Considerate Contracts

While it may seem like a simple question, sometimes its worth reviewing just the same – when is a contract a contract? General speaking it is when two or more parties exchange mutual promises. Often the determining factor is whether the mutual promises of the parties are supported by consideration. Consideration involves the giving of something of value, rather than a mere promise. The reason that the courts and legislatures generally require some form of consideration is to insure that the promises being made are not merely a casual statement, an accident, or gratuitous – in short – to make sure the people making the agreement really mean it. Consideration looks at whether the parties have assumed an obligation on the condition of an act or forbearance of another. Except in cases of employment matters, Minnesota courts generally do not look at the adequacy of the consideration being offered – only whether some consideration has been exchanged. For written agreements, the court presumes valid consideration.

In contracts related to intellectual property rights this means that things like royalties might be subject to discontinuance even if the only thing the licensor does is grant a right to use the IP and it turns out the licensor in fact does not have the rights in the first place (assuming the licensor did not know that the rights were invalid). However, if the contract also goes on to provide that the licensor will discontinue use of the rights for their own use, this forbearance may be viewed as adequate consideration.

Ringtone Copyright Royalty Rates


“Answer the phone, answer the phone” – that’s what my cell phone screams in the voice of my daughter whenever someone tries to reach me. I recorded it a while back and it amuses me and everyone around me every time it plays. What happens, however, when you record someone else’s creative work as your ring tone?

Under US copyright law, users of compositions must pay copyright owners when recording a composition. When the recording party and the copyright owner do not negotiate a license, Section 115 of the Copyright Act provides that the Copyright Royalty Board can establish a predefined rate which allows the recording party to record the composition without the explicit permission of the owner of the composition’s copyright. In traditional recording settings, this is often refereed to as a mechanical.

In the recent decision DC Circuit decision Recording Indus. Assn. of Am. v. Library of Cong., No. 09-1075 ruled that the Copyright Royalty Board’s decision that royalties paid for use of compositions as ring-tones should be be paid as 24 cents per recording (penny-rate) rather than as percentage of the wholesale rate (the RIAA argued the rate should be 15% of the whole rate charged). The court affirmed the reasoning of the Copyright board who found that “that a single penny-rate structure is best applied to ringtones as well as physical phonorecords and digital permanent downloads” because of “the efficiency of administration gained from a single structure when spread over the much larger number of musical works reproduced.”

The basic reasoning – which I agree with – was that a flat penny rate is the fairest and simplest method of compensating individual songwriters. This is usually true for most creatives. Keeping licensing of copyright and trademarks as simple as possible reduces disputes over the method of calculations.

Does theTwitter ToS dedicate everything you post to public domain?? – NO!

I use to say that it was a myth that if it was on the Internet it was free to use. While still a myth, photojournalist Daniel Morela may have reason to question whether this in fact still true.

Morla was recently sued by Agence France Presse (AFP) for “antagonistic assertion of rights” for accusing AFP of violating his copyright in several photos taken following the January earthquake – Morela has counter sued for copyright infringement. AFP has asked for summary judgment that it did not infringe on Morela’s copyrights (complaint). AFP’s claims are interesting because, in part, they note that since Morela used Twitter to distribute the photos (which he did not – he used Twitpic), the Twitter Terms of Service (ToS) granting Twitter the right to distribute the photos should be extended to AFP as well. Besides the fact that AFP appears to have little understanding of the facts of their own case, this reading of the Twitter ToS is a little odd.

The Twitter ToS provide that:

    You retain your rights to any Content you submit, post or display on or through the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).

    You agree that this license includes the right for Twitter to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals who partner with Twitter for the syndication, broadcast, distribution or publication of such Content on other media and services, subject to our terms and conditions for such Content use.

While it is possible that AFP is making the argument that the second clause which allows Twitter to make the content available to partners and that they in fact are partners, it is clear from anyone’s reasonable reading that this scenario is not what is intended by this agreement.

The much sparser Twitpic ToS has a similar clause, but its sparser writing style makes the intent of these types of clauses much more clear. The Twitpics Terms of Services specifically notes:

    By uploading your photos to Twitpic you give Twitpic permission to use or distribute your photos on Twitpic.com or affiliated sites

    All images uploaded are copyright © their respective owners

While I believe that AFP’s arguments are weak (though other claims raised by AFP may have more merit), they do help to illustrate that Creatives that use various forms of social media or SaaS solutions related to the creation or distribution of their work should be aware of, and understand, the ToS for those sites. Otherwise, you risk obscure boilerplate agreements giving away your work for free – or at least claims to that effect by multinational corporations.

Who can Sue when a Freelancer is Discriminated Against?


Freelancers take note: Under Minnesota Law if you have formed an LLC or other business entity and you experience discrimination at the hands of one of your clients, as an individual you cannot make a claim under Minnesota’s Human Rights Act (Minn. Stat. § 363A.17 (2008)), which authorizes parties to a business contract to sue for business discrimination in the performance of that contract.

