ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Myanna Dellinger
University of South Dakota School of Law

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Algorithmic Contracts by Lauren Henry Scholz

Lauren_Henry_Scholz (Yale)Recently, I had the good fortune to interact with Lauren Henry Scholz, currently Resident Fellow and Knight Law and Media Scholar at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Scholz’s in-progress article, Algorithmic Contracts, addresses topics that will be of great interest to many readers of this blog. She not only tackles the fiscally important development of technological automation of contracting processes, but she also wades into the significant implications of computer-facilitated formation for traditional contract doctrine. The draft is not yet available on SSRN, but Lauren graciously granted me permission to share her current abstract:

Algorithmic contracts are an important part of today's society. Areas where algorithmic contracts are already common are high speed trading of financial products and dynamic pricing. However, contract law doctrine does not currently have an approach to evaluating and enforcing algorithmic contracts. This Article fills this significant gap in doctrinal law and legal literature.

There are two types of algorithmic contracts. Agent algorithmic contracts are contracts in which one or both parties use an algorithm as an agent to determine terms in a contract, that is, to choose which terms to offer or accept. Term algorithmic contract are contracts in which all parties agree to the results of an algorithm as a contractual term, prior to knowing exactly what the algorithm will yield.

SmartcontractsThe classical interpretation of contract doctrine, which justifies contract as an expression of human will, finds that some algorithmic contracts are not properly formed at law and thus cannot be enforced in contract. This is because where algorithms serve as quasi-agents to principals in making decisions the principals have not manifested the intent to be bound at the level of specificity that contract law requires. Algorithms are not persons, and so cannot consent beyond the scope of the principal’s manifested objectives, as true agents can. Furthermore, policy considerations of efficiency and fairness in light of technological trends also supports relaxing the contract law’s presumption against considering evidence of intent outside the contract in the interpretation of and provision of remedies for algorithmic contracts.

I propose that approaching algorithmic contracts as implied-in-fact contracts in contract law, supported by restitution law and tort law where a contract cannot be implied in fact, offers a predictable approach to the enforcement of algorithmic contracts at law while promoting efficiency and fairness concerns in a manner traditional contract law cannot.

Common law courts and state legislatures should update their approach to algorithmic contracts accordingly. The American Law Institute and other groups that seek to promote best practices in state private law should update tort, contract, and commercial law statements to expressly address algorithmic contracts. Businesses should strengthen their positions in negotiations as well as in court by clarifying their objectives in using algorithms. Giving businesses the incentive to make their objectives clear will aid in ascribing liability in all areas of law and promote responsible use of algorithms.

Personally, I’m very sympathetic to the suggestion that the computer-enhanced contracts addressed by Scholz are ripe for their own variations on standard interpretive rules. Traditional doctrine did not contemplate and is not necessarily adaptable to the technological possibilities that are now upon us. This looks to be an exciting and relevant topic, so I look forward to seeing the final product. Although Algorithmic Contracts is itself still in development, you can in the meantime view Lauren Scholz’s other scholarship here.

February 21, 2016 in E-commerce, Recent Scholarship, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

FTC Settlement with Bitcoin Mining Rig Company

Speaking of contract law and Bitcoin, my colleague William Byrnes over at our sister blog, International Financial Law Prof Blog, reports on recent activity by the Federal Trade Commission in this area:

FTC Consumer Protection LogoButterfly Labs and two of its operators have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they deceived thousands of consumers about the availability, profitability, and newness of machines designed to mine the virtual currency known as Bitcoin, and that they unfairly kept consumers’ up-front payments despite failing to deliver the machines as promised.

*   *   *

“Even in the fast-moving world of virtual currencies like Bitcoin, companies can’t deceive people about their products,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “These settlements will prevent the defendants from misleading consumers.”

Read the entire post here. While the federal interest in regulating in the virtual currency space has most prominently been in the area of financial crimes, consumer protection is certainly not off the table as agencies like the FTC and (potentially more prominently) the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau explore their reach.

February 20, 2016 in Current Affairs, E-commerce, In the News, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 19, 2016

Regulation of Virtual Currency Businesses Act

ULCLogoAt any given time, the Uniform Law Commission/NCCUSL is engaged in many important and useful state-law drafting projects, but one of the more interesting ones for me is its current work in drafting a proposed Regulation of Virtual Currency Businesses Act. I have had the fantastic opportunity to act as an observer to the drafting committee and watch the stakeholders and commissioners navigate disparate policy perspectives and try find as-common-as-possible ground, while Chair Fred Miller keeps the group on task and Reporter Sarah Jane Hughes assimilates an incredible amount of debate into a rapidly evolving draft. The experience is a wonder that I would recommend to anyone with a serious interest in legislative policymaking. It also, for present purposes, helps illustrate both the benefits and limits of contract law in a nascent market-space.

Bitcoin_logo1The current drafting project arose out of the phenomenon of Bitcoin, the first technologically viable means of electronically transmitting value without the possibility of double spending or the need for a financial intermediary, like a bank. While the use cases for virtual currency technology are still in their relative infancy, states began to consider and enact disparate regulatory schemes, with New York's BitLicense regulatory framework being the most prominent example. While federal regulators and law enforcement have understandably focused on preventing the use of pseudonymous cryptocurrency to advance criminal enterprises and finance international terrorism, the state concerns have tended more toward protection of consumers and other users engaged in perfectly legal transactions. While Bitcoin does not require an intermediary any more than paper cash requires use of a bank, intermediaries--like digital wallet services--have arisen to fill the convenience role analogous to bank accounts. These virtual currency intermediaries are, for the most part, the principal target of state-law regulation and current work of the Uniform Law Commission.

Contract1What is the contract law angle here? It's this: In the absence of specially-crafted law of the sort now under consideration, the common law of contracts fills the void to enable some degree of enforceable private ordering. The flexibility of contract law is such that it can allow for the birth of business models no one contemplated as recently as the eve of Bitcoin's creation in 2008. The flexibility of such a legal regime is amazing. Contract law can, nonetheless, only facilitate business so far. Public-protective regulation is necessary to achieve widespread market acceptance beyond the universe of early-adopters and risk takers. Regulation carries its own risks, however, as a heavy-handed approach can stifle innovation and create anti-competitive barriers to market entry.

