Friday, December 20, 2013

The Year In Review

As the year draws to a close, it’s worth looking back over a range of important legal developments in the world of electronic commerce, a number of which set the stage for fireworks in the months and years ahead.  Wishing all of our readers a wonderful holiday season, and the best and brightest New Year, we hope you enjoy our “top five” list.

Coming in at number five ...

Friday, December 13, 2013

Song Beverly Strikes Again: Email Address Collection Added to Potentially Worrisome Activity

As we've previously blogged, retailers who sell products to consumers in California and Massachusetts, as well as a number of other states, run the risk of costly class action lawsuits if they collect customer zip codes in connection with purchase of goods by credit card.  The prohibitions in those states, as we've explained, often go beyond zip codes, and can include -- in California, for example -- any information that does not appear on the face of the credit card.

A recent decision by the United States District Court in California involved the collection of e-mail addresses in credit card transactions, and found against a retailer on a motion dismiss -- propelling the case to trial.  That decision adopted what some might call an inordinately expansive interpretation of the underlying law by the Supreme Court of California, and made things far worse by adding an apparent misreading of the statute to the mix.  Not for the faint of heart, but certainly important for the prudent direct marketer who hopes to avoid costly and sometimes bogus lawsuits, the decision helps underscore the risks faced by even the most diligent companies -- risks high enough that companies are often forced to settle when they know in their heart of hearts that they're right.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Supreme Court Denies Petitions for Cert of Amazon and Overstock

As we recently wrote, last spring New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, issued a decision upholding the state’s Internet affiliate nexus law after a challenge made by and The Court of Appeals found that the law, which creates a rebuttable presumption of nexus for out-of-state vendors who employ in-state affiliates, satisfies substantial nexus requirements and does not violate the Due Process clause.

In September, and sought review of the decision of the Court of Appeals by filing petitions for certiorari with the United States Supreme Court. After extensive briefing by the petitioners, the State of New York, and many amicus curiae, on December 2, the Supreme Court denied the petitions for cert. (See the cases’ status here and here.)

This ends the petitioner’s facial constitutional challenge to the New York affiliate nexus law as and have now exhausted their appellate options. The decision by the Supreme Court not to hear the case, however, does not mean that every state’s affiliate nexus law is valid and enforceable. For instance, the Illinois Supreme Court held in October that Illinois’s Internet affiliate nexus statute was preempted by the Federal Internet Tax Freedom Act. The Supreme Court’s decision Monday has no impact on the now unenforceable Illinois law.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mail Order Merchandise Rule: Are Your Business Processes up to Snuff?

This is the first in a series of blog posts highlighting the major legal and regulatory issues that are specific to the multichannel merchant. The Mail Order Merchandise Rule, promulgated by the Federal Trade Commission, is intended to ensure that mail order customers actually receive the items that they order from catalog or online merchants. The Rule requires that when a seller advertises merchandise, it must have a reasonable basis for stating or implying that it can ship the merchandise within a certain time. If the business makes no shipment statement, it must have a reasonable basis for believing that it can ship within 30 days. That is why direct marketers sometimes call this the "30-day Rule." Surprisingly, though, many well-established mail order companies have only a loose grip on the operational steps necessary to comply with this rule.

It is usually the case in the highly competitive, technologically advanced environment of mail order and internet sales, that merchants are easily able to comply with the Rule by providing a stated shipment representation. If a website says the product will be shipped in two days, it almost always is, and often it is shipped even sooner. But when products are not timely shipped, things sometimes go a little sideways. The most common reason for failure to ship within the stated time frame is the lack of a product–the back order issue.

The rule provides that, if after taking the customer’s order, a seller learn that it cannot ship within the time stated, it must seek the customer’s consent to the delayed shipment. If it is the first such delay, and if the seller can provide a revised shipment date, it must notify the customer of his or her right to cancel the order; sellers are permitted to treat the client’s silence in response as an expression of assent.  But, if there is a second delay, or if the seller cannot provide a revised shipment date, then the seller MUST get the client to consent affirmatively to the continued delay. If a seller cannot obtain the customer’s consent to the delay – or if the customer refuses to consent -- the seller must, without being asked, promptly refund all the money the customer paid for the unshipped merchandise.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Direct Marketing Association Re-files Challenge to Colorado Notice and Reporting Law in State Court

We have been updating readers on developments regarding the court challenge brought by the Direct Marketing Association (“DMA”) to a 2010 Colorado law that purported to require Internet retailers and other remote sellers that do not collect Colorado sales tax to: (1) give certain notices to their Colorado customers regarding the purchaser’s obligation to self-report Colorado use tax; and (2) file reports with the Colorado Department of Revenue detailing the private purchasing information of their Colorado customers. The DMA won a preliminary injunction in January 2011 in federal District Court suspending the law on the grounds that it violated the Commerce Clause. The Court later made the injunction permanent when it awarded the DMA summary judgment in March 2012. The State appealed.

In August 2013, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled on its own initiative that the Tax Injunction Act (“TIA”) barred federal court jurisdiction over the DMA’s claims. The Court of Appeals did not reach the merits of the DMA’s Commerce Clause claims, but rather ordered that the claims be dismissed on procedural grounds. The Court held that the DMA was required under the TIA to bring its claims in Colorado state court. The DMA requested rehearing on the jurisdictional issue, but the Tenth Circuit declined in early October to rehear the matter. The Court of Appeals then issued a mandate to the District Court on October 9, directing the lower court to dissolve the injunction and dismiss the claims. (The District Court has not yet implemented the mandate, so for now the federal injunction remains in place.)

On November 5, 2013, the DMA re-filed its challenge to the Colorado notice and reporting law in state District Court in Denver. At the same time, the DMA moved for a preliminary injunction, in order to continue the suspension of the law after the federal court injunction is lifted. Briefing on the motion for a preliminary injunction is expected to conclude in December, with a hearing on the motion likely to be scheduled for early January 2014. The DMA will request that the state court rule on the injunction request prior to January 31, the deadline under the law for retailers to send certain annual notices to customers who purchased at least $500 in goods from the retailers in the prior year.

Brann & Isaacson partners George Isaacson and Matthew Schaefer are co-counsel to the DMA in connection with the appeal.

We will keep you apprised of further developments in the state court proceeding.

Friday, November 15, 2013

MFA Update: Rep. Goodlatte’s Seven Principles and an Interview with George Isaacson

Although the Marketplace Fairness Act (S. 743) ("MFA") has not yet progressed out of a House committee since its Senate passage last spring, it continues to make headlines. In late September, the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), released seven “Principles on Internet Sales Tax.” Brann & Isaacson senior partner George Isaacson was recently profiled by State Tax Notes discussing both the MFA and Goodlatte’s Seven Principles.

