ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Court finds terms are not ambiguous when their dictionary definitions are consistent with the contract

We just finished talking about contractual ambiguity in my contracts class, so I was happy to see this recent case out of the Fourth Circuit, SAS Institute, Inc. v. World Programming Ltd. ("WPL"), No. 16-1808 No: 16-1857 (behind paywall), discussing that very issue in the context of a software license agreement. This is actually part of a much larger case with important copyright implications for computer software code, but, given the subject matter of this blog, I'm focusing on the contract claims. You can read the opinion of the Court of Justice of the European Union on the copyright questions here

Among other things, the parties were fighting over the interpretation of a few of the contractual terms between them. However, the court reminded us that mere disputes over the meaning of a contract does not automatically mean that language is ambiguous. In fact, the court found here based on ordinary dictionary definitions that none of the terms were ambiguous. 

First, the parties were fighting over a prohibition on reverse engineering. The court looked to dictionary definitions of "reverse engineering" to arrive at a definition that also made sense in the context of the contract. WPL tried to introduce extrinsic evidence on the meaning of the term but the court found there was no reason to turn to extrinsic evidence since the term was not ambiguous. 

The parties were next fighting over the meaning of the license being for "non-production purposes only." The court construed this to have its "ordinary meaning" as forbidding "the creation or manufacture of commercial goods." WPL argued that the phrase had a technical meaning in the software industry, but the court did not find that the parties had intended to use this technical meaning. The dictionary definitions supported the court's construction of the phrase as unambiguous. 

November 1, 2017 in Current Affairs, Famous Cases, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 13, 2017

Twitter's Discretion in Its Terms of Service and the Way We Define Words

If you're a person who spends time on Twitter, you might be aware that it's been a manic week on the platform (although every week is a manic week on Twitter; it's 2017). As the news broke about Harvey Weinstein's pattern of multiple sexual assaults, Rose McGowan added to the many allegations and tweeted an accusation of rape against him. Later, McGowan's Twitter account was suspended. The reaction to this suspension was swift and furious by many of the platform's users. Twitter later clarified that it suspended her account because she had posted a personal phone number (in violation of Twitter's policies) but for a while the exact reason was unclear, and many users complained that it was more of Twitter's selective enforcement of its policies.

I'm about to settle in to teach contract ambiguity and rules of interpretation, and looking through Twitter's policies I'm reminded of how important it is that we keep our human biases in mind when defining words. Twitter's policies--which we all agree to through Twitter's Terms of Use--give the company a lot of discretion in how the policies get applied: "We may suspend an account if it has been reported to us as violating our Rules surrounding abuse" (emphasis added); "Some of the factors that we may consider when evaluating abusive behavior include . . . ." (emphasis added); "Keep in mind that although you may consider certain information to be private, not all postings of such information may be a violation of this policy. . . . We may consider the context and nature of the information posted, local privacy laws, and other case-specific facts when determining if this policy has been violated" (emphasis added). Aside from the discretion, though, is the issue of how words like "harassment" and "abusive behavior" are even getting defined. It's clear from the very public debates that have been erupting recently that there is a different view of that depending on which gender, race, and ethnic identity you ask. To take just one example, the discussion around telling women to smile indicates that many women find this harassing while many men don't see what the big deal is. Twitter might be deliberately selectively applying its policies but it also might just be defining its policies in a way that leads to selective enforcement because of the particular worldview of the people making the decisions. This means, dangerously, that they might sincerely believe they're applying rules neutrally, without recognizing any built-in bias. 

Social media's increasing reliance on algorithms to handle the speech going on on the sites has lots of problems, and as more and more public discourse collides up against more and more opaque policies, it seems like a problem that's only going to get worse. We should think about these issues, and we should especially think about them as we teach our students how to interpret the contracts that govern our lives: we all have an entrenched viewpoint that should be critically examined rather than blithely assume our own neutrality. 

In the meantime, I'm going to post this blog and then tweet to tell you all about it, because that's the way we communicate in today's society, and I'm going to have to agree to Twitter's policies to do it, and I'm going to hope these policies let me make the tweet, something that many of us take for granted but that is definitely not guaranteed. Our contracts are never as clear as we hope. 

October 13, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 2, 2017

Reminder that silence generally doesn't constitute acceptance

The allegations of this recent case out of the Northern District of California, Consumer Opinion LLC v. Frankfort News Corp., Case No. 16-cv-05100-BLF (behind paywall), are fascinating. Basically, Consumer Opinion owned a consumer review website and alleged that Defendants provided "reputation management" services by which Defendants copied the contents of Consumer Opinion's website, back-dated these contents so that it would look like Defendants' site pre-dated the Consumer Opinion website posting, and then asserted that the Consumer Opinion website was infringing their copyright. Such, at least, were the allegations in the complaint. (You can read the complaint here. You can also read the order on Consumer Opinion's TRO motion here and the order on Consumer Opinion's motion for early discovery here.)

