Beware “Document Soup” Software Licensing

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On July 22, 2010, software publisher AccuSoft sued Northrop Grumman Systems in federal court for breach of contract, copyright infringement and trademark infringement related to Northrop’s use of AccuSoft’s ImageGear and ImageTransport software. Northrop allegedly used and integrated AccuSoft’s products in the development of a paperless records information system it developed for the U.S. military. According to AccuSoft, Northrop failed, in particular, and in violation of applicable software license agreements, to provide the required periodic reporting regarding the number of end-user licenses for the AccuSoft products that Northrop had distributed. AccuSoft did not specify a damages claim in its complaint, though it did state that the unauthorized software distributions number in the “hundreds of thousands,” meaning that a decision in its favor potentially could entail a multi-million dollar penalty against Northrop.

Northrop has yet to answer or to respond to the lawsuit, so its position with regard to AccuSoft’s factual claims has yet to be determined. However, the facts presented in the complaint appear to reflect the kind of dispute that often arises when one or both parties to a software licensing relationship do not have an accurate grasp of controlling license agreements. Especially with many larger enterprises, the business units responsible for software license negotiation and acquisition may lack sufficiently open lines of communication with production departments, resulting in internal confusion regarding what agreements have been signed, what agreements remain in effect, and what those agreements mean for the company’s day-to-day operations.

Compounding the confusion is the fact that larger software license transactions often involve the execution of a master license or services agreement, to which other documents specifying discrete product or service orders are attached, as executed, as schedules or exhibits. Over time, the resulting “document soup” can become nearly impossible to manage unless the company’s has been diligent, in the interim, in tracking all material changes or amendments to the master agreement, all exhibits or schedules that have been executed since the beginning of the relationship, and the effects, if any, of those later instruments on earlier agreements.

Where businesses fail to take pro-active, enterprise-wide, contract-management steps at an early stage, disputes such as the Accusoft v. Northrop litigation become almost inevitable, especially in an age where many publishers, such as Microsoft, IBM and Oracle, to name a few, are proceeding with software audit initiatives, in some cases across their entire customer bases, in order to ensure compliant software use and licensing.

Businesses with a heavy reliance on software and technology licensing cannot afford not to work closely with counsel in reviewing the terms of all agreements that may affect their ability to use that software or technology in the way that their customers demand.