Last year, this blog raised concerns regarding the TCCWNA, its growing popularity with plaintiffs’ lawyers and the implications for online retailers. At a high level, the TCCWNA is a New Jersey consumer protection law that focuses on contractual terms (including online terms of service) governing transactions between sellers/service providers and New Jersey consumers. It prohibits sellers/service providers from including certain common provisions in their contracts with New Jersey consumers, and provides aggrieved New Jersey consumers with the right to recover from the seller/service provider a civil penalty of not less than $100 per violation. The TCCWNA applies even if the relevant contractual terms are expressly governed by the laws of a state other than New Jersey. Continue Reading E-tailers Rejoice as Decisions Limit Lawsuits in Federal Court for Alleged Violations of New Jersey’s Controversial Consumer Protection Law
A New York State senator has introduced a bill that would make posting footage of a crime to social media with the intention of glorifying violence or becoming famous punishable by up to four years in prison and fines.
Instagram hit the 700-million-user mark.
Brands spent 60% more on social media advertising in the first quarter of 2017 than they did in the same quarter last year, a new report shows.
But savvy brands will do more to leverage social media than just buy advertising, according to a columnist in Entrepreneur. Chatbots that can interact with customers on private messaging networks and in connection with in-app purchasing are the next big things.
And while we’re on the subject of private messaging networks, Tumblr is launching its own version, called Cabana. It encourages six friends to “hang out” and watch YouTube videos together.
Pointing out the inadequacy of many celebrities’ methods of disclosing their status as paid endorsers of the products they promote on Instagram, the FTC sent a letter to 90 high-profile social media users that provides some guidance on how to fulfill the endorsement guides’ requirement that sponsored posts be identified in a “clear and conspicuous” way.
Facial recognition systems will soon be used to identify visa holders as they leave the United States, raising civil rights questions.
The U.S. population’s political polarization isn’t a result of the rise of social media, a new working paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests, because hyper-partisanship is most prevalent among older Americans who are less likely than other Americans to consume media online.
Because it bases its assesments on job title, location and industry, LinkedIn’s new Salary feature might be more accurate than are other online compensation estimation tools.
In lawsuits, social media has occasionally made it easier to serve process on adverse parties, but it has also made it more difficult to ensure that jurors remain unbiased.
A UK company wants to set car insurance premiums using an algorithm that analyzes car owners’ Facebook posts for pertinent personality traits?! The plan likely won’t go far; it violates Facebook’s platform policy.
Kenya deported a registered refugee for posting to social media his support of the U.N. secretary-general’s firing of a Kenyan commander of a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, the refugee’s native country.
Thinking of posting a photo of yourself in the voting booth on Tuesday? Not so fast. In many states it’s illegal to share on social media photos of completed ballots and photos of yourself inside a voting booth. Courts all over the U.S. are hearing challenges to these so-called “ballot selfie” laws.
Does a lawyer violate ethics rules by purchasing the names of competing lawyers or law firms as keywords that improve the purchasing lawyer’s own rank in Google search results?
In the three years since its launch, an app called Scholly, which matches students with a personalized list of scholarships, has been downloaded over a million times. Here’s some advice for other social entrepreneurs from the company’s 25-year-old founder and CEO.
Some researchers believe the likes, status updates and photos posted to social media platforms will someday be the source material for breakthroughs in the field of psychiatry.
A UK solicitor was fined by a professional conduct regulator for posting a series of “unprofessional and offensive” tweets bragging about his victory over vulnerable adversaries.
The latest issue of our Socially Aware newsletter is now available here.
In this issue of Socially Aware, our Burton Award winning guide to the law and business of social media, we discuss the impact online trolls are having on social media marketing; we revisit whether hashtags should be afforded trademark protection; we explain how an unusual New Jersey law is disrupting the ecommerce industry and creating traps for the unwary; we explore legal and business implications of the Pokémon Go craze; we examine a recent federal court decision likely to affect application of the Video Privacy Protection Act to mobile apps; we discuss a class action suit against an app developer that highlights the legal risks of transitioning app customers from one business model to another; and we describe how Europe’s Right to Be Forgotten has spread to Asia.