The parties had discussed settlement, and in the current motion Consumer Opinion moved to enforce a settlement agreement between it and Defendant Profit Marketing, Inc. The problem? They never reached any such agreement. First Consumer Opinion tried to argue that Profit Marketing agreed to settle for $50,000 but Profit Marketing's lawyer's last communication on the matter read, "Well I can't agree without my clients consent but that sounds fine to me. I'll get their approval when I talk to them today." As I've been teaching my students as we walk through offer and acceptance, this statement betrayed a lack of authority to enter into a present commitment ("I can't agree without my client's consent."). 

Consumer Opinion then tried to argue that Profit Marketing agreed to settle for $35,000. However, its proof of this was a general e-mail whereby one of Profit Marketing's other attorneys expressed openness to pursuing settlement, followed by several replies by Consumer Opinion that were never responded to. Eventually, in the face of the continuing silence from Profit Marketing's attorney, Consumer Opinion asserted that if it got no response by 5 pm, it would move to enforce the settlement agreement. It got no response, and this motion followed. 

The court refused to read Profit Marketing's attorney's silence as acceptance of Consumer Opinion's settlement offer. Rather, Profit Marketing's lack of response indicated that it never accepted the offer, and so there was no binding settlement agreement between the parties. 

October 2, 2017 in Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

“Making Money is Still Allowed” – As Are False Pricing Strategies

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has held that retail stores, including online vendors, are free to advertise “before” prices that might in reality never have been used.

Although the particular plaintiff’s factual arguments are somewhat unappealing and unpersuasive, the case still shows a willingness by courts, even appellate courts, to ignore falsities just to entice a sale. Unknown

Max Gerboc bought a pair of speakers from www.wish.com for $27. A “before” price of $300 was juxtaposed and crossed out next to the “sale” price of $27. There was also a promise of a 90% markdown. However, the speakers had apparently never been sold for $300, thus leading Mr. Gerboc to argue that he was entitled to 90% back of the $27 that he actually paid for the speakers. Mr. Gerboc argued unjust enrichment and a violation of the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act (“OCSPA”).

The appellate court’s opinion is rife with sarcasm and gives short shrift to Mr. Gerboc’s arguments. Among other things, the court writes that although the seller was enriched by the sale, “making money is still allowed” and that the plaintiff got what he paid for, a pair of $27 speakers that worked. He thus did not unjustly enrich the seller, found the court. (Besides, as the court noted, unjust enrichment is a quasi-contractual remedy that allows for restitution in lieu of a contractual remedy, but here, the parties did have a contract with each other).

Interestingly, the court cited to “common sense” and the use of “tricks,” as the court even calls them, such as crossed out prices to entice buyers. “Deeming this tactic inequitable would change the nature of online, and even in-store, sales dramatically.”

So?! Where are we when a federal appellate court condones the use of trickery, even if a large amount of other large vendors such as Nordstrom and Amazon also use the same “tactic”? Is this acceptable simply because “shoppers get what they pay for”? This panel apparently thought so.

Of course, Mr. Gerboc would disagree. He cited to “superior equity” under both California case law and OCSPA. The court again merely cited to its argument that Mr. Gerboc had suffered no “actual damages” that were “real, substantial, and just.”

I find this line of reasoning troublesome. Sure, most of us know about this retail tactic, but does that make it warranted under contract and consumer regulatory law? If a vendor has truly never sold items at a certain “before” price, courts in effect condone outright lies, i.e. misrepresentation, in these cases just because no actual damages were suffered. This court said that Mr. Gerboc “at most … bargained for the right to have the speakers for 90% less than $300.” But if the speakers were indeed never sold at that price, is that not a false bargain? And where do we draw the lines between fairly obvious “tricks” such as this and those that may be less obvious such as anything pertaining to the quality and durability of goods, fine print rules, payment terms, etc.? Are we as a society not allowing ourselves to suffer damages from allowing this kind of business conduct? Or has this just become so commonplace that virtually everyone is on notice? Does the latter really matter? Images

I personally think courts should reverse their own trend of approving what at bottom is false advertising (used in the common sense of the word). Of course it is still legal to make money. But no court would allow consumer buyers to “trick” the online or department store vendors. Why should the opposite be true? The more sophisticated parties – the vendors – can and should figure out how to make a profit without resorting to cheating their customers simply because everyone else does it too. Statements about facts of a product should be true. Allowing businesses to undertake this type of conduct is, I think, a slippery slope on which we don’t need to find outselves.

The case is Max Gerboc v. Contextlogic, Inc., 867 F. 675 (2017).

September 19, 2017 in Commentary, E-commerce, Miscellaneous, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Uber Arbitration Clause Win

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently reversed a district court’s decision to deny Uber’s move to compel arbitration in a contract with one of its passengers, Spencer Meyers.

The district court had found that Meyer did not have reasonably conspicuous notice of Uber’s terms of service (which contained the arbitration clause) when he registered a user, that Meyer did not unambiguously assent to the terms of service, and that Meyer was not bound by the mandatory arbitration provision contained in the terms of service.

The Second Circuit summed up the usual difference between clickwrap agreements, which require a user to affirmatively click on a button saying “I agree” and which are typically upheld by courts, and browsewrap agreements, which simply post terms via a hyperlink at the bottom of the screen and which are generally found unenforceable because no affirmative action is required to agree to the terms.

