Affiliate Liability Talk Notes from SMX West

By Eric Goldman

Last week, I spoke for 10 minutes (actually, I took 12) at SMX West on the topic of advertiser liability for affiliates’ actions. My talk notes:

General Principles

Issue: when are advertisers liable for their affiliates’ behavior?

General rule: a company isn’t automatically liable for the acts of independent contractors.

Main exception: principal-agency liability. Principals are automatically liable for agent’s behavior within scope of agency. Agency can be express, implied or apparent. Generally, to form an agency, principals must control the agent’s behavior; an agency isn’t formed merely by telling an independent contractor the desired results.

Application of general rule: Unless affiliates are agents, advertisers aren’t liable for their behavior, and most affiliates aren’t agents.

CAN-SPAM

CAN-SPAM is a statutory exception to the general rule. State anti-spam laws may have similar statutory extensions.

15 USC 7705: Advertiser liability if advertiser (1) knew that affiliate is spamming, (2) is economic beneficiary of spam, and (3) doesn’t take reasonable steps to prevent or report.

Numerous advertisers have settled with the FTC based on the FTC’s theories of how to interpret this statute. However, the FTC’s interpretations don’t have a great track record in court:

* U.S. v. Cyberheat, Inc., 2007 WL 686678 (D. Ariz. March 2, 2007). Government’s theory of strict liability for affiliate behavior rejected—liability requires advertisers’ knowledge and control of affiliate behavior.

* US v. Impulse Media. Government took Impulse Media’s liability for affiliate spam to a jury and lost.

Also, most civil plaintiffs have lost trying to hold advertisers liable for affiliate spam. See, e.g., Fenn v. Redmond Venture, Inc., 2004 UT App 355 (Utah Ct. App. Oct. 15, 2004); Hypertouch, Inc. v. Kennedy-Western University, No. 3:04-cv-05203-SI (N.D. Cal. Mar. 8, 2006); People v. Synergy6, Inc., Index No 404027/03 [Sup Ct N.Y. Co 2006]; ASIS Internet Services, v. Optin Global, Inc., 2008 WL 1902217 (N.D. Cal. March 27, 2008; unsealed April 29, 2008),

Other Types of Affiliate Liability

* Fraudulent ads prepared by affiliates. Florida’s AG office has pursued mobile content ads, including those prepared by affiliates to promote the advertiser.

* Adware. The FTC and NYAG have taken expansive view of advertiser liability for running ads in adware. Indeed, based on these theories, the NYAG procured a settlement from Priceline, Travelocity, and Cingular Wireless in Jan. 2007 for $30-$35k each. But the NYAG’s expansive theories about affiliate installations of adware were soundly rejected in People v. Direct Revenue LLC, 2008 WL 1849855 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. March 12, 2008).

* Trademarks. In at least three cases, trademark owners have alleged that advertiser liable for trademark infringement due to affiliate behavior (such as affiliates bidding on trademark owner’s keywords). See DSW v. Zappos.com (S.D. Ohio complaint filed May 12, 2008); NameSafe v. LifeLock (M.D. Tenn. complaint filed June 26, 2008); Rosetta Stone v. Rocket Languages (C.D. Cal. complaint dated July 2, 2008). This is an unsettled area of trademark law. I think it should be analyzed as contributory trademark infringement, which probably would result in no liability for advertisers. As a point of comparison, advertisers are not liable for ads appearing on a site that infringes trademarks. See Fare Deals v. World Choice Travel.com case, 180 F. Supp. 2d 678 (D. Md. 2001),

Other Consequences of Affiliate Liability

Even if advertiser isn’t liable for affiliate’s behavior, advertiser-affiliate relationship may still create problems:

* NY sales tax collection obligation. NY Tax Law Section 1101(b)(8)(vi) enacted April 2008 says:

a person making sales of tangible personal property or services taxable under this article (“seller”) shall be presumed to be soliciting business through an independent contractor or other representative if the seller enters into an agreement with a resident of this state under which the resident, for a commission or other consideration, directly or indirectly refers potential customers, whether by a link on an internet website or otherwise, to the seller, if the cumulative gross receipts from sales by the seller to customers in the state who are referred to the seller by all residents with this type of an agreement with the seller is in excess of ten thousand dollars during the preceding four quarterly periods

Legal challenge to the statute: Amazon and Overstock v. NY, decided Jan. 12, 2009. The court upheld the statute against dormant commerce clause, due process and equal protection claims. I think this is a goofy ruling.

Implications of the NY Sales Tax law:

1) If upheld, other states undoubtedly will adopt the same model.

2) Web retailers will either double-down on affiliate programs or kill them (Overstock killed its NY affiliates).

3) This may be the effective death knell for retailer-sponsored online affiliate programs, which could have a significant consequence on the Internet advertising community.

* Competition with affiliates for AdWords/organic placement.

* Public opinion, including FTC shaming, adverse media coverage, and disgruntled consumers.

Best Practices for Advertisers

1) Advertisers’ affiliate contracts should prohibit ads in spam, adware, etc. This has successfully cut off advertiser liability in several cases (Fenn, Hypertouch, Impulse Media, Synergy6)

2) Affiliate contract should restrict the affiliates’ keyword ad practices. Note, however, the more the affiliate contract controls affiliate behavior, the greater the risk that a court will misinterpret the contract to form an agency relationship.

3) Escrowed/delayed payments are the best way to minimize affiliate fraud and manage contract compliance. It’s rare for advertisers to bring lawsuits against affiliates (e.g., Land’s End v. Remy, eBay v. Digital Point Solutions). The best way to curb bad affiliates is to keep dollars out of their pockets.

4) Advertisers must actually police affiliate behavior

5) Especially in light of NY tax law, advertisers must do a cost-benefit analysis of affiliate programs. Are they net-profitable, after considering all of the costs? The answer may surprise you.

For more reading on this topic, see my lengthy article from last year, Affiliate Liability Extravaganza.

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