Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Do We Really Need to Know This?

As I comb through online news articles about the latest WikiLeaks disclosures, I keep on asking myself: what was the purpose of this round of disclosure beyond embarrassing the U.S. and causing more discord in increasingly difficult diplomatic times? Is WikiLeaks anything more than a vehicle through which disgruntled employees wreak havoc on their current/former employers?

Does it surprise anyone that there are unflattering descriptions of world leaders and other countries positions – even a country's allies – in any country’s archives?

Forthright assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of the various players and situations in world politics are in fact some of the most important tools any country has in its diplomatic bag of tricks. However in the past these time honoured traditions would not come to light for a sufficient period of time after the immediate situation so as to permit crises to resolve – for better or for worse - without these distractions.

How has deterring the current nuclear situations in North Korea and Iran been better served by the recent WikiLeaks publications? Isn’t this just going to enflame the situation by feeding their paranoia?

The fact that everyone is spying on everyone else to gather some of this information should also not be surprising. Spying is after all one of the world’s oldest “professions”.

Does the fact that CSIS – or any spy agency for that matter - think that it is “hamstrung” by the rule of law actually a revelation to anyone? Again I hope not; and I also hope that the courts world wide continue to play a strong role in reigning in the desires of secretive organizations to run amok.

I am all for appropriate protected whistle blowing that sheds light on illegal activities. Turning the spotlight on malfeasance, particularly when it is being carried out by governments that purport to adhere to higher standards, is an admirable pursuit.

But so far, this round of disclosure WikiLeaks has not done this, nor has it served the better good.

An Attitude to Outsourcing Agreement Disputes (Not a Course of Action)

The problem surfaced recently in a casual, hallway conversation with an in-house colleague. The customer, my colleague’s employer, had contracted with an unnamed IT service provider for significant software development services but now, some months into the contract, was encountering difficulties. The software developer was not performing and the customer didn’t know what to do. In-house counsel realized just how costly, time-consuming and disruptive it would be to seek to terminate the contract for the service provider’s breach. Yet, at the same time, counsel didn’t see an obvious path to a resolution. Should the customer just cross its fingers and hope that the issue would be resolved as the parties worked through the normal project and contract governance procedures? Should the customer try, outside the contract governance procedures, to renegotiate the agreement? Was it time to invoke the contract dispute resolution process?

I thought about that casual hallway conversation over the next couple of days, trying to work out in my own mind the best way through a very large issue in an outsourcing agreement (about which, as a result of the exceptionally discrete statement of facts, I admittedly knew almost nothing). After some thought, and recognizing that with so few facts the best one can do is suggest an attitude to resolving the issue rather than a course of action, what I should have said to my in-house colleague is this:

I. Dispute Resolution

There are clearly times in an outsourcing relationship when the parties need to invoke the dispute resolution process, e.g. if the other party is not paying attention to or remedying contract or performance issues, is in material breach of its contractual obligations (which need not be repeated breaches – one can be enough), has inflicted serious damage on the other or is acting fraudulently. However it is probably not the right time to do so if an issue has just surfaced or the parties have just started to meet to work out how to respond. Invoking the dispute resolution process will change the dynamics of the outsourcing relationship: it will transform cooperative, problem-solving sessions into acrimonious for-the-record meetings orchestrated by counsel in anticipation of litigation that will paper the file but not contribute to resolving the problem. In such circumstances the parties focus on building their case, not resolving the problem, because in the midst of dispute resolution, what’s right for the dispute matters more than what’s right for the problem. And even if the outsourcing relationship survives the resort to dispute resolution, the trust and cooperation that is fundamental to a successful outsourcing will likely have been significantly if not irreparably damaged by the process.

While the initial stages of dealing with a problem may not be the right time to invoke the dispute resolution process, that doesn’t mean the dispute resolution process should be ignored. It should not. The customer needs to understand its situation and, before proceeding further, the customer should review the contract carefully to ensure it understands how the dispute will be treated under the agreement, the remedies available to it (or the liability to which it is exposed) and any limitations and limitation periods affecting the dispute. If the customer understands its legal situation, it will be able to use this knowledge in discussions around the problem. It just is not clear that the right first step to resolving serious contractual issues is to invoke the dispute resolution process.

II. Contract Governance

There are almost always benefits to leveraging the governance procedures documented in the outsourcing contract:

• Presumably, the procedures were prepared by the parties with the specifics of the outsourcing agreement in mind: at one time at least, the parties thought they would be adequate to deal with the operational issues arising under the outsourcing agreement.

• The customer and the service provider can apply the documented governance procedures to trying to resolve their problem, not spend time working out new processes to resolve the issues.

• Using the existing governance procedures may allow the parties to limit the discussions to a single issue or irritant (if it is in fact such) rather than triggering a review of multiple and possibly time-consuming issues.

• There is probably an escalation procedure already built in to the governance procedures, perhaps from the regular “joint governance committee” to a defined “executive committee”.

• Using the existing governance procedures will likely not require the parties to incur significant additional expenses.

That doesn’t mean however that the regular governance processes will be adequate to deal with every issue that comes up. Many of the contract governance procedures I have seen have concentrated on dealing with issues arising in the normal course of day-to-day operations. Such procedures are unlikely to be appropriate to resolve very large or material issues (such as those that can be involved in the failure of a software developer to perform its application development responsibilities in a timely fashion). That is because the larger or more material issues will likely require the parties to deal with a coterie of complex questions, e.g.:

• Who needs to be notified of the issue?

• Are the discussions without prejudice?

• What happens to interim agreements if the issues are not resolved?

