What Happens When You Don’t Have a Written Agreement: [Part 2, Real Life Application]
contracts intellectual property work for hire
This article is the second part of a two part series. Please refer to Part 1, Contract Basics, if some terms or examples seem unclear.
Now that the contract basics are explained, it’s time to examine real life application of those principles. Ideally you don’t want disputes to go to litigation. Hopefully you’ll be able to negotiate terms that, if not favorable to all, are at least enough to make sure that everyone lets go of the matter before dumping thousands into legal fees. However, much of that negotiation will depend on your leverage under the law and your ability to determine whether the law is on your side. Below we’ll employ some of the contract principles learned before in some fairly typical contract dispute situations and specifically when no formal agreement exists.
Types of Informal Agreements
In most cases when we’re looking at the independent developer space, the contracts you’ll see most often are work-for-hire agreements or collaboration agreements among individuals. These almost always count as service agreements and don’t necessarily require a signed writing to be enforceable. Note that while service contracts that take longer than a year to perform require a signed writing, service contracts for an indefinite term don’t necessarily require the same. So even if you don’t have anything definitive in writing, a contract may still be enforceable if the circumstances suggest a valid agreement.
The Gentleman’s Agreement (Oral or Handshake Agreement) and Enforceability
Oral contracts and handshake agreements are fairly common in the entertainment industry. They are particularly common in independent game development. They rely on mutual trust and knowledge among the contributors and are frequently the result of prior relationships. It’s often said that an oral contract is “worth the paper it’s written on,” and in some cases that is definitely true. There are certainly a number of draw backs to having an oral agreement over a written one, not the least being enforceability and the likelihood of a shorter statute of limitations.
However, oral contracts are enforceable under many circumstances and shouldn’t be dismissed so easily. The problem with enforcing an oral contract is evidence—if it’s just an agreement between two people the dispute will inevitably break into to a “he said, she said” finger-pointing match unless you have a witness or some other evidence pointing to an actual agreement. Sometimes that evidence can be performance itself; however, unless there’s definitive proof or witness testimony concerning compensation for that performance, a court of law may only apply the market value of the performance instead of what was actually agreed to in order to make the person “whole”. Let’s look at an example:
Example #6: Among Friends: Anne, Bill, and Charlie worked together at a game studio that fell on financial difficulty. The three decide to go off on their own to create their own game and meet at Bill’s house to go over duties and logistics. They decide that Anne will handle art and music assets, Bill will handle design and act as production manager, and Charlie is in charge of programming/tools. They’re each entitled to a third of the income. However, no written agreement is formed. Bill acts as the unofficial leader of the group and also handles license procurement and applications to the requisite online distribution channels like as Steam and Impulse. Nine months later they complete a simple but engaging game and release it on Steam. The game is a hit and Bill starts receiving payments from Steam, which he fails to distribute to Anne and Charlie. Anne and Charlie sue Bill for breach of contract asserting their entitlement to two-thirds of the proceeds. Bill argues that he treated them as independent contractors and they are only entitled to 10% each. Everyone’s testimony is equally convincing, so the court relies on expert testimony and the market value of the contributions performed by Anne and Charlie. The experts disagree as to market value, but it’s clear that the contributions exceed 10% of the finished product. The court awards Anne and Charlie 20% each for their contributions, with the remaining 60% going to Bill.
The example above demonstrates the difficulty in proving the terms of an oral contract—however, this problem becomes less obvious if more people are involved or if disinterested third parties know about the agreement and can act as witnesses against the person breaching the agreement.
The “Living Contract” (E-mail Exchange)
Another often-seen disputed agreement comes in the form of e-mail exchange, which is probably more common than the handshake agreement these days. While e-mail or letter exchanges provide more evidence of an existing contract, they come with their own host of problems concerning enforceability. First, there’s the question of validity—is there a valid offer and acceptance, is there a counter-offer, and has a counter-offer been rejected or accepted? Then there’s the question of whether any particular e-mail constitutes a “written agreement” or “integrated agreement” for purposes of the parol evidence rule. Additionally, there’s the issue of whether later e-mail exchanges act as modifications or amendments to the earlier contract.
