November 2012

Repeat After Me: Competitors Cannot Agree Not to Hire Each Others Employees

November 29, 2012

Employee non-compete agreements are unenforceable under California statutory law, but that hasn’t stopped many California tech companies from finding a back-room work-around. In October 2010 I wrote a short post discussing the FTC’s complaint that a number of California companies had illegally agreed not to solicit each others employees – so-called “no-poach” agreements.  (Apple, Google, Have You No Shame? Really!). Now, two years later, the DOJ has filed a suit against eBay which, the suit claims, entered into a no recruit/no hire agreement with Intuit. Intuit is one of the companies caught engaging in this practice in 2010, and is subject to an agreement not to do so. To make matters even worse, according to the DOJ press release the agreement was entered into at the highest levels of both companies – Meg Whitman (then eBay’s CEO) and Scott Cook (CEO of Intuit). These companies have huge in-house legal departments (not to mention Big Law outside counsel).  But, the fact that the Justice Department views these types of agreements as per se illegal seems to have escaped them. Or, perhaps the benefit of these agreements (if a company is caught) is worth the cost.  

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District of Massachusetts Case Shows Challenges in Software Development Litigation

November 29, 2012

Custom software development agreements that go awry and end up in litigation are notoriously difficult cases. The reasons for this (to name just a few) are the finger-pointing (“your fault, no yours”), the complexity, ambiguity or incompleteness of the functional/technical specifications, the presence of third-party developers or hardware vendors (who can also be blamed), and the obscure, technical nature of the cases, which make them distasteful to judges and dull to juries. Massachusetts U.S District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns issued a rare decision in one of these disputes last week. The case, Liberty Bay v. Open Solutions, involved loan origination software developed under a standard, milestone payment-based License Agreement. After a four year development project plagued with difficulties the Client terminated the agreement and the software Vendor filed suit, seeking the balance owed under the license agreement. The Client, for its part, wanted a refund of monies paid and additional consequential damages. Each side asked the court to issue summary judgment in its favor, and Judge Stearns wrote a decision addressing the contentions. The background of the case is typical of thousands of similar projects.  The project went off-schedule almost from the start. After a series of delays and defective deliveries the Client terminated the agreement and demanded a refund of monies paid to date. The Vendor asked for more time, and the Client agreed to provide it. However, subsequent…

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Posting Your New Job Info on Facebook Is Not “Soliciting” Former Employer’s Customers

November 20, 2012

It’s not often that a Massachusetts Superior Court decision gets national attention, but if you search for Invidia, LLC, v. DiFonzo (Mass. Super. Ct. Oct. 22, 2012) you’ll see that legal blogs around the country have picked-up on this obscure case. Why? Because anything that involves the intersection of law and social media gets attention. In this case, the issue that attracted attention was whether a hairdresser employed by a beauty salon in Sudbury, Mass. “solicited” her former employer’s customers in violation of a noncompete/non-solicitation agreement. What did Ms. DiFonzo do to trigger this claim? She posted news of her job change on her Facebook page. The court held neither posting news of her new salon, nor friending several customers, constituted solicitation. Professor Eric Goldman has a lot to say about this case, including his question of how widespread litigation in the hair salon industry improves social welfare. And, he quite rightly gloats over the fact that an agreement like Ms. DiFonzo’s would not be enforceable in California, which has prohibited employee non-competes by statute. Not noted by most commentators outside of Massachusetts is the judge’s tentative conclusion that the customer “good will” this hair dresser developed with her customers may belong to her, not her salon. Most of Ms. DiFonzo’s customers seem to have been developed by her while working at the old salon, which makes this holding somewhat unusual. Goodwill…

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Sloppy Online Agreements Costs Plaintiff Its Breach of Contract and CFAA Claims

November 16, 2012

Last month I wrote a post titled “Online Agreements – Easy To Get Right, Easy To Get Wrong.” In that post I discussed two cases in which the plaintiff had failed to take appropriate steps to necessary to impose terms and conditions on its customers. A recent case decided by the federal district court for the District of Pennsylvania provides yet another example of how sloppy online contracting can doom a claim based on an online agreement. The case,  CollegeSource, Inc. v. AcademyOne, Inc., (E.D. Pa. October 25, 2012), involves the practice colloquially referred to as “screen scraping” — that is, copying information from displayed webpages, usually in large quantities for commercial use. See, e.g., Ef Cultural Travel Bv v. Explorica , 274 F.3d 577 (1st Cir. 2001) (describing screen scraping). It’s easy — legally and technically — to prevent this by prohibiting it in the site’s online terms and conditions. Doing so allows the site owner to assert not only state-law breach of contract, but the potentially more advantageous federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”). However, the site user must agree to the terms and conditions. Unfortunately for CollegeSource, it didn’t get this quite right. Specifically, CollegeSource offered three services.  Two of the services required that the user accept a “browsewrap” subscription agreement that expressly prohibited scraping (“you agree not to . . . scrape or display data from the Content for use…

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Seventh Circuit: Embedding and Linking Is not Contributory Copyright Infringement

November 8, 2012

Before the Internet made file sharing ubiquitous, liability for “indirect” copyright infringement was something of a legal backwater.* Massive file sharing of audio, image and video files has changed that. Where a website actually hosts a copyrighted file uploaded by a user, the legal rights of the parties are relatively clear: the uploader (and subsequent downloaders) are liable for “direct” infringement.  The legal rights of the website owner are governed by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).** *A notable exception being the Supreme Court’s pre-Internet decision in Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., which rejected a claim of contributory infringement directed at the VCR, since Sony did not encourage copyright infringement, and the VCR was capable of commercially significant noninfringing uses. **Caveat: the courts are still working at interpreting and applying the DMCA. The most recent appellate decisions are Viacom v. Youtube (2nd. Cir. 2012) and UMG v. VEOH (9th Cir. 2011). However, there are many situations where the DMCA does not apply because the illegal file is not being hosted by the defendant (that is, the file is not resident on a server owned or controlled by the defendant). In those cases, where there are countless uploaders and downloaders (many of which cannot easily be identified), copyright owners will sometimes sue the website owner. A single case, if successful, has the potential to inhibit access to thousands of illegal files. However,…

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Massachusetts Quick Links – October 2012

November 5, 2012

Oriental Financial Group, Inc. v.  Cooperativa De Ahorro y Crédito Oriental (1st Cir. October 18, 2012) — In this case the First Circuit adopts the trademark law “progressive encroachment doctrine,” joining the 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 11th circuits. The progressive encroachment doctrine may be used as an offensive countermeasure to the affirmative defense of laches (delay in brining suit) where the trademark owner can show that “(1) during the period of the delay the plaintiff could reasonably conclude that it should not bring suit to challenge the allegedly infringing activity; (2) the defendant materially altered its infringing activities; and (3) suit was not unreasonably delayed after the alteration in infringing activity” (quoting Oriental Financial). Harlan Laboratories, Inc. v. Gerald Campbell (D. Mass. October 25, 2012) — Applying Indiana law, Judge Patti Saris issues a preliminary injunction enforcing a one year non-compete agreement. However, the opinion makes liberal use of Massachusetts and First Circuit precedents. Blake v. Professional Coin Grading Service (D. Mass. October 6, 2012) — In this case, which involves alleged trade secrets associated with a method to grade the “eye appeal” of coins, Judge William Young concluded that the “method” was not subject to trade secret protection due to the fact it had been publicly disseminated before being disclosed to the defendants. However, Judge Young ruled that the case could proceed based on the alleged misappropriation of a proposed marketing plan.  In addition to…

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