In the case, Meyer had been required to click on a radio button stating “Register,” not “I agree.” But in contrast to browsewrap agremeents, Uber also informed Meyer and other users that by creating an account, they were bound to its terms. Uber did so via a hyperlink to the terms on the payment screen.

Meyer nonetheless claimed that he had not noticed or read the terms. The Court thus analyzed whether he was at least on inquiry notice of the arbitration clause because of the hyperlink to the terms. This was the case, found the court, because the payment screen was uncluttered with only fields for the user to enter his or her payment details, buttons to register for a user account, and the warning and related hyperlink. Further, the entire screen was visible at once and the text was in dark blue print on a bright white background. Thus, the fact that the font size was small was not so important.

Mayer was bound to the arbitration clause because he had assented to that term after getting “reasonably objective notice.”

The case is Meyer v. Uber Technologies, Inc., No. 16-2750 (2d Cir. 2017).

 

September 12, 2017 in Current Affairs, E-commerce, Famous Cases, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Is Amazon Selling Products or Services?

As first reported on Above the Law, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has just ruled that Amazon is nothing but a simple purveyor of “online services” and does not make “sales” of goods. Although the issue in the case was one of intellectual property infringement and thus not the UCC, the differentiation between “goods” and “services” is also highly relevant to the choice of law analyses that our students will have to do on the bar and practitioners in real life. Unknown

How did the Court come to its somewhat bizarre decision? Amazon, as you know, sells millions, if not billions, of dollars worth of tangible, physical products ranging from toilet paper to jewelry, books to toys, and much, much more. They clearly enter into online sales contracts with buyers and exchange the products for money. “Amazon” is the name branded in a major way in these transactions whereas the names of the actual sellers – where these differ from Amazon itself – are listed in much smaller font sizes. Often, it is Amazon itself that packages and ships the products to the buyers, whereas at other times, third party buyers are responsible for the shipping. Amazon “consummates” the sale when the buyer clicks the link that says “buy” on the Amazon website. Amazon then processes the payments and receives quite significant amounts of money for this automated process.

Clearly a “sale,” right? Nope. I guess “a sale is not a sale when a court says so.” As regards the IP dispute, the crucial issue was whether or not Amazon could control the acts of the third-party vendors. You would think that even that would clearly be the case given the enormous control Amazon has over what is marketed on its website and how this is done. Amazon, however, argued that it sells so many items that it cannot possibly police all of them. Thus, it won on its argument that it was not liable under IP law for a knock-off item that had been sold on the Amazon website as the real product (cute animal-shaped pillowcases). Unknown

Had this been an issue of contracts law and had the court still found that the transaction was not a sale of goods under UCC Art. 2, would it have erred? Arguably so. Under the “predominant factor test” used in many, if not most, jurisdictions, courts look at a variety of factors such as the language of the contract, the final product (or service) bought and sold, cost allocation, and the general circumstances of the case. When you buy an item on Amazon, it is true that you obtain the service of being able to shop from your computer and not a physical location, but at the end of the day, it is still the product that you want and buy, not the service. Apart from the relatively small service fee (which gets deducted from the price paid to the seller), the largest percentage of the sales price is for the product. Modernly, online buyers have become so used to that “service” being provided that it is arguably not even that much of a service anymore; it is just a method enabling buyers to buy… the product. Clearly, it seems to me, a “sale” under Art. 2.

Again, this was not a UCC issue, but it does still show that courts apparently still produce rather odd holdings in relation to e-commerce, even in 2017.

The case is Milo & Gabby LLC v. Amazon.com, Inc., (Fed. Cir. 2017)

August 24, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Beauty Salon's Customer Lists Weren't Confidential When They Were on Social Media (and more beauty salon rulings)

A recent case out of New York, Eva Scrivo Fifth Avenue, Inc. v. Rush, 656723/2016, stems from the defendant, Rush, being discovered working for a rival beauty salon, Marie Robinson, while still employed by the plaintiff, Scrivo. Scrivo terminated Rush upon learning of this. Rush spoke to two clients in the Scrivo salon before exiting the salon, allegedly saying she would get in touch with them, and at least one of the clients left the salon, refusing to be serviced by anyone but Rush. Rush also posted a note on her personal Instagram saying that she would be moving to Marie Robinson and people should get in touch with her for appointments. 

Scrivo sued alleging, among other things, breach of contract, based on the restrictive covenant contained in the Employment Agreement, which prohibited Rush from, among other things, soliciting Scrivo's clients and disclosing confidential information and trade secrets. Scrivo sought to enjoin Rush from soliciting, communicating with, or providing services to anyone she serviced while working for Scrivo, for a period of one year. 

Unfortunately for Scrivo, the court denied its motion. The court noted that the noncompete needed to protect Scrivo's legitimate interests, avoid undue hardship on Rush, and be in the public interest. The court found that Scrivo failed to demonstrate the that noncompete was necessary to protect its interests. There was nothing about Rush's services that were "unique or extraordinary," and Rush was replaceable. Scrivo's customer lists were not confidential information, because the identity of its customers was pretty readily available online in social media posts and Scrivo never attempted to hide any of it. None of the skills Rush used in cutting hair were confidential, either. Rush claimed to be self-taught, claimed not to have taken any customer lists, and claimed that any clients that followed her did so of their own accord and initiative and that she did not solicit them. 