The Seven Principles outlined by Representative Goodlatte provide for:
  1. Tax Relief – “no new or discriminatory taxes not faced in the offline world”
  2. Tech Neutrality – brick and mortar and online businesses “should all be on equal footing. The sales tax compliance burden on online Internet sellers should not be less…than that on similarly situated offline businesses”
  3. No Regulation Without Representation – taxpayers “should have direct recourse to protest unfair, unwise or discriminatory rates and enforcement”
  4. Simplicity – no “onerous compliance requirements,” “laws should be so simple and compliance so inexpensive and reliable as to render a small business exemption unnecessary”
  5. Tax Competition – “Governments should be encouraged to compete with one another to keep tax rates low and American businesses should not be disadvantaged vis-à-vis their foreign competitors”
  6. States’ Rights – “States should be sovereign” and “the federal government should not mandate that States impose any sales tax compliance burdens” and
  7. Privacy Rights – “Sensitive customer data must be protected.”

Friday, October 25, 2013

California Ups the Ante On Privacy Policy Disclosures

For the past decade, California law has set the template for commercial website privacy policies.  With the passage of a new law, set to take effect January 1, 2014, the state has updated the disclosures required of any commercial website operator who collects personally identifiable information from California residents.

California’s Online Privacy Protection Act.   In 2003, California became the only state to require all websites that collect personal information (“PII”) from visitors – in this case, California residents – to post a privacy policy.   Until then, there was no generally applicable privacy policy requirement under either state or federal law, and, to this day, neither the other states nor the federal government have imposed such a requirement.  Federal privacy policy requirements have been limited to specific kinds of information (such as under Children’s Privacy Protection Act) or industries (under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).  Under the 2003 law, Internet sites need to identify the “categories” of personally identifiable information collected about “individual consumers”; describe the “categories” of third parties with whom the information may be shared; disclose (if there is one) any process for individuals to review or request changes to their personal information; explain how notice is given to consumers of changes in the privacy policy; and post the policy’s effective date. The definition of PII is more expansive than encountered in data breach statutes, and includes email addresses, partial addresses (including street names and towns), and first and last names.  The privacy policy also must be “conspicuously” posted, as defined by the statute.

Now, however, the law has been significantly expanded.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Illinois Supreme Court Rules Illinois “Click Through” Nexus Statute Is Void And Preempted By Federal Law

The Illinois Supreme Court issued its decision today in Performance Marketing Association v. Hamer, ruling that the Illinois “affiliate nexus” (also known as “click-through nexus”) law is “void and unenforceable” because it is preempted by federal law. Brann & Isaacson partners George Isaacson and Matthew Schaefer represented the PMA in this case, and Isaacson argued the case before the Illinois Supreme Court on May 22, 2013. The case was on appeal from the Circuit Court, which had had held that the affiliate nexus law was an unconstitutional violation of the Commerce Clause, and was also preempted by the Internet Tax Freedom Act (“ITFA”), because it impermissibly discriminated against electronic commerce. In affirming the lower court’s decision, the Illinois Supreme Court based its holding on a violation of the ITFA, and did not reach the Constitutional argument.

The Illinois law had purported to impose a use tax collection obligation on any out-of-state retailer or serviceman who had a contract with a person located in Illinois that paid a commission based on sales generated from referral links placed on that person’s website, provided the retailer realized a minimum in $10,000 in sales to customers through such links. Under the Internet Tax Freedom Act, states are prohibited from imposing “discriminatory taxes on electronic commerce.” A discriminatory tax is defined as a tax that “imposes an obligation to collect or pay tax on a different person or entity than in the case of transactions involving similar property, goods, services, or information accomplished through other means.” 47 U.S.C. §151 note.

The ruling is a significant victory for online retailers, and for the Illinois individuals who generate income through affiliate links.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Litigation News: Colorado and Cook County Update

We have written frequently about the DMA case challenging Colorado’s notice and reporting law. The law, which requires remote sellers to inform consumers of their obligation to self-report sales and use tax and which also requires sellers to hand over Colorado customers’ names to the state’s Department of Revenue, was declared unconstitutional in 2012 by the United States District Court in Denver. See DMA v. Brohl, 2012 WL 1079175 (D. Colo. Mar. 30, 2012). The Court issued an injunction barring enforcement of the law. But, in August, the Tenth Circuit found that the District Court did not have jurisdiction over the case, and issued a decision calling for the case to be remanded to the District Court with instructions to dissolve the injunction. The DMA subsequently filed a petition for rehearing en banc by the Tenth Circuit, thereby staying implementation of the decision. But, on October 1, that petition was denied. As a result, the Court of Appeals’ mandate was issued on October 9. The District Court has not yet implemented the Tenth Circuit’s order, however, so for the time being the injunction remains in place--at least until the District Court acts. In response to the ruling, the DMA intends to refile its challenge to the law in state court in Colorado and seek a new injunction from the state court to prevent enforcement of a law that the federal District Court has found to be unconstitutional on its face. Brann & Isaacson’s George Isaacson and Matthew Schaefer represent the DMA in the case.

Meanwhile, we wrote in July about Judge Lopez Cepero of the Cook County Circuit Court issuing a preliminary injunction which barred Cook County from enforcing its recently enacted use tax. On October 4, the Appellate Court stayed the preliminary injunction, but on October 8, Judge Lopez Cepero granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment. The judge’s ruling will be issued in written form today and effectively is a permanent injunction barring Cook County from enforcing the use tax. It remains uncertain, however, whether the County will appeal this decision.

We will continue to update our readers on these and other cases throughout the country.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Beware of Taxation of Advertising Inserts

During the last legislative session in Maine, the legislature approved, and Governor Lepage signed, a bill to eliminate the exemption from the sales tax for publications. L.D. 1509, 126th Legs., Part P, (Me. 2013). This law went into effect yesterday. The law now requires the taxation of magazines and newspapers. The sleeping dog, however, is the taxation of advertising flyers and other free publications.

