Affiliate Liability Extravaganza

By Eric Goldman

[Note: I recently published a version of this article at InformIT. Here's the pre-edited version I sent them.]

Introduction

This article discusses marketers’ liability for the actions of their marketing affiliates (what I refer to as “affiliate liability”). The affiliate liability issue has become red-hot recently because numerous plaintiffs have taken aggressive legal positions seeking to expand the boundaries of affiliate liability. In three recent rulings, courts have emphatically rejected these expansive liability arguments. Even so, it seems likely that plaintiffs will continue to look for ways to expand affiliate liability, and despite the favorable rulings, defendants often settle a lawsuit alleging affiliate liability rather than establish their rights in court.

Affiliate Marketing—Good and Bad

Marketers create affiliate programs to outsource marketing decisions to domain experts. For example, independent third parties may have better or cheaper access to subcommunities of potentially interested consumers than a marketer’s employees. An affiliate marketing program compensates these local experts for work and expertise involved to take the marketer’s message to those consumer communities. When it works properly, affiliate marketing programs can play an important role in the broad “invisible hand” economic phenomenon of allocating scarce resources to consumers who value them the most.

Affiliate marketing doesn’t always have this salutary effect. Affiliate marketing programs create payoffs to motivate affiliate behavior, and inevitably some affiliates will try to obtain the payoff without doing the desired activity. Thus, even if the marketer would prefer otherwise, some affiliates might do “whatever it takes” to get paid, including using false advertising or illegitimate marketing mechanisms. Further, the fact that the marketer outsources some choices to affiliates (a necessary part of any affiliate program) can lead to “diffuse responsibility” where the marketer and affiliates point fingers at each other if something goes wrong. Sometimes, when there are multiple tiers of affiliates, it can become effectively impossible to assign responsibility for the wrongdoing.

To bypass these legal entanglements, plaintiffs have sought ways to hold marketers vicariously (automatically) liable for their affiliates’ actions. However, these efforts “break” standard tort law by trying to treat independent contractors as if they are principal-agents without the requisite supervision or authority that typically triggers agency liability. As a result, overexpansive theories of affiliate liability cause marketers to internalize too many costs, curtailing potentially socially beneficial marketing activities or leading to overinvestment in socially wasteful liability minimization schemes.

Plaintiffs Gone Wild: Two Recent Efforts to Expand Affiliate Liability

There have been countless affiliate liability enforcement actions, but I’ll focus on two recent initiatives.

New York Sales Tax Law

State and local taxing jurisdictions have long coveted a way to impose sales tax collection responsibilities on non-resident Internet vendors. In general, these efforts have been stymied by the Supreme Court’s decision in Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, 504 U.S. 298 (1992), which requires a vendor to have a physical presence in the jurisdiction before the taxing entity can impose sales tax collection obligations on it.

New York, however, developed a nifty workaround. In April, it passed a law (Chapter 57, N.Y. Laws of 2008) declaring that a vendor’s marketing affiliates in New York constituted a physical presence in New York by the vendor. If so, New York can impose sales tax collection obligations on remote vendors due to their New York affiliates. As part of its crafty plan, New York tried to induce compliance with a carrot—if remote vendors voluntarily agreed to collect and pay sales tax from New York residents going forward, then New York would grant them amnesty for any back sales tax collection obligations.

Neat trick, but…a small problem: affiliates are independent contractors of the vendor, so this effort to treat them as legally related entities surely doesn’t comply with the Constitution. I suspect a court will confirm this flaw because both Amazon and Overstock.com have sued New York over the law. At the same time, to minimize its risk, Overstock has also tossed all of its New York affiliates overboard. One might question the wisdom of the New York legislators prompting marketers to cut off opportunities for New York online entrepreneurs.

Trademark Owners Claiming Marketers Are Liable for their Affiliates’ Marketing

Another trend: trademark owners are trying to hold a marketer liable for the alleged trademark infringement committed by its affiliates, such as when affiliates purchase the third party trademark as a keyword trigger for search engine ads. Plaintiffs have alleged affiliate liability in at least three lawsuits in the past couple of months:

* DSW v. Zappos.com (S.D. Ohio complaint filed May 12, 2008). For more, see SEOmoz.

* NameSafe v. LifeLock (M.D. Tenn. complaint filed June 26, 2008). For more, see Techdirt and News.com.

* Rosetta Stone v. Rocket Languages (C.D. Cal. complaint dated July 2, 2008). For more, see the WSJ Law Blog.

Courts Weigh In—and Plaintiffs’ Expansive Theories Don’t Fare Well

The efforts to extend liability in the sales tax and trademark contexts are novel, and it’s hard to predict the final outcome because we have limited direct precedent to consult. However, looking at some recent rulings in other contexts, there is good reason to believe that both legal theories go way too far.