Not only was the court dubious that Scrivo had legitimate interest to protect, the court also thought the sought injunction was unduly burdensome on Rush. Scrivo provided evidence that Rush had serviced 900 clients over the course of six years at Scrivo. Rush would surely have to therefore affirmatively ask each person who came to Marie Robinson if they had ever been serviced at Scrivo in order to ascertain if there was a possibility Rush had worked on them. Scrivo wanted Rush to turn away clients who came in independently, and the noncompete had only required Rush to refrain from soliciting clients. 

Finally, the court didn't think Scrivo would suffer any irreparable harm without injunctive relief. If Scrivo could prove Rush violated the noncompete, then Scrivo could get the value of the services the client didn't purchase from Scrivo. 

August 20, 2017 in Labor Contracts, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Fact-Checking the Snopes Lawsuit

You, like me, might often resort to Snopes to weed through what's true and what's not in the avalanche of information we're exposed to every day. (My most recent Snopes search: can a gift shop upcharge federal postage stamps? The answer is yes!) Recently Snopes turned to its constituents on the Internet to help provide funding to keep the website alive, precipitated by a lawsuit stemming from several contracts between the parties at issue. The whole thing is a matter of messy corporate structure that really seems like it's going to depend on the court's reading of the stock purchase agreement between the parties. Vox has a rundown of the whole situation here (that I'm quoted in). 

August 1, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Differences Between German and American Law Don't Preclude German Forum

I started reading this case out of the Northern District of Alabama, ProctorU, Inc. v. TM3 Software GMBH, Civil Action Number 2:17-cv-00926-AKK (behind paywall), because it involves exam proctoring software, which of course is a type of software I am interested in. It ends up really being a case about forum selection and German law vs. American law. 

ProctorU alleged that TM3 was contractually obligated to provide software that could "accurately identify test-takers" within 140 characters. Instead, TM3 provided software that ProctorU claimed could not accurately identify test-takers, even after 280 characters. (I'm not sure how this works technologically; the opinion doesn't get into it beyond this, although I found the website for the software here.) ProctorU therefore sued in the Northern District of Alabama. TM3 moved to dismiss based on a forum selection clause in their contract that required cases to be brought in Germany. 

ProctorU tried to argue that the forum selection clause was unenforceable because of the differences between German and American law. For instance, a jury trial wouldn't be available to ProctorU, it wouldn't be able to recover punitive damages, and discovery would be much more limited than American discovery. The court, however, found that nothing about those differences indicated that ProctorU would be unable to prove its case in Germany. 

ProctorU also tried to argue that it had agreed to the forum selection clause based on misrepresentations by TM3, and that, having been induced by fraud, it should therefore be unenforceable. ProctorU alleged that TM3 told ProctorU its investor was the state of Bavaria, who would not agree to any forum selection clause that was not German. It turned out that Bavaria had only an indirect minority interest in TM3. ProctorU claimed had it known how minor the state of Bavaria's interest was, it would not have agreed to the German provision. However, the court found that the statement that the state of Bavaria was an investor was true; TM3 had not told ProctorU that the state of Bavaria was a majority investor. Furthermore, it was ProctorU's obligation to conduct due diligence before accepting the contract terms, which should have revealed who TM3's investors were. 

Therefore, the court dismissed the case based on the forum selection clause. 

July 25, 2017 in Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 10, 2017

Jeff Lipshaw on Robot Lawyers and Legal Education

Over at the hallowed mothership of the Law Professor Blogs Network, TaxProf Blog, Jeff Lipshaw (Suffolk) has written a thought-provoking post entitled "Robot Lawyers, 'Skills Training' and Legal Education." Here are two of the key closing paragraphs:

Jeff LipshawAs a long, long, long time practitioner and generalist, I continue to be amused (or something like that) by the buckets of legal education (the rooms of the Mystery House).  For example, it took returning to academia to find out that "commercial law" (i.e. the UCC) is a different area than "corporate law."  Within business law, there are corporate camps and "uncorporate" camps, with the latter seemingly most interested in demonstrating why the area in which they happen to write and teach is normatively superior to the other (my friend and co-author, the late Larry Ribstein, being a prime example of the latter).  

In the long, long term, I think the crunchable middle will be both doctrine, as traditionally taught, and what today pass for "skills."  Both, to a large extent, have the potential of being robotic.  The long game is in doing and teaching what robots really can't do, or in managing the robots.  I'll put aside both trial and appellate litigation and focus on everything else lawyers do. In the interim, I'd do away with a lot of classes that are merely more yammering away at segments of doctrine by way of litigated cases, reverse the classroom, and make classes ones in which you merely bring doctrine to the party along with all the other theories.  (In my own area, I'd do away with the traditional business law courses, and combine with the business school to teach "Law & Finance of Business Entities" with J.D. and M.B.A. students intermingled.)