Taxation of free advertising materials has become a “hot button” issue in Maine. In an Informational Notice dated September 27, 2013, Maine Revenue Services stated that the costs of printing advertising flyers, including those inserted in newspapers, are now subject to the sales tax if those materials are distributed in Maine. In other words, the publisher will be required to pay a use tax, either to its printer or directly to the state, on the printing charges for advertising flyers.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Amicus Briefs Filed in and Supreme Court Case

On September 23, 2013, several organizations and companies filed briefs as amici curiae in support of the petitions for a writ of certiorari filed by Overstock.Com, Inc.,, Inc., and Amazon Services, LLC, requesting review by the United States Supreme Court of the New York Court of Appeals decision in, Inc. v. New York Department of Taxation and Finance, 20 N.Y.3d 586, 987 N.E.2d 621 (2013). Among the briefs filed was the Brief of Newegg, Inc. and the Direct Marketing Association, Inc. (the "DMA") as Amici Curiae in Support of the Petitioners. In their brief, Newegg and the DMA argue that the New York “click through affiliate nexus” statute, N.Y. Tax Law sec. 1101(b)(8)(vi), through an improper legislative presumption, narrows the zone of protected interstate advertising activity for out-of-state retailers under the Commerce Clause by shifting onto the retailers the burden of disproving “substantial nexus” with the state, in violation of the due process rights of retailers. Newegg and the DMA argue that the Constitution’s Due Process Clause prohibits states from using presumptions to interfere with matters that are removed from their authority by the Constitution, such as the regulation of interstate commerce. Brann & Isaacson partners Martin I. Eisenstein, George S. Isaacson, and Matthew P. Schaefer prepared the brief of amici on behalf of Newegg and the DMA.

Among the other organizations filing briefs were the Tax Foundation and the National Taxpayers Union, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the American Association of Attorney-Certified Public Accountants, and, Assisted Living Store, Inc., et al.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Traps For the Unwary Under the Consumer Product Safety Act: Children's Products

Nestled in the morass known as the Consumer Product Safety Act (as amended by the dubiously titled Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 and further amended in 2011) are provisions that can wreak havoc for businesses that manage, understandably, to overlook them.  What was once a rather straightforward reporting and recall system involving a relatively small number of federal safety standards has evolved into a complex beast of certifications, third-party testing, and training programs. While it is beyond the scope of this post to identify and discuss all of the requirements of these laws, there are some provisions that our readers should know about. This article addresses one of the thorniest of all: children’s products.

A host of new requirements apply to children’s products, and the determination of what is – and what is not – a children’s product is now no easy matter.  Generally speaking, a children’s product is one designed or intended primarily for children 12 years of age or younger, but the CPSC’s own complex “interpretive guidance” on the question betrays the superficial simplicity of this inquiry.  There are almost no clear rules, and, on matters that could lend clarity to the situation, like a reliable product labeling/marking regime that would put the onus on parents and other responsible adults to keep certain products away from children, the CPSC manages to make things even murkier.

Friday, September 13, 2013 and Petition U.S. Supreme Court over New York Affiliate Nexus Law

We’ve written frequently about developments in and’s challenges to the New York State affiliate nexus law (a law which has inspired similar laws in many other states). Last spring, the New York Court of Appeals, the State’s highest court, upheld the law, stating that, in regards to the parties’ Commerce Clause claims, the “statute plainly satisfies the substantial nexus requirement. Active, in-state solicitation that produces a significant amount of revenue qualifies as ‘demonstrably more than a ‘slightest presence’’” under the Tax Appeals Tribunal’s 1995 ruling in the Orvis case. The Court continued by saying that “The bottom line is that if a vendor is paying New York residents to actively solicit business in this State, there is no reason why that vendor should not shoulder the appropriate tax burden.” The Court rejected the parties’ due process claims, as well.

Late last month, both and took their challenge to the United States Supreme Court, each filing a petition for a writ of certiorari, seeking review of the New York affiliate nexus law and of the New York Court of Appeals Decision (see status of the petitions here and here). New York has until October 23 to file a response in each case. However, as the Supreme Court’s review is discretionary, it is unclear whether the matter will be actually be heard by or decided by the Supreme Court. If not, the New York decision will stand, and other states’ versions of the affiliate nexus law will not be impacted. Meanwhile, the Marketplace Fairness Act, which could, in theory, make challenges such as these moot, remains in committee in the House of Representatives.

We will continue to track developments and keep our readers posted.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Federal Appeals Court Rules Lower Court Lacked Jurisdiction to Enjoin Colorado Notice and Reporting Law; Direct Marketing Association Will Seek Rehearing En Banc

Many of our readers have been following closely the litigation challenging the Colorado law passed in 2010, which required remote sellers to inform consumers of their obligation to self-report sales and use tax and also required direct marketers to turn over to the Colorado Department of Revenue the names of their Colorado customers along with sales transaction information. In 2012, the United States District Court in Denver declared the Colorado law unconstitutional, as a violation of the Commerce Clause. The Colorado Department of Revenue appealed the District Court decision to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

On Tuesday, August 20, 2013, the Tenth Circuit issued its decision in Direct Marketing Association v. Brohl. The three judge panel hearing the case did not reach, or address in any way, the constitutional issues in the case. Instead, the Court ruled solely on the question of whether the District Court had jurisdiction to hear the case.

Although the jurisdiction of the federal courts was not contested by the parties, the appellate court concluded that the United States District Court in Denver did not have jurisdiction because of the so-called Tax Injunction Act (28 U.S.C. sec. 1341) (“TIA”). This jurisdictional statute prevents federal courts from entering judgments that restrain the collection of state taxes, and the Tenth Circuit ruled that it applied in this case. The Court stated that the challenge to the constitutionality of the Colorado law must be filed in state court rather than federal court. Therefore, the Court of Appeals remanded the case back to the District Court and directed it to dismiss the DMA’s Commerce Clause claims and to dissolve the permanent injunction against the Department of Revenue’s enforcement of the law.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Nondisclosure Agreement Do’s and Don’ts

The nondisclosure agreement (“NDA”) is perhaps the most common single agreement that a business person is likely to run across. Virtually any preliminary business conversation, either with a potential vendor or a potential customer, is likely to be prefaced with the exchange of an NDA. In general, these documents are fairly standard and innocuous. The typical business person may feel comfortable executing and NDA without consulting counsel. If you are tempted to do so, here are five tips that can help you avoid making a mistake you may later regret.

  1. Home Cooking is the Best. Have a standard form of mutual NDA that you can readily offer up. In some instances, this is a pure leverage issue, but if you are dealing with a party that does not have its own form, you can seize the initiative by providing your own.
  2. What’s Sauce for the Goose is Sauce for the Gander. Some so-called “standard” NDA’s only protect the information of one party (typically the one providing the form of agreement). It is important to make sure that any NDA that you sign is mutual. Obviously, you want your confidential information to be protected to the same degree as that of the other party. In addition, a mutual NDA tends to be more even-handed than a one-way NDA.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Judge Enjoins Cook County from Enforcing Use Tax

We write frequently about the difficult task retailers face in complying with the myriad state and local tax regimes in this country. State and local tax rules are ever changing, both through legislative and regulatory efforts and also through actions of administrative bodies and even the courts. For your average retailer, keeping abreast of every change can be near impossible.

