One of the most important tools to protect your business – your ideas, customer relationships and talent pool – is your written contract. A solid contract is the foundation for a reliable relationship for you, your customers and your employees. More importantly, it helps to prevent misunderstandings and false expectations that can lead to a breakdown in your customer relationship, jeopardize the project and result in litigation.
Many companies start with a model or “form” contract adapted from forms available online or drafted when the business first started. As businesses develop over time, you may have revised your contracts, adding a little here, removing a little there. Maybe you read an article about an important case in your industry and decided to add some text from the contract discussed in the court’s legal opinion. In many cases, over time, the agreements become “Franken-contracts” an odd amalgamation of trade lingo, inconsistent terms and even contradictory conditions. At best these are ambiguous and confusing to read. At worst, they become unenforceable.
At some point, you should review, revise and generally “tighten” existing contracts. You should have your lawyer review them to make sure that there are no mistakes, ambiguities or omissions that could cost you or your customers. I urge clients to have their contract forms reviewed on an annual basis. Depending on changes in the law, changes in the industry or changes in your own business, this process should only take a few hours.
The following are six things to consider as you review your existing contract forms and business practices.
First, are you using a written contract? Simply having a written agreement in place will help prevent the often difficult, time-consuming and expensive dispute that comes down to a “he said / she said” situation.
Second, make sure that the key terms of your contract are consistent and understandable. Pricing and payment terms, clear descriptions of the services to be performed or the goods to be delivered, as well as due dates and acceptance criteria will go a long way toward preventing breach of contract claims. More importantly, ambiguous and internally-contradictory terms may expose you to fraud claims or claims under an unfair business practices act. These types of claims are typically much more difficult and more expensive to defend against.
Third, create a mechanism for changes in your contract. Circumstances change. When they do, make sure that you document them and that your customer initials and dates any additions or changes to the contract after it is signed.
Fourth, don’t overlook intellectual property (“IP”) rights, Many business relationships involve collaborative sharing or development of knowledge, skills and protectable IP assets such as copyrights, trademarks, patents and trade secrets. Intangible assets are often the most important drivers of revenue creation and value. Overlooking creation, ownership and control of IP rights may result in the loss of these assets.
Fifth, ensure that your contracts are up-to-date with respect to local laws and industry regulations. Recent developments in technology, e.g., BYOD, Social Media, Mobile commerce, and online privacy had produced a raft of state, federal and industry specific laws, rules and regulations. Do you regularly update your forms to make sure they comply with changes to local laws?
Sixth, understand your “escape” options. Not every relationship is meant to last forever. Your contracts should have clear and concise terms for ending the relationship such as failure to perform, failure to pay or adverse business conditions.
To find out more about how the Adler Law Group can help you tighten your contracts, or even draft new ones, contact us for a free, no-obligation consultation.
February 12, 2014
One of the key issues that must be examined when negotiating or drafting any contract is how the parties may get out of, or “terminate,” that contract. While many attorneys will rest on standard “termination for breach with notice and cure” language, the recent case of Powertech Tech. v. Tessera, Inc. demonstrates how artful drafting can put limitations on a party’s right to terminate. The Opinion in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California case No. C 11-6121 can be found here.
Powertech and Tessera were parties to a patent license agreement, although the court’s reasoning does not seem limited to only those types of agreements. The license agreement allowed Powertech to use Tessera’s patents in exchange for payment of license fees.
The contract contained the following clause regarding termination for breach:
“Termination for Breach. Either party may terminate this Agreement due to the other party’s breach of this Agreement, such as failure to perform its duties, obligations, or responsibilities herein (including, without limitation, failure to pay royalties and provide reports as set forth herein). The parties agree that such breach will cause substantial damages to the party not in breach. Therefore, the parties agree to work together to mitigate the effect of any such breach; however, the non-breaching party may terminate this Agreement if such breach is not cured or sufficiently mitigated (to the non-breaching party’s satisfaction) within sixty (60) days of notice thereof.”
The court held that Powertech was not permitted to terminate a license agreement with Tessera for Tessera’s breach because Powertech itself was in breach of the agreement by its failure to pay royalties to Tessera.
Acknowledging Powertech’s argument that Tessera was itself in breach, that in and of itself did not give Powertech the right to terminate the contract. Only a “non-breaching” party may terminate the agreement. Said the court “[a]lthough the first sentence of the termination clause is broad – ‘Either party may terminate this Agreement due to the other party’s breach’ — the language of the clause as a whole makes clear that only a non-breaching party may terminate. Reading the clause as a whole, the court concluded “[t]he termination clause refers to a “breaching party” and a “non-breaching party” in every sentence after the first… [therefore]…the clause requires the party seeking to terminate for the other party’s purported breach to be substantially in compliance with its own obligations first.
The Powertech agreement’s termination clause is useful because it put conditions on a party’s ability to terminate the agreement even when the other party was in breach.