In February, in the Circuit Court in Miller County, Arkansas, some plaintiffs—led by Lane’s Gifts, an Arkansas retailer—sued Google, Yahoo!, Time Warner, Disney, and Ask Jeeves, among other Internet companies, alleging that these companies knowingly overcharged for the advertising they sold and that they conspired with each other in doing so! The plaintiffs now want the suit certified as a class action which relates to the growing problem of “click fraud” a practice our very own litigator and legal guru Peter Raymond knows and has spoken about. Clicking ads or even automating the click-throughs—in some cases by competitors—can illegally run up the advertising charges, and analysts estimate these can increase by more than 15 percent because of such fraud.
On April 28, 2005, New York’s Attorney General sued Intermix Media—a major Internet marketer based in Los Angeles, claiming “spyware” and “adware” were secretly installed, which, among other things, can redirect browsers to unwanted websites, can add toolbar functions and icons, and distribute ads that pop up on your monitor. The suit alleges violation of New York State General Business Law provisions against false advertising and deceptive business practices, and also alleges trespass under New York common law. Intermix’ software would download, install and then direct advertising to computers based on user activity—often without notice and without an uninstall application—when a user visited a website, played a game or downloaded a screen saver. The Attorney General’s office claims that the lengthy licensing agreement purporting to seek permission, even when used, is misleading or inaccurate.
Marketing and promotional experts already know that with rare exceptions (e.g., the government), lotteries are illegal. An illegal lottery is a game or contest in which the outcome is determined by chance, the entry requires some form of consideration, and the winner is awarded a prize. Over the years, these three elements have been the subject of scrutiny, regulatory opinion and judicial decision. Although interpretive rules are not cast in concrete, a prize can be nominal in value; consideration can take the form of visiting a store or filling out a lengthy customer survey; and, if chance plays a material factor in determining the outcome, no amount of skill in any of the other elements of the promotion will save the day.
Marketing and promotional experts use “no purchase necessary” or “free alternate means of entry” as tools to avoid consideration—in general, promotions with a freely available alternate means to enter may be based on chance and may have a prize. Some promotions involve skill—eliminating chance. Shooting a hole in one at golf or solving a mathematical puzzle are examples of skill-based contests. Of course, the skill must be bona fide—guessing the number of beans in a jar is not a real skill, no matter how good one becomes at guessing.
Against this backdrop, advertisers, eager to get their message in front of consumers, are finding life increasingly difficult. Have you noticed increased advertising in movie theatres, outdoor signage or on uniforms of your favorite sports figures? Distribution technology and storage and recording media have given us the ability to fast-forward or avoid viewing messages that previously required you to physically leave the room or change the channel! Hmmm…so people are spending more time on the Internet—browsing, surfing—how about advertising there?
Well things seemed to be looking up for advertisers—cookies, pop-up ads, banners, above and below the fold advertising, mass commercial e-mail. Seemed like technology was coming to the rescue. But, enter their legal and technical counterparts—cookie disablers, pop-up blockers, spy-ware and ad-ware detection programs, SPAM and other filters, coupled with legislation and regulation over intrusive technologies or programs that invade privacy or transmit information without consent. Getting the message across is still getting tougher.
One approach is the increased use of “product placement”—insertion of branded products into actual programming “content.” Branded products become part of the action—someone is drinking a beverage, driving a car, using a computer—all branded. One of the most interesting developments in the world of product placement is taking place in interactive gaming. Interactive games require players to sit, often for hours, staring at a screen, paying close attention to the game. Background, backdrop, even music, contribute to making games realistic and become music to the ears of advertisers targeting a captive audience.
Can interactive, Internet-based games require a participant to pay to enter and participate—online “pay-to-play” games—and provide the winner cash or prizes? Here’s how such a game is typically structured: the participant downloads licensed programming for installation on his or her computer—the platform from which instructions and controls are transmitted. When combined with instructions and controls from team members or opposing players, the programming allows the game to be played. To enhance the gaming experience (and also to bolster the argument these are predominantly skill-based, not based on chance) many gaming platforms have sophisticated mechanisms to rate players and provide “matches” of comparable skill. Assuming games are skill-based, many (but not all) jurisdictions permit the payment of cash to play and the award of a prize. In some jurisdictions (but not all), the prize can even be derived from the number of players and the amounts paid by the participants. Check with Rimon before making any assumptions.
Regulation of Internet contests in the United States falls into four broad legal categories: (a) regulation of sweepstakes, contests and prizes; (b) regulation of unfair and deceptive trade practices; (c) regulation of gambling; and (d) consumer protection. We will turn to a more comprehensive legal review in next month’s issue, but we will tell you that if your game attracts children, you had better ensure there are mechanisms enabling you to comply with special regulations that apply. These are not limited to issues involving the age of majority and the ability of participants to legally enter into binding contracts (e.g., Alabama and Nebraska = 19; Mississippi and Puerto Rico = 21). Compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (“COPPA,” not to be confused with COPA or Copacabana—anyone still reading?), considerations of parental consent, propriety of content and a host of other regulations and legal considerations, come to mind.