For instance, last November, Cook County, Illinois approved a use tax ordinance that went into effect April 1, 2013, and imposed tax on non-titled personal property purchased outside the county for use within the county. The Cook County use tax rate was set at 1.25%, while the County’s sales tax rate on similar purchases made inside the county was only 0.75%. The language used in adopting the use tax plainly stated the County’s purpose in adopting the new tax: “WHEREAS, it is in the interest of Cook County to take steps that will level the playing field among business interests, close tax loopholes, and incentivize the purchase of non-titled personal property within the County for use within Cook County.”

Friday, July 19, 2013

Report, Recall, or Both: Do You Know Your Obligations Under the Consumer Product Safety Act?

Manufacturers, importers, distributors, and retailers of consumer products have a legal obligation to report hazardous or dangerous products to the Consumer Product Safety Commission ("CPSC"). Failing to do so may result not only in large civil penalties, but also criminal prosecution. But, there are many common myths and misconceptions about this reporting requirement and how it relates to the separate question of whether a product recall ought to be commenced. Here are just a few:

Myth One: “I only need to report to the CPSC if someone is injured by a product I sell.”

In truth, a reporting obligation can arise if not a single consumer has been injured. The law requires the reporting of “unreasonably hazardous or dangerous” products that pose a risk to consumers—even if the risk of harm has never been realized. The possibility of harm, alone, triggers a reporting obligation.

Myth Two: “I can avoid the need to report simply by sending a communication to my customers telling them how to avoid being injured by the product.”

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Vermont Reverses Course on Cloud Computing

A little over a year ago, we wrote in this space about the State of Vermont’s moratorium on the taxation of cloud computing in the form of software as a service, or SaaS (“pre-written software accessed remotely” in the state’s terminology). The moratorium had been enacted in the wake of outcry from Vermont-based software companies, who objected to assessments for unpaid taxes on SaaS charges going back to 2006, based on a technical bulletin issued by the Department of Taxes in 2010.

At the time the moratorium was passed in 2012, there was some support for permanently exempting SaaS from Vermont’s sales and use tax, and Vermont’s governor had come out in favor of an exemption. A special study committee set up to make recommendations to the legislature on the issue also supported exempting SaaS from taxation. However, legislators were ultimately unable to agree on cuts elsewhere in the budget to make up for loss of anticipated revenue from SaaS taxes. As a result, the moratorium was allowed to expire, meaning that, as of July 1, charges for SaaS are taxable in Vermont. Because the moratorium applied only to taxes on SaaS, its expiration does not affect the tax treatment of other types of cloud computing, such as infrastructure as a service or IaaS.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Despite Prior Veto, Missouri Governor Signs Click-Through Internet Affiliate Nexus Provision into Law

As we reported last month, on June 5, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon vetoed a bill that included an Internet affiliate nexus provision. What a difference a month makes. On July 5, Governor Nixon signed a different bill, S.B. 23, that amends Missouri’s definition of “engages in business activities in this state” under Mo. Stat. § 144.605(2) to add a presumption of nexus for retailers with “click-through” online advertising agreements with residents of the state. Under the Missouri statute, “a vendor shall be presumed to engage in business activities within this state if the vendor enters in an agreement with one or more residents of this state under which the resident, for a commission or other consideration, directly or indirectly refers potential customers” to the vendor by an Internet link or otherwise, so long as the vendor realizes at least $10,000 in sales from such referrals. The presumption may be rebutted by submitting proof that the affiliates were not engaged in activities that were significantly associated with the retailer’s ability to make or maintain a market for sales in the state. In particular, such proof may consist of “sworn written statements from all of the residents with whom the vendor has an agreement stating that they did not engage in any solicitation in the state on behalf of the vendor during the preceding year.” See Mo. Stat. 144.605(e), (f).

The Missouri statute continues a disturbing trend among state “click-through” Internet affiliate nexus laws under which a presumption of nexus is created regardless of whether the compensation paid to the in-state affiliate is based on sales completed by the retailer. Statutes recently enacted in Kansas, Maine, and Minnesota contain similar language, as do statutes already on the books in Arkansas, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Vermont (although Vermont’s statute is not yet in effect). By the plain terms of such statutes, a passive “pay-per-click” advertising arrangement would be sufficient to create a presumption of nexus. Such a presumption is inconsistent with the reasoning of the New York Court of Appeals’ decision upholding the New York affiliate nexus law. See, Inc. v. Department of Taxation and Finance, 20 N.Y.3d 586 (2013). In Overstock, the Court emphasized that “no one disputes that a substantial nexus would be lacking if [in-state] residents were merely engaged to post passive advertisements on their websites.” 20 N.Y.3d at 596. These several states’ affiliate nexus statutes are at odds, on their face, with this fundamental principle.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Indemnification Clauses Critical to Fighting Patent Trolls

Much has been written about the rise of lawsuits, and threatened lawsuits by so-called patent trolls, also known as “patent assertion entities” or “PAEs.” If your business has not yet been the target of a patent troll, you can count yourself among the fortunate few. The proliferation of these types of claims is so widespread that the Federal Trade Commission has actually instituted an investigation into the business practices of patent assertion entities. According to a White House Report issued on June 4, 2013, PAE lawsuits have jumped 250% since 2011, now accounting for 62% of all infringement cases. As many as 100,000 companies have been threatened by patent trolls just in the last 12 months. Often these cases are based on highly questionable interpretations of highly questionable patents, applying them to technology not imagined at the time that the patent was granted. Rather than bear the cost and risk associated with litigation, businesses faced with these claims often agree to pay license fees to the PAE, further feeding the cycle.

