
If I put a sign on my yard that says, Keep off the grass, I can enforce that sign under property and tort law. As long as the sign has to do with something that is entirely within my property rights to unilaterally establish, it’s enforceable. If the sign said, however, ‘Keep off the grass or you have to pay me $50” – well that’s a different matter entirely. That would require a contract because now it involves your property rights.
Privacy policies are more like notices – and should be treated as such even if they are in the form of a contract (such as a little clickbox that accompanies a hyperlink that says TERMS). If a company wants to elevate a notice to a contract, it should require a lot more than that simple click. Because the fact is, contract law currently does require the user to do more than click – it requires the user to read pages and pages of terms spread across multiple pages – at a cost of 76 days a year. The standard form contract starts to look a lot less efficient when viewed from the user’s perspective.
Thursday, February 14, 2013
The brochure for the wildlife sanctuary cried out to us: "Be Stalked By a Mountain Lion!" So we went, foregoing opportunities to be served by a sommelier, pounded by a masseuse, guided by a docent or entertained by a performer.
When we arrived at the sanctuary, and I announced to the ticket taker that we would like to be stalked by a mountain lion, he looked confused. Craning his neck to shout a question to someone who made something above minimum wage, he said, "Do we have a mountain lion?"
"That's the cougar," came the disinterested response.
"Oh," said the ticket taker. "He hides a lot."
My heart sank, but we trudged on. We weren't stalked, and while I contemplated a breach of warranty claim, my wife wrote a poem. Indiana Poet Laureate, Karen Kovacik is featuring that poem today on her blog, No more corn, as a Valentine's Day poem. We reproduce it here:
On Not Being Stalked by a Mountain Lion BE STALKED BY A MOUNTAIN LION! said the brochure. But we weren’t stalked, Although for a lazy hour along the path We strolled and talked-- Totally helpless, as you pointed out, Pitifully clueless, meant for lion-prey (Apart from the fence and the ditch too broad to leap Even for mountain lions). You scanned the sway And shadow play of branches for a glimpse Of that quicksilver shape-- O the rising unease, the chills, the chase, the last- Minute, hairsbreadth escape! “He’s probably sleeping,” the gate attendant shrugged When you complained No icy green-gold gaze had pricked our necks. Later it rained, And we drove back and chased each other into bed And slept an hour or two. There was nothing boring about not being stalked By a mountain lion with you. This poem originally appeared in Able Muse Review.
Monday, February 11, 2013
The LA Times reports that the state of California has terminated its contract with SAP Public Services, a contractor that was supposed to fix the state's outdated computer network system that handles paychecks and medical benefits for 240,000 state employees.
While both SAP and California are unhappy about the state of events, I have just covered breach, substantial performance, conditions and damages in my Contracts course and was delighted to find a real life scenario to illustrate the relevance of the material we just covered.
So what triggered CA's termination? SAP was hired three years ago but when its program was tested, it made errors at "more than 100 times" the rate of the old system.
Was failing this test a breach? If so, was it a minor or material breach? It seems it would depend on what was in the contract. As contracts profs know, the first place to look in a contract dispute is the contract itself. The are terms in the contract that will be relevant in evaluating whether there was a breach or the applicable measure of damages. For example, there may be performance targets (i.e. conditions) that SAP had to meet which weren't met. Those conditions would be relevant in determining each party's obligations (would the contract terminate upon failure to meet the condition, for example?) There's also likely to be a provision dealing with whether SAP gets paid per deliverable or target met or per person/hour or time spent on a project. If this was a scheduled deliverable, then the facts tend toward finding a breach (or, if the contract language indicates, it could be a condition that was just never met). If it was a test done in the course of moving the project toward completion, CA may have jumped the gun. A material breach would allow CA to then terminate its obligation. If not a material breach, CA should have sought adequate assurance of performance and could itself be in breach by terminating the contract.
