Archive for August, 2014

Confidentiality & Sealing Orders in Software Disputes

By Richard Stobbe

Two software companies wanted to integrate their software products. The relationship soured and one of the parties – McHenry – purported to terminate the Software Licensing and Development Agreement and then launched a lawsuit in the Federal Court in the US, claiming copyright infringement and breach of contract. The other party – ARAS – countered by invoking the mandatory arbitration clause in the software agreement. The US court compelled the parties to resolve their dispute through arbitration in Vancouver. After the arbitration, the arbitrator’s decision was appealed in the BC Supreme Court. In that appeal, McHenry sought a “sealing order” asking the BC court, in effect, to order confidentiality over the March 26, 2014 Arbitration Award itself. This is because ARAS, who prevailed at arbitration, circulated the arbitration award to others.

In the recent decision (McHenry Software Inc. v. ARAS 360 Incorporated, 2014 BCSC 1485 (CanLII)) the BC Supreme Court considered the law of “sealing orders” and confidentiality in the context of a dispute between two software companies.

The essence of McHenry’s complaint was that the arbitrator’s award should be treated confidentially, since it contained confidential and sensitive information about the dispute, which could harm or disadvantage McHenry in its negotiations with future software development partners.

The court reviewed the legal principles governing sealing orders. A “sealing order” is simply court-ordered confidentiality over court records or evidence. While there is a presumption in favour of public access in the Canadian justice system, there are times when it is appropriate to deny access to certain records to prevent a “serious risk to an important interest” as long as “the public interest in confidentiality outweighs the public interest in openness”. (To dig deeper on this, see: Sierra Club of Canada v. Canada (Minister of Finance), 2002 SCC 41 (CanLII), 2002 SCC 41.)

If you were hoping for a handy three-part test, you’re in luck:

  1. First, the risk in question must be real and substantial, and must pose a “serious threat” to the commercial interest in question.
  2. The interest must be tied to a public interest in confidentiality. The SCC said: “a private company could not argue simply that the existence of a particular contract should not be made public because to do so would cause the company to lose business, thus harming its commercial interests.” Courts must remember that a confidentiality order involves an infringement on freedom of expression, so it should not be undertaken to satisfy purely commercial interests.
  3. Third, the court must consider whether there are any reasonable alternatives to a confidentiality order, or look for ways to restrict the scope of the order as much as possible in the context.

Ultimately, the BC Court was not sympathetic to McHenry’s arguments for a sealing order. If McHenry was so concerned about the confidentiality of these proceedings, the court argued, then McHenry would not have launched a lawsuit against ARAS in the US Federal Court, where there is no confidentiality. In pursuing litigation, McHenry filed numerous documents in the public record, including its Arbitration Notice, its Statement of Claim in the Arbitration and its petition in the BC Court proceedings, some of which contained potentially sensitive information.

“Moreover,” the court continued, “there is no general principle that the confidentiality of arbitration proceedings carries over to court proceedings when the arbitration is appealed. On the contrary, such court proceedings are generally public.”

This case serves as a reminder of the confidentiality issues that can arise in the conext of a dispute between software companies, both in arbitration proceedings and in the litigation context. Make sure you seek experienced counsel when handling the complex issues of confidentiality, sealing orders and licensing disputes.

Calgary – 07:00

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When Milk is Not Milk: Dairy Farmers of Canada v. Cytosport, Inc.

monster_product_hero_339x415_chocolate.pngBy Richard Stobbe

You can’t get a trade-mark registration for a word that will deceive consumers. Put into legalese, section 12 of the Canadian Trade-marks Act says a trade-mark is not registrable if it is either “clearly descriptive or deceptively misdescriptive … of the character or quality of the wares or services in association with which it is used or proposed to be used…”

If a trade-mark applies the word “MILK” to a non-dairy product, can that be considered deceptively misdescriptive? This question came up in the trade-marks opposition case of Dairy Farmers of Canada v Cytosport, Inc., 2014 TMOB 148 (CanLII), in which the Dairy Farmers of Canada opposed the registration of the marks the trade-marks MONSTER MILK and MONSTER MLK for use with “Dietary and nutritional supplements for use in athletic training, namely for improving body strength and building muscle, excluding ready to drink beverages.”

The Dairy Farmers essentially argued that the average consumer would believe that the drinks sold under the brand MONSTER MILK would contain “real milk”. In a wide-ranging analysis, which covered the Food and Drug Act, to consideration of Nourishing Coconut Milk Shampoo, as well as references to “milk” in the Oxford Dictionary, the Board ultimately decided that the average consumer would not be deceived, since it would not be apparent which meaning of milk would apply in the case of the MONSTER MILK brand.

This case illustrates the importance of strong affidavit evidence in opposition proceedings: here, the applicant submitted evidence from dictionary meanings, Google search results, and shopping excursions to show common uses of the word MILK in association with other non-dairy products.

Calgary – 07:00 MST

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Online Terms – What Works, What Doesn’t

By Richard Stobbe

The online fine print – those terms and conditions that you agree to when you buy something online – it really does matter where those terms are placed in the checkout process. A recent US case illustrates this point. In Tompkins v. 23andMe, Inc., 2014 WL 2903752 (N.D. Cal. June 25, 2014), the court dealt with an online checkout process for DNA testing kits sold by 23andMe. When completing a purchase, customers were not presented with any mandatory click-through screen for the transaction to complete. There was a passive link at the footer of the transaction page, something the court dismissed as a “browsewrap”, which was ineffective to bind the customers. In other words, the Terms of Service were not effective at that point in the transaction.

In order to obtain test results, however, customers were obliged to register and create an account with 23andMe. In this (post-sale) registration process, a mandatory click-through screen was presented to customers, not once but twice. The court decided that this second step was valid to bind the customers who purchased the DNA testing kits.

While this shows that courts can take a position that is sympathetic to online retailers, this should not be taken as an endorsement of this contracting process. In my view, the better approach would be to push customers through a mandatory click-through screen at both stages. This is particularly so in a case like 23andMe, where the first transaction is for sale of a product (the kit) and the second step relates to a service (processing test results). The two, of course, are intertwined, but the double click-through reduces risk and plugs the holes left by the single click-through. For example, a customer may buy a kit and never create an account, or use a kit without have purchased it. As the court notes: “it is possible for a customer to buy a DNA kit, for example, as a gift for someone else, so that the purchasing customer never needs to create an account or register the kit, and thus is never asked to acknowledge the TOS.”

We can speculate on why the click-through appeared at the second account-creation step, and not the first kit-purchasing step. Sometimes, the purchasing process is modified over time due to changes in marketing or sales strategies. Perhaps the company broke a unified transaction process, which ended with account-creation, into two separate steps after market research or customer feedback. When something like this happens, it is important to repeat the legal review, to ensure compliance with e-commerce best practices.

Calgary – 07:00 MST

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