As with many threats to business, the most effective technique for dealing with these claims is to anticipate them during your procurement process. In many instances, a well-negotiated agreement with a vendor can provide you with protection against patent trolls in the form of an indemnification clause requiring the supplier of the product or service that gives rise to the patent claim to defend you. A well-drafted indemnification provision properly allocates risk to the party in the best position to understand and assess the risk of a claim. In addition, the supplier of the product or technology actually has an economic incentive to do battle with a patent troll that its individual customer may lack. Intellectual property indemnification provisions accordingly are a critical component of any agreement.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Washington Court Rules On Statutory Exclusion For Internet Service, Awards Refund To Online Services Provider

On June 4, 2013, the Washington Superior Court issued a decision that AOL, Inc. is entitled to a multi–million dollar refund of sales tax paid on services that AOL purchased for use in providing Internet access and online services to its members during the period 2002-2006. In response to an appeal by the Washington Department of Revenue from a decision of the Washington Board of Tax Appeal rendered in AOL’s favor, the Superior Court agreed with the arguments made by AOL. The company asserted the services at issue were “internet services” under RCW 82.04.297(3), and thus excluded from the statutory definition of taxable “network telephone service” under RCW 82.04.065(2) in effect during the time period in question. The Washington Department of Revenue had argued that the services AOL purchased were nothing more than transmission services, subject to Washington sales tax. The Court rejected the Department’s arguments, finding that AOL met each and every independent subpart of the exclusion for internet services. Consequently, the Court held that the services were not subject to taxation under the applicable state statute. As a result, the Court concluded that the Board properly awarded AOL a full refund of all amounts paid to the Department.

AOL was represented in the case by Martin Eisenstein and Matt Schaefer of Brann & Isaacson.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Summer of Privacy: With the Government Under Fire, Retailers May Overlook New Rules and Risks

This may one day be known as the Summer of Privacy. From claims that the NSA surreptitiously obtains cellphone (and GPS) information from at least 100,000,000 Americans to the Supreme Court blessing routine collection of DNA evidence from arrestees, it is impossible to avoid almost daily stories on governmental privacy issues. But, don't be fooled by the focus on governmental activity. From advances on the "do not track" front to a vastly expanded federal children's privacy rule going into effect on July 1, 2013, the privacy temperature is rising not just for the government, but for online and multichannel retailers as well.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Affiliate Nexus Law Update: Minnesota and Maine Approve New Statutes, Missouri Governor Vetoes Bill

While the Marketplace Fairness Act sits in committee in Congress awaiting hearings, two more states have enacted affiliate nexus statutes imposing tax on remote sellers. The governor of another state, however, declined to add his state to the list of jurisdictions enacting counterproductive, and arguably unconstitutional, “click through” nexus laws. Below is a quick round up of recent news in Minnesota, Maine, and Missouri:

Last week, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed into law a click-through nexus bill which creates a rebuttable presumption for out-of-state retailers with in-state affiliates and which goes into effect for sales made after June 30, 2013. The new law states that an out-of-state seller is presumed to be soliciting sales in the state if it enters into an agreement with a resident for a commission or other similar consideration for referrals of potential customers, whether by a link of a website or otherwise. The presumption only applies if the seller has at least $10,000 of gross receipts in the 12 month period preceding the calendar quarter in which the sale is made. Sellers can rebut this presumption with proof that the resident did not engage in any solicitation on behalf of the seller that would satisfy the nexus requirement under the Constitution. The same bill also imposes tax on certain specified digital products which previously were exempt from sales tax.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Marketplace Fairness Act: Are Online Retailers Now Required to Collect and Remit Every States’ Sales Tax Even Though They Do Not Have A Physical Presence?

On May 6, 2013, the U.S. Senate passed the Marketplace Fairness Act (S.743). If enacted into law, the Act would require Internet sellers (as well as catalogers and other direct marketers) to collect and remit the sales and use tax of each state (and any local jurisdictions that assess sales taxes) on all of their remote sales to the state, even if the retailer does not have a physical presence in the state. If adopted, the bill would do away with the nexus/physical presence requirement for mandatory sales tax collection described in Quill v. North Dakota.

Much of the media coverage of the Marketplace Fairness Act gives the impression that the requirement of sales and use tax collection without a physical presence will be effective immediately, now that the Senate has passed the bill. That, of course, is not the case. In order for states to have the power to require sales tax collection by companies without a physical presence, the U.S. House must pass the bill in the same form as did the Senate, and then President Obama must approve the jointly passed legislation.

While President Obama has indicated his support for the Marketplace Fairness Act, there are a number of members of the House who are opposed to the bill. Moreover, unlike the Senate which did not hold any committee hearings prior to voting, the House will hold hearings on the legislation, through the House Judiciary Committee. Importantly, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, has noted his concern regarding the failure of the Marketplace Fairness Act to address many of the concerns of remote sellers. Speaker Boehner has voiced similar concerns. Thus, it is likely that even if legislation abrogating Quill is adopted by the House ― a possibility given existing bipartisan support ― such a bill will probably not be in the same form as passed the Senate. Moreover, given the significant role played by Rep. Goodlatte, Speaker Boehner, and other members of the House, chances are there will be a substantial delay before adoption of any legislation. Indeed, the House Judiciary Committee has yet to schedule hearings on the bill, and it has been reported that the Committee is drafting its own legislation. The message for any remote seller should be wait and see, at a minimum, before embarking on costly measures to implement sales tax collection in the more than 9000 jurisdictions that impose sales taxes.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Meditations On the Consumer Class Action: Statutory Penalties

To know the consumer class action is to fear it. Any online marketer or other retailer that has gone through a class action lawsuit – even if it prevails in the end – no doubt has scars and legal bills to show for it. Because the stakes are so high, even winning a class action case at trial may leave retailers limping and still in great peril. Numerous class actions have settled after the appeal from a defendant’s successful summary judgment motion because, even if the odds of winning on appeal were good, the downside risk of losing was large enough to make the gamble unthinkable.  And the range of potential consumer class action lawsuits often seems overwhelmingly diverse. Is your “sale price” really a “sale price”? Is there enough fruit in your fruit roll-ups? Did you collect customer zip codes in credit card transactions?

While it is impossible for online and direct marketers to insulate themselves fully from an increasingly litigious world, there are rational steps you can take to help prevent your company from becoming "low hanging fruit" for class action lawyers. This is the first in a series of articles on just that subject, and it focuses on state consumer protection, marketing, and privacy laws that have per violation penalties.  The recent Michaels Stores case in Massachusetts involved just such a law.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Illinois Update: Oral Arguments Heard in PMA v Hamer

On Wednesday, May 22, 2013, the Illinois Supreme Court heard oral argument in Performance Marketing Association v. Hamer.  The Court heard the State’s appeal from the ruling of the Cook Country Circuit Court that the Illinois Internet affiliate nexus law is unconstitutional.  Brann & Isaacson senior partner George Isaacson argued the case on behalf of the PMA.  A video of the oral argument is posted on the Court’s website.  Isaacson’s portion of the argument begins at 21:20 of the Court’s video.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Google Updates AdWords Policies Following Suit Over Trademark Infringement

After several years of litigation over the use of trademarks in paid search advertisements, or AdWords, Google recently introduced new policies protecting trademark owners. Google now requires written permission from the trademark owner in order to use a trademark term in the text of a paid search ad—even if the advertiser is a legitimate reseller of the trademarked product. This is a curious development considering that it departs from Google’s past practice of being less aggressive with regard to trademark issues. For example, Google long ago abandoned a policy of permitting trademark owners to block bidding on trademarks used as ad words. The explanation for this change appears to be linked to a rare defeat for Google in a lawsuit relating to its AdWords advertising service.