That--in many different flavors--is the policy question being grappled with in the Regulation of Virtual Currency Businesses Act, and the question is relevant in any other space where rapidly developing technology exceeds the capacity of existing law. Where do we apply protective public law, and what do we keep within the realm of private contracts?

 

February 19, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, Legislation, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Contracts Humor: It's Not Just for Law Schools

A cautionary tale:

A&E AppleSign

February 18, 2016 in Miscellaneous, Quotes, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 15, 2016

No Contract Contingency Left Behind: Zombies in Amazon's "Lumberyard"

AmazonLumberyardForward-thinking deal lawyers draft contracts addressing contingencies that clients might not perceive or address if left to their own devices. Amazon has, however, now taken contingency planning--if I may borrow from esteemed legal scholar Buzz Lightyear---to infinity and beyond.

One of Amazon's many businesses is Amazon Web Services, and one of the available services from AWS is Lumberyard, a game development system which, according to Amazon, "consists of an engine, integrated development environment, and related assets and tools we make available at aws.amazon.com/lumberyard/downloads or otherwise designate as Lumberyard materials (collectively, 'Lumberyard Materials')." See AWS Service Term 57.1. 

So far so good. But then, perhaps recognizing the possibility of dire emergencies requiring use of a video-game development engine, we reach section 57.10 (with emphasis added):

57.10 Acceptable Use; Safety-Critical Systems. Your use of the Lumberyard Materials must comply with the AWS Acceptable Use Policy. The Lumberyard Materials are not intended for use with life-critical or safety-critical systems, such as use in operation of medical equipment, automated transportation systems, autonomous vehicles, aircraft or air traffic control, nuclear facilities, manned spacecraft, or military use in connection with live combat. However, this restriction will not apply in the event of the occurrence (certified by the United States Centers for Disease Control or successor body) of a widespread viral infection transmitted via bites or contact with bodily fluids that causes human corpses to reanimate and seek to consume living human flesh, blood, brain or nerve tissue and is likely to result in the fall of organized civilization.

AmazonLogoHere at Texas A&M, my colleague (and Blog Editor Emeritus) Frank Snyder raised some quibbles with this provision's drafting: "First, why does it apply only to a viral infection and not to bacterial infections, mutation-causing chemicals, or (as in Night of the Comet) weird alien space rays?   And is the last clause ('likely to result in the fall of organized civilization') modified by the clause that requires CDC certification, or is that an independent determination that can be made by the judge?"  

All good questions. I'll also note that the answer to whether a zombie outbreak would constitute commercial impracticability in a sale-of-goods case has just edged a closer to "no." Apparently, this is precisely the sort of contingency that parties can foresee and should contract around with appropriate force majeure clauses.

What are your thoughts on this significant outbreak of zombie-contingency contracting? Leave your answer in the comments below. H/T to Henry Gabriel via Bill Henning for highlighting this provision.

 

February 15, 2016 in Current Affairs, E-commerce, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Solar Contracts - Still Trouble on the Horizon

Change is coming to the energy field, finally. As the realization is broadening that fossil fuels have to be left in the ground, solar and wind energy are becoming more popular to investors and private households alike.

The problem is still the types of contracts and financing options available. An average solar system costs $14,700. If paying that in cash, homeowners would typically save around $50 a month on their electric bills. However, most people cannot afford to pay that in cash. Financing options will reduce the monthly savings to about $20-30 a month. “Net metering,” which allows homeowners to sell electricity back to the utilities, may result in bigger savings.

Problems still loom on the horizon with contracts in this area. A new financing program known as the “Property Assessed Clean Energy” financing program (“PACE”) allows solar panel buyers to finance the system and add the loan to the property as a tax assessment. Some are criticizing that for making it difficult or sell the homes or refinance mortgages.

More importantly, utility companies are complaining that the electric grids were designed to send electricity to consumers, but not receive it back. The utility industry is even referring to individually owned power systems as “disruptive technologies.” This new interaction will force changes in the market and infrastructure. But so what? Utilities have had a chance to make quite a lot of money for years on end, often in pure or monopoly-like situations. Now the market is changing. Utilities must adapt to necessary societal changes. This is clearly one of them. The resentment towards new technological change by parties in an industry that is per se technological is inexpedient and childish. Yes, utilities have invested much money in the existing electricity infrastructure, but they have surely never been promised that the market wouldn’t change and that users won’t demand other product sources than what has been the case for, now, more than a hundred years. Time has come to innovate. La-2451929-fi-0204-agenda-solar-panels-009-ik-jpg-20160207

The industry is also complaining that in the future, new rules are going to force the industry to provide more services, which will cost more money and thus result in fewer savings via alternative energy sources. Yeah, let’s see about that one. That still sounds like a contrarian, outmoded argument against inevitable progress.

What could be more troublesome is the expected erosion of benefits such as solar credits. For example, the existing 30% federal solar tax credit will end in 2019 unless, of course, Congress renews it. Hopefully under the new Paris Agreement on climate change and with the looming risks, financial and otherwise, on continually rising global temperatures (2015 was yet another hottest year on record), such and other benefits will be increased, not decreased.

For anyone wishing to buy a solar system, the best deal on the market still seems to be buying outright, even if via a property tax assessment. Many of the still-typical 20-year lease contracts are still too lengthy in nature. Too many things could change in this marketplace to make them seem like a viable option.

It is too bad that with as many hours of sunshine as many parts of this nation has, there still is not a really good, viable option for solar energy contracts for middle- or low-income private homeowners.

February 14, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Science, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 7, 2016

YouTube and Annoying Plaintiffs

In a case that is a sad testament to today’s apparently increasing loneliness in the Western world despite much technological progress that could have alleviated some of that, but instead only seems to have made it worse, a woman created a YouTube channel bearing the rather uncharming name “bulbheadmyass.” On it, she posted 24 music videos of her band. These videos gathered almost half a million views and many favorable comments. There was no commercial component to the videos. The woman was not trying to sell video or audio versions of the band’s music. Instead, her “sole reward was the acclaim that she received from the YouTube community and the opportunity to make new friends.” (The case is Lewis v. YouTube, H041127, California Court of Appeal Images.)

