Conversations and agreements – when are they binding?

Conversations and agreements – when are they binding?

Introduction

A major cause of disputes occurs over the content of agreements. Sometimes these disputes are a result of poorly drafted contracts; content and deliverables not being adequately described; or as a result of variations to the original contract. Another source of dispute is verbal contracts and conversations where the parties dispute the content of what was agreed upon.

Both verbal and written contracts are, in general, legally binding. However, sometimes writing is unavoidable and is a formality for the contract to be valid, for example: the sale of immovable property, antenuptial contracts, wills and executory donations. Along with the preceding list, all documents that have to be submitted to and registered with the Deeds Office must also be set out in writing.

Written contracts have various advantages, among others, they:

  • ensure that both parties are fully aware of the contents of their agreement;
  • create transparency between the parties;
  • create and maintain trust between parties;
  • can stipulate formalities that must be met for validity; and
  • serve to avoid unnecessary disputes.

Electronic communication

The Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 25 of 2002 (“ECTA“) recognises electronic messages (or “data messages“) as the functional equivalent of writing, meaning that data messages have the same legal validity as content written on paper. This results in any formality requiring writing to be met when the information is in the form of a data message. ECTA, however, imposes a requirement of accessibility to accompany data messages by requiring data messages to be easily accessible to the parties thereto.

The validity of electronic messages was confirmed by the Supreme Court of Appeal (“SCA“) in November 2014 in the case of Spring Forest Trading v Wilberry (Pty) Ltd. The court held that variations to an agreement between the parties made via email were binding – the arguments put forth were that the variation to the agreement was required to be made in writing and signed by both parties in order for it to be valid and that this requirement had not been met because the variations were only discussed and agreed to via email. The court stated that the email signatures at the bottom of the emails amount to signatures and that the email messages constituted writing in terms of ECTA.

Conclusion

Written contracts are always recommended. The rationale being that oral agreements offer no objective or clear record of the details of the agreement and the specific terms are often difficult to establish when a dispute arises. Well drafted agreements should include useful information and guidance to the parties to ensure a fair and smooth resolution of disputes or disagreements. The guidance information should address when parties may cancel the agreement, what constitutes breach and how the breach should be remedied.

Written agreements should also set out that any changes to the agreement are not valid if they are not in writing (and signed by both parties) – which prevents disputes over any amended terms of the agreement. This also prevents quarrels of a “he said, she said” nature as everything has been recorded. As set out above, this can be done via email or other electronic messages, including Whatsapp, for example, however, the name of the sender must be signed at the end of the message for it to be valid.

It is important to understand that following the abovementioned judgment, parties to a contract should specifically refer to an “advanced electronic signature” – which is a special signature provided for in ECTA – being required to amend the agreement if the intention is for the usual email type correspondence not to effect an amendment to the agreement.

Remember, you could be bound to a contract where you have willingly signed it even if you have not yet read it.

Important take-aways

  • electronic communication is legally binding and is the equivalent of writing;
  • some agreements can only be altered if the variation is in writing and signed by both parties;
  • some agreements must be in writing and signed (and sometimes commissioned or notarised) in order to be valid and binding; and
  • oral agreements are binding (but not advised!).
The dos and don’ts of recording conversations

The dos and don’ts of recording conversations

There are several reasons why a business may want to record its interactions / conversations with customers: improving customer service; ensuring that employees always treat customers in the best possible way; ensuring easy customer follow-up and resolution of disputes; demonstrating accountability to customers; and aiding reliable note-taking.

Several businesses may not, however, realise these benefits as they are unsure of the legality and legal parameters of recording conversations. To clear up grey areas and enable you to grow and improve your business using all tools available, we have set out the basics of recording conversations in South Africa.

Am I (or is my business) allowed to record conversations with customers?

While, in terms of the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act 70 of 2002 (“RICA“), the general rule is that no person may record a conversation without consent, the Act does set out certain exceptions to this rule. The exceptions include (and you can therefore record a conversation) where:

  • you are a party to the conversation (“single-party consent”);
  • you have the prior written consent of at least one of the parties to the conversation; or
  • the conversation relates to, or occurs in the course of, the carrying on of your business (“the business exception”).

It is important to note that the business exception is subject to further requirements in terms of RICA.

As a side note, certain businesses (specifically those in the financial services and intermediary industry) are legally required to record certain conversations with customers and to maintain such recordings for a statutory minimum period. This is however beyond the scope of this article.

Consent to record

As stated above, consent of at least one party to the communication is required when recording a conversation. This rule does not apply where the recorder is also a party to the conversation.

However, where a third party is recording the conversation, the third party must obtain informed consent from one of the parties to the conversation in order to legally record the conversation.