Facts matter, as I repeat like a broken record to my students (I guess I should update my reference for the iPod generation) - so it matters what it means to say that SAP failed the test. The LA Times reports that:
"During a trial run involving 1,300 employees....some paychecks went to the wrong person for the wrong amoung. The system canceled some medical coverage and sent child-support payments to the wrong beneficiaries."
Furthermore, because the system sent money to retirement accounts "incorrectly,"' the state had to pay $50,000 in penalties.
Given the late stage of the project, if not a material breach itself, the failed trial seems to at least give rise to a reasonable belief that SAP would breach. What did CA do then? Did it immediately terminate or seek explanations/reassurance?
Another issue is what damages measure is applicable? CA paid SAP $50million dollars but it had incurred much more trying to get the system up and running. It wasn't clear to me whether the $50million dollar amount was the amount paid up to that point, or the total due to SAP. In class, the cases we study regarding breach of contract to provide services typically involve some type of construction contract. The standard measure then would be the difference between the cost of completion and the contract price. But in a situation like this, the cost of completion is a bit funny given the various factors involved - and the period of time it would take to implement a new project (SAP took the project over from a prior contractor). Furthermore, the purpose of the new system wasn't so CA could make money (no loss profit measure applicable here). Given that, the standard expectation measure likely would not be appropriate and a reliance (or restitution) measure makes more sense. Not surprisingly, CA is seeking recovery of the $50million dollars paid.
What about SAP? Will it claim that it substantially performed? I don't think it can with a straight face, but again, I am only basing my conclusion upon the facts contained in the newspaper article. Will SAP seek restitution for the reasonable value of its services to CA? It very well may, (and any students reading this, should raise it on an exam...) since it has spent three years on this project. Based upon the information in the article, it doesn't sound as though CA received any benefit from the services rendered. If SAP is determined to be the breaching party, it may not get awarded anything. The real world problem for SAP is that trying to hang on to money for delivering a system that doesn't work might hurt its reputation even more. And it doesn't help that the other party is a state entity - meaning lots of future potential business at stake. (The LA times noted that SAP projects with other CA entities are not going so well, either).
As is true for other contracts profs, I spend a lot time trying to situate doctrine into a problem solving (or minimizing) scenario since this is how most lawyers deal with contract law. For example, prior to cancelling the contract, the attorneys for the state of CA most likely sat down and discussed its available options under both the contract and contract law. SAP, too, likely reviewed (or is reviewing) its options under the contract and contract law. My guess is that the contract terms probably permit CA to cancel under these circumstances, although a spokesperson for SAP stated that it believed it had "satisfied all contractual obligations in this project."
I'm sure I missed a few things in my quick analysis of ths situation, so feel free to note any other issues in the comments.
Thursday, February 7, 2013
Shades of Hamer v. Sidway! A man offered his daughter $200 if she quits Facebook for five months. It seems that the daughter was well aware of the irresistible time-wasting hazards of the popular social networking site, but needed an incentive to quit. The father even had her sign a contract. But, as contractsprofs know, it's not the written form that makes the contract but the bargain. Even though quitting Facebook may be better for productivity (as I keep telling my students....), it is still a legal "detriment" so if she's successful, dad should pay up.
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
A Pennsylvania homeowner is suing the seller of the house and a real estate agent, claiming fraud and misrepresentation, for failing to tell her that the home she recently purchased had been the scene of a murder-suicide the previous year. The homeowner had moved to Pennsylvania from California with her two children after her husband's death. She learned of the murder-suicide from a neighbor, several weeks after moving in. You can read about it here.
I don't know about you, but I think a murder suicide is pretty material, although there aren't enough facts here to indicate whether the seller and agent deliberately concealed the fact or whether the buyer inquired as to any unusual events happening in the house.... With respect to the seller, it might be one of those "tough luck" situations where the law just doesn't help the buyer even if the court feels sympathetic toward the buyer's situation. It's not clear whether the agent is the buyer's agent - if so, the agent should have disclosed this as a fiduciary. But it's more likely that the agent was actually the seller's agent, and not the agent of the buyer or a dual agent. (Got that? Just because someone has the word "agent" in their job title doesn't make that person your agent. Who is paying the commission? When in doubt about where the agent's loyalties lie - ASK the agent).