Claiming that this woman had breached the company’s Terms of Service, YouTube removed the videos from its website. The woman filed suit claiming breach of contract and seeking specific performance. She alleged that YouTube breached the contract with her when it removed her videos from the website against her will and without notice. The trial court sustained YouTube’s demurrer on the basis that the Terms of Service contained a liability limitation stating that “[i]n no event shall YouTube … be liable … for any … errors or omissions in any content.” Plaintiff had argued that the case was not one of errors or omissions in any content, but rather a deletion of content without prior notice. The appellate court, however, held that the liability limitation governed the issue and that the trial court had correctly sustained the demurrer.

YouTube did, though, agree to restore plaintiff’s video content. YouTube, of course, does not charge for featuring anyone’s videos. Rather, it makes money off the advertising it can generate because of the many hits it receives. (Its revenue is several billion dollars a year.) However, YouTube did not restore the videos to their pre-deletion status, i.e. with comments, URLs from other users who had linked to it, and view counts. (Compare this to SSRN resetting your scholarship records: you’ll lose your view count and all other tracking data should that happen). The court contrasted the case with another where the contract had set forth exactly how to grant specific performance in case of a breach (also a technology case). But in the YouTube case, said the court, “no provision in the Terms of Service can serve as the basis for the relief that [plaintiff] seeks.”

Really? Does it take all that much technological savvy by a court to simply ask YouTube to restore plaintiff’s accounts to their “as were” condition? YouTube may actually not simply have deleted the accounts altogether. If they had, they would undoubtedly have backups. Instead, various technological accounts are simply “turned off” and are thus not accessible to the general public, but they still exist. What really seems to have been at issue here was an annoying plaintiff who was unlikeable to both the court and YouTube. It seems that the court was too eager to dismiss plaintiff’s specific performance claim and chose the too-easy way out by claiming lack of technological knowledge. In 2016, it does not seem to strain the imagination too much to expect billion-dollar IT companies to have ways of doing just what plaintiff sought here. Then again: with a name such as “bulbheadmyass,” maybe it was a case of “you got what you asked for.”

February 7, 2016 in Current Affairs, E-commerce, Film, Music, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 1, 2016

How Much Does It Cost to Have an IMAX Theater in Your Own Home?

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Okay, there's actual contract stuff to talk about in this case, but mostly I was fascinated to learn that IMAX theaters rent the movie-showing equipment from IMAX and, in 2004 at least, the cost was $41,400 in annual maintenance fees plus the greater of $75,000 or 7% of the box office receipts in annual rent. So, if you win the lottery and want an IMAX theater in your house, there's a rough idea of the kind of costs you're looking at. 

And now that we've learned that fascinating tidbit of information, what happens when you get into a fight with IMAX about whether the equipment it's leased you is capable of playing "Hollywood" movies? 

That's what happened in a recent case out of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, IMAX Corp. v. The Capital Center, Civ. No. 1:15-CV-0378. In that dispute, Capital Center alleged that it told IMAX it wanted to rent its equipment so it would be able to show "Hollywood" movies. In 2004, it entered into a fifteen-year lease of IMAX's movie-showing equipment/software/etc. Apparently around 2014, IMAX announced that it had developed new technology that rendered the equipment Capital Center had rented obsolete, interfering with Capital Center's ability to play "Hollywood" movies. (I keep putting "Hollywood" in quotation marks because it's in quotation marks in the opinion. Clearly Capital Center considered it a direct quote and an important characterization.)

In reaction to the new technology, Capital Center stopped paying rent on the old technology, apparently because it felt its equipment was now valueless. IMAX pointed out that Capital Center had therefore breached the contract and IMAX was entitled to the remainder due under the lease in liquidated damages (a clause in the contract). Capital Center gave the equipment back to IMAX, and IMAX sued to collect the money it claimed it was due under the contract. Capital Center raised in response defenses of mutual mistake and frustration of purpose. It also claimed IMAX had no right to demand the further rent amounts because Capital Center no longer had possession of the equipment. Finally, it claimed that IMAX had not properly disclaimed its warranty that the equipment was fit for a particular purpose, i.e., playing "Hollywood" movies. Unfortunately for Capital Center, none of these defenses succeeded. 

Capital Center's mutual mistake defense centered on the "mistake" that both parties made that the equipment that was the subject of the lease would still be capable of playing "Hollywood" movies fifteen years later. However, the mutual mistake defense exists to vindicate mistakes of fact, not errors in predicting the future; this situation was the latter. There was no "fact" that IMAX thought it knew that the equipment would still be valid in fifteen years. And, in fact, the agreement itself contemplated as much, because the agreement contained a clause noting that IMAX might upgrade its equipment and setting forth the terms by which Capital Center could receive the improved equipment. Difficult for Capital Center to argue that the parties were mistaken about the future viability of the equipment in question when the agreement itself noted that the equipment in question might not be viable in the future. 

The frustration of purpose defense failed for a similar reason. Here, the purpose of the contract might have been to play "Hollywood" movies but there was no unforeseen event that occurred after the signing of the contract that frustrated that purpose. The agreement itself predicted that the equipment might not continue to be viable for the showing of "Hollywood" movies. Therefore, the continued viability of the equipment could not be said to have been a basic assumption of the contract. 

As for the argument that IMAX shouldn't be entitled to future rent payments because IMAX was in possession of the equipment, under Pennsylvania law, IMAX was entitled to choose either future rent payments or repossession of the equipment. However, IMAX didn't seek to repossess the equipment; Capital Center gave the equipment back to IMAX of its own volition. Therefore, IMAX wasn't seeking repossession, only the future rent payments: a choice it was allowed to make. 

Finally, the contract between the parties had contained a clause in which IMAX disclaimed all of the usual warranties, including suitability to a particular use, i.e., showing "Hollywood" movies. Under Pennsylvania law, such a disclaimer is valid as long as it is "conspicuous." Capital Center tried to argue that the disclaimer in question wasn't conspicuous, but it was the only clause in the seven-page Schedule B of the agreement that was in bold font, which, according to the precedent, rendered it "sufficiently conspicuous." 