The Minnesota Supreme Court reasoned in Krueger v. Zeman Construction Co. that the focus of the statue was the relationship of the parties, not on the individual subject to the discrimination. As a result, the court argued that an individual employee, even one that is a single member owner of an LLC, is not the intended beneficiary of the statute and therefore they cannot file a lawsuit in their individual capacity.

While I generally believe freelancers should consider business entities like LLC over that of sole proprietorship, this case provides a stark example of how there are some disadvantages to forming a separate legal entity and an evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages should always be considered.

Audit & Record Keeping Provisions

Whether you have partners, or are contracting for royalties from another party, one of the most common provisions in any licensing & partnership contracts is one that provides a means and method of keeping financial records of the project or business. The exact language will differ slightly depending on the specifics of your circumstances, but common terms will include what types of books are kept, how and when audits may occur, and a description of what is to happen in the event of a problem with the records.

Records
While there are a variety of record-keeping methods, typical contract provisions regarding record-keeping will simply provide that the books are complete and accurate. In most cases it is understood that the books will be kept in accordance with “generally accepted accounting principles.” Furthermore, in some circumstances, state statutes may regulate how the books are kept.

Audits
Once it is decided what and how records are kept, one of the most important elements of a record-keeping provision is one that allows audits of the records. This is useful in keeping everyone on their toes, and it provides a means by which everyone can feel comfortable that everyone is being treated fairly. However, it is important to remember the difference between an audit and the right to inspect the records. While the right of a party to inspect records is often unequivocal and required by statute, the right to audit can be more easily limited. Audit provisions typically address when an audit may occur, who can ask for one, and who will pay for the audit. Often the number of times a party can request an audit during a specific time period is limited and how much notice is needed before an audit can occur also varies. Audit provisions usually provide that the party requesting the audit bear the cost of the audit.

Resolution
The last element of a record-keeping provision is one that spells out what happens in the event that an audit uncovers a problem. This element should lay-out how corrections will be handled in the event that the audit uncovers either overpayment or underpayment of funds. In addition, the provision can also provide that in the event that there is an underpayment in excess of a certain amount (5-10%), the cost of the audit shifts to the responsible party.

Providing an orderly way to handle potential disputes over money is a great way to resolve disputes before they start.

Forum Selection in Creative Commons Licenses

Users of Creative Common’s licenses beware!

Chang v. Virgin Mobile USA, LLC
2009 WL 111570 (N.D.Tex. January 16, 2009)

Texas plaintiffs posted a photo to a popular picture sharing website using a Creative Commons licenses. The photo was then down loaded by an Australian company who used the photo inconsistent with the Creative Commons 2.o license and Plaintiff’s wishes. Plaintiff sued Defendant in a Texas court and Defendant moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. While many factors were considered, of particular note is how to court pointed out that the license did not require the license to take place in Texas.

In fact, the Creative Commons license used specifically does not contain either a forum selection clause or a choice of law clause that would outline where cases should be heard and under what state law a dispute will be analyzed. T he Creative Commons FAQ specifically notes that the selection of jurisdiction in the license

These clauses are commonly used in most transactions to provide some guidance to the parties to know where and under whose laws a dispute will be heard – to avoid problems such as the one in the Chang case.

While I understand the passion for Creative Commons licensing, it is this type of outcome that highlights for me why licensing parties should take a step back and make sure they really understand what they are doing when using these licenses. It also raise the question in my mind of whether licensors should consider making some additions to these terms such as adding in something stating the residency of the licensor, that the license is entered into under the laws of licensor and that all disputes will be heard in the licensor’s state/forum.

Liability for Withholding Passwords

Update (6/8/10): Terry Childs was found guilty of one felony count of denying computer services.

Does your company have a clear policy concerning who may receive admin passwords? The city of San Francisco apparently has some problems in this area.

Terry Childs

IT manager Terry Childs was arrested earlier this year for refusing to provide administrative passwords for the city’s computer network. The city alleges that he was setting up a network that he could take over remotely and take down at his whim – Mr. Childs claims that the policies of the city did not allow him to provide the passwords to his managers and that once he turned them over to the Mayor, the management simply didn’t understand the technology enough to understand how to use them.

Apparently out of fear that his release will result in a melt down of the city’s computer network, the judge in the case has set bail at 5 million dollars, as opposed to a lower bail such as one million as is common for murder suspects.

Password Policies

While the facts are clearly in dispute, the case demonstrates: 1) the need to thoughtfully consider your password policies and those of companies you are dealing with, 2) the need to have clear documentation on systems available for others to understand how your systems operates, and the need to consider whether to make sure that your contracts address liability issues related password and access issues.

