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Author: Bob Hillman

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American Law Institute approves the Principles of the Law of Software Contracts

Thanks to Dave Hoffman, who just completed a very successful visit at Cornell Law School, for inviting me to be a guest blogger for the month. Maureen O’Rourke, the Associate Reporter on the Principles of the Law of Software Contracts, and I are posting the following to acquaint readers with the Principles and also to respond to some criticism of one section of the Principles that creates, under certain circumstances, an implied warranty of no known material hidden defects in the software.

On May 19, the membership of the American Law Institute unanimously approved the final draft of the Principles of the Law of Software Contracts. As the Introduction to the project states, the Principles “seek to clarify and unify the law of software transactions.” The Principles address issues including contract formation, the relationship between federal intellectual property law and private contracts governed by state law, the enforcement of contract terms governing quality and remedies, the meaning of breach, indemnification against infringement, automated disablement, and contract interpretation.

The Introduction to the Principles explains further that “[b]ecause of its burgeoning importance, perhaps no other commercial subject matter is in greater need of harmonization and clarification. . . . [T]he law governing the transfer of hard goods is inadequate to govern software transactions because, unlike hard goods, software is characterized by novel speed, copying, and storage capabilities, and new inspection, monitoring, and quality challenges.” Many of the rules of Article 2 of the UCC therefore apply poorly to software transactions or not at all, and the Principles are intended to fill the void.

The Principles are not “law,” of course, unless a court adopts a provision. Courts can also apply the Principles as a “gloss” on the common law, UCC Article 2, or other statutes. Nor do the Principles attempt to set forth the law for all aspects of a transaction, but instead rely on sources external to the Principles in many areas.

The Principles apply to agreements for the transfer of software or access to software for a consideration, i.e., software contracts. These include licenses, sales, leases, and access agreements. The project does not apply to the exchange of digital media or digital databases. It applies a predominant purpose test to determine applicability to transactions involving embedded software or software combined in one transfer with digital media, digital databases, and/or services.

We are the Reporter and Associate Reporter of the software principles. We have been greatly aided by our advisors, consultative group members, ALI Council members, liaisons from the National Commissioners on Uniform State Law, Business Software Alliance, and the American Bar Association, and many additional lawyers from industry and other groups who, over the last five and one-half years, have met with us, talked with us on the phone, and exchanged e-mails with us. We believe the project moved along smoothly largely because of the efforts of all of these groups and individuals.

Nevertheless, in the two weeks leading up to approval in May, we received communications from a few software providers evidencing concern largely with one section of the Principles. Section 3.05(b) creates a non-excludable implied warranty that the software “contains no material hidden defects of which the transferor was aware at the time of the transfer.” The section only applies if the transferor receives “money or a right to payment of a monetary obligation in exchange for the software.” Because the section may be the most controversial provision, we devote the rest of this post to the issue.

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