February 1, 2016 in Commentary, Film, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, January 31, 2016

On Artificial Intelligence and Contract Law

SmartcontractsIan Kerr of the University of Ottawa's Centre for Law, Technology and society has an interesting post from last September on a topic of that has been of occasional discussion on this blog, and which I came across only recently.  In "The Arrival of Artificial Intelligence and 'The Death of Contract,'" Kerr outlines some of the foreseeable challenges facing today's students of contract law due to disruptive technology:

On the market today are a number of AI products that carry out contract review and analysis. Kira, an AI system used to review and analyze more than US$100 billion worth of corporate transactions (millions of pages), is said to reduce contract review times by up to 60%. Likewise, a Canadian product called Beagle (“We sniff out the fine print so you don’t have to”) is faster than any human, reading at .05 seconds per page. It reads your contract in seconds and understands who the parties are, their responsibilities, their liabilities, how to get out of it and more. These are amazing products that improve accuracy and eliminate a lot of the “grunt work” in commercial transactions.

But hey—my Contracts students are no dummies. They can do the math. Crunch the numbers and you have a lot of articling students and legal associates otherwise paid to carry out due diligence who now have their hands in their pockets and are looking for stuff to do in order to meet their daily billables. What will they do instead?

In some ways, such concerns are just teardrops in an ocean full of so-called smart contracts that are barely visible in the murky depths of tomorrow. Their DRM-driven protocols are likely to facilitate, verify, and enforce the negotiation and performance of contracts. In some cases, smart contracts will obviate the need for legal drafting altogether—because you don’t actually need legal documents to enforce these kinds of contracts. They are self-executing; computer code ensures their enforcement.

Kerr's concludes that smart contracts and their technological relatives are no more the death of contract than what Grant Gilmore pronounced, but that the change is worrisome, including to our relational understanding of contract doctrine and its practice:

I suspect we will face some significant changes and I am not sure that it’s all good. Self-executing contracts, like the DRM-systems upon which they are built, are specifically designed to promote the wholesale replacement of relational aspects of contract such as trust, promise, consent and enforcement. As such, they do injury to traditional contract theory and practice. While I have no doubt that an AI-infused legal landscape can to some extent accommodate these losses by creating functional equivalents where historical concepts no longer make sense (just as e-commerce has been quite successful in finding functional equivalents for the hand-written signature, etc.), I do worry that some innovations in AI-contracting could well have a negative effect on human contracting behavior and relationships.

The entire post is worth a read for anyone interested in the impact of technology on contracts.

January 31, 2016 in Commentary, Contract Profs, E-commerce, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Mobile Carriers Give up Two-year Contracts

Mobile carriers seem to have grown tired of, effectively, being in the loan business funding people’s new phones. American consumers were used to this model, which was a way for phone companies to hide the large price of a new phone into a monthly bill.

More recently, consumers want to change their phones more often than every two plus years, so many prefer paying up front for their phones to be able to change plans whenever they want to instead of having to wait out a long-term contract (or risk sanctions if breaching it).

All the major carriers – T-Mobile, Verizon, Spring and now AT&T – have now shifted away from two-year contracts. The question now is whether consumers will truly choose to pay for their phones in full at the point of purchase or, as has been mentioned, opt for installment plans that lets them upgrade more often than before remains to be seen. Given the price of phones, but also the seemingly insatiable need by many for new technology, installment contracts may be the likely end result. If so, it will be interesting to see how carriers will avoid tying people into long-term contracts, which has proved to be undesirable, but at the same time trying to do, at bottom, some of that via “installment contracts.”

January 31, 2016 in Current Affairs, E-commerce, In the News, Web/Tech | Permalink

Friday, January 29, 2016

Confusing Contracts Language as Litigation Strategy?

The class action lawsuit against Uber for allegedly misclassifying its drivers as “independent contractors” instead of regular “employees” is growing in scope and importance. (O’Connor v. Uber Technologies Inc., 13-cv-03826, Northern District of California). It now covers more than 100,000 drivers. If Uber loses, the case could mean the end of the so far highly lucrative business ride share model that is currently valued at a whopping $60 b worldwide. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-12-18/uber-faulted-by-judge-for-confusing-drivers-with-new-contract

A recent contractual twist developed as follows: Judge Chen had previously found certain contractual language between Uber and its drivers to be unconscionable and unenforceable. Uber claims it tried to fix those issues in a new set of contracts prohibiting its drivers from “participating in or recovering relief under any current or future class action lawsuits against the company.”  (Link behind a sign-in request). The drivers were, instead, required to resolve potential conflicts via arbitration.  The new contract did, however, purport to give drivers 30 days to opt out of the arbitration provision.

Judge Edward Chen stated about this contractual language that “it is likely, frankly, to engender confusion.” The potential for confusion stems from the fact that numerous drivers have, obviously, already joined the class action lawsuit just as many still may want to do so. Hundreds of drivers are said to have called the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Shannon Liss-Riordan, to find out whether they have to opt out of the new contract to join the lawsuit. Ms. Liss-Riordan called the updated contract an attempt to “trick her clients into relinquishing their rights to participate in the class action.”

Uber, however, claimed that it was just trying to fix previous problematic contractual language and that it would “not apply the new arbitration provisions to any drivers covered by the class action.” The contractual language, though, does not say so.

Whether this is an example of deliberate strong-arming or intimidating the drivers into not joining the lawsuit or simply unusually poor contract drafting may never be known. Judge Chen did, however, order Uber to stop communicating with drivers covered by the class action suit and barred the company from imposing the new contract on those drivers.

The saga continues with trial set for June 30.

Meanwhile, Lyft settled a very similar lawsuit by its drivers in the amount of $12 million. Under that settlement, Lyft will still be able to classify its drivers “independent contractors.”

