Law Firm Lawsuit Highlights Need For Businesses To Take Caution With Website Content

 A recent decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit serves as reminder of the types of litigation that can arise from simply maintaining a website. Although the decision involved a dispute between two law firms, the facts could easily be related to competing businesses. 

The case involved Brayton Purcell, LLP, a California law firm that successfully sued another law firm for copyright infringement based on website content.   Brayton Purcell had copyright protection for its substantial website content on elder law.  According to the decision, a competitor law firm must have liked the content because the competitor copied the content verbatim for its own website.  This resulted in an undisclosed arbitration ruling in favor of Brayton Purcell.

Any business with a website should consider having a legal review done to determine if potential problems exist with the website’s content.  Facing a lawsuit over a website is one the problems I discussed in a recent lecture on 5 Technology Bombs That Can  Sink Your Business.

There are many ways that a website can lead to litigation.  Stanley Jaskiewicz authored an excellent article for E-Commerce Law & Strategy featured on Law.com related to "clearing" rights to publish content on websites.  He cited a simple example of how a business website can infringe a copyright by merely copying and pasting a photograph from one website to the business’ website.  In the process, the business might infringe the rights of the original photographer and the website owner.

A basic legal compliance review for a website can avoid this type of problem.  It starts with a risk assessment of the website and its content, including a review for potential claims involving: 

  • Copyright & Trademark infringement.  Copying from the the look and feel, content, and slogans from another website are some of the ways you can run afoul of copyright and trademark laws.
  • Defamation & Disparagement.  Posting content that is defamatory or disparaging of a competitor could result in litigation because the statements could be viewed by millions.
  • Unfair Trade Practices.  This type of claim is usually a tag along to some other actionable conduct.  This claim is often used to obtain an injunction or to recover greater damages and attorney’s fees.
  • False Advertising and Misrepresentation.  A website should be viewed no differently than traditional advertising.  False claims can bring lawsuits from consumers who make decisions based on website content.
  • Domain Name Disputes.  These disputes often occur when two companies want a similar domain name.  Depending on a variety of facts, one company may have greater rights to use the name regardless of who registers the name first.

Here are some tips to avoid a lawsuit concerning website content: 

  • Conduct a risk assessment.   This includes an audit and inventory of the website content.
  • Obtain "clearance" rights. If any of your content might violate copyright or trademark laws, you should seek to obtain clearance to use the material.  This involves the concept of searching out property right holders or authors and seeking permission or paying for use of the content.  
  • Avoid use of protected materials.  For example, do not copy another website verbatim as the law firm did in the California case.  This might seem like a no brainer but many people believe that anything posted on the Internet somehow loses its copyright and trademark protection. 
  • Protect your content.  In the California case, it was noted that the law firm had copyrighted its online content.     The law firm also monitored for any other website copying its content by use of Copyscape website.  Copyscape allows a user to input a website address or specific page to search the web for plagiarism. 
  • Cooperation or settlement.  Lawsuits involving property rights for website content usually begin with one website owner sending another a "cease and desist letter."  This is a demand that an owner take down infringing material.  One way to avoid a lawsuit is to simply agree and take down the material.  Alternatively, you might be able to reach an agreement for use of the material. 

The bottom line is that your business does not need the headache of a lawsuit over a website.  Taking caution from the beginning with website content can help eliminate the risk.

 

Do Not Count On Beating Goliath: Implement A Management Plan To Avoid Software Licensing Problems

This month’s business technology tip arises from the recent David v. Goliath story reported on by Douglas Malan of the Connecticut Law Tribune.  Kent Johnson, the owner of a small computer repair shop in Connecticut was sued by the software Goliath Microsoft for allegedly selling one improperly licensed version of Microsoft Office. Microsoft put 15 people on the case and sued Mr. Johnson in federal court for copyright infringement.  

Mr. Johnson represented himself against Microsoft and reportedly reached a favorable settlement.   Mr. Johnson has a website that provides all the details of the case form the very beginning.   As much as Mr. Johnson’s apparent success against Microsoft was unusual, the notion of Microsoft going after business owners for copyright infringement is not. 

