In a recent Computer Fraud and Abuse Act case, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s conclusion that the plaintiff had produced no evidence refuting the defendant’s contention that it honestly believed it was engaging in lawful business practices rather than intentionally deceiving or defrauding the plaintiff. Accordingly, entry of judgment for the defendant was appropriate. Fidlar Technologies v. LPS Real Estate Data Solutions, Inc., Case No. 4:13-CV-4021 (7th Cir., Jan. 21, 2016).
Summary of the case. Fidlar licenses technology to county governments enabling them quickly to scan and digitize real estate transaction documents. The county-licensees pay Fidlar a fee for using its technology. In turn, county-licensees making the digitized documents available on line charge an access fee. Persons who access the digitized documents and print copies must remit copying fees to Fidlar.
LPS gathers, analyzes and sells data concerning real estate transactions. It developed software that permits the company, in exchange for a monthly payment to the county-licensees, to harvest and download en masse documents digitized by the counties using Fidlar’s technology. The software enables LPS to analyze the digitized data without printing the documents and, thereby, to avoid paying copying fees which otherwise would have been owed to Fidlar. When Fidlar learned what LPS was doing, Fidlar accused LPS of computer fraud in violation of the CFAA. LPS denied wrongdoing and prevailed in court on summary judgment.
The parties’ contentions. According to Fidlar, LPS defrauded Fidlar because LPS knew about the copying fee and had to know that its system for harvesting the information contained in the digitized real estate transaction documents allowed it to benefit from Fidlar’s technology without paying anything to that company. LPS responded that, far from intending to deceive or defraud, its business practices were driven by its need to access and analyze data quickly and efficiently, and that printing copies of the documents was unnecessary.
Did LPS intend to defraud Fidlar? Counties pay a fee to Fidlar for using its technology in order to digitize the contents of documents. LPS pays a fee to counties for enabling its computers to access the digitized data. LPS avoided remunerating Fidlar by not printing copies of the information. And, significantly, there was neither disruption nor destruction of Fidlar’s computer system or intellectual property. Fidlar apparently failed to anticipate, and therefore did not forbid, LPS’ access to and use of the data in this manner.
The CFAA criminalizes fraudulently accessing a computer or computer system with the intent of deceiving or cheating. In opposition to LPS’s summary judgment motion, Fidlar maintained that whether LPS intended to defraud Fidlar is a question of fact requiring a trial. However, both the lower and appellate tribunals said that the entry of summary judgment was appropriate because Fidlar was required, but failed, to demonstrate that there was evidence in the record supporting Fidlar’s claim that LPS had a fraudulent intent.
Takeaways. Proving a CFAA violation requires evidence of an intentional fraud. Even though Fidlar’s technology did not expressly permit third parties to access the digitized records and use the information without printing copies, thereby avoiding payment of fees to Fidlar, such access and use were not prohibited. Fidlar lost the case because it failed to design its software to require payments to the company by third parties who figured out how to make use of the data without printing it.