Back in 2009, Rosetta Stone sued Google for trademark infringement, contributory infringement, and dilution based on Google’s practice of allowing acknowledged counterfeiters of Rosetta Stone software to purchase sponsored search results using Rosetta Stone’s name. Although the suit was initially dismissed by a federal court in 2010, in April 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reinstated Rosetta Stone’s claims. The 4th Circuit found that there was a genuine question of fact as to whether web users would be confused about the source of sponsored search results purchased by acknowledged counterfeiters of Rosetta Stone software. The court’s conclusion was based in part on internal Google documents that showed that consumers are often confused as to the meaning of sponsored search results. Moreover, the evidence in the case showed Rosetta Stone repeatedly notified of Google of paid search ads for counterfeit software—over 190 times in a seven month span.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

German Court Rules That Google Can Be Held Liable for Defamatory Auto-complete Search Suggestions

Anyone who has performed a Google search in the past several years will likely have noticed Google’s auto-complete function, which automatically suggests search terms as the user types. For example, when a user recently entered the terms “Brann & Isaacson,” Google suggested “Brann & Isaacson law firm.” But what happens if, instead of helpful or innocuous suggestions, Google suggests something scandalous?

Google itself has consistently maintained that it has no direct control over its results or suggestions, which are generated automatically. Because Google’s suggestion algorithm reflects the frequency with which particular search terms are entered, however, it is a natural engine for spreading and legitimizing gossip. The more a rumor is repeated, re-tweeted or re-blogged, and the more it is searched, the louder it becomes, and the more likely it is to find its way into Google’s suggested auto-complete terms. Now, a German Court has ruled that Google can be held liable if its auto-complete function suggests defamatory search results.
In Decision VI ZR 269/12 (May 14, 2013), The German Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof), Germany’s highest court of ordinary jurisdiction, considered a case brought against Google by two plaintiffs, a company and the company’s chairman, who had sued to remove auto-complete suggestions the plaintiffs considered defamatory. Users who searched for plaintiffs’ names would see suggested search terms including “Scientology” and “Fraud.” The Court ruled that, while Google has no obligation to proof its auto-complete results in advance, it does have an obligation, once it has been put on notice that suggestions falsely imply a factual link between an individual or entity and terms that have negative connotations, to remove those terms from the suggestions and to prevent similar suggestions from appearing in the future.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Senate Passes Marketplace Fairness Act

By a vote of 69 to 27, the U.S. Senate on May 6 passed the Marketplace Fairness Act (“MFA”). The MFA would authorize states and other taxing jurisdictions that meet minimal tax simplification requirements to impose a sales/use tax collection obligation on Internet retailers and other remote sellers. The final version of the bill expanded the original scope of the authorization to include tribal organizations, in addition to states, US territories, and the District of Columbia. No additional simplification measures were added by the Senate, leaving a bill that does not require genuine reform of state and local sales and use tax systems. Nor did the Senate raise the threshold for the small seller exemption above $1 million in total US sales, leaving small businesses vulnerable to costly and burdensome compliance and tax administration requirements. As any business put through the rigors of even a single state’s audit process knows, the specter of more than 45 audits each year can be enough to cripple a smaller Internet or catalog vendor.

The MFA now moves to the House of Representatives, where the prospects for passage are less certain. Some Republican representatives have voiced support for the bill, however. Ecommerce sellers interested in the bill should contact their representatives to make their voices heard, before the bill becomes law. We will continue to update our readers on developments concerning the MFA.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Not So Simple–Recent Developments in Taxing the Cloud

We write frequently about developments surrounding federal tax legislation such as the Marketplace Fairness Act, which is up for a vote before the Senate on May 6. One of the major issues critics have with the Act is that despite proponents’ claims, it fails to provide for real simplification of state and local tax regimes, such as a uniform tax base among the states. Without a uniform tax base, compliance is incredibly complex for even the savviest of retailers.  The problem is much worse with respect to computing services and digital products delivered over the Internet.

For instance, cloud computing has some of the murkiest tax rules – some states have issued clear statements regarding taxability of IaaS, SaaS, or PaaS, but few have addressed all types of cloud services and many have failed to address the issue at all. Retailers are left guessing at the proper tax treatment of their sales and hoping their interpretation of tax rules is the correct one. That tax rules are ever-changing does not help matters. A uniform tax base would lessen this problem. Instead, retailers must monitor developments in myriad jurisdictions to find some clarity, although tax treatment still varies from state to state.

Idaho, for instance, recently exempted SaaS from sales and use tax by amending its statute to exclude “software accessed over the internet or through wireless media” from the definition of tangible personal property. See Idaho Code § 63-3616(b). Previously, the statute included as taxable tangible personal property any non-custom computer program “regardless of the method by which the title, possession or right to use the software is transferred.” The Idaho State Tax Commission interpreted this language as imposing tax on SaaS, although it noted in its opinion that “Due to the complexity of the business models, it is not possible to provide an all inclusive list of taxable sales transactions or taxable uses. As this technology advances, it may introduce more rather than less certainty.” Cloud Computing and Related Software Sales and Use Tax Issues (10/22/2012) (emphasis added). Even when providing some now-moot clarity to the taxability of SaaS, the state had to admit that its interpretations could not be considered definitive or final.

Friday, April 26, 2013

U.S. Senate Delays Vote on Marketplace Fairness Act until May 6

On Thursday, April 24, the U.S. Senate delayed its vote on S. 743, the “Marketplace Fairness Act,” which was originally expected as early as this week, until Monday, May 6, 2013. In the final procedural vote before the Senate takes up the bill on May 6, there was growing opposition to the fact that the bill had skipped the committee process, but there appeared to still be enough votes for passage. Earlier in the week, the vote to proceed without committee action was 74–20; on April 24 it was 63–30. More senators appeared to be concerned that careful consideration via a committee hearing is imperative before authorizing states to impose the complex existing state and local sales tax system on ecommerce and remote sellers. As we have commented before, the Marketplace Fairness Act fails to include such fundamental simplification measures as one tax rate per state, uniform tax bases and exemptions, vendor compensation requirements, and the harmonization of state sales tax holidays. Readers can learn more about true sales and use tax simplification here.