Guidelines for recording conversations

  • When recording conversations under the business exception, it is required that you make all reasonable efforts, in advance, to inform all parties that you will be recording conversations. It is good business practice to ensure and be certain that all customers are aware when conversations are recorded.
  • Use reliable technology to record and store recordings of conversations – you want to make sure that your customers’ (and your business’s) information is protected! In this regard, ensure that any recordings and storage thereof comply with all relevant laws (including, for example, the Protection of Personal Information Act 4 of 2013)
  • Maintain an effective storage system so that you can make the most use of your recorded conversations in developing your business

The article is serves only as a basic introduction to the topic of recording conversations and legal advice should be sought in relation to specific circumstances.

Are directors also employees?

Are directors also employees?

INTRODUCTION:

If you have a business of your own, then you will know that the role of a business owner is multi-faceted and often requires the wearing of many different hats. These relate to the roles of a shareholder, a director and an employee. Many business owners wear all three of these hats at once which can be quite challenging if they are not kept distinct and separate. As a shareholder, your attention should be focused on the return you are receiving from your business. As a director, your responsibility is to govern the business in a way that substantially delivers the return that shareholders expect. As an employee, your main obligation will be the tendering of personal services and to further the business interests of the employer. However, outside of the owner-managed scenario, the question arises as to whether a director can generally also be an employee? Let us examine this question in more detail below.

EMPLOYEE VS DIRECTOR AND REMUNERATION:

Generally speaking, there are usually two sources of a director’s remuneration: the one source flows from the fees that he receives for his services as director (example, fees for attending board meetings) and the other source flows from such director’s employment contract (if any) which would provide for the payment of a salary.

A director in his capacity as director is not necessarily an employee of the company and will not always be entitled to the standard rights flowing from an employment contract. It therefore follows that a director is not entitled to be remunerated for his services as a director simply because he has been appointed as a director. Granted, if such director enters into a contract of employment with the company, then he or she will be entitled to those rights that flow from an employment relationship and he would then stand in a position of both an employee and a director.

As a director only, he is not automatically entitled to be remunerated for his services as director. Under the Companies Act, 71 of 2008 (“the Companies Act“), a company may pay remuneration to a director for his services as director, unless it is prohibited by the company’s memorandum of incorporation (“MOI“). Should the MOI prohibit the payment of remuneration to a director, he will not be entitled to remuneration for his services, which is thought to stem from the rule that people in a fiduciary position are not entitled to use their office to profit themselves, unless they have the consent of the majority of the shareholders.

In terms of section 66(9) of the Companies Act, remuneration paid to directors for their service as director may only be paid in accordance with a special resolution approved by the shareholders within the previous two years. However, the words “service as directors” are ambiguous because it is not clear if approval is required only for directors’ services as directors or whether the words are broad enough to include remuneration paid to executive directors in terms of their employment contract.

CORPORATE GOVERNANCE:

The King IV offers some guidance. It embraces the underlying philosophy of ethical leadership, sustainability and corporate citizenship. On the issue of leadership, the board should ensure that all decisions and actions are based on the four values underpinning good corporate governance: responsibility, accountability, fairness and transparency.

As such, King IV differentiates between executive and non-executive directors. An executive director is involved in the day-to-day management of the company. He or she is normally in the full time salaried employ of the company and is generally under a contract of service with the company. A non-executive director, on the other hand, is a part time director who is not considered an employee of the company. Such non-executive director does not manage the company, but rather plays an important role in providing objective, independent judgement on various issues relating to the company. An executive director can therefore be an employee and a director at the same time.

TERMINATION OF SERVICES:

Flowing from the above, there are obvious complications that present itself when a company wants to terminate an executive director’s services. Where the company wishes to remove a director from his office as director and as an employee of the company, the procedure is twofold and reference must be given to both the Companies Act as well as the Labour Relations Act, 66 of 1995 (“the LRA“)

In some instances, the employment contract with the director as employee contains an automatic termination clause which provides that if the director is removed from his office as director, his employment with the company will be automatically terminated or vice versa. In other instances, the MOI of the company will have an automatic termination clause.

However, in the case of Chilliebush v Commissioner Johnson & Others the court held that the insertion of an automatic termination clause into a company’s MOI is in direct contravention with the LRA. The reasoning provided for the court’s decision is that an employer is not at liberty to contractually negotiate the terms of an employee’s dismissal, despite that employee also being a director. Should a company rely on an automatic termination clause as its reasoning for the automatic termination of the director/employee’s contract of employment, such termination does not constitute a fair dismissal for purposes of the LRA. The director/employee will then be well within his rights to proceed to the CCMA on the grounds of unfair dismissal.