The lesson here - especially relevant given the recent rise in home sales - is BUYER BEWARE. I wonder if a quick online search of the address would have uncovered the grisly events that took place in it. It would probably be prudent for all potential home buyers to expressly ask, "Did anything unusual ever happen in this house that we should know about such as any crimes?" A buyer should also ask how long the current sellers have lived in the house and why they are moving. [In this case, such a question probably wouldn't have helped the homeowner. The immediate sellers were not the owners of the house when the murder-suicide took place, but subsequent owners who bought it, presumably at a low price given what had just happened in it, and then turned around and sold it to the out-of-state buyer]. The seller's failure to disclose in a situation where the buyer has specifically asked is entirely different from a failure to affirmatively disclose unasked for (albeit material) information.
N.B. Under California real estate law (which imposes a duty to disclose facts materially affecting the value of real property where the facts would be hard to uncover), the result would probably have been different. See Reed v. King, 145 Cal. App. 3d 261 (1983) involving a failure to disclose a multiple murder by a home seller. Interesting, given that the PA home buyer was from California and might have expected a bit more from the seller based upon her real estate experiences there...
Thursday, January 24, 2013
I recently finished a book manuscript on the subject of “wrap contracts” – shrinkwraps, clickwraps, browsewraps, tapwraps, etc. These non-traditional contracts are interstitial, occupying space in and between contracts and internet law, but not neatly fitting into one alone. I'll be blogging a lot more about them in the future.
On the subject of wrap contracts, not long ago I bought a new laptop with Windows 8 pre-installed.
But that didn’t mean I didn’t have to agree to this:
What's interesting is that my old laptop, which I ordered online, came in a package like this:
Like the typical shrinkwrap, ripping the plastic bag (which was necessary to get to the laptop inside it) was deemed acceptance.
Both were examples of rolling contracts, but they came in different forms -- and neither gave me notice of any terms to come at the time of the transaction. Yet consider the hassle I would have to go through if I decided, after having received the goods and a "reasonable opportunity to read" the terms, that I didn't want to accept the terms. I would have to ship back the computer or take it back to the store, and try to explain that I was rejecting it because I disagreed with the contract terms.
Honestly, now - don't you think the retailer would just think I was nuts? Or that I had found a better deal elsewhere? (Or that I had done something sneaky, like somehow copied the software or infected the computer with a virus?) How many think I would actually get my money back if there was nothing (else) wrong with the laptop(s)?
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
The N.Y. Times reports that Conde Nast has issued new contracts to its writers with changes that diminish their right to profits from articles. Conde Nast is the publisher for magazines like Wired, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. (You remember magazines, right? They’re printed on paper and you can usually find them at airports. Unlike newspapers, they don’t leave inky residue on your fingers). Conde Nast writers typically lack job security and benefits, signing one-year contracts – but they are (or were) allowed to keep the rights to their work. These rights could be valuable if an article becomes a movie, like “Argo” or “Brokeback Mountain.” Under the new contracts, however, Conde Nast has exclusive rights to articles for periods of time ranging from thirty days to one year and option rights where payments to the writer top out at $5K. If the article is turned into a movie, there is also a cap on what writers can receive.
It would be easy for me to demonize Conde Nast given my association with writers. Yet, it’s no secret that the demand for glossies is diminishing and that publishers need to figure out a way to monetize their content better – otherwise, there won’t be any magazine writers at all. Perhaps Conde Nast could bargain employee benefits for these rights, the way newspapers do. Maybe they could increase the cap based on different variables. Maybe they could lift the exclusivity for certain writers after a period of time (or a designated number of successes). Maybe they could commission articles that they conceived in-house, so that the work is a traditional work for hire, and the cap isn’t tied to an idea that originated with the writer. In any event, it’s clear that Conde Nast needs to evolve with the marketplace; what’s not so clear is that this is the way to do it.
