Computer software

Damages when the software vendor doesn’t deliver

The NSW Court of Appeal has upheld the decision to award damages for a defective computer system as the cost of replacement and also included a component for an employee’s time spent working on solutions for the problems.

Some facts

SEMF is an engineering and project management consultancy.

In 2013, it engaged Renown to supply and install an upgraded project management and accounting system. The upgraded system was to be based on Microsoft Dynamics SL 2011.

When installed, between 2014 and 2016, the system was defective. The defects related mainly to the module which was supposed to enable SEMF’s employees to generate real-time reports through a web-based browser. SEMF’s employees spent considerable time and effort and incurred significant costs in trying to remedy the defects before Renown conceded it wasn’t possible to fix the problems.

By the time of the trial in 2021, the Microsoft Dynamics SL 2011 software had itself been superseded by the Microsoft Dynamics SL 2015 and then the Microsoft Dynamics SL 2018 package. SEMF had therefore arranged for the installation of a new system based on the 2018 package.

The trial judgment

At first instance, the trial Judge, Ball J found Renown had breached the contract to supply and install the system. His Honour gave judgment for $662,344 comprised of:

  1. $631,894 for the costs of installing a new system based on Dynamics SL 2018, less $52,218 for maintenance fees payable to Microsoft from 2016;
  2. $84,744 paid to Mr McLean, an employee who was found to have been engaged specifically to work on solutions to the problems with the Renown System and the implementation of the Business Portal. However, damages were not allowed for the time of other SEMF employees performing tasks which would not have been necessary had the Renown System not been defective, by reason that the extent of the diversion was not established, a substantial portion of the time claimed was in respect of administrative staff and there was no evidence that SEMF had had to employ additional administrative staff, and the disruption to the business was not so great as to justify an award of damages based on employee costs;
  3. $27,184 for additional licences, $13,935 paid to Plumbline, $7,320 paid to Ms Nicholls, and $800 paid to Pinnacle Analytics. These items either were not, or are no longer, in dispute;
  4. less, a set-off in favour of Renown for $51,315 in respect of unpaid invoices.

On appeal

On appeal, Renown contended Ball J was wrong to assess damages at the date of the trial rather than the breach. It argued further that the damages should be the difference between the value of the system as delivered and the value of the system it had contracted to supply and that no allowance for the employee should be included.

As we all no doubt recall, the measure of damages for breach of contract is:[1]

The rule of the common law is, that where a party sustains a loss by reason of a breach of contract, he is, so far as money can do it, to be placed in the same situation, with respect to damages, as if the contract had been performed.

Brereton JA (with whom Meagher and Mitchelmore JJA agreed) considered that contracts of this kind for the supply and installation of software systems were analogous to building construction contracts. While the general rule is that damages for breach of contract are assessed at the date of the breach, that is not always the case in such cases as the loss actually suffered can be affected by the date the defects are discovered.

Accordingly, Brereton JA considered SEMF was entitled to its reasonable costs of rectification when those costs were incurred. At [20], his Honour explained:

the principle emerges that the proper measure of damages in a case such as the present is the reasonable costs of rectification, which will be the costs when they were actually incurred (if they have been incurred by the date of trial), so long as they are not unreasonable; or (if they have not been incurred already), the reasonable costs as proved as at the trial, unless it is established that by not conducting rectification works earlier the plaintiff has unreasonably failed to mitigate its loss.

Further, SEMF had allowed Renown an extended period of time to rectify the defects which came to an end when Renown itself concluded it could not fix the defects. Hence, there was no suggestion that SEMF had unreasonably failed to mitigate its loss.

Replacement or fixing the defective module

Renown further contended that the costs of rectification should be limited to fixing the defects in the specific, faulty module.

In a conclusion that will surprise no one who has ever tried to unscramble these things, however, the expert evidence was that identifying the defects and appropriate remedies would be extremely time-consuming and expensive and might never be possible. Accordingly, the expert evidence demonstrated that replacing the whole system with the new 2018 system would be the more efficient and costs effective solution.