• Do discussions under the existing governance procedures satisfy any steps in the dispute resolution processes?

These are not the sort of questions that are typically addressed as part of the governance procedures defined in an outsourcing agreement.

III. Custom Processes

Faced with very large or material issues, the parties may be well advised to ignore the contract’s defined governance procedures and to develop customized procedures to deal with the issue at hand. The customized procedures will allow the customer and the service provider to address the issues identified in the previous section as well as to discuss all of the other questions that should be considered such as:

• Who should be involved in the discussions from each party?

• Should one of the parties deliver a notice of default?

• Are the parties deemed to have waived any claims to damages or otherwise by engaging in the negotiations?

• Will the parties attempt to resolve all of the issues affecting their outsourcing relationship, or only the immediate issue at hand?

• How will the results of the discussions be documented? In a term sheet? By letter agreement? By a contract amendment or in a restated and amended agreement?

• Will the parties sign mutual releases at the end of the renegotiations?

Of course, it will require some time for the parties to agree on what these customized procedures will be. However, for larger disputes at least, this may not result in any actual delays: at the same time as the parties are working to define the bespoke procedures for the issue at hand, they can be undertaking the reviews and investigations that are likely necessary for them to prepare for the actual negotiations.

Much more analysis around many more questions is required to decide the best approach to resolving a dispute. What outcome does the customer hope to achieve? How is the service provider likely to respond? Are there any time constraints? The point, perhaps, is that the customer should think as much about these questions and about how to resolve the dispute as about the dispute itself.

Monday, November 22, 2010

THE LAST ORIGINAL IDEA by Alan K’necht and Geri Rockstein

I have found Alan K’necht worth listening to, ever since he introduced me to the arcane world of web analytics, Search Engine Optimization and Internet Marketing. And so it is with The Last Original Idea - A Cynic’s View of Internet Marketing, a new book written by Alan K’necht and Geri Rockstein.

The Last Original Idea is not a “legal book”. It doesn’t talk about misleading advertising, web agreements, jurisdictional issues, intellectual property matters or the multitude of other issues associated with the Internet that consume lawyers’ time. I don’t think there is a single statutory reference in the book and even in talking about Napster, there is not a lot of discussion about copyright infringement.

What it is is an entertaining, highly-readable and insightful look at Internet Marketing. The book examines each of the elements of Internet Marketing, not as a dramatic, late twentieth/early twenty-first century technological innovation, but rather as the latest flavour of issues in commercial communications that stretch back hundreds or thousands of years. The routes of banner ads for example, first used on the Internet by AT & T in 1994 in the online magazine Hot Wired, are traced back to electoral propaganda messages written on homes in Pompeii in 71 A.D.

In the course of this examination, we see how today’s Internet Marketing challenges are similar to prior issues in commercial communication, but also how they differ. This appreciation for the past and the understanding of the similarities and differences are crucial for companies looking to succeed in Internet Marketing. Without them, companies will fail in their Internet Marketing attempts. Organizations that have failed to understood that a corporate website is not just an online brochure, for example, have not been successful in their attempts to entice customers to visit and to return to their websites.

K’necht and Rockstein drive home their point that:

“companies who understood the mistakes of the past were able to be profitable in the present. Others are a mere memory, lost in cyberspace”

in the final chapter of their book. It is a case study of Gun Dog Supply, a small business that applied the historical lessons of what works and what doesn’t in retailing to create a successful and evolving business.

The Last Original Idea is not a long book. But it is fun and thoughtful and worth the read for anyone interested in Internet Marketing.

(The Last Original Idea is available through Amazon.com.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fingers in the Cookie Jar

In his Globe and Mail article of November 8, 2010, Ivor Tossell posited that there is a generational divide in public thinking as to when it is okay to violate someone else’s copyright and when it is not.

I am not going to in anyway defend Ms. Griggs. She egregiously violated copyright and seemed to think she was justified in doing so because the material that she plagiarized was posted on a web site. However, hers is not a unique or generational attitude towards material on the Web.

There seems to be a general misunderstanding of what constitutes copyright infringement. Witness the comments posted on line connected to this article.

The commenters misinterpreted what constitutes “fair dealing” use of copyrighted material, stating that all personal use was okay. However, you are in fact violating multiple copyrights when you download music/books/articles etc. from pirate web sites that make copyrighted material available for “free”. Just because you are using it in a non-commercial private setting, does not mean that you have not infringed copyright(s).

They protested that as young authors they were required to sign away all copyright (without addressing the fact that they probably also had waive all of their moral rights) associated with their works if they wanted to be published. That is the economic reality of starting out in any field. You have little or no bargaining power until you have established yourself. Then if you are good at your craft you will be paid more, and may also get to carve up how you “sign away” your copyright for commercial exploitation – hardback, paperback, e-book, movie rights etc. But the bottom line is if you want to make money, you are going to sell some or all of your copyrights in a work.

The commenters seemed to think that there is copyright in ideas and information – which there is not - as opposed to the expression of the ideas and information – which is what is in fact protected by copyright.

Just because I am writing this posting about a published article does not mean I am violating copyright. I have acknowledged the source of my information, but I am expressing my ideas about the information in an original – I didn’t want to suggest it is unique because I don’t think I am that much of a thinker – work. It may also arguably be protected by the fair dealing of use for scholastic criticism (but this could be a stretch).

I am not naïve. While a better understanding about copyright is of course preferable, I do not think that it will curb copyright violators of any age. It may, however, give them a nanosecond of pause before they do it.

And remember, this posting is protected by copyright…