The whole post is well worth a read and is available in its natural habitat here.

July 10, 2017 in Law Schools, Teaching, Web/Tech | Permalink

Monday, July 3, 2017

RoboLawyer Draws Nearer? Contract Analytics Software ContraxSuite Goes Open Source

What happens when contract and document legal analytic software goes open source? Is RoboLawyer on the horizon? Are unmet needs to legal transactional services about to be fulfilled?  Maybe some of both. LexPredict, a legal software company associated with Chicago-Kent law prof Daniel Katz, announced today that we are about to find out. The results should be of great interest to those of us who follow trends in legal tech. Below are some key paragraphs from the press release on the open-sourcing of ContraxSuite:  

ContraxSuiteOver the last decade, we’ve spent many thousands of effort-hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars developing the contract and document analytics tools that we use with clients. These tools, based on enterprise-quality open source frameworks for natural language processing, machine learning, and optical character recognition, have allowed us to quickly and easily attack many problems, from securities filings and court opinions to articles of incorporation and lease agreements.

Today, we are proud to announce that we plan to open source our core platform for document analytics as ContraxSuite. This code base will be hosted on Github under a permissive open-source licensing model that will allow most organizations to quickly and freely implement and customize their own contract and document analytics. Like Redhat does for Linux, we will provide support, customization, and data services to "cover the last mile" for those organizations who need support or assistance.

We believe that the future of law lies in its central role in facilitating and regulating the modern information economy. But unless we start treating law itself like the production of information, we’ll never get there. We hope our actions today will help lawyers and other LegalTech companies accelerate the pace of improvement through more open collaboration.

*     *     *

Robot-lawyer-at-deskThe real challenge in contract analytics is to develop the so-called "training data" - the set of documents and labels used to "teach" the machine what separates a lease agreement from a purchase/sale agreement from a retirement benefits plan. Herein lies the true value of the current software and service providers. But, paradoxically, almost all providers get their information from one of two sources - either public sources of agreements, like the SEC’s EDGAR database or evidence from public courts, or private sources of agreements - their clients. Many organizations have therefore paid for the privilege to give away their own information so that someone else can profit.

By open-sourcing ContraxSuite, we hope to change this dynamic. The analysis and standardization of contracts and corporate governance material is key to the transformation of our economy. But blockchain and Smart Contracts aside, there are significant improvements in risk management, compliance, and profitability that can be gained by treating contracts as valuable data. Until legal departments and law firms can be "sequentially motivated," to borrow Professor Agarwal’s language, we will not see this maturation of the industry.

In the near future, we’ll be revealing more details about this open source strategy - including partnerships, support and customization services, and open-source license model. In the meantime, we hope to get everyone thinking fundamentally about how we do business in legal tech. What does the client really want - software licenses, or a real solution?

The full text of the press release is available here.

July 3, 2017 in In the News, Web/Tech | Permalink

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The McMansion Hell Dispute Was Really About Contracts

Zillow's cease-and-desist letter to popular Tumblr blog McMansion Hell --and its subsequent backing down from its position after the blogger secured representation from the Electronic Frontier Foundation --has been well-documented, including by such outlets as BBC News. However, a lot of outlets reported it as being a copyright dispute. While there was definitely a copyright angle to the disagreement--Zillow even alleged as such in its letter--the issue was really one of contract. After all, as many commentators pointed out, Zillow didn't even own the copyright in any of the photos. The true dispute, as Zillow conceded and EFF explained in its letter response, was over Zillow's terms of use. 

Zillow alleged that its terms of use prevented "reproducing, modifying, distributing, or otherwise creating derivative works from any portion of the Zillow site." Zillow seemed to be alleging that the blogger's parodies and commentaries of the photos on the site--otherwise easily protected by copyright's fair use doctrine--were prohibited by the terms of use. EFF fought back on this, though. EFF claimed that the blogger had never effectively assented to be bound by the website's terms of use, and that even if she had, the agreement's clause permitting modification without notice rendered the terms of use illusory and unenforceable. EFF also noted that contract doctrines have in the past restricted terms that restrict speech, at least in part due to public policy concerns. Finally, EFF raised the recently enacted Consumer Review Fairness Act of 2016, which voids contract provisions that attempt to prevent people from posting reviews, performance assessments, or other analyses of goods and services. The blogger's parodies of the real estate photographs on Zillow, according to EFF, are analyses of Zillow's services, and therefore Zillow cannot restrict them through its terms of use. 

Zillow backed off pretty quickly, claiming that it never intended to cause McMansion Hell to shut down, and McMansion Hell is back up, without having deleted any of the demanded photos. It seems like a victory for McMansion Hell and, more importantly, for individual speech. All of us spend a lot of time on websites with terms of use that we never bother to read. The quick reaction of many in the legal community to help McMansion Hell fight back, and the subsequent news coverage it received, is a nice reminder that not all contracts are automatically binding, especially not when criticism is involved. Hopefully other less high-profile recipients of dubious cease-and-desist letters can take heart from this story. 