The decision is significant because in situations where a director holds two positions (one as a director and one as an employee) his rights as an employee will not be affected by the fact that he is also a director.

The difficulties involved in setting up and managing Section 12J Venture Capital Companies

The difficulties involved in setting up and managing Section 12J Venture Capital Companies

“Section 12J Venture Capital Companies” (Section 12J VCC) seem to be a bit of a buzz phrase doing the rounds in the South African entrepreneurial world at the moment. We have had several requests from new and existing clients to set one up, mainly because of the attractiveness of these structures to investors.

A Section 12J VCC is a company formed in terms of section 12J of the Income Tax Act, 1962 (ITA) – it is essentially a pooling mechanism created by the South African Revenue Service (SARS) to encourage largely high net worth individuals to invest in start ups. The incentive to invest in a Section 12J VCC comes from the fact that investors get a full tax rebate on the funds invested into the Section 12J VCC. So, if a person in the highest tax bracket (presently 45%) invests R 1 million, they will get a tax rebate of R 450,000, meaning that the net investment is R 550,000.

The Section 12J VCC itself is relatively simple to set up, but the real complexity and difficulty comes with the management of it. The legislators have included several anti-avoidance provisions in section 12J of the ITA, which have made it particularly difficult, and in our experience prohibitive, for anyone to manage and run a Section 12J VCC. In fact, at the moment, there are only fifty six Section 12J VCCs approved by SARS and according to the information that we have gathered, and less than half of those are actually trading. It is interesting to note that the legislation allowing these funds was put in place in 2009 – that equates to, on average, seven of these companies formed (not necessarily even operating) every year since inception.

So why is it so difficult to get a Section 12J VCC off the ground? Below we have highlighted some of the major difficulties that some of our clients have had:

  1. No investor into the Section 12J VCC may be a “connected person” in respect of the Section 12J VCC, which essentially means that a natural person cannot own 20% or more of the shares in the Section 12J VCC (directly or indirectly) and a company can own up to 50%, in limited circumstances, of the Section 12J VCC (directly or indirectly), but no more.
  2. No more than 20% of the capital raised through the issue of shares may be invested into any one investee company.
  3. An investee company cannot be a “controlled group company”, meaning that a Section 12J VCC cannot own 70% or more of the equity shares in an investee company.
  4. To be recognised by SARS, the Section 12J VCC must be registered in accordance with section 7 of the Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services Act, 2002 (FAIS), meaning that the company must have a “key individual” in its employment and the Financial Services Board must issue it with a certificate.

There are many more nuances to a Section 12J VCC that we have not highlighted here as they are too lengthy to get into, but they also make for significant barriers to entry.

Regarding point one above – the issue of being a “connected person” – this provision was clearly put in place to avoid situations where a single investor uses this platform to invest in a company where he ordinarily would have done so in any event, but he simply sets up a Section 12J VCC to reap the tax benefit on an investment that he was always going to make.

What we have seen is that there are legitimate arm’s length transactions where investee companies are told that the investor will only invest in them if they are able to use the section 12J of the ITA structure and because of the anti-avoidance restrictions, investee companies are losing out on a potential investment as it is often not possible for this to be done.

Regarding points two and three above, Section 12J VCCs are often restricted in the manner that they can invest when they see a good potential investee company, as they cannot invest more than 20% of their raised capital into the investee company. This means that investee companies can, and do, miss out on obtaining more funding or any funding altogether.

It can also prevent arm’s length investors from investing into one investee company, as they cannot use the Section 12J VCC vehicle to invest into a qualifying investee company because they cannot own more than 70% of the investee company and they cannot use more than 20% of the funds raised in the Section 12J VCC to invest in the investee company. The investor also cannot hold 20% or more of the equity shares in the Section 12J VCC.

The final point is possibly the most difficult, FAIS approval is difficult to obtain as you must have a person who fits the criteria to be a “key individual” in terms of FAIS, which requires experience in the industry and further study. With the fast pace of the business environment, it is often too much of a hurdle to cross to find a party with the correct industry experience to write the exam and become qualified as a key individual.

If you have a legal team that thinks laterally about it, there are ways to manoeuvre within the compliance framework, but even then, there are limitations to the extent that it can be done.

Section 12J VCCs look very attractive from the outside, but when you scratch below the surface, there is a structure that is complex and difficult to manage and balance, which is probably the reason that they have not taken off in South Africa yet. That is not to say that forming a Section 12J VCC cannot be done, as we have assisted in setting up several of them, but it is worth considering it a little bit deeper to see whether this is going to be the best structure for you.

