Last week, Pinterest announced the release of “Buyable Pins” – streamlining the online purchasing process that enables Pinterest users to buy pinned items from several stores without having to leave the Pinterest site or app. For consumers, Buyable Pins make it easier to move from a Pin to purchase. For businesses, this opens a door to a large new audience who loves to shop.
Here’s everything you need to know about selling on Pinterest and potential areas of Ecommerce liability.
Online Contracts Reduce Merchant Risk. Sometimes.
A substantial number of court opinions in recent years have looked at the validity of various provisions contained in online contracts. The starting point for most analyses is the point of contract formation, because terms of online contracts are enforceable only if the contract was validly formed. Courts have scrutinized ecommerce contracts, primarily in four areas: (a) Terms of Sale; (b) Returns/Exchanges; (c) Governing Law & Venue; and (d) Arbitration. Quite often, courts have refused to enforce such terms, due to deficiencies in the formation of online contracts.
As a general proposition, formation of contracts (offer and acceptance) and enforceability of contractual provisions (choice of governing law) are matters determined by reference to state law. However, in the United States, federal courts are often required to determine matters of state law and most states have relatively uniform requirements with respect to the three principal concepts in the determination of contract enforceability: offer, acceptance and consideration.
This is particularly important for merchants using “Buyable Pins” on Pinterest. Unless the online terms of the agreement between the merchant and the customer are validly binding and enforceable, many of the protections offered to the merchant in the online contract will not be available.
As noted above, courts have frequently refused to enforce provisions around a merchant’s ability to modify some terms post-sale (Terms of Sale), the availability of and methods for returns and exchanges, how and where lawsuits may be filed (Governing Law & Venue), and requirements to submit disputes to arbitration. This presents particular issues for Buyable Pins. Merchants need to think carefully about how a user is presented with the opportunity to accept or reject an online contract, and how the user “manifests consent to the agreement.”
The so-called “click-wrap” agreement is usually the agreement formed when a user purchases goods or services through an ecommerce shopping cart application. A user is presented with the online terms and conditions and must “click-through” as part of the transaction.
Consenting to Online Terms.
“Click-wrap” agreements derive their name from the shrink-wrap agreements that were first incorporated into commercially-distributed software. Users were deemed to have accepted the terms of the agreement by opening the package and installing the software. In ProCD, Inc. v. Zeidenberg, 86 F.3d 1447, 1450 (7th Cir.1996), the court held that a user was bound by the terms and conditions of a software license agreement (contract) included in a users’ manual within the packaging, and which was displayed on a computer screen upon installation and use of the software. Such contracts are enforceable unless their terms are objectionable on grounds applicable to contracts in general (for example, if they violate a rule of positive law, or if they are unconscionable).
Consenting to Arbitration, Choice of Law and Venue.
Another concern is the scope of the terms and conditions applicable to the contracts, and whether additional terms may be incorporated by reference or presented after the transaction has been processed. Courts have been severely reluctant to enforce additional contract terms that would affect a user’s rights, such as the user’s ability to enforce the contract, including arbitration provisions, choice of law, and choice of venue provisions in online contracts, especially where such terms were communicated after-the-fact. This issue was addressed by a federal court in Schnabel v. Trilegiant. 697 F. 3d 110 (2nd Cir.2012)
Consenting to Changes in Price.
A very recent case involving Safeway grocery stores challenged a merchant’s practice of charging slightly different (and higher) prices for items ordered online than those purchased in-store. The in-store prices varied day-to-day. Typically, after a customer placed an online order, the items were actually selected from a physical store and delivered to the customer. At issue was the enforceability of Safeway’s “amend-at-will-without-notice” clause contained in the online terms.
Finding the clause unenforceable, the court reasoned “beyond the impracticality of expecting consumers to spend time inspecting a contract they have no reason to believe has been changed, the imposition of such an onerous requirement on consumers would be particularly lopsided, as Safeway is aware that it has — or has not — made changes to the Terms and is the party to the contract that wishes for the new terms to govern.” Rodman v. Safeway Inc., 2014 WL 6984703 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 10, 2014)
Best Practices For Merchants.
“Buyable Pins” highlight the legal risks inherent in ecommerce contracts. Seamlessly moving form Pin to purchase will no doubt increase sales and customers and reduce abandoned virtual shopping carts. However, merchants need to be mindful that the risk of losing a lawsuit because of an unenforceable contract is greater than the risk of losing a sale because a customer had to objectively consent to that contract.
Here are six “best practices” to ensure that the online contract formation process is bullet-proof: 1) use a multi-step account activation (or transaction confirmation) process where the user is shown the contract (can be in a separate “pop-out” window); 2) use a notice appearing in bold print stating, “Carefully read the following terms and conditions. If you agree with these terms, indicate your assent below;” 3) present the terms and conditions in a new window, with a scroll bar that allows the user to scroll down and read the entire contract (the Berkson “scrollwrap” agreement; 4) link to a printer-friendly version to read the contract printed on paper or view it on a full-screen; 5) display a box and the words, “Yes, I agree to the above terms and conditions” viewable without scrolling; and 6) have a functional requirement that the user click the box in order to proceed to the next step.
While I cannot guarantee that using these techniques will ensure that your online contracts will be fully-enforceable 100% of the time, it will make it exceptionally hard for a potential plaintiff to argue that there was no enforceable contract.
When it comes to addressing emerging ecommerce legal risks, it is often difficult to determine whether you should slow down, change course, signal for help, or simply muddle through. Often, companies need to quickly identify potential issues, assess the risk, and implement controls to steer clear of unneeded exposure. The professionals at the Adler Law Group can help you review, enhance and adopt standardized contracts and implement methodologies for approaching these challenges by setting objectives, determining scope, allocating resources, and developing agreements that will efficiently and effective manage risks, while keeping pace with the business.
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