January 29, 2016 in E-commerce, Famous Cases, In the News, Labor Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Fired for Posting Critical Comments about Employer on Facebook

On Thursday, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard arguments about whether a clothing company illegally fired three retail store employees for their Facebook posts criticizing the employer. The case involves the as-of-yet little developed area of how labor law applies to social media usage as well as other complex issues of contracts and employment law. The case is Design Technology Group v. NLRB, Case Number 20-CA-035511.  The case also demonstrates the issue of poor workplace conditions and how little employees can do under contracts law or other bodies of law against this, which I have blogged about before (most recently here). I am not an employment law expert.  I simply find this case very interesting from the point of view of how social media law is developing in relation to what is, after all, also an employment contract.

In the case, three employees repeatedly brought various safety concerns to the attention of the store manager. Among other things, the employees felt that the area of San Francisco where the store was located was relatively unsafe at certain times of the evening and that, perhaps, store hours could thus be changed to alleviate this problem. Homeless people would also gather in numbers outside the store to watch a burlesque video that the store played on a big TV screen right inside a window, thus potentially also attracting various (other) unsavory characters. Images

Allegedly, the store manager did not respond to these safety concerns and treated the employees in an immature and unprofessional way. The three employees discussed the events not at the water cooler, which is so yesteryear, but on Facebook. These posts included messages such as

  • “It’s pretty obvious that my manager is as immature as a person can be and she proved that this evening even more so. I’m am unbelieveably [sic] stressed out and I can’t believe NO ONE is doing anything about it! The way she treats us in NOT okay but no one cares because everytime [sic] we try to solve conflicts NOTHING GETS DONE!!... “
  • “800 miles away yet she’s still continues to make our lives miserable. phenomenal!”
  • “hey dudes it’s totally cool, tomorrow I’m bringing a California Worker’s Rights book to work. My mom works for a law firm that specializes in labor laws and BOY will you be surprised by all the crap that’s going on that’s in violation 8) see you tomorrow!” Unknown

One of the employees did bring the California worker’s rights book—which covered issues such as benefits, discrimination, the right to organize, safety, health, and sanitation—to work and put it in the break room where other employees looked through it, noticing that they were entitled to water and sufficient heat.

This same employee also (naïvely) sent resumes from the company computer in spite of company rules allowing only sporadic computer access (the store manager had allegedly set a bad example by using the store computer for personal purposes herself). The company discovered this as well as the Facebook posts, and fired the three employees.

The company argues that the workers commented on Facebook only in order to create a pretext for filing a claim with the NLRB. The smoking gun, according to the company, is the following exchange of (select, but most salient) Facebook postings:

  • “OMG the most AMAZING thing just happened!!!! J”
  • “What … did they fire that one mean bitch for you?”
  • “Nooooo they fired me and my assistant manager because “it just wasn’t working out” we both laughed and said see yaaah and hugged each other while giggling ….Muhahahahaha!!! “So they’ve fallen into my crutches [sic].”

The use of the expression “Muhahaha” is, according to the company, the smoking gun indicating the employee’s desire to get fired. It does indeed seem to indicate _some_ reveling in the turn of events, but arguably not a desire to be fired.  The “top definition” of the phrase on the user-created online “Urban Dictionary” is, today, “supost [sic] to be an evil laugh when being typed in a game.” Case briefs list it as “An evil laugh. A laugh one does when they are about to do something evil. Such as when a villain has a plot to take over the world, he does this laugh right before it goes into effect. Also a noise made by people who have just gotten away with an evil deed or crime….” The “evil laughter” entry on Wikipedia describes the phrase Muhahaha as being “commonly used on internet Blogs, Bulletin board systems, and games. There, [it is] generally used when some form of victory is attained, or to indicate superiority over someone else.”

The company appeals a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board (“NRLB”) finding the terminations unlawful because the employees’ discussions of working conditions were protected concerted activities under the National Labor Relations Act. The company claims that the comments were not legally protected because they were part of a scheme to manufacture an unfair labor practice claim.

It will be interesting to see how the Court of Appeals will address the social media aspect of this case. One the one hand, it does seem exceptionally naïve to expect to be able post anything in writing on the internet – Facebook, no less – without it potentially being seen by one’s current or future employer. I’m sorry, but in 2016, that should not come as a surprise to anyone (note that the company also used email monitoring software to discover whether its employees applied for jobs with competitors, which at least one of the employees here did). Note to employees who may not have a home computer or internet access: use a library computer.

On the other hand: does it really matter what employees post to their “friends” about their jobs, absent torts or other clear violations of the law (not alleged here)? Isn’t that to be expected today just as employees previously and still also talk in person about their jobs? Isn’t the only difference in this case that the posts are in writing and thus traceable whereas “old-fashioned” gossip was not? If employees merely state the truths, as seem to have been the case in this instance perhaps apart from the last “Muhahaha” comment, isn’t it overreaching by the employer to actually _fire_ the employees if they, of course, otherwise provided good services? Even if the employees are exaggerating, boasting, or outright lying, should employers be able to fire employees merely because of private comments on Facebook posted to one’s online “friends”?

An alternative idea might be to consider whether the employees were actually on to something that (gasp!) could help improve a poor work situation for the better.

The National Federation of Independent Business’ Small Business Legal enter has filed an amicus brief in support of the company, alleging that the NLRB decision “allow[s] employees regardless of their motive or actual misconduct to become termination-proof simply by making comments relating to their employment online.”

That’s hardly what the employees are arguing here. They do, however, argue a right to discuss their employment situation online without a snooping employer terminating them just for doing so. In this case, the employees had, noticeably, tried to improve highly important workplace issues in a fruitful way. The situation did, however, escalate. In and of itself, however, the “fallen into my clutches” comment, although of admittedly debatable intent, does not seem to indicate that the employees were attempting to manufacture an unfair labor practice claim. The employees seemed to have been primarily concerned with safety issues and working conditions, but were fired in retaliation for their critical online arguments. That, to me, seems like a fair argument.

Stay tuned for the outcome of this case!

January 21, 2016 in Commentary, E-commerce, Famous Cases, Labor Contracts, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Contracts Professors: Prepare to Meet Robolawyer

Do law students intending to practice in the areas of contracts and commercial law particularly need to consider the risk of being replaced by artificial intelligence?  It wouldn't hurt.

