Browsewrap, clickwrap, clickthrough, terms of use, terms of service, EULA. Just what are we talking about and how did we get here?

In Nguyen v. Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2014 WL 4056549 (9th Cir. Aug. 18, 2014) the US Ninth Circuit wades into the subject of online contracting. Law professor Eric Goldman (ericgoldman.org) argues that these terms we’re accustomed to using, to describe ecommerce agreements, only contribute to the confusion. The term ”browsewrap” derives from “clickwrap”, which is itself a portmonteau derived the concept of a shrinkwrap license. As one court described it in 1996: “The ’shrinkwrap license’ gets its name from the fact that retail software packages are covered in plastic or cellophane shrink wrap, and some vendors… have written licenses that become effective as soon as the customer tears the wrapping from the package.”

The enforceability of a browsewrap - it is argued - is based not on clicking, but on merely browsing the webpage in question. However, the term browsewrap is often used in the context of an online retailer hoping to enforce its terms, in a situation where they should have used a proper click-through agreement.

In Nguyen, the court dealt with a claim by a customer who ordered HP TouchPad tablets from the Barnes & Noble site. Although the customer entered an order through the shopping cart system, Barnes & Noble later cancelled that order. The customer sued. The resulting litigation turned on the enforceability of the online terms of service (TOS). The court reviewed the placement of the TOS link and found a species of unenforceable browsewrap - the TOS link was somewhere near the checkout button, but completion of the sale was not conditional upon acceptance of the TOS.

There is a whole spectrum upon which online terms can be placed. At one end, a click-the-box agreement (in which completion of the transaction is conditional upon acceptance of the TOS) is generally considered to be valid and enforceable. At the other end, we see passive terms that are linked somewhere on the website, usually from the footer, sometimes hovering near the checkout or download button.  In Nguyen, the terms were passive and required no active step of acceptance. The court concluded that: “Where a website makes its terms of use available via a conspicuous hyperlink on every page of the website but otherwise provides no notice to users nor prompts them to take any affirmative action to demonstrate assent, even close proximity of the hyperlink to relevant buttons users must click on —without more — is insufficient…”

This leaves open the possibility that browsewrap terms (where no active step is required) could be enforceable if the user has notice (actual or constructive) of those terms.

In Canada, the concept was most recently addressed by the court in Century 21 Canada Limited Partnership v. Rogers Communications Inc., 2011 BCSC 1196 (CanLII). In that case, there was no active click-the-box terms of use, but the “browsewrap” terms were nevertheless upheld as enforceable, in light of the circumstances. Three particular factors convinced the court that it should uphold the terms: 1. the dispute did not involve a business-to-consumer dispute (as it did in Nguyen). Rather the parties were “sophisticated commercial entities”. 2. The defendants had actual notice of the terms. 3. The defendants employed similar terms on their own site.

The lessons for business?

The “browsewrap” is a passive attempt to impose terms on a site visitor or customer. Such passive terms should not be employed where the party seeking to enforce those terms requires certainty of enforceability. Even where there is a “conspicuous hyperlink” or “notice to users” or “close proximity of the hyperlink”, none of these factors should be relied upon, even if they might create an enforceable contract in special cases. Maybe it is time to retire the term “browsewrap” and replace it with “probably unenforceable”.

Now, do you still want to rely on a browsewrap agreement?