July 2, 2017 in Commentary, Current Affairs, In the News, True Contracts, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 26, 2017

Ancestry.com Doesn't Want Your DNA Forever (At Least, Not Anymore)

Earlier this week, Stacey Lantagne wrote a post about Ancestry.com’s Terms and Conditions. Among other things, it gives Ancestry.com a perpetual license to use its customers' DNA for…well, pretty much anything.  Attorney Joel Winston wrote about the terms here and his post quickly went viral. The social media backlash was fast and furious – and Ancestry.com now claims that it didn’t really mean what it said in its terms. They also say that they will take out that provision (although as of this writing, it is still there). It seems that nobody reads wrap contracts – even the companies that draft them.

This is another example of how consumers often do care what’s in the TOS, even if they don’t read them. Not reading (and so not knowing what’s in the terms) is not the same as not caring that the terms apply. It’s also another encouraging example of a company responding to market demand for different contract terms. Shades of General Mills….

May 26, 2017 in Current Affairs, Miscellaneous, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Terms and Conditions on Your DNA: How Complicated Can It Get?

This is a long one, that I didn't expect to be long, but I decided the point is how long this is, and the questions it raises about all of those terms and conditions on websites. 

A friend of mine asked me recently about the terms and conditions of the Ancestry.com DNA service. The service, if you're not familiar with it, takes your DNA and breaks it down into ethnic backgrounds for you, based on analysis of genetic markers. Here's a video that talks about it some: 

So if you're using the DNA service, you're handing your DNA over to Ancestry.com, and maybe we should think: what does that mean? After all, who does our DNA belong to, and what can it be used to? The Supreme Court looked at this in the context of patents a few years ago, finding that DNA cannot be patented. So we know that no one can own a patent on your DNA. But that's not really what's at issue in the DNA service site. No one is trying to patent the DNA, but Ancestry.com is still using the DNA in certain ways.

Looking into the terms and conditions initially seemed to me like it would be straightforward. Several hours later...

I started with the actual terms and conditions (makes sense, right?). It has a license provision:  

"By submitting DNA to AncestryDNA, you grant AncestryDNA and the Ancestry Group Companies a perpetual, royalty-free, world-wide, transferable license to use your DNA, and any DNA you submit for any person from whom you obtained legal authorization as described in this Agreement, and to use, host, sublicense and distribute the resulting analysis to the extent and in the form or context we deem appropriate on or through any media or medium and with any technology or devices now known or hereafter developed or discovered."

That "we deem appropriate" language seems very broad to me. Appropriate for what? There isn't a lot of limitation there, and a lot of trust seems to be placed that your definition of "appropriate" will be the same as Ancestry's (and how likely is that, really?). I looked at some social media terms to compare (Facebook, TumblrTwitter), and none of their license grants had "we deem appropriate" language (and, in fact, Tumblr's license in particular was fairly narrow in its grant). Keep in mind, Ancestry has your DNA, not a random tweet about making a cup of tea in the morning. Also a point to think about: the social media is free, and I think we kind of expect that there's a trade-off for that. Ancestry costs money AND also takes a broad license grant in exchange. 

The terms and conditions also go on:

"You hereby release AncestryDNA from any and all claims, liens, demands, actions or suits in connection with the DNA sample, the test or results thereof, including, without limitation, errors, omissions, claims for defamation, invasion of privacy, right of publicity, emotional distress or economic loss. This license continues even if you stop using the Website or the Service."

So they can do whatever they deem appropriate, and you release them from any lawsuits in connection with it. 

Now, adding a complicating layer to all of this, though, is that the terms and conditions are supposed to be read in conjunction with the privacy statement, on a completely different webpage, that does appear to limit what they're doing with the DNA, I think, and also appears to give you the opportunity to cancel the service, although how that affects the license, which says that it survives termination of the service, is unclear to me. And in addition to that, there is another completely different webpage, called the Consent Agreement. I don't know when this comes up in the DNA process, because I didn't want to input my credit card, and before that point I only saw the terms and conditions and privacy statement referenced. But the Consent Agreement has to do with participation in scientific research, which seems cool, except that when you read further down into it, it says stuff like this: 

"If Data are obtained through these methods, it is possible that information about you or a genetic relative could be revealed, such as that you or a relative are carriers of a particular disease. That information could be used by insurers to deny you insurance coverage, by law enforcement agencies to identify you or your relatives, and in some places, the data could be used by employers to deny employment.

In the United States, a federal law called the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA) generally makes it illegal for health insurance companies, group health plans, and most employers to seek your genetic information without your consent, and to discriminate against you based on your genetic information. GINA does not protect you from discrimination with regard to life insurance, disability insurance, long-term care insurance, or military service. There may be state laws and laws outside the United States that prohibit discrimination against you based on genetic data."

Tl;dr: What I just want to say is that's the point. I spent all morning trying to piece together all the different clauses of all these different documents, and I'm still confused, and I'm an actual lawyer (theoretically). And then I wrote a blog entry about it that was also too long! How confused do you think consumers are? And how many of them do you think actually spent the amount of time I did to try to get through all of that? 