A discount because the 2018 system was better than the 2011 system

The next question was whether some discount should be made because SEMF got a better, more modern system – the 2018 version – than what it had contracted for – the 2011 version.

The trial judge accepted there were situations where some allowance for “betterment” should be made. However, they did not apply here. SEMF had not consciously chosen an asset more valuable than the one being replaced. His Honour also considered that, save in one respect, there was no evidence of any benefit to be accounted for.

The exception to this conclusion was in respect of maintenance fees. Before the system was upgraded to the 2018 system, SEMF had not been paying maintenance fees to Microsoft, some 18% of the contract value each year.

In the Court of Appeal, Brereton JA accepted that the 2018 system did bring enhancements and improvements to the user experience over the 2011 system. However, SEMF would have been entitled to upgrade upon payment of the applicable maintenance fees.

There was a disagreement between the experts on whether an upgrade from the 2011 system to the 2018 system would have simply worked or would have required additional work. If such work was required, SEMF had been saved it and its damages might have been reduced on the “avoided loss principle”.

Under that principle, however, Renown bore the onus of proving what work would have been required and so the amount of costs saved. There was no evidence of what work would have been involved let alone its costs so, at [36], this argument failed.

The employee costs

Ball J had allowed for the costs of Mr McLean’s work to be included in the damages, but not other employees. The Court of Appeal upheld these findings.

Mr McLean was a casual employee, engaged for a specific purpose. While Mr McLean was initially engaged to work on a different project, from October 2015 he was engaged full-time to work solely on the implementation and attempted rectification of the system installed by Renown. At [39]: Brereton JA explained:

As a casual employee whose work was solely related to the Renown System, he fell in a different category from the other employees in respect of whom “diversion of time” was claimed but not allowed.

Renown Corporation Pty Ltd v SEMF Pty Ltd [2022] NSWCA 233 (Meagher, Brereton and Mitchelmore JJA)


  1. I thought it was the rule in Hadley v Baxendale (or part of it) but the High Court in Tabcorp Holdings Ltd v Bowen Investments Pty Ltd has ascribed it to Robinson v Harman.  ?

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Copyright And Computer Software

McDougall J, in the New South Wales Supreme Court, has dismissed mployeeIFY’s claims that 3DSafety infringed copyright in the “look and feel” or structure of EIFY’s website. If you are preparing terms and conditions for website use, you should read that part of his Honour’s decision too.

Amongst other things, EIFY provides web-based induction services for construction sites. Apparently, before a new employee or contractor can enter a building site and start work, he or she must undergo an induction process and pass certain tests. Historically, these induction processes were conducted “face to face” when the employee or contractor arrived on site for the first time. EIFY developed a web-based service for people to work through before they attended on site. The service included online tests to ensure that the worker had assimilated the required knowledge.

In 2011, EIFY and 3DSafety entered into a joint venture to integrate their respective systems. The joint venture vehicle was “Group”. However, the joint venture fell over fairly quickly and apart from some work for existing clients was inactive.

3DSafety subsequently secured contracts to provide web-based induction processes for Thiess and Mirvac. EIFY had evidence that at least two of the principals of 3DSafety had accessed sites prepared by EIFY repeatedly during the design process for the resulting websites. EIFY sued 3DSafety and those principals for breach of confidential information, breach of contract (the terms on which a browser was permitted to access EIFY’s website) and copyright infringement.

The copyright claims

In the end, EIFY claimed copyright in 5 types or categories of works in 8 different versions of its system:

  1. the structure or sequence or organisation of each System;
  2. the layout, format and “look” of the web pages implementing the System;
  3. the source code for the web pages;
  4. the object code for the web pages; and
  5. 34 images reproduced on 3DSafety’s websites for Thiess and Mirvac.

In the result, each claim failed.

Source code and object code

EIFY’s claims failed because there was no attempt in its evidence to compare the source code, or the object code, in the 3DSafety product to any version of EIFY’s product. There was also no evidence that 3DSafety ever had access to the source code or object code for any of the EIFY products.