Microsoft, and other software publishers, might pursue an infringement case directly or through enforcement groups such as the Business Software Alliance (BSA) and the Software & Information Industry Association (SSIA).  These groups estimate that piracy costs software publishers seven billion dollars annually.

When you purchase software for your business, the software comes with a license that restricts your use of the software.  If you violate the restrictions in the license by copying or distribution, software publishers consider it piracy.  For example, typically you cannot install a software program for several users on multiple computers without purchasing additional licenses.  Also, you generally cannot install a program on a network server and let multiple users have access to it without the proper number of licenses.

Violation of a software license or copyright can implicate significant civil (and potential criminal penalties) in piracy cases.  Penalties can range up to $150,000 per offense for copyright infringement and there may be additional damages for lost profits. Many of these cases result in significant financial settlements in favor of the software publisher. 

You might be wondering how Microsoft finds out about a small company violating its software license.   Typically, an anonymous informant (an employee or IT consultant) reports the company to the software publisher, BSA, or SSIA in hopes of recovering a reward.  These groups openly advertise rewards of up to a million dollars for anonymous tips that lead to successful enforcement  actions. 

Many times businesses can inadvertently run afoul of licensing restrictions without realizing it.  Violations can occur when trying to cut costs, relying on bad advice from IT professionals,  or an employee’s improper downloading of software.  When groups like the BSA become aware of allegations of software piracy, they usually issue a software audit letter to the business or initiate a lawsuit in federal court.  The BSA will request proof of proper licensing from the business.

After receiving an audit letter a business will have to decide to either fight it in court or cooperate.  Facing Microsoft or the BSA in court can be risky financially and many businesses chose to cooperate.  Problems often arise for businesses that cooperate because they cannot establish sufficient proof of licensing or the business is not aware of the extent of the infringement. 

The best way to prevent problems with software licensing or an audit is to implement a software asset management plan.  Ideally, the plan would include at a minimum a written policy covering: (a) terms for copying, use,and transfer of company software; (b)  the risks or improper use of software and piracy; and (c) disciplinary action for employee misuse.  The plan should also include software management including a system for record keeping of all receipts, licenses, and original copies of the software.  The plan should further include regular self-audits of company computer systems to verify proper licensing.

With a good software management plan in place, a business will be better equipped to defend a software audit or avoid it in the first place.  In either case, if your business is facing an audit or other enforcement action, you should seek legal advice.  If you face Goliath alone, do not count on obtaining the same success as Mr. Johnson.

Connecticut State Court To Phase In Mandatory E Filing

The Connecticut Judicial Branch will implement mandatory electronic filing in Connecticut state superior courts in all civil cases by December 5, 2009.  The Judicial Branch is also going paperless for short calendar and notices will no longer be sent by paper in the mail (unless the firm or litigant is exempt) starting September 1, 2009.

The mandatory e-filing will be implemented in phases as follows:

E-filing will be available in all remaining civil cases (with few exceptions) starting August 22, 2009.

E-filing is mandatory in all foreclosure cases starting September 1, 2009.

E-filing is mandatory in all remaining civil cases starting December 5, 2009.

Law firms and attorneys can receive e-filing training in each judicial district.

E-filing will be mandatory starting December in Connecticut in both state superior and federal district courts unless a law firm or litigant qualifies for an exemption.

 

Connecticut Supreme Court Confirms Expulsion Is Available Remedy In Partnership Dispute

In an issue of first impression, the Connecticut Supreme Court confirmed that partnerships can expel a partner rather than dissolve when there is a breakdown of the business of the partnership.  The case is Brennan v. Brennan Associates, et al.  The official opinion will be released on August 18, 2009, but the advanced opinion already was released online. 

The case involves a complicated set of facts and circumstances surrounding the deterioration of a once successful partnership that operated a shopping center in Trumbull.  The breakdown of the partnership began after the death of a partner.

The decedent partner essentially ran the partnership and kept all the books until his death.  The decedent’s will directed that his interest go to his two cousins.  Following the will reading, the partnership broke down over disputes on check writing authority, access to records, the transfer of interest, and an old tax conviction of a surviving partner who was the plaintiff in the case. 