All this—plus infographics illustrating the enormous popularity of Pokémon Go and the unfortunate prevalence of online trolling.
Read our newsletter.
For years, companies were happy simply to host UGC on their websites, blogs and social media pages and reap the resulting boost to their traffic numbers. And U.S. law—in the form of Section 512(c) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)—accommodated this passive use of UGC by creating a safe harbor from copyright damages for websites, blogs and social media platform operators that hosted UGC posted without the authorization of the owners of the copyrights in such UGC, so long as such operators complied with the requirements of the safe harbor.
Increasingly, companies are no longer satisfied with passively hosting UGC. Rather, they now want to find creative ways to commercialize such content—by incorporating it into ads (including print, TV and other offline ads), creating new works based on such content and even selling such content. Yet, in moving beyond mere hosting to proactive exploitation of UGC, companies risk losing the benefit of the DMCA Section 512(c) safe harbor, which could result in potentially significant copyright liability exposure.
For example, if a company finds that users are posting potentially valuable UGC to the company’s Facebook page, or on Twitter in connection with one of the company’s hashtags, that company may want to make such UGC available on its own website. The DMCA Section 512(c) safe harbor, however, is unlikely to protect the company in copying such UGC from the Facebook or Twitter platform to its own website.
The reality is that any company seeking to monetize or otherwise exploit UGC needs to proceed with extreme caution. This is true for several reasons:
- UGC can implicate a wide range of rights . . . As with any content, UGC is almost certainly subject to copyright protection, although certain Tweets and other short, text-only posts could potentially be exempt from copyright protection if they qualify as “short phrases” under the Copyright Act. If any individuals are identifiable in UGC, then rights of publicity and rights of privacy may also be relevant. In addition, UGC may contain visible third-party trademarks or comments that defame or invade the privacy of third parties.
- . . . and a wide range of rightsholders. Notably, many of the rights necessary to exploit UGC are likely to be held by individuals and corporations other than the posting user. For example, unless a photo is a “selfie,” the photographer and the subject of the photo will be different individuals, with each holding different rights—copyright, for the photographer, and the rights of publicity and privacy, for the subject—that could be relevant to the exploitation of the photo. Moreover, any trademarks, logos and other images contained in a photo could potentially implicate third-party rightsholders, including third-party corporations. Videos also raise the possibility of unauthorized clips or embedded music.
- If the UGC is hosted by a third-party social network, it may have Terms of Service that help—or hurt—efforts to exploit the UGC. Most social media networks collect broad rights to UGC from their users, although they differ substantially when it comes to passing those rights along to third parties interested in exploiting the content. For example, if a company uses Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API) to identify and access Tweets that it would like to republish, then Twitter grants to that company a license to “copy a reasonable amount of and display” the Tweets on the company’s own services, subject to certain limitations. (For example, Twitter currently prohibits any display of Tweets that could imply an endorsement of a product or service, absent separate permission from the user.) Instagram also has an API that provides access to UGC, but, in contrast to Twitter, Instagram’s API terms do not appear to grant any license to the UGC and affirmatively require companies to “comply with any requirements or restrictions” imposed by Instagram users on their UGC.
With these risks in mind, we note several emerging best practices for a company to consider if it has decided to exploit UGC in ways that may fall outside the scope of DMCA Section 512(c) and other online safe harbors. Although legal risk can never be eliminated in dealing with UGC, these strategies may help to reduce such risk:
- Carefully review the Social Media Platform Terms. If the item of UGC at issue has been posted to a social media platform, determine whether the Terms of Service for such platform grants any rights to use such posted UGC off of the platform or imposes any restrictions on such content. Note, however, that any license to UGC granted by a social media platform almost certainly will not include any representations, warranties or indemnities, and so it may not offer any protection against third-party claims arising from the UGC at issue.
- Seek Permission. If the social media platform’s governing terms don’t provide you with all of the rights needed to exploit the UGC item at issue (or even if they do), seek permission directly from the user who posted the item. Sophisticated brands will often approach a user via the commenting or private messaging features of the applicable social media platform, and will present him or her with a link to a short, user-friendly license agreement. Often, the user will be delighted by the brand’s interest in using his or her content. Of course, be aware that the party posting the content may not be the party that can authorize use of that content, as Agence France Presse learned the hard way in using photos taken from Twitter.