Monday, January 7, 2013
Below is a parking ticket I got from a parking lot outside of a hotel I stayed at over the holidays. The fact that the ticket announced itself as a contract caught my attention. It was as if the busboy in a restaurant, after clearing the table and placing a towel in his waistband, pulled out a pad of paper and announced, "My name's Devon, and I'll be your server tonight."
Nothing against busboys or servers. They each have their designated role, and for some reason restaurants keep them separate. If you ask a busboy to bring you some ketchup, the best he can do is pass word on to the server that you need something, who will then send over the ketchup sommelier who will intimidate you with questions about what you have in mind for what he calls "catsup," what kind of tomato you prefer and if there was a particular vintage you had in mind. Similarly, it seems a bit ambitious for a simple parking ticket to announce itself as a contract. That's all I'm saying.
At this point, it should not shock us that our knowing assent to terms is not required for the the formation of a consumer contract, but still I found this little parking ticket a bit jarring. The reason for that is as follows. At the hotel at which I stayed, you actually don't use the ticket to get in and out of the parking lot; you use your room key, which has no contractual langauge written on it. Nor were there signs elsewhere in the parking area that I noticed about limitations of liability. I got the ticket because I parked my car before getting my room key.
Moreover, the information provided does not seem adequate to establish a contract. How long can I park my car? What do I pay for the license to do so. That information was not provided to me until I checked in to the hotel. If I had just wandered into that parking lot without checking into the hotel, I would have no information about parking rates, and I'm not sure how a court would go about implying a price term in this case. Social conventions suggest that I ought to know that by taking a ticket, proceeding through a raised gate and entering a parking lot, I am agreeing to pay for the privilege, but that should not mean they can charge me whatever they please.
If I had parked outside the front entrance of the hotel, unpacked my stuff, registered and then parked my car, I would have used my room key to get into the parking lot and never have received the notice printed on the ticket. I suspect that the hotel somehow would still have found a way to limit its liabilty for any damage to my (rental) car while it was parked in its lot, but I really have no idea how or if it matters. It's all for the best, because this way I started my little holiday thinking about contracts.
Monday, December 31, 2012
The other night, I finally got to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Having recently spent several months in New Zealand (the home of Peter Jackson’s Weta studio), I had been surrounded by Hobbit-mania and was interested to see whether the movie proved worthy of the hype. I wasn’t disappointed. Although some critics were, well, critical, I thought it was an extremely entertaining movie that made time fly. Making a highly entertaining movie even better, a lengthy contract played a pivotal role. When Gandalf the Wizard, and Thorin and his company of dwarves seek Bilbo Baggins’ (i.e. the aforesaid hobbit’s) assistance to accompany them as burglar on an unexpected journey, they first ask him to sign a contract. The contract, several pages long, outlines in detail his compensation (i.e. consideration) and contains warnings and numerous disclaimers of liability in favor of Thorin & Co. Being a wise hobbit, Bilbo actually reads the contract, faints, and then refuses to sign it. The next morning, he awakens to a quiet house (dwarves know how to party, but apparently do so responsibly). Bilbo has a change of heart, decides he does want excitement and adventure, signs the contract, picks it up, and runs out of his house to join the departing dwarves. This is where --for a contracts prof -- the tension is most high. Having rejected the terms of the contract the night before, we know that the hobbit no longer has the power of acceptance. Therefore, when Bilbo thrusts his signed contract into the hands of one of the dwarves, he is only making an offer. It is the dwarf (who apparently has authority to accept on behalf of the other dwarves) who has the power of acceptance. I don’t think I need a spoiler alert before revealing that they do accept (there wouldn’t be much of a movie if they didn’t).