The plaintiff  offered to buy out the decedent’s interest, which as rejected by the estate.  The plaintiff subsequently filed a lawsuit seeking, among other things, to accomplish a buy out of the decedent’s partnership interest and to gain access to the books and records.  The surviving partners wanted to continue the partnership’s business rather than dissolving it.  As such, in addition to other claims by the defendant administrators, they filed a counterclaim application seeking to expel the plaintiff from the partnership under section 34-355 of Connecticut’s Uniform Partnership Act.

The statutory scheme at issue permits a trial court to grant an application for expulsion if a partner engages in conduct that "makes it not reasonably practicable to carry on the business in the partnership with the partner." In this case, after a bench trial, the court issued a ruling granting the application filed by the surviving partners to expel or dissociate the plaintiff partner.  The plaintiff appealed claiming that acrimony and distrust between partners may be proper for a dissolution, but it was not a proper basis for dissociation.

On appeal, the Connecticut Supreme Court  disagreed with the plaintiff and ruled that dissociation was an available remedy given the facts present as an alternative to dissolution.  The supreme court noted that under Connecticut’s Partnership Act,

a partnership now has a choice, either to dissolve the partnership or to seek the dissociation of a partner who has made it not reasonably practicable to carry on the partnership with him.  The new remedy of dissociation permits a financially viable partnership to remain intact without dissolving the partnership and reconstituting it.

In this case, the conduct at issue for the dissociated partner was a past felony tax conviction, a pattern of adversarial conduct toward other partners, and a false accusation of fraud against the others partners.  With these facts present, the supreme court found that a trial court had enough to grant an application for expulsion and dissociation of the partner.  The court stated:  

irreparable deterioration of a relationship between partners is a valid basis to order dissolution, and, therefore, is a valid basis for the alternative remedy of dissociation.

It is worth noting that the court indicated that an old felony conviction standing alone likely would not meet the required standard.   In any event, the case essentially provides that there is no basis for a higher burden for dissociation as opposed to dissolution.

My takeaway from the decision is that it promotes the policy of cooperation amongst partners by confirming expulsion as an option for getting rid of a "problem" partner.  As noted in the decision, prior to the statutory scheme permitting dissociation, partnerships faced with similar problems had to dissolve.  This process could perhaps create too much leverage for a "problem" partner forcing dissolution.  Instead, this decision confirms the statutory availability of dissociation under no higher of a standard than dissolution.  This may be a more preferable remedy for many Connecticut partnership disputes.

The decision also serves as a reminder of how a partnership or  closely held company can breakdown following the death or disability of a partner or key member of the business.  These circumstances highlight the need for specificity in partnership and operating agreements including buy out provisions for death and disability, transfer or assignment of interests, and continuation of operations.   

It is also important to note that the supreme court left open the dissociated partner’s rights to bring a proceeding to compel valuation and purchase of his interest after dissociation.  The court also indicated that the partnership agreement could have included a provision allowing the remaining partners to initiate a valuation proceeding, but it did not in this case.

 

 

 

Three Lawsuits Against Facebook For Fraud Raise Concerns For Advertisers

If your business is advertising on Facebook, or considering it, you should do some research on the newest allegations of advertising fraud against the online giant.  Facebook reportedly has over 250 million users so it is understandable that a business would want access to Facebook’s users.  Facebook offers businesses advertising space online that is targeted to specific demographics of its users.  Facebook charges for the advertising based on the number of views or clicks that the ad receives from users.

As reported by TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington, massive complaints started surfacing recently against Facebook for "click fraud."  Basically, advertisers were clicking on competitor’s ads, or paying others to do it, to artificially drive the price up.  Advertisers were also reporting that Facebook was charging for more clicks than the ad was actually receiving. There are now three lawsuits filed against Facebook for advertising click fraud.

 The most recent lawsuit was filed on July 31st by an individual advertiser seeking class action status.   The second lawsuit was filed by Unified ECM, a software company, seeking class action status for massive click fraud by Facebook.  The first click fraud lawsuit was filed by sports company RootZoo and it also seeks class action status. 

BNET Media’s Catharine Taylor posted a good report on the details of the first two lawsuits including email comments from Facebook.  In the email, Facebook maintained that the Unified lawsuit is "unnecessary and baseless."  Wendy Davis of Online Media Daly posted a good report on the fist lawsuit by RootZoo. All three suits alleged discrepancies between the charges by Facebook and the actual number of clicks recorded by the advertisers.