Offer, acceptance, revocation, and counter-offer
As mentioned above, mutual agreement requires offer and acceptance. A counter-offer is essentially a rejection of the original offer, so once a counter-offer is made, the original offer is typically treated as invalid unless offered again. An offer can be revoked at any time prior to acceptance. In the case of an e-mail exchange, many offers or counter-offers may be made before there is acceptance—and if the acceptance is based on an earlier offer that has already been revoked or rejected with another counter-offer, there’s an argument that the acceptance isn’t valid. Let’s look at an example.
Example #7: Whose line is it, anyway?: Nick and Alice are in the process of putting together a team for their newest project, “Delilah’s Curse”, a post-apocalyptic RPG where the player is the parent of the harbinger of the apocalypse. The parent is presented with a Hobson’s choice: He or she can either save his or her child or protect the world from complete annihilation. Ultimately the goal is to achieve a balance where both can be saved. Nick, without disclosing the project details, sends an e-mail to his friend Tom, a skilled level designer, and asks if he’d like to get involved with the project. Tom responds with a request for more information. Alice, who is CC’d on all correspondences, replies that the contents of the game concept can’t be disclosed without an NDA, but she strongly believes Tom is an excellent fit for the project. Nick then sends Tom an NDA for negotiation purposes. Tom doesn’t sign the agreement, but responds with the statement “I accept the terms of your NDA. Please tell me more about the project and the compensation you’re offering.” Alice sends Tom a brief synopsis of the game and the work they expect Tom to perform. She offers him $3,000 per milestone deliverable and contingent compensation of 10% of net profit. A few minutes later, Nick sends the same synopsis and offers him $2,500 per milestone deliverable and a contingent compensation of 15%. Confused, Tom accepts Alice’s earlier offer. Nick responds that Nick’s offer was meant to replace Alice’s offer and Alice’s offer is no longer valid. Tom refuses Nick’s offer and insists on Alice’s offer. Alice suggests in her reply that Nick’s offer is more favorable—however, Tom responds that he would still prefer Alice’s offer and rejects Nick’s offer. The next day he sends a follow up e-mail saying he’s thought about it, and he’s willing to consider taking Nick’s offer if the milestone deliverable payments are upped to $2,700. However, unbeknownst to Tom, Alice had sent an e-mail in the middle of the night stating that she’s sorry for his rejection, and they’ll look for someone else. The next day, Nick sees Tom’s counter-offer. He sends Tom a response stating “Let me talk to Alice and get back to you. I think she’ll accept. In the meantime, here is the work order for the first milestone deliverable.” Tom begins work on the first milestone deliverable. Two weeks later, he receives a response from Alice, which states “I’m sorry, but we’ve already found someone else for the position. Please ignore Nick’s prior e-mail.”
Tom, believing that he’s entitled to the contract for $3,000 at 10% contingent compensation, or at the very least $2,700 at 15%, sues Alice and Nick for breach of contract. The case eventually goes to Court, and the Court finds the following: 1) under that jurisdiction’s law, Tom’s acceptance of the NDA in addition to his electronic signature constitutes a valid agreement for purposes of the NDA; 2) Nick’s subsequent offer after Alice’s initial offer constitutes a revocation of Alice’s original offer; 3) Tom’s rejection of Nick’s offer and acceptance of Alice’s original offer was a counter-offer by Tom; 4) Alice’s late night e-mail constituted a valid rejection of the counter-offer by Tom; 5) Tom’s next day e-mail constituted a new offer by Tom; 6) Although Nick’s response to Tom’s offer may have created some expectancy of being hired, nothing in the response constituted an acceptance of Tom’s offer, so no contract was formed; 7) Because nothing in the e-mail sent by Nick actually requested performance on the work order, no request for work was actually made and Tom is not entitled to damages arising from promissory estoppel; and Alice’s final e-mail constituted a rejection of Tom’s offer.
Note that the decisions reached by the Court are only hypothetical—depending on the jurisdiction and the language used in any given e-mail, Nick may have created a reasonable expectation in Tom that Tom’s offer would be accepted. In that case Tom’s performance may have entitled him to promissory estoppel. There is also the question of authority between Nick and Alice—if Alice is the person responsible for the project and Nick is only acting as her agent, a whole other slew of issues concerning agency law arise. The main point here is that the “living agreement” can get convoluted and it isn’t always clear whether a contract has actually been formed or not.