For a good article discussing the case go to www.infoworld.com

Jacobsen v. Katzer – Open Source infringment

In August, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a ruling (Jacobsen v. Katzer) that has been widely discussed as acknowledging the rights of developers of open source software. This opinion, while not necessarily binding in Minnesota, is helpful in illustrating important issues that relate not only to open-source software licensing and development but to general contracts that apply to everyone.

The dispute involved an open-source developer and a company that used the open-source code as a part of their own software. Despite a license that required that the open-source developer be credited and copyright information retained in subsequent use of the code, the defendant stripped out this information. The issue was whether failing to provide this information caused the subsequent software to be an infringement of the plaintiff’s copyright, or whether it was simply a breach of contract – the difference meaning considerably different remedies.

The opinion contained an extensive discussion on the importance of “conditions” verses “covenants” in copyright agreements. The court found that the language found in the agreement requiring that copyright information for the open-source developers be provided in subsequent iterations of the code was not simply a promise (covenant) to do something, but rather it was a conditional requirement for the license. The court also noted that while copyright law only protects economic interests (rather than moral rights), the requirement of attribution and copyright notification in open-source licenses is in fact related to the economic interest of promoting the open-source community and in promoting the services of many of its participants.

While this opinion is useful to illustrate many important principles, it must be kept in mind that it does not provide a blanket cause of action for infringement merely because software contains open-source code. What it does do is to show the importance of controlling the origination of code and providing appropriate attribution. Additionally, while not as clear in the opinion, businesses licensing software or other intellectual property should pay attention to the specific language and terms of the agreement, as it can be paramount in controlling whether the agreement is controlled under copyright law verses contracts.

Morals Clause

What does a “morals clause do?

Morality

The basic idea is simple – if you are in the public eye and you do something stupid and doing that stupid thing makes the purpose of the contract frustrated, then the other party can say I’m canceling the deal. For example, lets say the Queen of England enters into a contract with a department store to endorse its new clothing line “Queen.” She might have a clause in her deal that says something like

    Queen agrees to conduct herself with due regard to public conventions and morals, and agrees that she will not do or commit any act or thing that will tend to degrade her in society or bring her into public hatred, contempt, scorn or ridicule, or that will tend to shock, insult or offend the community or ridicule public morals or decency.

She then gets arrested for soliciting men in a downtown Minneapolis hotel. The Department store has an interest in protecting its image and can cancel the deal by invoking the morals clause. A few real life examples include: Kate Moss – Chanel – photographed allegedly snorting cocaine – Michael Nade (“All My Children”) – ABC – cocaine arrest Sidney Ponson – Baltimore Orioles – third arrest for alcohol-related violations But wait, if you think this is a concern just for those big name types, think again, these clauses can pop up all kinds of places, from local TV weathermen, to mechanical contractors.

Reverse Morals

So is turn about fair play? Some folks think so and are putting “reverse morals clauses” into their deals so that if the company is tainted by scandal, they endorser can get out of the deal. Same concept applied to other types of arrangements such as naming rights, think Enron, but the same applies to smaller deals as well.

Non-compete is based on customers, not location.

While worker non-competes have are generally construed against the employer, the standard of enforceability in the sale of a business in more liberally interpreted in favor of the party seeking to enforce, as it is focused on whether the restriction is reasonable to protect the goodwill of the business that was sold.

When selling his optometry business, Jay Peterson agreed not to “participate, compete or be engaged in the business of optical goods . . . within a five-mile radius of . . .” the location of his former business. After a dispute arose concerning the terms of the sale, Peterson opened a new practice ten miles away, which would have been fine except for the fact that he then took out advertising in the newspaper located in his old town encouraging clients to come and see him at the new location. In February, the Minnesota Appellate court ruled that the Peterson could be prevented from placing those advertisements even though the business itself was outside of the designated geographic area. Interestingly, the court noted that while they felt a limited restriction was appropriate, it should not be seen as placing a general ban on advertising that may have incidental exposure to the geographic area. In relevant part the court noted –

. . .the Court will not restrain publications with large circulation areas that happen to enter the five mile area (e.g. Minneapolis Star and Tribune). We agree with the district court’s reasoning. Advertising in the Yellow Pages and the Internet, which have large circulation areas that only incidentally enter the restricted geographic areas, therefore, would not be prohibited by the non-compete agreement. Rather, the prohibition is limited to advertisements “specifically targeted” at persons in the restricted geographic areas.

Sealock v. Petersen, No. A06-2479 (Minn. App. 2/5/2008) (Minn. App., 2008).

This case provides a nice illustration of how you should look at the intent of the agreement to not solicit customers, rather than trying to circumvent the intent based on the literal geography of the agreement. However, in this age of mass circulation, this decision highlights a distinction that the court is willing to make between specifically targeted marketing efforts and marketing nets cast by much broader means.