The Edcon Ruling: What to take away from it

The Edcon Ruling: What to take away from it

1. BACKGROUND

Credit providers assist customers who cannot afford to make all payments in cash. In turn for the risk they take, they are allowed to charge certain costs and fees.  When credit agreements are within the ambit of the National Credit Act 34 of 2005 (“NCA” or “the Act“), the Act imposes maximum limits on these fees. Irrespective of the type of credit agreement, section 101 of the NCA provides for a closed list of the fees that a credit provider may charge the consumer in relation to a credit agreement. These fees include, amongst others, initiation fees, service fees, interest, credit insurance and/or default administration charges

2. INTRODUCTION

It has become common practice for retailers to make membership clubs available to consumers in exchange for a monthly “membership/club fee”. Typically, when a consumer becomes a club member he or she would earn points or similar consideration for different reasons – such as a percentage of the purchase price being earned in points. Depending on the type of club joined and/or amount of points earned by that club member, he or she would be entitled to convert his or her points into some form of benefit or product (for example, entertainment, travel, spa, gym etc.). For credit providers who want to offer similar “clubs” there is a challenge in that the NCA does not provide for this kind of “club fee”.

3. THE EDCON RULING

More recently, the National Credit Regulator (“NCR“) started to investigate this business practice and focused on a well-known credit provider retailer: Edcon Holdings Limited (“Edcon“). Following the investigation, they initiated action against Edcon by referring the matter to the National Consumer Tribunal (“NCT“) seeking an order declaring that Edcon has, among other things, repeatedly contravened the provisions of the NCA relating to prohibited charges – by charging a fee not allowed for in the NCA.

The NCT considered the matter from a broader legal perspective, namely whether the NCA allows a credit agreement to contain any fee or charge other than those permitted by the NCA. Edcon argued that the club membership was a stand-alone product, not intended to be part of the credit agreement.

As a starting point, the NCT concluded that the NCA unambiguously prohibits credit providers from charging any fee or charge other than those listed in and provided for in the Act.  The NCT found that Edcon was not allowed to charge its credit customers any fee or charge other than that permitted by the NCA and could therefore not charge the club membership fees. In conclusion, it was held that, by doing so, Edcon had engaged in repeated prohibited conduct in terms of the NCA.

The NCT emphasised that the business practice of charging “membership/club fees” is explicitly prohibited by the NCA and any credit provider who does business in this way may face dire consequences. From perusal of the ruling, the likely consequences that Edcon faces may include being directed to refund consumers charged club and membership fees from 2007 to date and/or an administrative fine on Edcon. According to media reports, Edcon has indicated that they will appeal the ruling.

4. CONCLUSION

The above ruling raises a red flag to many credit providers or credit retailers who may be involved in similar business practices. Retailers should take the following away from this ruling:

  • irrespective of whether customers voluntarily choose to purchase this type of (club) product, a membership/club fee may be seen as a cost of credit if it is inseparably linked to a credit agreement; and
  • review your credit agreements to ensure you do not include any provisions or charges not allowed in terms of the NCA.

Please note that not all club memberships will fall within the ambit of this ruling and club structures will need to be considered on a case to case basis. Please do not hesitate to contact us should you have any queries.

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) – understanding some of the aspects of this technology model

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) – understanding some of the aspects of this technology model

As commercial law attorneys, much of our work is helping tech start-ups negotiate and draft software agreements. There is no doubt that the emergence of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) – often referred to as “cloud computing” – has been one of the most profound technological developments in the commercial software industry.  It is shaking up traditional software vendors and it is expected to continue disrupting traditional businesses. Think “Slack”, “Trello”, “Salesforce”, “Stripe” and “Dropbox” – these are all SaaS enterprise applications delivered over the internet.

This article will provide a basic overview of SaaS and some of the legal aspects tech start-up founders need to understand when negotiating and preparing their SaaS agreements.

What is “SaaS” and SaaS Agreements?

Software-as-Service is a software distribution model with which a business hosts software applications and makes them available to customers over the internet.  The agreement or contract that governs the access and use of the software service and describes the rights and obligations of the parties is referred to as a SaaS agreement. The SaaS agreement differs from your typical software license agreement because SaaS is not a license to use the software, but rather is a subscription to software services and allows remote software access.

Benefits of SaaS

Low set-up cost: SaaS removes the need for organizations to install and run expensive software applications on their computers and data servers. It eliminates the expenses associated with hardware acquisition and maintenance, as well as software licensing, installation and support costs.

Payment flexibility: rather than purchasing software to install, or additional hardware to support it, customers subscribe to a SaaS offering. Typically, customers pay for this service on a monthly subscription or utility basis i.e. the number of users who has access or the number of online transactions.

