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Justices rule on Web IP issue

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In a suit between a company and the marketing firm that created and hosted its Web site, the Indiana Supreme Court determined the Uniform Commercial Code doesn't apply and the marketing firm may collect for its work under principles of common law contract. The high court also held copyright law supports ownership by the designer in a counter-claim alleging conversion of the intellectual product.

The high court affirmed the judgment in favor of Gray Loon Outdoor Marketing Group, Inc. in its suit against Piece of America for non-payment of Web design and hosting fees and against Piece of America in its counter-claim for conversion.

POA hired Gray Loon to design and publish its Web site; Gray Loon completed the project in December 2003 and was paid in full by POA. Later, POA verbally requested changes be made to its Web site without requesting a proposal or quote. Once Gray Loon made the requested changes, POA said it didn't want to implement the changes. Gray Loon tried to recover the fees to make the changes, but POA didn't pay the invoice or the monthly hosting fee. After several months, Gray Loon took the Web site offline.

In Dennis Conwell and Frank Splittorff d/b/a Piece of America v. Gray Loon, No. 82S04-0806-CV-309, the high court had to determine which law applies in interpreting the agreement between the parties; whether the applicable law recognizes a contract here and whether POA should be required to pay Gray Loon; and whether Gray Loon committed conversion by taking down the Web site and not making a copy of the original site for POA.

Using the conventional "predominant thrust" doctrine to decide whether a transaction involves the transfer of goods or performance of services, the Supreme Court ruled the Uniform Commercial Code didn't apply because the arrangement between POA and Gray Loon contemplated a custom design for a single customer and an ongoing hosting relationship, wrote Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard. A Web site created under arrangements calling for the designer to fashion, program, and host its operation on the designer's server is neither tangible nor movable in the conventional sense.

Examining Gray Loon's claim for payment under common law principles, the trial court was correct to enforce the agreement even though Gray Loon hadn't provided a cost estimate for the Web site changes. The original contract didn't explicitly call for changes in writing. In addition, POA asked for changes and didn't ask how much it would cost and there's no evidence Gray Loon tried to force POA into paying an unreasonable fee, wrote the chief justice.

The justices determined Gray Loon was an independent contractor rather than POA's employee, so the Web site wasn't a "work made for hire" under the Copyright Act of 1976, which would have given POA ownership of the site. The Supreme Court also ruled the language in Gray Loon's proposal indicating the company's philosophy that clients purchase goods and services from Gray Loon and "that inherently means ownership of those goods and services" doesn't carry the weight and certainty required by the Copyright Act. In addition, POA had a nonexclusive license, which doesn't constitute transfer of ownership rights. Since POA never had ownership of the Web site, it can't bring a claim for conversion, wrote Chief Justice Shepard.

Justice Theodore Boehm concurred in result with a separate opinion, agreeing with the majority's analysis and conclusions on the record in the case, but he wrote separately to explain why he agrees POA isn't entitled to relief for "what amounts to a destruction of the website it had paid Gray Loon to construct." Because the first version of the Web site was paid in full, POA therefore acquired an irrevocable license for the Web site which Gray Loon dishonored when it performed its updates, wrote Justice Boehm. Gray Loon should have preserved the original version of the Web site and POA retained its right to access those files under its nonexclusive license, he wrote.

"Whether POA had any damages from Gray Loon's breach is a matter of speculation on this record. POA elected to pursue only a conversion theory, presumably in hopes of treble damages and attorney fees in this dispute over an amount that surely is dwarfed by the cost of this litigation," he wrote. "Similarly, when Gray Loon sued for its fees, POA did not assert breach of its license as either an affirmative defense or set-off."

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  1. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  2. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  3. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

  4. When I hear 'Juvenile Lawyer' I think of an attorney helping a high school aged kid through the court system for a poor decision; like smashing mailboxes. Thank you for opening up my eyes to the bigger picture of the need for juvenile attorneys. It made me sad, but also fascinated, when it was explained, in the sixth paragraph, that parents making poor decisions (such as drug abuse) can cause situations where children need legal representation and aid from a lawyer.

  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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