Although Facebook has denied all the fraud allegations, TechCrunch takes the position that the click fraud problem is real and confirmed by Facebook. The Lost Press Marketing Blog presents a different view accusing Unified ECM of a "marketing stunt" to get exposure through press coverage of its lawsuit. 

Any business considering advertising with a pay per click campaign, should take caution whether on Facebook, another website, or a search engine.  If you want to measure your return on investment, you should consider monitoring any pay per click campaign internally.   If you are considering Facebook, you should wait to see what Facebook does to reassure its advertisers that fraud will be monitored effectively.  For now, the problem does not appear to be going away.

 

Appellate Court Provides Some Clarity To Contractors On Home Improvement Act Exemption

Connecticut’s Home Improvement Act requires contractors performing home improvement services to register and to comply with it provisions concerning contracts with homeowners. The Act has a series of requirements for contracts as follows:

  • Contract must be in writing;
  • Contract must include the contractors registration number;
  • Contract must include four dates: date of signing, date work will begin, date of completion, and date by which the homeowner may cancel the contract; and
  • Contract must contain specific notice provision of the homeowner’s right to cancel the contract within three business days after signing.

If a contractor fails to comply with these contractual requirements, the contractor risks non-payment by the homeowner.  If a homeowner refuses to pay, the contractor likely will not be able to recover payment with a lawsuit in court absent some showing that the homeowner acted in bad faith.  This can bring about a harsh and inequitable result in some cases.   

In Drain Doctor, Inc. v . Jason Lyman, the Appellate Court recently had to consider the potential harsh consequences of failing to comply with the Home Improvement Act.  The contractor at issue in the case had to perform plumbing work below the surface of the home and driveway in order to make the home habitable.  The contract was oral.

The contractor repaired a sewer a line under the home and a storm drain under the driveway.  The contractor finished the job and then restored the driveway and grass.  The homeowner refused to pay.  The contractor brought a lawsuit, but had it stricken by the trial court because the homeowner alleged that the oral contract did not comply with the Home Improvement Act.

The contractor was a licensed plumber and tried to rely on the exemption in the Home Improvement Act at Connecticut General Statutes 20-248.  The exemption provides that the Act does not apply to:

any person holding a current professional or occupational license issued pursuant to the general statutes, and any person registered pursuant to sections 25-126 to 25-137, inclusive, provided such person engages only in that work for which such person is licensed or registered.
 

The trial court found that the work on the driveway and lawn was outside the scope of the work for licensed plumbers and the exemption did not apply.  This ruling produced a potentially unfair result.  The contractor did the work requested.  The only apparent reason for non-payment was the homeowner’s technical reliance on the Home Improvement Act requirements for contracts.  

The Appellate Court overruled the trial court and found that the driveway and grass work was "ancillary" to the work for licensed plumbers.  The Appellate Court looked at the licensing statute to determine the different types of work that plumbers engage in, and then determined that the driveway and lawn restoration was incidental to work directly listed for licensed plumbers.  Therefore, the licensed plumber did not have to comply with the Home Improvement Act.

Although the Drain Doctor decision provides some clarity for contractors on when they need to comply with the Home Improvement Act,  questions will continue as to the scope of the exemption and "ancillary" work.  What should contractors do when faced with a similar situation?  Here are a few tips:

1.  Determine the scope of each project you are estimating.

2.  Consult the licensing provisions for your trade, whether it be electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling, or other trade.  The licensing statute defines the scope of work for the particular trade.  For example, plumbing and piping work is listed and defined here.  If  the work is listed in the definition, and you hold that license, then you likely will not have to comply with the contractual provisions of the Home Improvement Act.

3.  If the scope of the project is outside of the definitions of work for the particular license, you must then consider whether the work is "ancillary" to work that is listed in the definition.  If it is clearly outside the scope of work defined for the license, a contractor should seek to comply with the Home Improvement Act. 

A good starting point for a "how to" on complying with the Home Improvement Act is the Department of Consumer Protection’s handbook and guide for contractors. When in doubt, a contractor should consider complying with the Act.  If not, the contractor risks not getting paid even if the work was done properly.