- Make Available Terms and Conditions for “Promotional” Hashtags. If a company promotes a particular hashtag to its customers, and would like to use content that is posted in conjunction with the hashtag, the company could consider making available a short set of terms alongside its promotion of that hashtag. For example, in any communications promoting the existence of the hashtag and associated marketing campaign, the company could inform customers that their use of the hashtag will constitute permission for the company to use any content posted together with the hashtag. Such an approach could face significant enforceability issues—after all, it is essentially a form of “browsewrap” agreement—but it could provide the company with a potential defense in the event of a subsequent dispute.
- Adopt a Curation Process. Adopt an internal curation process to identify items of UGC that are especially high risk, which could include videos, photos of celebrities, photos of children, professional-quality content, any content containing copyright notices, watermarks and so forth, and any content containing potentially defamatory, fraudulent or otherwise illegal content. Ensure that the curators are trained and equipped with checklists and other materials approved by the company’s legal department or outside counsel. Ideally, any high-risk content should be subject to the company’s most stringent approach to obtaining permission and clearing rights—or perhaps avoided altogether.
- Adjust the Approach for High-Risk Uses. Consider the way in which the UGC at issue is expected to be used, and whether the company’s risk tolerance should be adjusted accordingly. For example, if an item of UGC will be used in a high-profile advertisement, the company may want to undertake independent diligence on any questionable aspects of the UGC, even after obtaining the posting user’s permission—or perhaps avoid any questionable UGC altogether.
In a social media age that values authenticity, more and more companies—even big, risk-adverse Fortune 100 companies—are interested in finding ways to leverage UGC relevant to their business, products or services. Yet the shift from merely hosting UGC to actively exploiting it raises very real legal hurdles for companies. The tips above are not a substitute for working closely with experienced social media counsel, but they collectively provide a framework for addressing legal risks in connection with a company’s efforts to commercialize UGC.
* * *
For more on the issues related to user-generated content, see New Court Decision Highlights Potential Headache for Companies Hosting User-Generated Content; Court Holds That DMCA Safe Harbor Does Not Extend to Infringement Prior to Designation of Agent; and Thinking About Using Pictures Pulled From Twitter? Think Again, New York Court Warns.
If your company is involved in selling products or services to consumers in New Jersey over the web or through mobile apps, you’ll want to read this blog post.
In what amounts to a feeding frenzy, plaintiffs’ lawyers are working overtime bringing class action suits against e-commerce companies, alleging that their online terms and conditions violate New Jersey’s unusual Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (“TCCWNA”). Some of the online retailers to have been sued include Victoria’s Secret, Bed Bath & Beyond and TOYS ‘R’ US, with more suits being filed every day.
Unlike most consumer protection laws, the TCCWNA focuses specifically on the contractual terms governing certain transactions with consumers, imposing limitations on such terms even if such contractual terms are governed by the law of a state other than New Jersey—creating a potential gotcha for e-tailers who are based outside of New Jersey and who traditionally have their online terms and conditions reviewed only by lawyers admitted to practice in the state whose laws govern such terms and conditions.
Although the TCCWNA was enacted in 1981, it has only recently achieved notoriety, as more and more plaintiffs’ lawyers have embraced the statute due to its broad scope and its statutory penalty of not less than $100 per violation without the need to prove actual harm.
Overview of the TCCWNA
New Jersey adopted the TCCWNA over 30 years ago not to create new rights for consumers, but rather to “bolster rights and responsibilities established by other laws,” particularly those established by New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act (“CFA”). Observers have noted that the number of TCCWNA cases has been increasing in the last few years, particularly since 2013 when the Supreme Court of New Jersey in Shelton v. Restaurant.com, Inc. found that online certificates or coupons were subject to TCCWNA rules and opened the door to TCCWNA class actions stemming from e-commerce.