Parol Evidence Rule and the Hybrid Oral Contract/Living Agreement
A “Living Agreement” can be even more convoluted if you throw in oral correspondences in addition to e-mail exchanges. For example, if Tom had accepted Nick’s second offer of $2,500 and contingent compensation of 15%, and then later sent his e-mail accepting Alice’s first offer, the question of acceptance versus counter-offer would become even more complicated. For this situation most jurisdictions have imposed the “Parol Evidence Rule”, but even that rule may not be applicable in all circumstances. Simply stated, the Parol Evidence Rule prohibits things outside of an existing contract, such as oral or written communications (this extrinsic evidence is called “parol evidence”), from being admitted as evidence when a final or “integrated” contract exists if that evidence contradicts or adds to the written terms. This is limited to prior or contemporaneous evidence, like oral communications or e-mail exchanges made prior to or at the same time as the execution of the final written agreement.
The most obvious question for our purposes is whether an “integrated” agreement actually exists. A contract is integrated if it is a final written agreement between the parties. In other words, all of the necessary terms are set out in the agreement, and as an additional security the parties may include a merger clause that asserts that the agreement is the final agreement between the parties. The more common problem when no formal contract exists is that an agreement may only be partially integrated—in that case, only some terms are clearly agreed to between the parties while others are left in dispute or not discussed at all. In that case, some parol evidence may be admissible if it expounds on those undefined terms.
When we’re looking at an e-mail exchange, it’s possible that a partially or fully integrated agreement could come into existence through one or more of the correspondences. Let’s return to our earlier example concerning Delilah’s Curse:
Example #8: Let’s assume that Tom has decided to accept Nick’s offer of $2,500 per milestone deliverable with 15% contingent compensation. Prior to responding to Nick’s offer via e-mail, Tom calls Alice and Nick to further discuss his role in the project, when payments will be made, and when milestones are due. However, in his next correspondence he states nothing more than “As per our conversation, I’d like to accept the level design position for $2,500 p/MSD and 15% contingent compensation on release.” During the phone discussion, Nick and Alice agreed that milestone delivery payments would be paid within 10 days of delivery regardless of whether or not the milestone was approved. However, the work order forms (none of which are signed by the parties) states that payment will only be made if the deliverable is approved by Nick and Alice. A few months down the road, Tom submits a milestone deliverable. Nick and Alice fail to make payment within 10 days. Tom contacts Nick and Alice about the payment and they respond that they had some problems with the milestone that need to be fixed before they’re willing to make an agreement. Tom argues that they’d agreed to make the payment regardless of approval. However, Nick and Alice point to the provision in the work order requiring approval before payment. Angered, Tom refuses to do any more work on the project and sues Nick and Alice for breach. Nick and Alice file a counter-complaint asserting breach of contract against Tom.
The suit goes to trial and the Court decides the following: 1) A partially integrated agreement existed with regard to Tom’s position and compensation; 2) the work orders are integrated into the agreement based on Tom’s past performance of those work orders and failure to dispute the terms of the work orders; 3) the oral agreement made prior to Tom’s formal acceptance is barred by the parol evidence rule since it was made prior to the partially integrated agreement and directly conflicts with the term of the work order; 4) Tom is in breach for refusing to perform; 5) neither Nick or Alice are in breach, but are expected to exercise good faith when determining whether a milestone is “approved”.
The parol evidence rule could go many different ways depending on the circumstances; for instance, if the work order didn’t say anything about payment depending on approval, Tom’s testimony regarding their prior conversation may be admissible as clarifying a key point to the agreement. Also, the work order itself may be treated as parol evidence instead of being treated as an integrated part of the agreement if Tom disputed the payment terms prior to delivering the first milestone (in the contract world, “performance” is frequently treated as “acceptance”). All sorts of contingencies can change the game in a contract dispute—a formal written agreement that clearly defines the agreed upon terms is the easiest way to minimize those contingencies.
The most obvious lesson to take away from this is to always, always get something in writing; but more importantly you need to make sure you understand what’s written down. As stated in Part 1, you don’t need a massive legal document with a bunch of legalese and recitals to formalize your agreement. A document written in plain English with your agreement spelled out in plain and simple terms while taking into consideration as many contingencies as possible is vastly more valuable, legally speaking, than a form agreement that neither party understands. Knowing what to put in that agreement is equally important—for example, if the agreement doesn’t address intellectual property issues, confidentiality, or indemnification matters properly, you’re not covering your bases and you may end up in a conflict down the road. Although living contracts and handshake agreements are enforceable in many cases, they will rarely if ever provide you with the kind of protection you’ll want or need regardless of the outcome of your project.