Stay tuned for next month’s issue to find out more about these legal issues.
Most of you know “spyware” as pesky programs that install themselves on your computer – often tacked on to programs you intend to install – that do everything from tracking online browsing habits to stealing passwords and getting at sensitive data on your computer. But what about those programs that automatically download and patch your software or update your anti-virus definitions, or cookies that enable sites you visit to recognize you and customize your experience? Of course, you have also heard of “adware” -programs that trigger the delivery of online advertising (did I say pop-ups?) that target consumer preferences and activities.
Confused by the distinctions and attempts to sort out the definitions? There is clearly a legislative drive to prohibit programs from being installed on consumers’ computers without consent or knowledge and at least three spyware bills are winding their way through the U.S. Congress. Although it is unlikely a bill could reconcile the differences and reach the President for signature this session, there is clearly impetus to “do something,” and interests on all sides are lining up to shape the contours of legislation so as not to do away with all those “good” programs!
Confused about the definitions or worried Congress might get it wrong—or just wondering who cares? Pay attention. Much of the utility and appeal of the Internet is interactivity. Browsers and websites interact. Navigational tools and features which make browsing more efficient, reduce time, and provide a more customized – thus more useful—experience, are based on useful programs working in the background and which are helpful and desirable, if properly used—”properly” being the operative issue. If worded too broadly, legislation could prohibit tools that make sense. Imagine every advertiser, website owner, merchant and search engine being required go to every user with a new consent (“opt-in”) form! How will legislation be enforced if the website owner is in another jurisdiction? Need to follow this issue? Want to know more? Want to your voice heard? Call Rimon—we can help.
Outgoing New Jersey Governor James E. McGreevey signed Executive Order No. 129 requiring vendors seeking contracts with New Jersey State agencies to disclose any foreign countries in which the services are to be performed, and prohibits awarding such a contract unless there is no comparable domestic service, failing to use the vendor would cause economic hardship in New Jersey or would not be in the public interest for some reason. Excluded from the Executive Order are contracts with New Jersey’s public institutions of higher education, when the contract is for academic instruction, educational or research services.
A little more than a year ago, Taco Bell was ordered to pay $30.1 million to two men who convinced a court they conceived the talking Chihuahua. Lest you think this is an aberration or that these men were opportunists trying to make a quick buck, you would be wrong on both counts. Outside suggestions are a source of potential ideas and potential liability. Companies would be well-served to learn a lesson from these cases.
Smart marketing companies have policies—even outside suggestion “units”—to handle those suggestions company strategists, executives and marketing professionals all say they welcome to better understand what customers want. This is not the place to belabor legal distinctions between market research, focus groups, customer satisfaction surveys and unsolicited outside suggestions, but these distinctions highlight the need to pay attention to potentially dangerous legal landmines at the intersection of intellectual property law and product development.
Imagine that a customer of a bank suggests to the branch manager that the bank issue travelers checks with dual signatures (they exist, so don’t you get any bright ideas) so vacationing couples can use them interchangeably. Now fast forward six months—the bank proudly launches its latest new product, the dual-signature travelers check. Guess the rest. Lawyers, letters, demands, assertions of ownership, misappropriated proprietary information—the suggestion was not an “idea” but a specific product development concept with specific implementation details. Talking Chihuahuas anyone?
Of course, if the company can prove its product was independently developed or in development before the suggestion came in, or that the branch manager threw the suggestion in the trash without telling anyone, showing it to anyone or keeping a copy—yes, the company may win the lawsuit. But do you really want to risk all those lawsuits and the cost of litigation to prove you are right? Settle or fight: each can be costly.
Dealing with outside suggestions should be a part of a company’s product development, brand management and marketing risk management strategy—optimizing the company’s ability to gather meaningful information while minimizing potential exposure to litigation liability and damages. Rimon has lawyers who have developed and managed these functions, counseled clients, conducted seminars, and drafted policies and procedures to do just that. Contact me at email@example.com. We are happy to help.
This past June, we reported L.L. Bean filed suit against Nordstrom, J.C. Penney, Atkins and Gevalia alleging copyright and trademark infringement in connection with pop-up advertising. Bean has now settled with Gevalia and Atkins, who have agreed to damage payments (i.e., for trademark infringement), as well as agreeing not to authorize pop-up advertisements of their products on Bean’s website. Spyware has been the subject of significant controversy, and anti-spyware legislation has passed in Utah and is pending in Congress and in California, although the Utah statute is being challenged by spyware maker WhenU. It is likely lawsuits such as Bean’s will continue to be filed based on theories that not only are consumers annoyed by pop-up ads, but that they become confused by the advertisements as well.