May 22, 2017 in Commentary, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Forum non conveniens Doesn't Overcome Forum Selection Clauses

A recent case out of Delaware, SRL Mondani, LLC v. Modani Spa Resort, Ltd., C.A. No. N16C-04-010 EMD CCLD, deals with forum issues. In the case, the parties had entered into a number of contracts. The contracts at issue in the dispute between them both contained forum selection clauses that disputes should be brought in Delaware court. A third contract between the parties, not explicitly at issue in the dispute, had a forum selection clause that disputes should be brought in Israeli court. Modani argued that the Israeli forum selection clause should control, but SRL was seeking to enforce the Delaware agreements, not the Israeli one, and so the court found the Israeli forum selection clause didn't matter. 

In the alternative, Modani tried to argue that the action should be dismissed under forum non conveniens. Modani's argument was that the relevant documents were located in Israel. The court, however, noted that "modern methods of communication" meant it was relatively easy to get the documents over to Delaware. While Modani alleged that the relevant witnesses were located in Israel, it failed to explain exactly what testimony those witnesses might have and why they were relevant, so the court was not convinced. The court did acknowledge that Modani's principles were located in Israel and had no ties to Delaware but at all but the court also pointed out that the contracts at issue had resulted from negotiations between two sophisticated businesses with millions of dollars at stake, so it was unpersuaded by Modani's allegations of hardship. Because the dispute was about enforcement of contracts with clauses requiring the application of Delaware law, Delaware was the best forum. 

May 3, 2017 in Current Affairs, In the News, Recent Cases, Travel, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Some Fun with Offers!

Here's some fun with offers from Kirin Produce Co. v. Lun Fat Produce, Inc., Docket Number 1684 CV 03338-BLS2, a recent case out of Massachusetts. 

The dispute revolved around whether any of Kirin's actions constituted an offer that Lun Fat could accept form a binding contract. Over about a month's time, Kirin sent to Lun Fat a series of spreadsheets proposing terms under which it would be willing to buy Lun Fat's assets. However, each of these spreadsheets was labeled in several places that they were "subject . . . to change," including "Change by both Seller & Buyer." Under these circumstances, Kirin failed to manifest any present intention to be bound and so none of those spreadsheets constituted an offer. 

Lun Fat eventually responded to one of Kirin's spreadsheets with an email proposing a series of new terms, but the court found nothing in the email stated that this was a counteroffer and that Lun Fat was willing to sell if Kirin accepted those terms. At any rate, Kirin did not accept the terms but rather proposed new terms in response. The court construed that response as a rejection of any offer by Lun Fat and a counteroffer by Kirin. 

Later, Lun Fat called Kirin on the phone and orally offered to sell Lun Fat's assets on the terms that had been in Lun Fat's e-mail. Even if Kirin had accepted that oral offer, though, it was ineffective because this was a deal for land and thus subject to the statute of frauds. 

Therefore, there was never any contract between the parties. 

May 2, 2017 in Recent Cases, Teaching, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Cyberattack liability

“Fees, fines or penalties” do not cover fraudulent charges incurred on commercial parties during a cyberattack. So ruled the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals in Schnuck Markets, Inc., v. First Data Merchant Serivces Corp., et al., (No. 15-3804, Jan. 13, 2017). 

Schnuck is a retail supermarket chain. First Data served as its credit card processor and Citicorp as its “acquiring bank.” Such a bank is one that pays the merchant and is reimbursed by the issuing bank. The acquiring bank sponsors the merchant into credit card association networks, in this case VISA and MasterCard. It also vouches for the merchant’s compliance with the associations’ rules. Unknown

Schnuck signed a contract with First Data and Citicorp for the credit card arrangement. Among other things, the agreement stated that liability under the relevant section of the contract “shall not apply to Schnucks’ liability for chargebacks, servicers’ fees, third party fees, and fees, fines or penalties … by the Association or any other card or debit card provide under this [agreement].”

In March 2013, a cyberattack against Schnucks compromised cardholder data. First Data and Citicorps subsequently withheld not only the fees and costs that MasterCard assessed against these corporations from payments to Schnucks, but also the fraudulent charges from the cyberattack itself. Schnuck filed suit, alleging breach of contract. At bottom, Schnucks agreed that it was liable for only actual fees and fines, but not the actual losses incurred by the issuing banks. Unknown-1

The court agreed. The payment of a “fee” is a payment for a service, not reimbursement for another party’s losses. Furthermore, since the contract does not mention anything about reimbursement for data compromise events, the banks were not in a legal position to get reimbursed for those. “Fines” and “punishment” describe, more narrowly, only sums imposed as a punishment and not data compromise losses.

Supermarket wins; banks lose. Good thing that the card holders were not involved here. The bigger loss is, of course, that shared by all of us; financiers, vendors, and card users when internet-based losses such as this happen. Another cost that undoubtedly will be built into the pricing scheme will result, but apparently, such is the nature of electronic transactions these days.