Large Fines Serve As Reminder To Out-Of-State Companies: Register To Do Business In Connecticut

Secretary of State, Susan Bysiewicz, has fined an affiliate of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu approximately $22,000 in the past year for failing to register to do business in Connecticut.  The fines were reported on by Lynn Doan of The Hartford Courant and also picked up  by Alexander Soule in the Fairfield County Business Journal.  Deloitte’s unit is one of the larger employers in Fairfield County, but as an out-of-state company it apparently failed to register to do business in Connecticut for more than 10 years.  The fine to Deloitte’s unit was the biggest this year.

The State’s authority to issue the fines arise from Connecticut General Statutes section 33-921concerning foreign corporations. Attorney General Blumenthal issued a press announcement that the State collected more than 1.2 million in fines during fiscal year 2009 pursuant to this statute.  The statute provides for penalties if a foreign corporation fails to register to do business in Connecticut.  The statute provides that the foreign corporation must pay:

(1) all fees and taxes which would have been imposed . . .had it . . . received such certificate of authority to transact business . . . and (2) all interest and penalties . . .. A foreign corporation is further liable to this state, for each month or part thereof during which it transacted business without a certificate of authority, in an amount equal to one hundred sixty-five dollars . . . Such fees and penalties may be levied by the Secretary of the State.

Although the fines might seem significant enough to act as a deterrent, and are set to increase this October, the statute also prohibits a foreign company from "maintain[ing] a proceeding in any court" in the state until it obtains a certificate of authority.  This means that a foreign company cannot successfully maintain a lawsuit if it fails to obtain a certificate of authority.  

The lack of a certificate will give a foreign corporation’s opponent a special defense to a lawsuit.  However, there is some authority that suggests the company may cure the defect.  Additionally, the defense is waivable if not raised in a timely manner.   

As a practical matter, the requirement to register is helpful to business litigants.  When a foreign company registers, an agent in state is appointed to accept service of legal papers for a lawsuit.   The requirement to register also places the same burdens on out-of-state businesses as in-state businesses.

The fines further serves as a reminder to both plaintiffs and defendants in business litigation in Connecticut.  If you are a foreign corporation, you must register to do business in Connecticut before bringing a lawsuit.  If you are a defendant in business litigation, you must check to see if your opponent has obtained a certificate and raise it as a special defense or risk waiving it.

Insurance Might Be An Option for Data Loss Lawsuits Alleging Negligence Against Businesses

Every business in Connecticut, big or small, faces significant financial consequences for data loss or a breach of security.  As I noted in a business tips post on this blog, implementing a strong data loss and privacy policy is critical for preventing a loss or mitigating its effects and damages.  Of course, once you have a policy or procedure in place, your business could face a lawsuit for negligence for violation of these same policies and procedures.   To add extra protection against the devastating costs of data loss or a security breach, businesses should also consider insurance coverage.

Lawsuits over data loss and security breaches are becoming more common.  Obtaining insurance to cover losses from data loss can potentially save your business.  Business litigation attorneys bringing lawsuits over data losses often include negligence as one of the grounds or theories of recovery in these cases.  Take for example, the recent class action lawsuit for data loss filed against Aetna in Federal Court in Pennsylvania.  The lead theory of recovery in the complaint against Aetna is negligence.   

There may be many reasons why attorneys pursue negligence as a theory of recovery in these security and privacy cases.  However, pursuing a negligence theory increases the possibility of triggering the breaching company’s insurance coverage for data loss, if the company has a policy.  If a business has insurance coverage that applies to the allegations in the complaint, the insurance company typically will also provide a legal defense to the claim.   Legal costs alone could be enough to sink a business, let alone the damages.   

When considering the cost of a data loss insurance policy, a business owner should likewise consider the cost to the business of a data breach.  How can you estimate the cost?  One way to estimate the cost is to use a data loss calculator.  You might also estimate your data loss costs by referencing this 2009 Ponemon Institute benchmark study estimating costs at $202 per page and rising. 

The price of an insurance policy may be cost effective when you consider the potential devastating financial impact of a major data loss or security breach.  In addition, if a business has a strong data loss policy and procedure in place, the cost of insurance should be lower.   Although cyber liability insurance has been available for over ten years, more of these insurance policies are being offered at better prices today.  Here are some links to major insurance companies offering insurance policies for data loss, cyber liability, and technology errors. 