The House of Representatives has yet to take up the parallel bill (H.R. 684). We will continue to follow developments on federal legislation.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Beyond California and Massachusetts: Will Collecting Zip Codes Invite Class Actions Across the United States?

Although California and Massachusetts have stolen the spotlight with high profile cases banning zip code collection in connection with credit card purchases, thirteen other states and the District of Columbia have similar laws. With voracious class action attorneys circling, it is critical for retailers to know their legal obligations in these jurisdictions and, if necessary, adjust their privacy practices and policies.

Yet, because these statutes are to varying degrees vague, untested, and archaic, compliance can be difficult. At the same time, the risks could scarcely be higher. Hundreds of companies have already been ensnared in consumer class action lawsuits in California and Massachusetts, and the litigation floodgates may now open in other states as well.  And the math is simple. With penalties as high as $1,000 every single time a zip code, address, or telephone number is collected illegally--for periods going back as far as six years--even a relatively small company could face a liability in the millions or tens of millions of dollars.  You're also likely to be required to pay the plaintiffs' legal fees if you lose, which are often as much as one-third of the penalty calculation.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Kansas Enacts Internet Affiliate Nexus Law

On April 16, 2013, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback signed SB 83, which includes a provision patterned after the New York Internet affiliate nexus law recently upheld by the New York Court of Appeals in v. New York Department of Taxation and Finance. The law amends the definition of “retailer doing business in the state” in K.S. § 79-3702(h)(1) to create a presumption of nexus if a retailer enters into an agreement with one or more Kansas residents under which the resident, for a commission or other consideration, refers customers to the retailer “by a link or an Internet website, by telemarketing, by an in-person oral presentation, or otherwise.” The presumption will apply so long as the cumulative gross receipts of the retailer for sales to Kansas customers purchasing through such referrals is at least $10,000 in the preceding 12 months. The presumption may be rebutted by a retailer submitting proof that the affiliates did not engage in activity that is significantly associated with the retailer’s ability to make and maintain a market in the state. Such a rebuttal “may consist” of sworn statements obtained from all affiliates that they did not solicit sales in the state on behalf of the retailer. The law takes effect 90 days after enactment, or on July 15, 2013. Ecommerce vendors should evaluate their Kansas affiliate relationships to determine how to respond to the law.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

California "Right to Know" Act Would Require Companies to Disclose Personal Information to Consumers

A California legislator recently re-introduced a bill that, if passed, would further solidify California’s place at the forefront of privacy regulation among U.S. States. AB 1291, the “Right to Know Act of 2013,” would require businesses to provide to consumers, upon request, a copy of all personal information the company has collected and retained about that consumer, as well as information about any parties with whom that information is shared.

Under California’s existing “Shine the Light” law, California consumers already have a right to request, no more than once a year, a list of third parties with whom a company has shared personal information for direct marketing purposes, and a description of the information shared. Companies may currently comply with the law by allowing consumers to opt-out of having their information shared with third parties for direct-marketing purposes.

The proposed law would broaden a consumer’s right of access considerably, giving consumers a right to obtain a copy of any personal information a company retains about that customer, regardless of whether the information is shared with third party marketers. Significantly, this includes both information a company may collect from a customer in connection with a transaction (e.g. name, email address, mailing address, order history), as well as any information purchased from third-party data brokers and incorporated into the consumer profile maintained by the company (e.g. demographic information provided by data brokers).

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Despite Unconstitutionality, Kentucky Enacts Consumer Use Tax Notification Requirement for Out-Of-State Retailers

On April 4, 2013, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear signed into law HB 440. The bill includes an amendment to Kentucky’s tax code which will impose a new requirement on every retailer that makes sales into Kentucky from outside the state and that is not required to collect Kentucky use tax. The law requires that these retailers provide a notice to their customers that Kentucky purchasers are required to report and pay use tax directly to the Kentucky Department of Revenue. A similar provision enacted in Colorado in 2010 as part of a broader notification and reporting bill was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge in Direct Marketing Association v. Huber, a case now on Appeal before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Brann & Isaacson is counsel to the DMA in the Colorado litigation.

While three other states—Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Vermont—have similar consumer use tax notification requirements on the books, Kentucky’s new law is more aggressive:

First, on its face, Kentucky’s law requires retailers to use “the exact required use tax notification language” set forth in the statute concerning compliance with Kentucky law, and does not include a substantial compliance provision likes other states. According to the statute, even if a seller already has a notice provision for other states, that notice provision is only adequate for purposes of Kentucky law “if the consolidated notification meets the requirements of this section.” In other words, only the “exact” language of the Kentucky law, and not something substantially similar that a retailer adopts in response to another state’s notification law, appears to be allowed.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

New Best Practices for Trademark Owners in an Era of Ever Increasing gTLDs

As new domains become available, trademark owners with an internet presence should consider adopting new best practices to protect their marks.  By way of background, a generic top level domain (“gTLD”) is the alpha numeric string that appears after the “dot” in a web site URL.  The most ubiquitous such creature is the well-known “.com.” In the 1980s, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)–the mysterious not-for-profit corporation under contract with the US Department of Commerce to see to the proper functioning of the Internet’s system of addresses–created seven gTLDs: .com, .edu, .gov, .int, .mil, .net, and .org.. In years following the creation of the original gTLDs, discussions concerning additional gTLDs led to the selection in November 2000 of seven new gTLDs for introduction: .biz, .info, .name, .pro, .aero, .coop, and .museum. In 2003, ICANN initiated a process that resulted in the introduction of six new gTLDs (.asia, .cat, .jobs, .mobi, .tel and .travel).  Most recently, .xxx has been added to the mix.

At each step along the way, the introduction of new gTLDs created anxiety for trademark owners concerned that each new gTLD opened up opportunities for domain name brokers to hijack or cybersquat on second level domains consisting of valuable trademarks.  For instance, might find that there are cybersquatters hosting sites at or  In response to these concerns, at each launch of a new set of gTLDs, ICANN implemented a so-called “sunrise” period, enabling trademark owners to get first dibs on any new domain name consisting of a trademark owner’s trademark.

During the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, this led to a “best practices” regime of domain name management  that consisted primarily of trademark owners registering thousands of domain names consisting of their trademarks in an effort to prevent others from doing so. 