April 6, 2017 in Current Affairs, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 31, 2017

Prison Telephone Service Provider Continues to Lose on Enforcing Arbitration Provision

I have already blogged about a related case out of the Western District of Arkansas, in which the court concluded that prison inmates did not consent to arbitrate when they funded their telephone accounts to enable them to make calls. This case out of the Third Circuit, James v. Global Tellink Corp., No. 16-1555, affirms a similar conclusion by the District of New Jersey. To refresh your memory, GTL provides telephone services to prison inmates. Inmates sign up for accounts and deposit funds into the account, either through GTL's website or through its automated telephone service. When interacting with GTL's automated telephone service, users are alerted that their transactions are governed by the terms of use found online but they are not required to indicate their assent to those terms. Inmates have brought a class action alleging that GTL's charges are unconscionable. GTL moved to compel arbitration based on its online terms of use, but the district court found that those who used GTL's automated telephone service never agreed to be bound by those terms of use. 

The Third Circuit agreed with the district court's conclusion. The subject of how to form a binding contract through interactive telephone services was a new and different one, as most of these cases involve websites these days. GTL argued that the inmates manifested the requisite assent by continuing to use the telephone services after being notified there were terms of use. But the inmates never had to perform any affirmative act to indicate their assent, and they were never told that their continued use alone would constitute such assent. None of the inmates in question who used the automated telephone services had ever taken the necessary extra step to access GTL's website to see the terms of use, so they were never presented with the terms of use or the arbitration provision in question. The inmates simply never received the terms, and were never told that use of the telephone system would bind them to the terms. 

March 31, 2017 in Current Affairs, Government Contracting, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Company's Pledge to Donate to a Charity Did Not Create a Contract

A recent case out of the Second Circuit, McCabe v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., 16-3301-cv, adds to the jurisprudence on promotions and offers and unilateral contracts. 

ConAgra ran an annual promotion whereby it pledged to donate to a charity every time a certain code from its packaging was entered on its website, up to a certain maximum amount. McCabe alleged that this promotion created a contract and alleged that ConAgra breached the contract. A promotion is generally not considered an offer to enter into a contract unless it is clear, definite, and explicit, leaving nothing left to negotiate. ConAgra's promotion did not rise to that level, not least because the promotion was clearly limited to a certain maximum amount. For that reason, a person entering the code into ConAgra's website would never have any way of knowing if its code would trigger a donation on ConAgra's part, because the maximum donation amount might have already been achieved. ConAgra's promotion was not an offer, and McCabe could not accept it. 

McCabe then tried to characterize the promotion as an invitation for offers, with people "offering" when they input the code onto ConAgra's website, and ConAgra "accepting" when it acknowledged receipt of the code. However, the promotion was too indefinite to set any terms for the "offer," and the code entry itself did not clarify any of the terms further. 

At any rate, even if there had been a contract, the court found that there weren't sufficient allegations ConAgra had breached it. There was no allegation that ConAgra did not donate to the charity every time it received the code, up to the maximum amount. McCabe's disagreement was really with the charity's own methodology, which was not ConAgra's issue. 

You can listen to the oral argument in this case here

March 8, 2017 in E-commerce, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Inmates Didn't Consent to Be Bound to a Contract Every Time They Used the Telephone

Myanna has already blogged about the problem of inmate telephone rates being set unreasonably high. Myanna's blog post was about a dispute in California but a recent decision out of the Western District of Arkansas, In re Global Tel*Link Corporation ICS Litigation, Case No. 5:14-CV-5275 (behind paywall), deals with the same issue. (There are several of these litigations, as well as other government debates about regulation of these rates.) In the Arkansas decision, the court refuses to compel arbitration. 

Global Tel*Link's allegation was that the inmates consented to the terms of use when they funded their accounts to enable them to make phone calls, and the terms of use contained an arbitration clause. Every time the inmates put money on their accounts with Global Tel*Link, they heard a message similar to the following: 

Please note that your account, and any transactions you complete with GTL or any of its affiliates, are governed by the terms of use and the privacy statement posted at www.connectnetwork.com . The terms of use and the privacy statement were most recently revised on March 30, 2015.

The court determined, however, that a reasonable person would not have understood this message as referring to a contract and as constituting consent to be bound by that contract, since it never used any contract buzzwords like "contract," "consent," "agree," "assent," "offer," "accept," etc. The court said that, as far as the inmate listening to the message was concerned, the terms of use and privacy statements could have been just generally applicable legal rights imposed by regulators. The court characterized Global Tel*Link's behavior as basically hiding the contract ball: Global Tel*Link could have straightforwardly said the inmates were entering into a contract but instead "invite[d] [them] to visit a website where [they] might accidentally stumble across this fact." (I went to connectnetwork.com. The terms of use are located at the bottom of the page and required me to scroll to find them, and I just blogged about a case where the persistent location of the terms of use hyperlink at the bottom of the page didn't constitute enough notice.)

Because the inmates never signed anything, never clicked or punched any button signifying acceptance of contract terms, never had an opportunity to review the terms of use prior to using Global Tel*Link's services, and would not reasonably have understood the message to be referring to contractual terms, the inmates did not assent to the contract and thus are not bound by the contract's arbitration provision. 

March 4, 2017 in Current Affairs, Government Contracting, In the News, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)