There were so many things to like about the movie, not the least of which was the way it illustrated how relational contracts set expectations, shape relationships and establish trust. At one point, Bilbo seeks to desert the dwarves. Although one could argue changed circumstances, I think a better explanation would be that given Thorin’s disparaging comments about Bilbo’s suitability for the journey, Bilbo decides to adjust his performance obligations accordingly. But events (and the always fascinating Gollum) intervene. In the end, Bilbo carries out his contractual obligations, proving that - even in Middle Earth - contracts are alive and well.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Stop me if you've heard this one before - Facebook changes its Terms in a way that its users find offensive and invasive of their privacy. Uproar ensues and Facebook promises that the changes are harmless and everyone is just overreacting. Facebook backs off, a little, and then pushes the boundaries a little further next time, regaining even more ground against its users. Sound familiar?
I think the public backlash is a very good thing since it reminds companies that there are at least some people who are reading their online agreements. Unfortunately, they are usually only reading the terms of companies that already have a monopoly in the marketplace. It's not easy for unhappy Facebookers, Googlers or Instagramers to pick up their content and go elsewhere - where would they go?
What makes my skin crawl, however, is the misleading reassurances doled out by companies when they are called on their online agreements. Instagram, for example, states on its blog that users shouldn't fear, because it respects them, really it does:"Instagram users own their content and Instagram does not claim any ownership rights over your photos. Nothing about this has changed. We respect that there are creative artists and hobbyists alike that pour their heart into creating beautiful photos, and we respect that your photos are your photos. Period.
I always want you to feel comfortable sharing your photos on Instagram and we will always work hard to foster and respect our community and go out of our way to support its rights."
While it may be true that Instagram users own their content, Instagram does take a pretty broad license from its users:
As Instagram knows, it doesn't need to own your content in order to use it as if it owned it. All it needs is a broad license, like the one it has. Note that it has the right to "use" the content - and doesn't define what that means or restrict that use very much.
- "provide personalized content and information to you and others, which could include online ads or other forms of marketing
- provide, improve, test, and monitor the effectiveness of our Service
- develop and test new products and features
- monitor metrics such as total number of visitors, traffic, and demographic patterns"
I found this sentence particularly sneaky:
"We will not rent or sell your information to third parties outside Instagram (or the group of companies of which Instagram is a part) without your consent, except as noted in this Policy"
Did you like the "except as noted in this Policy" ? And, as Contracts profs know, "consent" means something other than what a layperson might think - it can mean just using a website in many cases. There is similar broad language here:
"We may also share certain information such as cookie data with third-party advertising partners. This information would allow third-party ad networks to, among other things, deliver targeted advertisements that they believe will be of most interest to you."
I'm not as concerned about the targeted advertisements (which doesn't mean I'm not concerned at all) as I am about the "such as" and "among other things."
And remember, the Terms do expressly state:
"Some or all of the Service may be supported by advertising revenue. To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you."
The company reassures its users, on its blog that it is not their "intention" to "sell" user photos. The company says it is working on language to make that clear. Let's hope so, but my guess is that they are probably going to use more mealy language like "at the moment" or "sell as a good defined under the UCC," or something that leaves wide open the possibility that it can make money off user photos by selling them to third party advertisers.
I'd suggest you save Granny some embarrassment and delete that photo now.
Wednesday, December 5, 2012
In a recent episode of 30 Rock ("Mazel Tov, Dummies!"), Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) gets married. Liz attempts to subvert the wedding industrial complex by tying the knot in her gym clothes at City Hall. She fights any desire to make it a "special day," leading her boyfriend/fiance to tell her "it is ok to be a human woman."
Interesting for our purposes: there is a sub-plot in the episode that is reminiscent of Leonard v. Pepsico. It begins at a little past 4 minutes into the episode. A creepy character played by John Hodgman comes to collect a woman (the character Jenna Maroney) that he says he earned by collecting $1,000,0000 Surge points. Surge is a soda and his claim to the money is based on a tv advertisement. The Surge points catalogue entitles Hodgman to the item or its equivalent value. Since it is "illegal to own someone," Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) has to determine Jenna's value (and Jenna is not happy with the assessment of her worth).