Highly scalable: cloud services like SaaS offer high scalability. Upgrades, additional storage or services can be accessed on demand without needing to install new software and hardware.

Automatic updates:  customers can rely on a SaaS provider to automatically perform updates and software improvements and modifications, which are generally free of charge.

Accessibility:  customers aren’t restricted to one location and can access the service from any internet-enabled device and location.

Software Licencing Model vs SaaS Model

Software license agreements are used when a proprietary software is being licensed by the licensor to a licensee.  The licensee purchases the software and receives a right to install, download and use the software. The licensor owns all the intellectual property rights in the software and related documentation.  A license is a limited grant of use those rights.

With SaaS agreements, the customer does not download or install copies of the software, but remotely accesses and uses the software by logging into the software provider’s system.  The software provider hosts the software either on its server or in the cloud and provides a service to the customer which consists of hosting its software, performing services to support the hosted software and granting access to the hosted software.

Important legal aspects to consider in your SaaS Agreement

SaaS agreements can touch upon nearly every area of the law, but broadly, a SaaS agreement should include clauses regarding: the services provided; the parties who will have access to the service; user obligations and prohibited use; payment terms; data collection and personal information; termination; service levels; maintenance and support services; disclaimers and liability; and intellectual property rights.

We discuss a few of these below:

Limitation of liability

The most important provision of any SaaS agreement is the liability clause as liability presents itself in many forms. What if the SaaS service is hacked or the subject of a cyber-attack and the customer’s sensitive confidential data (including banking details) is stolen? Are you going to indemnify and hold the customer harmless for all the damages suffered as a result of the data breach? Limitation of liability explains the extent of damages your customer can seek against you and how much they can sue you for. A well-drafted limitation of liability cannot be overstated!

Service levels

An important consideration is whether the SaaS service is going to be up and running and functioning for a guaranteed minimum amount of time. Service level agreement or commitments are very common in any SaaS agreement. Generally, the SaaS provider guarantees that the service will be up and running for 365 days a year 99% of the time, for example. Your company will need to consider what type of service guarantees and commitments it will be making in terms of its service “uptime” and “downtime”.

Maintenance and support

What types of maintenance and support services will your company be providing? Will you be guaranteeing bug fixes in a timely manner, providing customer support via email and telephone or periodic software upgrades and maintenance? These are issues that need to be considered and which will affect your agreements with your customers. To this end, the contact details, extent of support and troubleshooting methods offered by the provider should be recorded in your agreement.

Upselling and upgrading

You should consider including language in your agreement that allows for future orders or “up-sales” from the customer. By specifying that “up-sales” or upgraded orders from the customer will be governed by the agreement, you avoid having the customer sign or click through another agreement if they purchase additional services, upgrades or expand their usage.

Conclusion

A SaaS agreement is designed to be a comprehensive document and as such, companies should pay careful attention to the multiple aspects of the agreement that set out their liability, responsibilities and obligations. Failing to include or properly define a crucial clause can have serious legal implications on a business’ risk, reputation and commercial relationships.

If you require any assistance in preparing any SaaS, software development or any other software related agreements don’t hesitate to contact us.

 

Due diligence: an inevitable destination on any start-up’s yellow brick road to investment success

Due diligence: an inevitable destination on any start-up’s yellow brick road to investment success

In the age old classic, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is advised to follow the yellow brick road through the surreal and unfamiliar world of Oz until she reaches the Emerald City. Red boots and all, she, together with her travel companions, set out on this journey, facing some unnerving scenarios along the way. Sound familiar?

Although not written with start-ups in mind, this story can easily serve as a metaphor to illustrate the fascinating world start-up entrepreneurs must navigate on the “yellow brick road” to their next “Emerald City” destination – be it funding rounds, impossible deadlines, incubator pitches or that big exit – this journey has it all. One of the most important, however, not-so-often-discussed, destinations on this “yellow brick road” are due diligence investigations. This article explains why start-ups (or investors) should always keep this often-forgotten destination, and its potential impact on future investment success in mind.

What is a due diligence investigation (commonly referred to as a “DD”)?

Startuplawyer.com defines a due diligence as “an investigatory process performed by potential investors or acquirers to assess the viability of an investment or acquisition and the accuracy of the information provided by the target corporation (or start-up)”.