Given developments in the gTLD area in the last two years, however, this approach is no longer workable.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Senate Approves Non-Binding Budget Amendment Supporting Imposition of State Use Tax Collection Requirements on Remote Sellers, But Genuine Simplification Still Sorely Needed

On Friday, March 22, the United States Senate approved a non-binding amendment to the Senate budget resolution, by a vote of 75-24. The non-binding amendment expresses support for the adoption of a federal bill authorizing states to impose use tax collection obligations upon out-of-state retailers without regard to whether the retailers have a physical presence in the state. The Senate did not vote on an actual bill specifying the terms on Congressional authorization for expanded state use tax collection authority.

E-commerce vendors and other remote sellers interested in the legislation should contact their representatives in Congress to ensure that any federal bill considered for adoption guarantees meaningful uniformity and simplification of existing state sales and use tax systems. The bill currently before Congress, the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act, fails to include fundamental simplification measures, such as requiring one tax rate per state and uniform tax bases and exemptions, providing for vendor compensation, implementing consistent and coherent sourcing rules for products and services, and harmonizing state sales tax holidays. Readers can find out more about true sales and use tax simplification here.

We will continue to follow developments on federal legislation.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Perils of Zip Code Collection Reach Massachusetts

On March 11, 2013, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts joined California in prohibiting the collection and retention of customer zip codes by retailers in connection with credit card transactions. In Tyler v. Michaels Stores, Inc., the Court based its decision on Massachusetts General Law ch. 93, § 105(a), which provides that retailers cannot “write, cause to be written, or require that a credit card holder write personal identification information not required by the credit card issuer, on the credit card transaction form.”  Like California, the Massachusetts court interpreted "personal identification information" so broadly as to include mere zip codes.

Background.  In 2011, the Supreme Court of California sent shock waves through the retail industry when it ruled in Pineda v. Williams Sonoma Stores, Inc. that zip codes constituted “personal identification information” under California Civil Code § 1747.08 that could not be collected and retained in connection with credit card transactions except in very limited instances. The prohibition against collection of personal identification information applied even if zip codes were requested, but not required, to complete a purchase. As a result of the decision, retailers selling to California consumers have faced costly class action lawsuits (with claims for as much as $1,000 per violation) even if no actual damages or injury could be shown. And while the Supreme Court of California recently held in Apple, Inc. v. Superior Court, that this prohibition did not apply to online transactions involving digitally downloaded products, the Court was careful to state that it was reserving judgment as to whether it applied to “any other transactions that do not involve in-person, face-to-face interaction between the customer and retailer”—explaining that “we express no view on whether the statute governs mail order or telephone order transactions...”

Friday, March 15, 2013

April 1: BC to Revert to the PST While PEI Implements HST

We post here occasionally about developments in the Canadian tax system to keep our readers aware of important changes and new requirements.

For instance, back in 2011, we wrote that voters in British Columbia had decided to discontinue the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) and return to the provincial sales tax, or PST. As part of this deharmonization, BC taxpayers had to repay the $1.6 billion of transitional funding received from the federal government. BC officials also had to re-implement the PST. Officials have completed their work and BC will revert back to the PST on April 1. (Taxpayers, of course, will still owe 5% GST on certain goods and services after April 1, as well.) Current PST laws and regulations are all now available on BC’s PST website here. Retailers are also required to register for the PST and can do so online here. Note that even if a business was registered under the prior PST, that business must now re-register.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

February 2013: An Eventful Month In The Debate Regarding Use Tax Collection By Internet Retailers

If it seems like there has been a lull in the debate regarding whether ecommerce vendors should be required to collect sales and use tax, this month has seen a series of developments that demonstrate the conflict continues apace.

On February 6, 2013, New York’s highest court heard oral arguments by attorneys for,, and the state Department of Taxation and Finance in the Internet retailers’ respective constitutional challenges to the New York affiliate nexus law enacted in 2008. (The cases are captioned v. New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, Court of Appeals Case No.APL-2012-00045, and v. New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, Court of Appeals Case No. APL-2012-0001.)  Recall that, under the New York law, an out-of-state retailer is presumed to be soliciting sales through representatives in the state if it enters into a contract with a New York resident for the placement of a link on the resident’s website that refers internet users to the out-of-state retailer’s website, pays the New York resident compensation based on sales to customers completed through the link, and makes a minimum $10,000 in such sales to New York customers.  See N.Y.Tax Law § 1101(b)(8)(vi).  A retailer with an in-state representative that solicits sales is required under New York law to collect and remit use tax on sales to New York customers.  The state prevailed before the trial court and intermediate appellate court finding that the law was not unconstitutional on its face.  According to reports, the Justices on the Court of Appeals appeared somewhat receptive to Amazon’s arguments that (1) the law violates the Due Process Clause because the presumption cannot be effectively rebutted and (2) the law violates the Quill “physical presence” standard of nexus.  That said, the state has the advantage of having prevailed below.  Decisions by a state high court are usually issued several months after argument, and we will continue to monitor the case.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Traps for the Unwary: Taxation of Digital Products

Recently, I presented at a webinar hosted by Strafford Publishing on the subject of sales and use tax on digital products and services.  It almost goes without saying that the interstate sale of digital products—whether books or software—is complicated, if for no other reason than it requires analyzing the sales and use tax consequences of such transactions based upon forty-five states’ (and the District of Columbia’s) sales tax laws, which were adopted long before the advent of the digital age.  For example, the starting point for sales tax analysis in most states is whether the transaction involves the sale of “tangible personal property.”  Is a digital product such as a digital book that is downloaded by the customer tangible personal property?

The states do not provide for uniform treatment of the taxability of digital products from state to state, nor are all digital products taxed similarly within a given state.  Colorado, for example, taxes digital books and music, but does not tax digital software.  Twenty-five states tax digital books, music and videos, while thirty states tax prewritten software.

What makes analysis in this field even trickier are the different methods of delivery of digital products and the various pricing plans under which such products are sold.  For example,  under one delivery method, the seller provides the buyer an electronic access code to permit the buyer to download the digital product at the buyer’s convenience.  For a sale such as this, in addition to analyzing whether the underlying product is taxable, the seller must also determine whether the sale of the access code is taxable at the time of such sale.  The SSUTA, of which there are 24 member states, treats the sale of a “digital code” that entitles the purchaser to download a taxable digital product as a taxable transaction.  See Section 332(G).  But not every state, of course, is a member of the SSUTA and non-member states do not always follow this principle.  For instance, the non-member states of Texas, New York, and Illinois treat the sale of such access codes as tantamount to selling a gift card.  These states treat the sale of a gift card or access code as the sale of an intangible.  It is only when the gift card is redeemed that a taxable sale of tangible personal property has occurred.  See, for example, Ill. General Information Letter ST 10-0052-GIL (June 4, 2010).