Take a study/grading break:
[Meredith R. Miller - h/t 1L Matthew Gray]
Monday, November 12, 2012
Will Farrell posted the following video just days before the election:
Is this an offer? If so, how many millions of voters have taken him up on it? It seems seriously intended, and when I first viewed it, I felt like he was addressing me directly. It could be a joke, I suppose. It's hard to tell. Will Farrell is an actor and his performance here (if that's what it is) is full of nuance.
Friday, November 2, 2012
Just last week I proclaimed to our inimitable editor D.A. Jeremy Telman that I was renewing my vows to the blog. Since that promise, Hurricane Sandy happened and I am without power and water. So, I have to claim impracticability. I will start posting again shortly.
[Meredith R. Miller]
Thursday, October 11, 2012
On the way in to work this morning, I heard on the radio that Pizza Hut is making an offer for a unilateral contract (okay, that’s not exactly the way the d.j. put it, but anyway…). The offer is free pizza for life to anyone who manages to ask either one of the presidential candidates during the town hall debate, “Do you prefer sausage or pepperoni on your pizza?” The debate will take place October 16 at Hofstra University. (It turns out that the offer is not actually “free pizza for life” it’s actually a $520/year gift card for up to 30 years). A silly contest, of course -- but a good example to illustrate the difference between a unilateral and bilateral contract and related issues having to do with effective offers and acceptances. Often, it doesn’t really matter if an offeree accepts by performing by by promising to perform– but in some cases (i.e. bets, dares), it really does. I used to refer to the bet in the book, HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS to explain the difference between a unilateral and bilateral contract (15 worms in 15 days for $50). This year I might use the more election -season- friendly example of the Pizza Hut offer.
Friday, August 31, 2012
A lease is both a contract between parties—the landlord and the tenant—and an interest in land. However, this duality has created conflict in determining whether a landlord has a duty to mitigate damages in the event of a tenant's early termination of a lease. The rule that a landlord has a duty to mitigate derives from basic principles of contract law. The doctrine that the landlord has no duty to mitigate, which views a lease not as a contract but as an interest in land, was seemingly mandated by the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Rios v. Carrillo in 2008. Now, four years later, uncertainty still abounds as courts waver in applying contract principles to lease breaches and carve exceptions into the rule that a landlord has no duty to mitigate. This article attempts to identify the factors relied upon by courts where a duty to mitigate has been applied in contravention of established case law.
[Meredith R. Miller]
Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Last week, the Australian High Court upheld a ban on company logos on cigarette packages. The law that was upheld also requires that the front of cigarette packages show images of the harmful effects of smoking (e.g. mouth ulcers, tumors, etc).
Okay, you might be wondering what this has to do with contracts. One of my current research interests (obsessions) is the idea of notice substituting for actual assent, especially with online contracts. A dinky hyperlink nestled at the bottom of a page can serve as "notice," at least in the eyes of some courts although most people don't actually notice them. The fuss over the cigarette packaging (and Big Tobacco really fought hard over this one) underscores something that is often lost on courts evaluating notice in contract cases -- the quality of the notice matters. A warning label in a small text box gets ignored; graphic visual depictions of injured human organs do not. Snazzy corporate labels make smoking seem cool; plain labels don't have that same cachet. Websites, too, could draw more attention to their contracts, but they don't. They certainly know how to grab our attention when they want it, with images and sounds. So why make legal terms so unobtrusive? Could it be that they don't really want us to read them?
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
On August 9th, 2012, David Rakoff died of cancer. David and I went to college together. We had two things in common: before college, we had both belonged to the same socialist zionist youth group, and we both danced. Since college, we stayed in touch a bit, because David was a very generous person, but he was out of my league, and we both knew it (although only I would say it). David was probably the most creative person I ever knew.