As such, although a due diligence is usually done by the investors, any start-up would be well-advised to consider the due diligence implications of all their actions leading up to that point. Simply put, this starts by ensuring that internal processes are in place to accurately and continuously record, save and timeously update documentation from the get go. More specifically, documentation and official company records, items relating to internal governance procedures, stakeholders’ communications and company information (i.e. organisation information, market size, team structure), key and material agreements, financial management and annual statements, asset valuation, regulatory approvals, product development and proof of intellectual property (IP) protection are all important for the start-up to keep on record. Furthermore, saving these documents in an orderly and easily accessible folder system eases the process of any due diligence investigation, which in turn, speeds up negotiations and valuations, potentially staving off weeks on an investment timeframe.

Why is it important?

Any sensible investor likes to determine beforehand exactly what it is that they are investing into and in doing so, considers various factors, including: compliance with the potential investor’s investment model, the financial position and investment viability of the start-up, material risks related to its business model, management structure, founders’ commitment, company valuation, legal standing and regulatory compliance. In short, investors are eager to get an all-inclusive and well-rounded snapshot of the start-up to encourage them to provide the necessary funding and to see if the two parties fit. Therefore, if a start-up can provide this information accurately and timeously, it may well contribute to investment negotiations being concluded far more easily than anticipated. Both parties are advised to note that due diligences generally take longer than anticipated, but by being adequately prepared and organised many a pitfall can be avoided.

Does a due diligence benefit the start-up at all?

Yes, regardless of whether the investment proceeds, the preceding due diligence is a good trial by fire for any start-up. Usually, by way of the investor providing a due diligence report, concerns or queries are highlighted in detail, providing an objective and holistic view of all the facets contributing to the start-up’s business. This can greatly assist the start-up in determining further strengths, weaknesses, opportunities or threats. Start-ups are, however, advised to not be duped into a due diligence too easily. Especially during early stage negotiations, a commitment from investors (usually in the form of a term sheet) is important to ensure mutual benefits are derived from the due diligence investigation.

Concluding remarks

Although a due diligence is a high level and intense review of the start-up’s business, it need not be a daunting experience. It is important to remember that both the investor and the start-up should benefit from this process – the start-up showing off its true colours, and the investor justifying its investment. As such, communicating honestly to avoid any confusion, disappointment or time wastage is well advised before any due diligence and subsequent negotiations commence. Considering the above, if a start-up is aware and is pro-actively engaging this inevitable destination from the get-go, the due diligence need only be a brief stopover on your “yellow brick road” to the next Emerald City destination.

2017 Budget Speech implications for the externalisation of intellectual property (IP)

2017 Budget Speech implications for the externalisation of intellectual property (IP)

Relaxing the South African (SA) Exchange Control Regulations, in relation to IP in particular, is crucial for many of our start up clients (especially those operating in the software development and technology space). Up to now, SA resident companies could not export their IP to a non-resident, unless the approval of the Financial Surveillance Department (FSD) of the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) was obtained. This proved to be an insurmountable hurdle for many companies trying to externalise their businesses by moving them “offshore” for any reason, including that of attracting foreign capital investments.

The Exchange Control Regulations provide that when a SA resident (natural or juristic person) enters any transaction in terms of which capital, or any right to capital, is directly or indirectly exported (i.e. transferred by way of cession, assignment, sale transfer or any other means) from South Africa to a non-resident (natural or juristic person) such transaction falls in the ambit of the Exchange Control Regulations.

The export of “capital” specifically includes any IP right (whether registered or unregistered), which means the Exchange Control Regulations must be considered when dealing with an externalisation of IP.

The reasoning behind this regulation is that the offshoring of assets / capital belonging to SA residents amounts to an exportation of assets / capital and therefore erodes the asset base of the SA resident by way of a transfer of ownership from a SA resident to a non-resident. While this reasoning may have seemed sound, the application of the Exchange Control Regulations to the export of IP has led to many negative and unintended consequences for SA companies, and start ups in particular.

In the 2017 National Budget review the Government proposed that SA residents would no longer need the SARB’s approval for “standard IP transactions”. It was also proposed that the “loop structure” restriction for all IP transactions be lifted, provided they are at arms-length and at a fair market price. “Loop structure” restrictions prevent SA residents from holding any SA asset indirectly through a non-resident entity.

The SARB has started the process of relaxing the Exchange Control Regulations by issuing two circulars relating to IP. These latest amendments to the Currency and Exchanges Manual for Authorised Dealers mean that, under certain circumstances, approval for the exportation of IP can now be sought from Authorised Dealers (banks appointed by the Minister of Finance for exchange control purposes), as opposed to the FSD. This is good news for clients looking to restructure and offshore their IP, as the approval process should now be less administratively intense, less expensive and with faster turnaround times.

Approval can now be sought through an Authorised Dealer for:

  • a sale, transfer and assignment of IP;
  • by a SA resident;
  • to unrelated non-resident parties;
  • at an arm’s length and fair and market related price.