At this month's AALS annual meeting, Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minnow made some headlines with her comments that the threat to the jobs of human lawyers from artificial intelligence is overhyped:

Minow said she didn’t see computers having a role in matters that require subjective legal judgment. “Assessment and critique of justice and justice mechanisms, I don’t see AI taking that on. Nor do I see AI taking on ethics,” she said. “I don’t mean to suggest there is no relation between AI and ethical suggestions, but I don’t think you’ll ever get rid of the human being. There will always be a need for human beings.”

Robot-lawyer-at-deskDean Minnow's points of optimism--that matters of justice and ethics will require a human component--seem substantially correct, but they highlight a particular problem in the contract and commercial law fields. Matters of human justice, like the administration of criminal penalties and the protection of civil rights, are a natural bulwark against the replacement of lawyers by computers in those fields. The values at stake are ones that we, as a society, would be (fortunately) fundamentally queasy about taking out of human hands. But what if the stakes are "mere" money, as is frequently the case with contracts?  That is the kind of area where increased efficiencies and removal of the human element give less pause.

This sort of automation of transactional work is certainly underway, ranging from the drafting of basic transactional documents through websites like Legal Zoom to the intriguing use of smart contracts that can govern and enforce themselves, such as through application of Bitcoin-style blockchain technology. In short, teachers of Contracts are training students in a field with a high degree of risk of being automated out of existence.

Robolawyer is coming, so how do we prepare our Contracts students to become lawyers whose value-adding proposition is not susceptible to automation?  This question has many answers, I suspect, but we won't reach any of them unless we start by recognizing the problem.

January 19, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Law Schools, Teaching, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, January 18, 2016

What Happens If Your YouTube Channel Suddenly Disappears?

 Logo YouTube

A recent case out of California, Lewis v. YouTube, continues on my terms and conditions theme from earlier

The plaintiff in this case had a bunch of videos on YouTube. One day, she found that YouTube had deleted them. The videos had had close to 500,000 views at the time YouTube deleted them. The plaintiff claimed that she spent a lot of time and money promoting them but there was no commercial aspect to the videos; she didn't make any money off of them. 

Upon realizing YouTube had deleted her videos, she sent YouTube an e-mail asking what had happened and if her videos could be restored. She received in response what appeared to be a form e-mail informing her that she'd violated YouTube's terms and conditions but not giving any truly specific information. The best that I can discern is that YouTube thought she was a spammer. 

The plaintiff replied to the e-mail from YouTube saying that she had not engaged in any behavior violating the terms and conditions. She received another response from YouTube identical to the first. She filed a formal appeal with YouTube, and received another identical response. 

So that brings us to the lawsuit in question, in which the plaintiff was alleging that YouTube violated the covenant of good faith and fair dealing implicit in its terms and conditions when it deleted her videos unjustifiably and without any notice. 

To be honest, I see the plaintiff's point and I'm kind of on her side. It's frustrating when you have no idea what you've done wrong and you can't get a website to explain anything to you and you just feel kind of powerless. The good news is that at some point she did get YouTube's attention enough that it did restore her videos. I don't know if that happened before or after the lawsuit was filed.

It seems, therefore, like the plaintiff got what she wanted, which was restoration of her videos. The lawsuit appears to have really been about trying to get damages, but the court pointed out that YouTube's terms and conditions (which, let's face it, none of us reads) contained a limitation of liability clause that is valid in California, so the plaintiff couldn't seek any damages. 

I think this is a situation where the court just thought that plaintiff had what she wanted and was just being greedy. I would be curious to see another case challenging the limitation of liability clause where the plaintiff could prove actual damages that might sway a sympathetic judge. But, for now, YouTube's terms and conditions do act to protect YouTube from having to pay out damages. If you find yourself a victim of YouTube's apparently aggressive anti-spamming patrol, you might just have to settle in for a bit of a fight in getting YouTube's attention, without much hope of compensation for any of that time and effort. 

January 18, 2016 in Commentary, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 4, 2016

Apple, Publishers, E-book Price Fixing -- and Effective Assignments of Claims

Apple Headquarters Sign ByDay

The antitrust ruling finding Apple engaged in anticompetitive behavior with regard to the e-book industry has resulted in a number of follow-up suits by parties allegedly harmed by Apple and its co-conspirator publishers' price-fixing scheme. Now, one of the first cases to be filed has reached the end of its line, derailed by the lack of an assignment clause with sufficiently explicit wording.  

In the Southern District of New York, DNAML Pty, Ltd. v. Apple Inc., 13cv6516 (DLC) (behind a paywall), the plaintiff's claims were rooted in antitrust, but it was ultimately contract law that decided the case. The problem arose because the DNAML who sued Apple and the publishers here is actually "new" DNAML. "New" DNAML is not the same entity that was damaged by the anticompetitive conduct here; that was "old" DNAML.  

In 2010, "old" DNAML entered into the agency agreement with the publisher Hachette that gave rise to the cause of action here. That agency agreement, according to the allegations, was disastrous for "old" DNAML, as the anticompetitive measures adopted by Apple and the publishers did their job and eliminated "old" DNAML's ability to effectively compete by requiring that Hachette strictly control all e-book pricing. Consequently deprived of distinguishing itself from all of the other sellers of e-books in any way, "old" DNAML got out of the e-book business a few months after signing the agreement, in September 2010. 

Over a year later, on December 23, 2011, "old" DNAML executed a contract under which it transferred all of its assets to "new" DNAML. Under the agreement, "new" DNAML purchased the "Business and Assets" of "old" DNAML. "Business" was defined as "the business carried on" by "old" DNAML, "being the business of owning and operating eBook technologies, including the sale of eBooks." "Assets" was defined as "all of the assets" owned by "old" DNAML and "used in connection" with its business, "including its cash, the Book Debts, the DNAML UK Shares, the Business Agreements, Leasehold Property interest, Equipment, Intellectual Property, and the Goodwill." After the execution of the agreement, "old" DNAML allegedly still existed but had no active business. 