The TCCWNA applies where a company is a “seller, lessor, creditor, lender or bailee,” offering its services to a “consumer” or “prospective consumer” in New Jersey. A “consumer,” under the TCCWNA, is defined as “any individual who buys, leases, borrows, or bails any money, property or service which is primarily for personal, family or household purposes.” Indeed, courts have emphasized that the TCCWNA is inapplicable unless the plaintiffs are consumers.
The text of the TCCWNA prohibits three types of provisions in consumer contracts, warranties, notices and signs.
First, it prohibits provisions violating “clearly established” legal rights of a consumer or responsibilities of a seller, lessor, creditor, lender or bailee. These rights and responsibilities may arise from federal or state law. For example, one court found that provisions restricting limitations periods for initiating lawsuits, asserting counterclaims or raising affirmative defenses violate consumers’ rights under federal and New Jersey procedural rules.
Second, the TCCWNA prohibits provisions waiving a consumer’s rights under the TCCWNA. In Johnson v. Wynn’s Extended Care, Inc., for example, the U.S Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that a provision in a service contract that prevented the recovery of attorneys’ fees and costs constituted a waiver of a consumer’s rights under the TCCWNA, and was therefore prohibited.
Note, however, that at least two cases have found that a claim under the TCCWNA cannot be based merely upon an omission. As one court noted, the statute’s use of the term “includes” suggests that only a statement affirmatively “included” in the consumer contract, warranty, notice or sign should give rise to liability; in addition, the legislative history does not include any examples of an omission triggering liability.
Third, the TCCWNA prohibits blanket “inapplicable in some jurisdictions” savings clauses (e.g., phrased “void where prohibited”)—though, notably, it does not prohibit such savings clauses in any warranty. In order for a savings clause to be acceptable under the TCCWNA, the statute requires the clause to specify which provisions, if any, are unenforceable in New Jersey.
In one recent case, Martinez-Santiago v. Public Storage, the following language was found to be in violation of the TCCWNA’s prohibition against overly broad savings clauses: “If any provision of this [agreement] shall be invalid or prohibited under [the law of the state where the applicable premises are located], such provision shall be ineffective only to the extent of such prohibition or invalidity, without invalidating the remainder of such provision or the remaining provisions.”
Certain courts, however, have refused to find such a violation of the TCCWNA when the consumer contract, notice or sign is only available within New Jersey, or when the clause uses the alternative “to the extent permitted by law” phrasing, as discussed below.
TCCWNA’s Potential Danger to Online Companies
The TCCWNA is potentially dangerous for companies operating online for at least three reasons.
First, plaintiffs’ lawyers are pushing for an extremely broad application of the statute. They argue that the TCCWNA applies to almost every company providing consumer products online that are available to New Jersey residents, and to any “written consumer contract” and “written consumer warranty, notice or sign” made available to these residents—presumably encompassing nearly all material displayed or offered by a company online.
Third, the TCCWNA is potentially dangerous for companies because it provides an “aggrieved consumer” with the option to seek recovery of a civil penalty of not less than $100. This means the penalties in class actions—especially the penalties in class actions over online terms and conditions—could add up quickly. The text of the statute also allows for actual damages, reasonable attorneys’ fees and court costs in addition to the civil penalty, and further states that such remedies are cumulative and do not preclude recovery available under other laws.
Some Guidance for Online Companies From Emerging TCCWNA Case Law
Because claims arguing that online terms and conditions violate the TCCWNA have been filed only recently, there is only sparse guidance from the courts on how online companies selling into New Jersey can protect against these lawsuits.
Moreover, any such company, if it has not already done so, should promptly contact New Jersey counsel for advice on how to ensure its online terms and conditions are compliant with the TCCWNA.
With those important caveats in mind, recent court decisions applying the TCCWNA do highlight some potential precautionary measures for website operators.
For example, as a first line of defense, it may be prudent for companies to include, and seek to bolster the enforceability of, an arbitration provision and a related class action waiver clause in their online terms and conditions. As an example, in one TCCWNA case, the Supreme Court of New Jersey indicated that an arbitration provision would have been enforceable if it had clearly and unambiguously notified the consumer that she was waiving her statutory right to seek relief in the court of law. While there is no prescribed wording for a valid arbitration provision, one New Jersey court found the following arbitration notice to be acceptable:
The parties to this agreement agree to arbitrate any claim, dispute, or controversy, including all statutory claims and any state or federal claims, that may arise out of or relating to the [subject matter of the agreement]. By agreeing to arbitration, the parties understand and agree that they are waiving their rights to maintain other available resolution processes, such as a court action or administrative proceeding, to settle their disputes.