Last month, we brought you information about outsourcing—a topic making news daily. This month, we bring you smaller news with potentially bigger implications.
In the biblical prophecy of Isaiah, the wolf lives with the lamb, the leopard lies down with the kid and a little child shall lead them. You can draw your own conclusions as to who are lions, lambs and the little child, but a few days ago, the unthinkable occurred. Sun Microsystems and Microsoft reached peace by dropping most claims, cross-claims and the vitriolic debate raging since 1997 when Sun sued Microsoft alleging violations of its Java license terms. With a trail of litigation which includes U.S. and European antitrust regulators, the announcement is nothing short of astounding. Yes, it remains to be seen whether years of mistrust will dissipate and lead to true cooperation, but this is not simply a truce between two rivals. The Wall Street Journal quotes Tony Scott, Chief Technology Officer for General Motors, as saying “What we try to do is educate them on the real pain customers go through when you have multiple incompatible standards and technologies.” Instead of customers being forced to figure out (and pay for) solutions to interoperability and compatibility problems, vendors are now being pressured to do so. Is this the beginning of a trend? Too soon to tell, but this truce is a big deal—Mr. Scott represents a customer!
And now, number 2. Perhaps we have become less concerned about providing information to “friendly sites,” but Yahoo! has introduced a “paid inclusion” product which allows advertisers to guarantee their sites will show up in searches—although payments do not change the order in which results are displayed. Not to be outdone, Google’s new “G-mail” will have context-based advertising derived from—are you ready—a scan of key words in G-mail received by subscribers, which customizes advertising based on information in the e-mail. G-mail a friend about bowling and you may see a pop-up coupon for a local bowling alley. Marketing professionals and advertisers point to the fact that G-mail is an opt-in service and consumers have shown they are willing to give up privacy to obtain greater levels of convenience.
For the record, cookies were invented to allow you to have a shopping cart and accumulate items when going web shopping. Fast-forward past cookies to
spammers, phishing, pop-ups, invisible GIFs, web bugs, intelligent bots and spyware to this latest announcement. Google can now accumulate a detailed
dossier of individual consumer preferences and the contents of e-mails. No one is suggesting Google would abuse such information or that subscribing is not
truly voluntary, but not only do we know what you did last summer, soon we may also be able to tell you what you are planning next summer.
Federal Commercial E-Mail Legislation Takes Effect A major change in the law that affects privacy and commercial e-mail on the Internet took effect on January 1, 2004. The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 doesn’t simply establish an “opt-out” framework for commercial e-mail, it completely pre-empts state law. Although an individual consumer doesn’t have the right to sue an offender under the Act, the Federal Trade Commission, along with the Attorneys General of each state, do. So what should you know?
First, the Act only applies to commercial e-mail—an e-mail whose primary purpose is promoting a commercial product or service. Although the FTC has not yet promulgated any regulations under the Act, simply because an e-mail has a URL link to a commercial website or refers to product or service doesn’t make it commercial e-mail. There are, of course, certain obvious exemptions built into the law. Product safety recall information or e-mails notifying you about changes or important notices concerning your subscriptions, memberships, purchase confirmations, accounts or e-mail related to your employment—all of these are so-called “transactional relationship messages” where the main purpose is communication related to a commercial transaction, rather than promotion or advertising.
Second, what does the law require. Starting January 1, 2004, all commercial e-mail (even if an existing business relationship exists and whether or not the e-mail was solicited or not) must contain a clear and conspicuous notice that a consumer can opt out of future e-mails and provide a web-based means to do so. A consumer’s request to opt out must be honored within 10 business days and marketers can’t sell or share the e-mail addresses of those who have opted out. The e-mail must also clearly identify itself as an advertisement—unless a consumer has specifically asked to receive commercial e-mail from a particular commercial entity. Third, the e-mail must contain a postal, physical address of the sender. Although it is not yet clear if a post office box is enough, the less-risky approach is to have a street address.
The Act has a number of other requirements related to labeling—for example, the subject (header) must accurately reflect the body or content of the message and the sender (the sponsor of the promotion) must be identified. Although the Act preempts state commercial e-mail laws, beware of the fact that state fraud, trespass and certain consumer protection laws can still apply.
Violations of the CAN-SPAM Act are criminal offenses and involve both fines and potential jail time upon conviction. As with most Federal crimes, aggravating factors increase the penalties and implementing good faith and reasonable measures to attempt to comply with the Act can lessen them. These penalties can be serious—jail-time of up to five years, $250 per e-mail up to $2 million in fines (which can be tripled up to $6 million if aggravating factors are present) and all computers and software used in the commission of the crime can be forfeit.
Although the primary purpose of Legal Bytes is to enlighten and inform you, it obviously does promote Rimon and encourages you to call us when you need legal support. Accordingly we will always give you the opportunity to opt out of receiving our publication by email and when we send you an e-mail, it will be clear as to what it is and who is sending it. This is not just the law, it’s good practice.