In July 2013, Apple was found liable for antitrust violations in the e-book market. In September 2013, DNAML filed this lawsuit. Apple and the publishers argued that summary judgment should be entered in their favor because "new" DNAML lacked the standing to pursue the antitrust claims, which were inflicted upon "old" DNAML. The court agreed. 

"New" DNAML agreed that it could not sue Apple and the publishers absent an assignment of the antitrust claims from "old" DNAML. The court found that the antitrust claims could have been assigned, but that the agreement here failed to do so: 

To effect a transfer of the right to bring an antitrust claim, the transferee must expressly assign the right to bring that cause of action, either by making specific reference to the antitrust claim or by making an unambiguous assignment of causes of action in a manner that would clearly encompass the antitrust claim.

No such express assignment existed here, either of antitrust claims or of claims in general. The definitions of "Business" and "Assets" did not include claims. A transfer merely of assets is not sufficient to act as an assignment of antitrust claims.

"New" DNAML tried to argue that the purchase of "old" DNAML's "Business" "unambiguous[ly]" included an assignment of the antitrust claims because of the reference to "old" DNAML's sale of e-books. "New" DNAML argued that should be read to include any claims arising out of that business. But the court stated that was not the express assignment of claims that the law requires. 

"New" DNAML also tried to introduce extrinsic evidence to support its argument that the agreement was intended to include antitrust claims, but the court, having found the agreement unambiguous on its face, refused to use extrinsic evidence to alter its interpretation.

As a result, "new" DNAML never acquired "old" DNAML's standing to bring the suit, and the court dismissed DNAML's claims with prejudice.  

The moral of the story: Mention "claims" explicitly in your asset purchase agreements.  

January 4, 2016 in Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Legal Rights to Give up Your Travel Tickets

Exactly one year ago, I blogged here about United Airlines and Orbitz suing a 22-year old creator of a website that lets travelers find the cheapest airfare possible between two desired cities. Travelers would buy tickets to a cheaper end destination, but get off at stopover point to which a ticket would have been more expensive. For example, if you want to travel from New York to Chicago, it may be cheaper to buy one-way airfare all the way to San Francisco, not check any luggage, and simply get off in Chicago.

The problem with that, according to the airline industry: that is “unfair competition” and “deceptive behavior.” (Yes, the _airline industry_ truly alleged that.) Additionally, the plaintiffs claimed that the website promoted “strictly prohibited” travel; a breach of contracts cause of action under the airlines’ contract of carriage.

It seems that the United Airlines attorneys may not have remembered their 1L Contracts course well enough, for a contracts cause of action must, of course, be between the parties themselves or intended third party beneficiaries. The website in question was simply a third party with only incidental effects and benefits under the circumstances. Without more, such a party cannot be sued under contract law. (This may also be a free speech issue.)

Orbitz has since settled the suit.  Recently, a federal lawsuit was dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction over the now 23-year old website inventor. United Airlines has not indicated whether it plans further legal action.  

Along these lines, cruise ship passengers are similarly not allowed to get off a cruise ship in a domestic port if embarking in another domestic port unless the cruise ship is built in the United States and owned by U.S. citizens. This is because the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1866 – enacted to support American shipping – requires passengers sailing exclusively between U.S. ports to travel in ships built in this country and owned by American owners. Thus, cruise ships traveling from, for example, San Diego to Alaska and back will often stop in Canada in order not to break the law. But if the vessel also stops in, for example, San Francisco and you want to get off, you will be subject to a $300 fine which, under cruise ship contracts of carriages, will be passed on to the passenger. See 19 CFR 4.80A and a government handbook here.

Convoluted, right? Indeed. Necessary? In this day and age: not in my opinion. As I wrote in my initial blogs on the issue, if one has a contract for a given product or service, pays it in full, and does not do anything that will harm the seller’s business situation, there should be no contractual or regulatory prohibitions against simply deciding not to actually consume the product or use the service one has bought. Again: if you buy a loaf of bread, there is also nothing that says that you actually have to eat it. You don’t have to sit and watch all sorts of TV channels simply because you bought the channel line-up. In my opinion, United Airlines and Orbitz were trying to hinder healthy competition and understandable consumer conduct. What is still rather incomprehensible to me in this context is why in the world airlines would have anything against passengers getting off at a midway point. It’s less work for them to perform and it gives them a chance to, if they allowed the conduct openly, resell the same seat twice. A win-win-win situation, it seems, for the original passenger, the airline, and the passenger that might want to buy the second leg at a potentially later point in time at whatever price then would be applicable. The same goes for the typically unaffordable “change fees” applied by most airlines: if they charged less (a change can very easily be done by travelers on a website with no airline interaction) and the consumer was willing to pay the then-applicable rate for the new date (prices typically go up, not down, as the departure dates approach), the airlines might actually benefit from being able to sell the given-up seat. Of course, they don’t see it that way… yet.

In many ways, traveling in this country seems to be going full circle in that it is becoming an expensive luxury. Thankfully, new low-cost airlines also appear on the market to provide much needed competition in this close-knit industry that, in the United States, seems to be able to carefully skirt around anti-trust rules without too many legal allegations of wrongdoing. (See here for allegations against United, American, Delta and Southwest Airlines for controlling capacity in order to keep airline prices up).

Happy New Year and safe travels!

January 3, 2016 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, Famous Cases, In the News, Legislation, Recent Cases, Travel, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 21, 2015

Pearls Before Swine

I'd never heard of the comic strip, Pearls Before Swine, before yesterday but my colleague Glenn Smith alerted me to their especially blog-appropriate offering in yesterday's paper.

December 21, 2015 in Miscellaneous, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Phone Companies Still Trying to Take Advantage of Callers

How does paying 18 cents a minute for a local phone call in 2015 sound to you – fair enough or a scam?  How about 23 cents a minute for a non-local call?  If you think that no one can possibly charge that much today or that no one in their right minds would pay it, think again (ok, at least the former).

