Covenant or Condition? Why does it matter?

iStock_000025338621Small.jpgI remember a story told by a business owner who had been involved in the negotiation of a very complicated contract, with both sides represented by high-priced lawyers. In one particularly brutal negotiating session, the lawyers argued at length about a particular provision, with one side saying it should be a warranty and the other side saying it should be a covenant. At long last, they reached some sort of agreement, and everyone took a break for dinner. The business owner related that, as he rode down the elevator with his lawyer, he asked, “What’s the difference between a covenant and a warranty?” The answer: “Not much.” And that is not too far from the truth. But it would be a very different story if the question had been, “What is the difference between a covenant and a condition?”

The importance of the distinction between a covenant and a condition was driven home by a 2010 decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The decision received a great deal of attention at the time, and I used it as an assignment in the law school class I was teaching on contract drafting. Even though the decision has been thoroughly discussed from every angle, it still serves as a useful reminder to lawyers not to be careless with license agreements and to pay particularly close attention when drafting conditions.

The case was MDY Industries v. Blizzard Entertainment, and it dealt with a license agreement for the popular online role-playing game, World of Warcraft, or WoW. The license agreement prohibited the licensee from using bots to simulate people playing WoW. There was no question that the licensee had violated that term of the agreement. The question was whether the provision was a covenant or a condition.

A covenant is a promise by a party to a contract to do something or not to do something. If the promise is broken, the breaching party is liable to the other party for monetary damages — usually the amount of money required to put the non-breaching party in the same situation it would have occupied if the covenant had not been broken.

In contrast, a condition is a fact that must exist (or not exist) before another substantive provision of a contract takes effect. In the context of a license agreement, the other substantive provision is the license itself. If the conditions to a license are not satisfied, the license is void. And if the license is void, the breaching party will probably be liable for infringement of the underlying intellectual property — in this case, the copyright to the software.

So the question before the Ninth Circuit was whether the crucial contract provision was a promise by the licensee not to use bots or a condition on the grant of the license itself. If the former, the licensee would be liable for monetary damages, which would amount to relatively little. However, if the prohibition on using bots was a condition to the license, the licensee would be liable for copyright infringement, including statutory damages that could greatly exceed the damages owed for breach of contract.

In analyzing the provision, the Ninth Circuit noted that the folowing language was under a heading, “Limitations on Your Use of the Service.”

You agree that you will not . . . create or use cheats, bots, “mods,” and/or hacks, or any other third-party software designed to modify the World of Warcraft experience . . .

First the court disregarded the heading, using the common rule of contract interpretation that headings are for convenience only and are not part of the actual language of the contract. Once that was done, the court noted that there was nothing else about the language to connect the prohibition on bots to the scope of the license or the effectiveness of the grant of the license. Instead, the provision was written merely as an ordinary agreement, or a promise. If the copyright owner’s real intent when the license agreement was drafted was to restrict the scope of the license, it could easily have done so by designating the prohibition as a condition to the license. The resolution of the case, or at least part of the case, turned on that subtle, technical drafting issue.

So if you are ever in a contract negotiation and your lawyer is arguing with the other side that a provision should be a covenant instead of a warranty, or vice versa, you might want to take a break and, outside the negotiating room, ask your lawyer if it is really worth the time to argue about it. However, if your lawyer is arguing with the other lawyer about a covenant versus a condition, you can be fairly certain it really is worth the time.

Drafting and negotiating license agreements is one of our areas of practice. To learn more about it, click here.