Do you have to pay for a software licence when you buy the business

It’s not an uncommon scenario: the client has bought a business, but some mission critical software is outdated and the licence is not transferable except on payment of a fee. What do you do: Pay the fee or “save” the money and keep using? Thawley J found that the licensor’s consent to some time to evaluate options meant Shepparton Partners (SPC) had an implied licence but thereafter infringed. Injunctions and $1,162,428.80 damages flowed.

I am guessing pretty much everyone in Australia at some point or another has experienced SPC’s canned fruit, vegetables or maybe fruit juices.

Some facts

To run its business, SPC Ardmona (SaleCo) used QAD’s enterprise resource planning ERP software. It used the ERP software for everything: for sales orders and inventory management, procurement, manufacturing planning and control, service and support project management, distribution and finance. SaleCo had a perpetual licence, but it was not transferable. SaleCo also paid an annual maintenance fee, which was paid up to 31 July 2019.

The version SaleCo used was the 2008 version. In 2018, however, QAD had approached SaleCo with a proposal to upgrade to the new, current 2017 version. SaleCo’s IT personnel agreed with the proposal but the price was sufficiently high that agreement required sign-off by SaleCo’s ultimate owner – Coca-Cola Amatil.

Coca-Cola Amatil had decided to sell the SPC business and didn’t want to spend that money. The sale eventually went through in June 2019 to SPC. Before the purchase went through, QAD had written to SaleCo and SPC stating it would consent to the transfer of the licence provided 3 conditions were met:

  1. Payment of a transfer fee of $424,392 and a maintenance fee for the next year of $177,816;
  2. Execution of an appropriate transfer agreement and a new licence agreement
  3. Satisfaction of conditions 1 and 2 before 30 June 2019, otherwise the offer was automatically withdrawn.

There was also a quote to upgrade to the new, current cloud-based version of $755,000 per annum (although the amount seems to have been negotiable).

SPC, however, considered the QAD 2008 version was not “fit for purpose” although not “useless” and persuaded QAD it needed more time to consider its options. By letter dated 27 June 2019, QAD extended the time for acceptance initially to 31 July. There were further meetings, discussions and email so that ultimately the time for acceptance was extended until November 2019.

In November 2019, QAD suspected that SPC was likely to go with a different vendor. It wrote to SPC pointing out it had had 5 months to make a decision and decision was required. SPC wrote back saying that responsibility for paying the transfer/licence fee was the responsibility of Coca-Cola Amatil or SaleCo.

SPC continued to use the QAD 2008 software until 28 September 2020 when it implemented Microsoft Dynamic 365 as its ERP software.

Even after 28 September 2020, however, SPC continued to use the QAD 2008 software for “non-production purposes” such as extracting historical information for quality control or financial reasons. Amongst other things:

  • before the changeover to Microsoft, SPC used the software in “day to day” use;[1]
  • SPC made modified or customised copies of the QAD 2008 software including “test and development reproductions”;
  • after the changeover to Microsoft, it made an ‘historical copy’ of the QAD 2008 software on a different server;
  • it also made “back-up” copies on its servers.

It appears that SPC expected it would need to keep using the QAD 2008 software for “non-production purposes” for another seven years.

An implied licence

Thawley J held (one would think largely uncontroversially) that the various ways SPC continued to use the QAD 2008 software involved reproductions of the whole or substantial parts of the software.

However, in the period from 27 June 2019 to SPC’s November letter,[2] SPC had an implied licence to use the software so use in that period was not infringing. The implied licence arose from the 27 June 2019 letter and the course of conduct between the parties until November.

Infringement and damages

Use after that period was not licensed and therefore infringed.

Thawley J awarded QAD $662,428.80 in compensatory damages and an additional $500,000 by way of additional damages.

The $662,428.80 amount was the transfer fee plus a maintenance fee for one year plus GST. Given the compensatory nature of damages under s 115(2), that was the loss QAD suffered.

Additional damages were appropriate as SPC at all times knew it needed QAD’s consent to the transfer of the licence and that it was its responsibility to obtain that consent. Consequently, its infringement was flagrant. Also there was a need for deterrence.

Cross-claim against the vendors

SPC did run a cross-claim against Coca-Cola Amatil and SaleCo arguing that they had breached the business purchase agreement by failing to pay QAD the transfer and licence fees.