In Orange County, California, jails, the average phone call costs just that.  In return for providing phone service in a county’s jail system, a telecommunications company typically guarantees the county a multi-million dollar “commission” as well as a percentage of the revenue.  For example, Alabama company Global Tel-Link guarantees a payment of $15 million or two-thirds of phone revenue, whichever is greater, to Los Angeles County.  To be able to pay such a high price, the phone companies of course pass the cost on to the end clients; the inmates in at least Southern California counties. Lacountyprisonphones

The inmates and their families have had enough.  They filed suit recently against Los Angeles and nearby counties alleging that the fee for inmate telephone calls are “grossly unfair and excessive” and amount to an illegal moneymaking scheme for local governments.

Before you ask yourself who is calling the kettle black, as I must admit I did when I first learned of this story, think of this: criminal recidivism is greatly reduced by family communication.  The Federal Communications Commission last month capped local call rates and trimmed the cap on interstate long-distance calls for this and other reasons.  Mothers with husbands in jail have paid several thousand dollars to telecommunications companies so that their children can talk to their fathers, undoubtedly a benefit to not only the families, but also society in the long run.

Of course, the inmates have few alternatives as cell phones are very typically not allowed in jail.

It continually amazes me how much Americans are willing or have to pay for phone service, Internet service, and cable TV service.  In the case of inmates, of course, they have little choice.  To avoid paying large monthly fees for cell phone service, I have kept my “dumb phone,” but instead find myself annoyed at still, in 2015, not being able to get more selective cable TV for only those stations I truly watch (the news, if you can call it that these days).  Monopolies or not: communications companies still typically have the upper hand in contractual bargaining situations.

December 16, 2015 in Commentary, Current Affairs, Government Contracting, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)

So You Want to Write a Best-Selling Video Game, Huh?

If so, it's always better to be precise in your negotiations. 

Of course, the flip side of this is that you frequently don't feel like you have the power to demand precision. 

In Bubble Pony v. Facepunch Studios, Civil No. 15-601(DSD/FLN) (sorry, I can only find versions behind paywalls for now), out of the District of Minnesota, Patrick Glynn was a computer programmer in need of a job. He e-mailed Facepunch looking for one, highlighting his abilities (as one does when job-hunting). Facepunch's majority owner, Garry Newman, responded to Glynn's e-mail positively, describing what he was looking for in a new employee and adding:

I want to eventually be in a position where you'd be making games for Facepunch Studios, which we'd sell on Steam, or the apple appstore, or whatever, but once that game makes what we've paid you so far back, you'd get something like a 60% cut of all the profits (probably more, that's kind of TBD). So we'd kind of be investing in your, kind of.

Does that sounds [sic] like the kind of situation you'd like to be in?

Glynn replied that yes, he was interested, and that his "only concerns" were "making rent, paying bills, and buying groceries." Eventually, the parties agreed on compensation of $1,900 per month, to be increased by $100 per month until they reached $3,000. At the time, Glynn's responsibilities were going to be things like fixing bugs and otherwise optimizing Facepunch's existing code. The parties did not further negotiate what would happen if/when Glynn started creating games for Facepunch. They did, however, agree that Glynn was an independent contractor and not an employee. 

Eventually, Glynn began creating games for Facepunch, producing more than 75% of the source code for a game called RUST. RUST was a huge success that "has generated at least $46 million in sales." Facepunch paid Glynn bonuses totaling around $700,000. Facepunch also asked Glynn, after RUST's major success had been established, to draft a document explaining how the RUST programming worked. Once it received the document, Facepunch terminated its relationship with Glynn, pulled RUST off the market, and announced a new "experimental game" based on RUST. 

As you might imagine, Glynn has sued for a number of causes of action, and there are other issues in this case, including an issue of personal jurisdiction, because Facepunch and Newman are both British (the court found personal jurisdiction to exist). However, to focus on the contract issue, the court found that the parties' e-mails on the subject of 60% of the profits if Glynn started developing games never rose to the level of an agreement. The court said that the terms about the compensation were "vague and indefinite," pointing to the words "eventually" and "something like 60%" and "TBD." Therefore, Glynn's breach of contract claims here were dismissed. The court also dismissed his promissory estoppel claims, finding that Newman's e-mail statements were too "vague and indefinite" to constitute promises. 

Glynn should have been sure to clarify his compensation before embarking on developing games for Facepunch. Of course, from Glynn's perspective, he was probably happy just to get a job, and, by the time he started developing games, he might have developed enough of a relationship with Facepunch that he didn't feel it necessary to rock the boat, so to speak. 

Glynn isn't completely out of luck, however. Although the court dismissed most of his claims, the lack of definite terms actually works in his favor in the copyright context. Because the parties were allegedly clear that Glynn was an independent contractor and not an employee, and because there was allegedly no agreement anywhere otherwise (so far, at this early stage), Glynn's claim for joint copyright ownership of RUST (and its associated causes of action) survived the motion to dismiss. So to be continued on the copyright question...

December 16, 2015 in Games, Recent Cases, True Contracts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Five Flavors of Legal Services

Will the legal hiring and general business situation never change for the better? Maybe, but commentators still think that future change on the legal market will come from structural and innovative, rather than cyclical, change. For example, in addition to relatively simple steps such as hiring outside staffing agencies and sharing office centers, some firms are launching their own subsidiaries providing legally related services such as contract, data and cyber security management along with ediscovery.

Until recently, law firms offered these and other services. As outside service providers have proved to be able to provide certain key services more efficiently and cost effectively than traditional law firms, the latter have lost business that they are now desperately trying to recoup.

Imitation is still the most sincere form of flattery. It is not only on the market for legal services that copycats abound; this has also proved to be the case with, for example, many shared economy service websites such as Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, VRBO and others. As soon as one company idea and website turns out to be successful, others just like it seem to shoot up within weeks or months.  However, instead of simply trying to do what others are already doing and doing well, it would be nice if companies – law firms among them – would try to think about how they could do things better instead of just trying to, as often seems the case, (re)gain business by taking market shares from others. Exactly how law firms should do so is, of course, the million-dollar question, but it seems clear that innovation is prized both within and beyond the legal field. That will benefit our students if jobs are created by actual law firms rather than by service providers not hiring people with JDs.

December 10, 2015 in Commentary, Current Affairs, E-commerce, Labor Contracts, Miscellaneous, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)