CAN-SPAM

Unlike many other areas of the law, CAN-SPAM (15 USC 7705 and 7706) specifically authorizes affiliate liability in the statute. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has routinely invoked this provision in its pursuit of marketers promoted by affiliate-initiated spam (for one of the more recent examples, see the FTC’s press release on one of its porn spam busts and settlements). Further, typically when the FTC targets a marketer on an affiliate liability theory, the marketer rolls over and settles rather than fight.

But…a small problem: the FTC’s expansive interpretation of the affiliate liability statute—the basis it has used to procure these settlements from marketers—may not actually reflect the law. In an outcome that didn’t get nearly the press it deserved, in an lawsuit against Impulse Media earlier this year, the FTC took its affiliate liability theories to a jury and lost. This is a huge verdict because (1) the FTC rarely loses in court, and (2) perhaps more importantly, when average citizens evaluate the FTC’s expansive affiliate liability theories, they may balk.

Oddly, the FTC didn’t take no for an answer. It subsequently asked the judge to enjoin Impulse Media even though Impulse Media won the jury verdict. Talk about chutzpah! Not surprisingly, the court declined the request. US v. Impulse Media, 2008 WL 1968307 (W.D. Wash. May 1, 2008).

In another lawsuit, ASIS Internet Services, v. Optin Global, Inc., 2008 WL 1902217 (N.D. Cal. March 27, 2008; unsealed April 29, 2008), a civil plaintiff, ASIS (a serial anti-spam litigant), invoked the CAN-SPAM affiliate liability provision in its anti-spam lawsuit against 20 defendants. One defendant never showed; 18 defendants settled up (as mentioned, the typical response); and only one defendant—Azoogle—persisted in court.

Azoogle is a lead generation company for upstream marketers, and it relies on downstream affiliates to help it generate leads for its clients. Some of those downstream affiliates generate leads via spam. In this ruling, the court rejects Azoogle’s liability for spam sent by its marketing affiliates:

Although ASIS has pointed to significant evidence that Azoogle, during the relevant time period, did little to investigate the third party vendors it engaged, there is no evidence in the record from which a jury could conclude that Azoogle, in contracting with Seamless Media, made a deliberate choice not to know that Seamless Media would engage third parties to send out spam on Azoogle’s behalf. The evidence cited by ASIS to establish knowledge on Azoogle’s part is entirely speculative. Even assuming it is true that the Emails were sent by a single individual and that the lead was typed into a web site that was copied from Azoogle’s lowrateadvisors site, this is insufficient to show that Azoogle consciously avoided knowing that the Emails would be sent. Further, while ASIS relies primarily on the allegation that Azoogle failed to adequately investigate its third-party vendors, ASIS has pointed to no evidence that if Azoogle had investigated Seamless Media prior to entering into the Insertion Order, it would have learned facts sufficient to show that Seamless Media was likely to engage in CAN-SPAM violations. There is no evidence in the record that would put Azoogle on notice that Seamless Media, or Seamless Media’s vendors, obtained leads from spammers. Indeed, the only evidence on this subject is that Seamless Media had a good reputation at the time, and was obliged by its contract with Azoogle to follow the law.

Adware

Another recent affiliate liability decision is the remarkable ruling in People v. Direct Revenue LLC, 2008 WL 1849855 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. March 12, 2008), another case that did not get the attention it deserved. Disclosure note: I helped file an amicus brief in this case.

In 2006, the NY Attorney General’s office (NYAG) made the apparent decision that adware vendor DirectRevenue needed to be shut down by any means necessary, and it launched a multi-front attack on DirectRevenue. It publicly posted a website with information about DirectRevenue that had no apparent purpose other than to denigrate DirectRevenue’s reputation. It bullied DirectRevenue’s advertisers, ultimately procuring, and then releasing a hyperbolic press release about, an insignificant settlement that spooked potential advertisers away from DirectRevenue. And finally, it sued DirectRevenue directly.

The NYAG’s actions had their desired effect. Perhaps due in part to the NYAG’s campaign to close DirectRevenue down, DirectRevenue did in fact go out of business. Congratulations to the NYAG for achieving its apparent goal.

But…a small problem: the NYAG’s assessment of DirectRevenue’s legitimacy may have, in fact, been itself lawless, because the court emphatically rejected all of NYAG’s legal theories. This might be amusingly ironic if the NYAG’s anti-DirectRevenue campaign wasn’t such a chilling and crushing misuse of governmental powers.