David was incredibly good at so many things. He made things all the time. I still remember vividly the characters he created for our college's variety show circa 1984: the Neanderthal, bone-through-the-nose ladies' man who runs into some toughs from the Male Feminist League; the director of Cliffs' Notes music videos, all of whose productions involve columns and leather-clad women with odd markings all over their bodies dancing erotically; and of course the lead in his short, 16mm spoof of French New Wave cinema, Pain D'Amour, in which he falls in love with a baguette. That was thirty years ago. I've seen so much theater since then, and so little has stayed with me as David's work has done.
But he was creative in very basic ways. One evening, three of us were trying to figure out what to do for dinner. We went into our friend's kitchen and catalogued the food in her refrigerator and cupboards. While I mentally reviewed my list of affordable restaurants within walking distance, David gleefully rattled off the useful ingredients he had come across, "Et voilà!". I could think of no way that the named ingredients could be combined to make something edible, so I asked, "We put all those together, and what do we have?" "Dinner!" David exclaimed. It turned out to be a quiche, and it was delicious. I didn't know it was possible to just make one of those. Forgive me, I was 20, but David was 19.
Around the same time, David made me a hand-painted birthday card that was also a sort of portrait. The card congratulated me at the beginning of my third decade. I had to get out a calculator to figure out how I could be entering my third decade at the age of 20. David accompanied me when I cut off my pony tail. He kept the hair to use for paintbrushes, or so he said. I hope he wasn't fibbing.
Although I have all these intimate memories of David, I probably never counted as one of his closest friends. But who knows? I think David was still coming to grips with the consequences of his homosexuality in the age of AIDS when we knew each other. As a result, there were parts of his private life that were closed off to me in that unenlightened era. David wrote about how he never really formed close attachments to people. I think his line is "loved by everybody; beloved by none." If you go to David's Facebook page, you'll see that there are probably hundreds of people who can share memories of David similar to mine in their fondness and intimacy. If he wasn't capable of true compassion, he did a damn good job of faking it. For all of his argumentative skills, David succeeded in convincing only himself that he was anything but a mensch.
Although his short film, The New Tenants won an Academy Award, David moved on from film and acting to writing. He wrote three books, and I learned on Saturday from This American Life, that a novel in verse is forthcoming. A novel in verse!
But wait, there is a contracts hook here. Here is a link to a hilarious contract that David wrote and read for another episode of This American Life.
David's life was far too short, but he lived it very, very well.
Monday, August 20, 2012
An article posted on TechCrunch, available here, discussed a new site which reviews terms of service (TOS) of various websites. The site provides a "grade" for website policies and can be accessed here (btw, it is looking for people to get involved).
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Docracy is an open source legal document site. The site has launched a video campaign called "Don't Get Screwed Over" - it very effectively conveys the importance of freelancers having written contracts:
A free open source contract site is a great idea. I am not convinced, however, that it obviates the need for an attorney. That said, it is true that, regardless of whether an attorney is involved, freelancers should always get their deals in writing and carefully express expecations and payment schedule. The site's founder Matt Hall appears to share in my sentiment and believes that his site is a starting point for freelancers to figure out what they need and to find an attorney. Hall told .net magazine:
[T]he video was designed to "make sure freelancers are aware how important it is to have a contract for work they do, and that there are resources like Docracy that can take the fear and mystery out of the process". He said it's increasingly common that freelancers don't get paid for work they've done, starkly highlighted by projects like the World's Longest Invoice.
Hall recommended "upfront and clear communication with your client about what's expected, when it's expected and when you'll be paid", and then getting this all down in writing and signed. "Clear communication can go a long way to avoiding problems in the future," he added. And while Docracy can be a starting point, Hall said such sites are not a replacement for proper legal advice: "A good lawyer who understands your business will save you money over the long term, so get educated and then find a good lawyer you like working with. We have a bunch of great, tech-savvy lawyers on the site who have already shown their willingness to help freelancers, so they might be a good start."
[Meredith R. Miller]