At [410], McDougall J explained:

The high point of the evidence is an assertion by Professor Braun that “[i]n cases where the screens are very similar, the underlying Object Code in the Video RAM is also very similar”. Even assuming the requisite degree of similarity (and Professor Braun’s evidence, to the extent it was admitted, does not prove this), it does not follow that the object code underlying the screens in the 3D Safety online induction system (or any other functional part of that system) results from any act that could constitute an infringement of any copyright that subsists in the object code underlying the screens in any versions of the e-Induct System.

Seventeen years into the 21st century, if you want to prove infringement of the copyright in a computer program, you really do need to compare the code said to infringe to the code you are claiming copyright in.[1]

The structure, sequence or organisation of the EIFY System

McDougall J understood this to be a claim to copyright in the EIFY System as identified in paragraph 33AB of EIFY’s pleading which defined that structure in the following terms:

33AB The plaintiff’s expression of the Concept is by means of the following structure (or sequence or organisation):

(a) the preparation of a data base structure to cater to the requirements of the system;

(b) the creation of a system of modules and elements written in computer code to produce object code which creates the user interface in the appropriate sequence for the logical process;

(c) the inclusion in the user interface of digitized images to either provide information to the user for the particular stage of the induction process or to illustrate or enhance the induction procedure;

(d) a user registration process by the user entering personal information into a web interface backended by a data base to store the information, to link the employee to an employer;

(e) the acquisition of an access code (token) by the user or their employer;

(f) the collection of data and other information particular to the user as required for access to the workplace site to which the induction refers;

(g) the validation of the user’s ability to undertake the induction by verifying the existence of a pre-existing access code (token) and verification of the user’s identity;

(h) the commencement of the induction process once the token or access code is verified;

(i) a two factor authentication to confirm the user’s identity, via text message to a mobile phone or mobile device;

(j) the inclusion of user selectable actions to permit the user to move through the induction process and voiceover with relevant controls;

(k) the inclusion of safeguards at each stage of the induction process to ensure the user has correctly assessed the information, risks and requirements of each stage of the induction process, and to prohibit the user moving forward from one stage to the next without successfully completing a prior stage; and

(l) a final result screen to illustrate the final result of the induction procedure undertaken by the user, and including an option such as printing out a certificate or induction card

As with novels, plays and films, McDougall J accepted that “textual” infringement was not the only way copyright could be infringed. At [412], his Honour cited Arnold J’s decision in SAS Institute Inc v World Programming Ltd [2010] EWHC 1829 (Ch) to that effect:

…. I accept that copyright protection is not limited to the text of the source code of the program, but extends to protecting the design of the program, that is, what has been referred to in some cases as its “structure, sequence and organisation”. …. But there is a distinction between protecting the design of the program and protecting its functionality. It is perfectly possible to create a computer program which replicates the functionality of an existing program, yet whose design is quite different.

McDougall J also accepted that the application of the “structure, sequence, organisation” approach poses particular problems in the context of computer programs because it was perfectly possible to emulate the functionality of a computer program, even its ease of use, without copying (or even access) to the underlying code.[2] His Honour accepted Jacob LJ’s summation in Nova Productions Ltd v Mazooma Games Ltd [2007] EWCA Civ 219 at [52]:

Pumfrey J in Navitaire was quite right to say that merely making a program which will emulate another but which in no way involves copying the program code or any of the program’s graphics is legitimate.

In the absence of analysis of the code, McDougall J concluded that EIFY’s case confused the functionality of the respective programs with the protectable elements of the design of EIFY’s software. At [423], McDougall J said:

Returning to the distinction that Arnold J drew in SAS Institute at [232][110] , 3D Safety’s online induction programs for Thiess and Mirvac may well have replicated the functionality of EIFY’s existing online induction program. It does not follow that 3D Safety has thereby copied the design of EIFY’s program, and such other evidence as there is does not prove copying of design as opposed to replication of functionality.