The Authorised Dealer will need to be presented with: (i) the sale / transfer / assignment agreement; and (ii) an auditor’s letter or intellectual property valuation certificate confirming the basis for calculating the sale price ((iii) together with any additional internal requirements).

For the approval of the licensing of IP by a SA resident to non-resident parties at an arm’s length and fair and market related price, the Authorised Dealer will need to be presented with: (i) the licensing agreement in question; and (ii) an auditor’s letter confirming the basis for calculating the royalty or licence fee ((iii) together with any additional internal requirements).

The second set of amendments provide that private (unlisted) technology (among others) companies in South Africa may now establish companies offshore without the requirement to primary list offshore in order to raise foreign funding for their operations. This effectively means that “loop structures” can now be created to raise loans and capital offshore, and these companies may hold investments in South Africa. Note that there are still certain requirements that must be met, for example, registration with the FSD.

Our commercial team has experience in making the necessary applications for exchange control approval. Feel free to get in touch if this is something on the horizon for your business.

Website terms – purpose, importance and consequences

Website terms – purpose, importance and consequences

Nowadays, websites almost always contain policies and terms that govern your use of the site. Sometimes these policies will appear as banners on the site (which you have to “agree” to in order to make them disappear), links in the page footer (like we have on our website) or as a statement along with a tick box saying that you have “read and agree with” the terms (usually when transacting online).

The questions on peoples’ minds are firstly, why do I need all these different sets of terms and, secondly, are these policies binding.

Why do we need all of these terms?

The website terms which we feel are important are browser terms, privacy policies and commercial/transactional terms. Each one of these deals with specific aspects of the website’s use, including, for example, the collection of personal information, social media integration, payment methods and your rights as a user of the website. Below we discuss each policy and its importance. These policies also protect your rights and interests in your website and can allow for you to have a claim in law against people who infringe your rights.

Browser terms

Although browser terms are not a legal requirement, they are useful to ensure that the “web surfer” understands and agrees to certain key points. Browser terms should be used to inform the surfer that:

  1. you, as the website owner, owe them no responsibilities;
  2. they get no rights to any services or IP merely by browsing;
  3. they are required to respect your website and the content thereof; and
  4. you comply with all necessary legal disclosure requirements.

Browser terms are “agreed” to through the surfer continuing to browse the website. These types of agreements are called “web-wrap” agreements. More on this below.

Privacy policies

Privacy policies are essential whenever the website collects or makes use of personal information. Personal information is often collected through cookies as well as when browsers become users of a website by creating an account or by integrating their social media accounts with the website.

The Protection of Personal Information Act 4 of 2013 (“POPI”) sets conditions for the lawful processing of personal information. Included in POPI’s ambit will be the mere storage of personal information when it is collected by cookies. POPI also requires that companies make certain information available to users when they collect their personal information. This can be achieved through a privacy policy. Privacy policies therefore also assist the website owner to comply with legal requirements

Privacy policies usually include the following important aspects:

  1. the use of cookies to collect certain information;
  2. the purposes for the processing of the personal information;
  3. the sharing of personal information by the website owner with certain select third parties;
  4. the storage of personal information, including the security measures taken and whether cross-border storage will occur; and
  5. the user’s rights in relation to his/her personal information and the recourse that he/she has.

Privacy policies are, like browser terms, usually agreed to by browsing, however, a recent trend has been to display the fact that cookies are used as a banner on a website requiring a “click-wrap” agreement to be entered into in order to remove the banner.

Commercial/transactional terms

As the name suggests, the commercial terms become applicable where the website enables users to transact with the website owner through the website. These terms serve as the terms of the contract which you conclude with the user when the user becomes a customer. The important aspects that this policy should govern includes:

  1. a general explanation of the service or product being offered by the website;
  2. the fees that are payable, which may be a once off purchase price or a subscription fee, as well as the fees relating to delivery costs, insurance and VAT;
  3. the terms applicable to returns;
  4. limitation of liability, which will be subject to the Consumer Protection Act 68 of 2008 (if it applies);
  5. the applicability of promotional codes and vouchers; and
  6. acceptable use policies, however, this is more applicable where the website offers a service and not a product.

The Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 25 of 2002 (“ECTA“) requires certain disclosures in terms of section 43 by the website owner when goods or services are offered for sale or hire through an electronic transaction. Some of the disclosures required include:

  1. company name, registration number and contact number;
  2. addresses, including physical, website and e-mail;
  3. a description of the main characteristics of the goods/services offered (which fulfils the requirement of informed consent;
  4. the full price of the goods, including transport costs, taxes and any other and all costs;
  5. the manners of payment accepted, such as EFT, cash on delivery or credit card, as well as alternative manners of payment such as loyalty points;
  6. the time within which delivery will take place;
  7. any terms of agreement, including guarantees, that will apply to the transaction and how those terms may be accessed, stored and reproduced electronically by consumers;
  8. all security procedures and privacy policy in respect of payment, payment information and personal information; and
  9. the rights of the consumer in terms of section 44 of ECTA.

ECTA also requires that the customer must have an opportunity to review the transaction, correct any mistakes and withdraw from the transaction without penalty before finally concluding the transaction. ECTA non-compliance gives the consumer the opportunity to cancel the order and demand a full refund.

Additional requirements are placed on suppliers transacting online regarding payment systems. The payment system used must be sufficiently secure in terms of current accepted technological standards. Failure to comply with these security standards can render the website owner liable for any damages suffered due to the payment system not being adequately secure.

Are these policies binding?

Essentially, yes, website terms will be binding based on the principles of contract law. Website users must be made aware of the terms that apply to their use of the website and you should always ensure that you include wording to the effect that by anyone continuing to use the website they agree to the terms.

To this effect, web-wrap and click-wrap agreements come into play.

Web-wrap agreements

Web-wrap agreements (also referred to as browse-wrap agreements) are used to acknowledge the terms of use of a website by continuing to use the website. The user indicates acceptance of the terms by using the website and does not expressly indicate acceptance of the terms. Such agreements are usually used in browser terms and privacy policies.

Click-wrap agreements

Click-wrap agreements require the user of a website to indicate their agreement with the terms through positive action – usually by clicking “I accept” before proceeding with their activity on the website. These agreements are usually used for more important agreements, such as when installing new software on your computer or when entering into online transactions.

Conclusion

Even though all of these policies may seem excessive, they are worth having. Yes, copying and pasting clauses from other policies will get the job done, but you may leave yourself vulnerable to certain consequences that you haven’t thought about. These consequences may be even worse when it comes to commercial terms. Contact us for a free quote and ensure that your online business is fully protected!

Potential oversights of entrepreneurs – protection of intellectual property

Potential oversights of entrepreneurs – protection of intellectual property

Running a business is a tough ask of anyone – between maintaining cash flows, keeping customers happy, managing your employees and looking for potential investors (or dealing with current investors), there is a lot that can fall through the cracks. One of the things that is very easy to forget about, especially with the more modern, technology-heavy businesses, is the protection of your intellectual property (IP).

In the technology sphere, copyright law governs the development of computer software, which is much of what the entrepreneur of today is dealing with. As an entrepreneur, you may come up with a great idea that is going to be the next “Google”. So you call your business partner up and spend countless hours in the office and cups of coffee developing this new idea, whilst running your business at the same time. You come to the end of this, completely overworked, and you have produced the holy grail of products that is going to revolutionise the industry, and you own it, right…? Well, when considering this a little further, that may not be the case.

If your business is a company, you may be in for a surprise – it is probably the company that owns the product that you have just developed and not you personally. If that previous comment made you break out into a cold sweat, not to worry. Below are some factors that you should consider when developing a new idea as a director of or shareholder in a company:

• Did you use the company’s property or time to develop the product? As an example, did you use a company laptop and normal working hours to develop your new product?

• Is the product that you developed substantially similar to other products developed by the company or did you use the company’s software code to make your new product? As an example, if your company develops an app that is involved in data collection in agriculture and you develop an app that collects data in retail, it is likely that because of the common data collection thread, the products are substantially similar. It may also be likely that you “borrowed” some of the code from the previous app to make your new app.

If your answer to both or one of the above is “yes”, then your company probably owns the product that you just developed. This also should not be too much of a problem though. If you and your business partner (if you have one) are the only shareholders in the company, then both of you can just agree to transfer the product out of the company. The only difficulty comes in where you have investors looking for an opportunity to get a return on their investment.

It is not uncommon for investors to factor in protection against the company disposing of any property (including IP) without their consent, as they will almost always want a good return on their investment. You could be stuck in a situation where you have to share the fruits of your labour with the other shareholders in your company, which is not ideal.

A good way of avoiding this is, as soon as you are in the process of obtaining your first round of funding from your first investor(s), introduce a “pay-to-play” option into your company’s shareholders’ agreement. This will essentially provide that any new intellectual property that you are thinking about developing will be offered first to the company and then to any investor, provided that if they want a share in it, they must put some capital into the project, which project can, and should, be placed into a new company.

There are many more layers to this issue, but the long and the short of it is that you should always be wary of losing all your hard work due to a simple legal slip up.