Technology 404 by Darwin.

CyberChoice by The Hartford

 CyberSecurity by Chubb

ACE DigitTech

OneBeacon @vantage

 

Technology Tips For Connecticut Businesses To Avoid Litigation

As part of this Blog, I am going to regularly post technology tips for any Connecticut business to manage risks and avoid lawsuits. These tips will be based on a presentation I did for the Hartford Business Journal’s Etechnology Summit concerning technology bombs that can sink a business.

Here’s todays tip for Connecticut businesses to avoid financial loss as a result of datal loss and security breaches.

Implement a Data Loss Policy and Solution

Any business that stores third party information or personal indentifiers (credit card information, social security numbers) on its computer systems faces potential exposure under a host of privacy laws.  For a good resource on privacy laws go to the Privacy Law Blog by Proskauer Rose LLP.  For an example of a new privacy law in Connecticut, consider the“Act Concerning the Confidentiality of Social Security Numbers.”  Connecticut’s Unfair Trade Practices Act could also be implicated in a data loss case.

Data loss or a security breach can cause a huge financial problem, bad public realtions, and signficant down time.  Consider the recent case of TJX reported on by Sheri Qaulters for the National Law Journal.  Discount retailer TJX had a data breach involving exposure of 45 million credit and debit cards.   TJX entered into various settlements including payment of $9.75 million to 41 states; $30 to every consumer who used a credit or debit card; and an undisclosed settlement with three banks. Ouch.

TJX is an extreme example, but data loss can sink a small to medium sized business.  How can a business mimize its exposure to lawsuits from data loss or security breach?

Implement a data loss policy and solution for your business.   There is no one size fits all policy and solution and every business will have different needs.  If you already have a policy, you should have it reviewed regularly for changes in the law.  If you do not have a policy in place, you need to start somewhere.  For “do it yourselfers” there is the Federal Trade Commision’s Guide for Business and Protecting Personal Information.  The FTC’s guide is a 5 step plan from identifying your risk exposure to implementing procedures.

 In addition  to implementing policies, any business with a significant risk exposure for data loss (i.e. medical practice, retailers, e commerce) should consider purchasing a cyber liability insurance policy.  These policies are now more afforadable and many insurers such as The Hartford are now actively underwriting polices to cover first and third party data loss claims and providing ongoing resources and information.

The bottom line is, a business cannot afford to take the risk of ignoring data loss and security breach exposure.  Do not wait for the first breach or lawsuit.

Social Networking Lawsuits Are Big Risk to Business

I just read an excellent article posted on Law.com from the New York Law Journal on social networking and challenges to business owners and their legal counsel.  The authors Christopher Boehning and Daniel Toal focus on a new emerging problems associated with electronic discovery of social networking data.  The authors also point out many of the potential problems for employers and businesses related to social networking sites.

When Facebook started exploding in popularity, you could see that the future in communication was social networking.  Boehning and Toal cite to a New York Times articles that indicates the future is now upon us as more people spend time on social networking sites than e-mailing.  The authors correctly point out something I emphasize to all my business clients:  businesses need to have a policy on how to handle social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter.  The policy should cover the business’ use of such sites and use by employees.  Policies on preservation of the data should also be included as social networking data is akin to the new email.

Lawsuits involving some aspect of social networking sites are increasing in frequency from across the country. Take for example the recent jury verdict in New Jersey against Hillstone Restaurant for violation of the Federal Stored Communications Act.

In that case, the employers accessed an employee MySpace group that was dedicated to criticizing the employer.  Although the verdict amount was relatively small, the implications are far reaching.  This case was reported on by Charles Toutant in the New Jersey Law Journal.  The employees’ trial brief is a good read and spells out some of the arguments in favor of employees’ rights to privacy with social networking sites. 

The outcome in the New Jersey case may have been different if the restaurant had a policy addressing use and access to social networking sites.  Businesses will have different concerns when it comes to adopting a policy, and no policy will cover every situation.  However, the lack of any policy at all is likely to lead to problems and potential litigation.  The best way to avoid litigation is to implement a written policy on use and access to social networking sites.