As a second line of defense, it may be prudent for companies, working with New Jersey counsel, to review and potentially revise their online contracts, warranties and notices in light of TCCWNA cases to date. One approach suggested by existing TCCWNA case law is that businesses can avoid violating the TCCWNA’s prohibition on blanket “inapplicable in some jurisdictions” savings clauses by using different language in their savings clauses to achieve the same result. As noted above, the text of the TCCWNA prohibits savings clauses that state that certain terms “may be void, unenforceable or inapplicable in some jurisdictions” if such clauses do not identify which terms are or are not void, unenforceable or inapplicable in New Jersey. In Kendall v. CubeSmart L.P., however, the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey found that companies could use savings clauses that “attempt…to conform to New Jersey law.” Citing several cases, it held that the phrases “to the extent permitted by law,” “in the manner permitted by applicable law,” “allowed by applicable law” and “or as otherwise permitted by applicable law” were acceptable in savings clauses under the TCCWNA.
Specifically, to complete his purchase of a credit report on Transunion’s site, Sgouros was required to complete several steps:
- Click on a large “Click Here” button on the website’s homepage under the heading “Get Your Credit Score & Report.”
- Furnish identifying information, and click “yes” or “no” to Transunion’s offer to send offers from its “trusted partners,” and then click a large orange button labeled “Submit & Continue to Step 2.”
- Create a user account name and password, input credit card information and click a “yes” or “no” bubble in answer to a question about whether the user’s billing information is the same as his or her home address.
- Click a button stating: “You understand that by clicking on the ‘I Accept & Continue to Step 3’ button below, you are . . . authorizing TransUnion Interactive, Inc. to obtain information from your personal credit profile . . .”
The “I Accept & Continue to Step 3” button was, however, located below a rectangular scroll window with the words “Service Agreement” at the top, and the small hyperlinked words “Printable Version” appeared beneath the scroll box. The 10-page printable version of the Service Agreement in the scroll box did mention the arbitration provision on its first page and did include that arbitration provision in full on its eighth page. But the scroll window allowed Sgouros to view only three lines of text at a time, and no mention of the arbitration provision appeared in the immediately visible text.
Most significantly, the “I Accept & Continue to Step 3” button did not require Sgouros to first click on the scroll box or to scroll down to view its complete contents, nor did it call Sgouros’s attention to the arbitration provision in any way. The court detailed the shortcomings of Transunion’s implementation as follows:
[W]hat cinches the case for Sgouros is the fact that TransUnion’s site actively misleads the customer. The block of bold text below the scroll box told the user that clicking on the box constituted his authorization for TransUnion to obtain his personal information. It says nothing about contractual terms. No reasonable person would think that hidden within that disclosure was also the message that the same click constituted acceptance of the Service Agreement.
* * *
To stay abreast of social media-related legal developments, please subscribe to our free newsletter.
The latest issue of our Socially Aware newsletter is now available here.
In this issue of Socially Aware, our Burton Award winning guide to the law and business of social media. In this edition, we discuss what a company can do to help protect the likes, followers, views, tweets and shares that constitute its social media “currency”; we review a federal district court opinion refusing to enforce an arbitration clause included in online terms and conditions referenced in a “wet signature” contract; we highlight the potential legal risks associated with terminating an employee for complaining about her salary on social media; we explore the need for standardization and interoperability in the Internet of Things world; we examine the proposed EU-U.S. Privacy Shield’s attempt to satisfy consumers’ privacy concerns, the European Court of Justice’s legal requirements, and companies’ practical considerations; and we take a look at the European Commission’s efforts to harmonize the digital sale of goods and content throughout Europe.
All this—plus an infographic illustrating the growing popularity and implications of ad blocking software.
Read our newsletter.
To stay abreast of social media-related legal developments, please subscribe to our free newsletter.