One might add, if one turns to the definition of “computer program” in the Copyright Act 1968:

“computer program ” means a set of statements or instructions to be used directly or indirectly in a computer in order to bring about a certain result.

it would seem to follow that one should be comparing the structure, sequence and organisation of the set of statements or instructions constituting the program.

“look and feel”

McDougall J noted there was already Australian authority rejecting protectability of the “look and feel” of a computer program.[3]

EIFY, however, argued that American case law provided for such protection and so StatusCard should not be followed. McDougall J rejected this submission for two reasons.

First, at [428] – [429] McDougall J pointed out that the US Copyright Act defined copyright subject matter differently to the approach taken in the Australian Act. Under the Australian Act, s 31 requires identification of something which fits within the specific category of a “literary work” – the pigeonhole approach. §102 of the US Act, however, defines copyright subject matter inclusively, not exhaustively.

Secondly, McDougall J pointed out at [430] that cases in the US subsequent to Whelan v Jaslow had questioned, or even refused to accept, that copyright extended to the “look and feel” of a program.

Turning to EIFY’s case, McDougall J held at [431] – [432] that the “Structure” of its System as defined was not itself a literary work. Further, its case impermissibly sought to conflate the “structure, sequence or organisation” of the System with those elements of the underlying program. Accordingly, this part of EIFY’s case failed too.

The 34 Images

There doesn’t seem to have been much debate that the 34 images in question were copies of the images EIFY claimed copyright in. The problem was that EIFY did not own copyright in the images.

It turned out that the original images had been created either by Group or by an entity called Clearsite, for Mirvac when Group was operating and had a contract to create a web-based induction service for a Mirvac site. Group of course was not EIFY, being the failed joint venture vehicle.

The evidence showed that employees of Clearsite had created a number of the images in question. Clearsite had been commissioned to create the images by Group, not EIFY, had invoiced Group and had been paid by Group.

Clearsite did execute an assignment of its copyright to EIFY. This did not help for two reasons.

First, at [446] – [448] the terms of the assignment defined the intellectual property assigned as the intellectual property resulting from the provision of consultancy services by Clearsite to EIFY. The images in question, however, had been created in the course of providing consultancy services to Group, not EIFY.

Secondly, the assignment was made on 14 May 2015. The allegedly infringing use of the images took place before that date. The assignment, however, did not include an assignment of the rights to sue for past infringements.

There may be a short post on a couple of points arising from the dispute over the “terms of use” later in the week.

 

EIFY Systems Pty Ltd v 3D Safety Services Pty Ltd [2017] NSWSC 1310 (McDougall J)


    1. There are now more recent cases, but really you can’t go past Ibcos Computers Limited v Barclays Mercantile Highland Finance Limited [1994] FSR 275; 29 IPR 25 for a comprehensive tutorial on proving ownership, copying and substantial part.  ?
  1. At [414 – [420] citing in particular Navitaire Inc v Easyjet Airline Co [2004] EWHC 1725 (Pumfrey J).  ?
  2. Referring to StatusCard Australia Pty Ltd v Rotondo [2009] 1 Qd R 599 at [87].  ?

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The price of digital downloads in Australia

Apparently inspired by this report, Senator Conroy, the Orwellian named Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy,[1] has acted to announce a new inquiry to be undertaken by the House of Representatives’ Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications.

Reports here and here.

According to that second report, someone trailed a coat on the issue last week when ACCC Commissioner Ed Willett appeared before the Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network.

Now, as a purchaser of digital files, I am hardly unbiased but it does seem hard to justify price differentials of 50% or more. Seems like there is economic reasoning that challenges the Gerry Harvey-esque explanations.

Only problem, almost 20 years ago, the Prices Surveillance Authority recommended (what became in effect) this provision and some record companies got into big trouble trying to circumvent their own corresponding provision, but it would seem nothing has changed. Gartner analyst, Brian Prentice, reported here might be on to something suggesting the problem is the territorial nature of copyright itself. A (copyright) world without borders. Imagine!


  1. He is afterall the man who wants to impose filtering on the internet.  ↩

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Software licensing

Software licensing Read More »