These claims were said to arise essentially from the vendors’ obligations to use “best endeavours” to obtain a transfer of the licence and do whatever they lawfully could, including rendering all reasonable assistance, to permit SPC to have the benefit of the licence of the QAD 2008 software. There were also obligations on SaleCo to hold its rights in the assets of the business on trust for SPC.

The wording of the business purchase agreement was perhaps not as clear as it could be: it did make specific provision that the vendors did not have an obligation to pay fees and charges for certain key assets.

In the result, however, Thawley J concluded there had been no breach of their obligations by the vendors. At all times, the managing director of SPC knew that payment of the transfer and maintenance fees would be SPC’s responsibility. A key indicator of this had been the fact that all negotiations with QAD were undertaken throughout the enitre period by SPC. Coca-Cola Amatil and SaleCo were never involved.

If you are a software vendor in this sort of situation, you may need to be careful about the terms you let the new owner evaluate your software. In the end, it wasn’t a financial problem for QAD because it only intended to charge a one-off fee. If the fee had been time based, say annual, it could have lost out. Purchasers and vendors also need to be clear about whose responsibility it is to pay the fees. Even if it were the vendor’s responsibility, the purchaser in SPC’s position was the one directly liable for infringement. An indemnity, or claim for breach of contract, would not be much help if the vendor has disappeared or distributed its assets after completion.

QAD Inc v Shepparton Partners Collective Operations Pty Ltd [2021] FCA 615 (Thawley J)


  1. Day to day use involved users connecting to the software using a user name and password. The QAD 2008 object code on SPC’s application software was then loaded into the server’s RAM and the code stayed in RAM until the server was shut down or (more likely) the user logged off: [79]  ?
  2. Or possibly 10 December 2019 when QAD formally notified SPC the licence was terminated.  ?

AGL, Greenpeace and free speech

AGL, one of Australia’s largest suppliers of electricity, gas and telecommunications, owns copyright in and has registered as a trade mark its AGL “logo”:

TM No 1843098

Greenpeace started running a campaign about AGL’s business “Still Australia’s Biggest Climate Polluter” which included the online banner:

You can see why that might upset someone at AGL.

That caused AGL to sue Greenpeace for copyright infringement and trade mark infringement.

Burley J has largely dismissed the claims.

Burley J held that there was no copyright infringement for uses like the example above as they were fair dealing for purposes of parody or satire.

Some other uses, however, did not make such use of irony, sarcasm or ridicule, or humorous juxtaposition, as to qualify as parody or satire. This seems largely to have turned on the absence of the pointed tag line Australia’s Greatest Liability in an example such as:

A Greenpeace protest poster image

These uses also did not qualify for the defence of fair dealing for the purposes of review or criticism. They did not, for example at [92], “rise above the level of protest statements that are critical of AGL as a company, and would not be understood to represent criticism of review, whether of the AGL logo or any other work.”

Burley J also rejected AGL’s case on trade mark infringement: Greenpeace was not using the AGL logo as a trade mark. At [102], his Honour explained

The use of the modified AGL logo is to identify that brand, and the company that it represents, as the subject of criticism. [Consumers]would not perceive Greenpeace to be promoting or associating any goods or services by reference to that mark. Rather, it is the use of the modified AGL logo to refer in terms to AGL and the goods and services that AGL provides: see, for example, Irvings Yeast-Vite Ltd v Horsenail (1934) 51 RPC 110 at 115 (Lord Tomlin), cited in Shell Company at 426 (Kitto J).

This, with all due respect, has to be right. His Honour’s approach, however, demonstrates with stark clarity the problem with the reasoning in the “parallel import” cases like the Full Court’s (overruled) decision in E & J Gallo Winery v Lion Nathan Australia Pty Ltd, most recently confirmed in the Scandinavian Tobacco case at [21] – [56] (although one could argue, apart from the Gallo case, the goods weren’t in fact parallel imports).

AGL Energy Limited v Greenpeace Australia Pacific Limited [2021] FCA 625 (Burley J)

p.s. AGL might feel doubly aggrieved by this as, back in the 1980s, it had successfully sued for copyright on the basis that there was no parody defence. It only took another (almost) 20 years, but the Act did finally get amended to bring in that revolutionary development.