The opinion is worth reading in its entirety, especially where the court affirms the EULA formation and limits extraterritorial liability. However, apropos to this post, the court rejected DirectRevenue’s liability for allegedly illegitimate software installations made by its affiliates, saying “petitioner has not shown that respondent should be held liable for the actions of those third parties under a theory of agency or ratification, or otherwise.” The court explains:

Dismissal is required with respect to the 22 [installations by] third parties, who petitioner concedes were independent contractors rather than agents of Direct Revenue. A principal is generally not liable for the acts of an independent contractor because of the lack of control over how the contractor’s work is performed (Chainani v. Bd. of Educ., 87 N.Y.2d 370, 380-81 [1995]). Neither may the principal be charged with the conduct of even more remote subcontractors (People v. Synergy6, Inc., Index No 404027/03 [Sup Ct N.Y. Co 2006][unpublished disposition][Attorney General's action for deceptive practices and false advertising under GBL dismissed as against email marketing company where fraudulent emails were sent by company retained by agent]). Although exceptions exist, such as where the contractor was negligently retained or supervised (Saini v. Tonju Assocs., 299 A.D.2d 244, 245 [1st Dept 2002]) or where the principal has ratified the wrongful acts (Kormanyos v. Champlain Valley Fed. Sav. and Loan Assoc. of Plattsburgh, 182 A.D.2d 1036, 1038 [3d Dept 1992]), the record here does not support any grounds for departure from the usual rule.

As noted, under the SDA, Direct Revenue contractually required its distributors to obtain consent of consumers consistent with the terms of the EULA. The SDA also forbade the distributors from holding themselves out as respondent’s agents. Respondent was not authorized or obligated to control their work, particularly since many of them additionally acted as distributors for various other advertisers. Although in Sotelo v. Direct Revenue, 384 Supp2d 1219 (ND Ill 2005) the court upheld a cause of action against respondent for negligent supervision of distributors, the issue arose on a motion to dismiss and the court thus restricted its inquiry to the four corners of the complaint. Notably, the court stated that it was precluded at that procedural juncture from considering respondent’s evidence that the distributors were independent contractors, evidence which, as here, included the SDA.

The theory that respondents ratified the alleged third party misconduct also fails. The allegations that respondent had general and/or constructive knowledge of some distributors’ wrongful practices are insufficient to impose liability (see, Synergy6, supra; Del Signore v. Pyramid Sec. Servs., Inc., 147 A.D.2d 759, 760-61 [3d Dept 1989][mere knowledge of litigation and complaints against security company for undue force by guards insufficient to impose liability upon hiring firm]; see also Hamilton v. Beretta USA Corp., 96 N.Y.2d 222, 237 [2001]). Moreover, it is conceded that in those few instances in which respondent obtained actual knowledge of a distributor’s misconduct, it took significant steps to modify its procedures. A finding of ratification cannot be found upon such facts, notwithstanding that respondent may have benefited financially from its relationship with the distributors before remedial measures were implemented (see Synergy6, supra).

It is my understanding that the NYAG has filed a notice of appeal in this case to preserve its options, but it is still deciding if it will pursue the appeal.

Unfortunately, I’m not aware of the Synergy6 opinion being available electronically, which is a shame because it’s an interesting and relatively early rejection of the NYAG’s expansive affiliate liability doctrines. Due to that ruling (which involved email marketing instead of adware), the NYAG already had good reason to suspect that its predicate theories were dubious, which makes its decision to pursue those theories against DirectRevenue even more lamentable.

Conclusion

This post highlights two seemingly inconsistent trends. Trend #1 is that plaintiffs (private actors or government agencies) are taking very expansive positions on affiliate liability. Trend #2 is that when tested, expansive affiliate liability theories are failing in the courts. These two trends seem to be in conflict with each other. My hope is that trend #2 becomes so strong that it overrides trend #1, i.e., plaintiffs and government actors get the message that they have gone too far.

Unfortunately, in the interim, many defendants will capitulate and settle an expansive affiliate liability claim—even if it’s lawless—because it’s the cheapest path to resolution or because the precedent isn’t strong enough to ensure victory. Perhaps some defendants will realize that the trend is in their favor and will fight back accordingly. More judicial clarity about the line between permissible and impermissible behavior would benefit everyone.

It is also possible that the legal ambiguities of affiliate liability will be resolved by statute. However, despite the defendants’ string of court victories, I see the chances of legislative intervention to curtail expansive affiliate liability doctrines as nil. If anything, it’s more likely that future legislation will codify liability expansion.

For a rare in-depth analysis of affiliate liability, see Jean Noonan and Michael Goodman, Third-party liability for federal law violations in direct-to-consumer marketing: telemarketing, fax, and e-mail 63 Bus. Law. 585-596 (2008) [ABA subscription required to download].

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