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.