The European Court has ruled in an important case C‑410/19 The Software Incubator Ltd v Computer Associates (UK) Ltd, which targets the issue of whether downloadable software under a perpetual licence is goods or not. The case has the following background:
Computer Associates is a company that markets application service automation software for deploying and managing applications across a data centre (‘the software at issue’). The purpose of that software is to coordinate and implement automatically the deployment of and updates for other applications across the different operational environments in large organisations such as banks and insurance companies, so that the underlying applications are fully integrated with the software operating environment.
Computer Associates granted its customers, by electronic means, licences to use the software at issue in a specified territory for an authorised number of end users.
The grant of the licence for that software was contingent upon compliance with obligations under which the customer was not authorised, in particular, to access any unauthorised portion of the software, to de-compile or modify it, or to rent, assign or transfer it or to grant a sub-license.
It is apparent from the information provided by the referring court that the licence to use the software at issue could be granted either indefinitely or for a limited period of time. In the event of termination of the agreement for material breach attributable to the other party or on account of the latter’s insolvency, that software was to be returned to Computer Associates, deleted or destroyed by the customer. In practice, most licences were, however, granted indefinitely. Computer Associates retained, in that regard, all rights, in particular copyright, title, patent, trademark right and all other proprietary interests in and to the software at issue.
On 25 March 2013, Computer Associates entered into an agreement with The Software Incubator. Under Clause 2.1 of that agreement, the latter company acted on behalf of Computer Associates to approach potential customers within the United Kingdom and Ireland for the purpose of ‘promoting, marketing and selling the [software at issue]’. Under the agreement, The Software Incubator’s obligations were limited to the promotion and marketing of that software. The Software Incubator did not have any authority to transfer property in the software.
By letter dated 9 October 2013, Computer Associates terminated the agreement with The Software Incubator.
The Software Incubator brought an action for damages, on the basis of the provisions of national law implementing Directive 86/653, against Computer Associates before the High Court of Justice (England & Wales), Queen’s Bench Division (United Kingdom). Computer Associates disputed the classification of its relationship with The Software Incubator as a commercial agency contract, contending that the supply of computer software to a customer by electronic means accompanied by the grant of a perpetual licence to use that software did not constitute a ‘sale of goods’ within the meaning of Article 1(2) of that directive.
By decision of 1 July 2016, the High Court of Justice (England & Wales), Queen’s Bench Division, granted The Software Incubator’s application and ordered that that company be awarded 475 000 pounds sterling (GBP) (approximately EUR 531 000) by way of compensation. That court took the view, in that context, that the ‘sale of goods’ within the meaning of Statutory Instruments 1993/3053 referred to an autonomous definition which had to include the supply of software.
Computer Associates lodged an appeal against that judgment before the Court of Appeal (England & Wales) (Civil Division) (United Kingdom). By decision of 19 March 2018, that court held that software supplied to a customer electronically does not constitute ‘goods’ within the meaning of Article 1(2) of Directive 86/653, as interpreted by the Court of Justice. It concluded that The Software Incubator was not a ‘commercial agent’ within the meaning of that provision and dismissed its claim for compensation.
The Software Incubator challenged that decision before the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
That court seeks from the Court of Justice an interpretation of Article 1(2) of Directive 86/653 which it needs in order to determine whether the concept of ‘commercial agent’ having authority to negotiate the ‘sale of goods’ applies in the case of a supply of computer software by electronic means to the customer, the use of that software being governed by a licence granted indefinitely.
In those circumstances, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom decided to stay the proceedings and to refer the following questions to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling:
‘(1) Where a copy of computer software is supplied to a principal’s customers electronically, and not on any tangible medium, does it constitute “goods” within the meaning of that term as it appears in the definition of a commercial agent in Article 1(2) of Council Directive 86/653/EEC of December 1986 on the co-ordination of the laws of Member States relating to self-employed commercial agents (“Directive”)?
(2) Where computer software is supplied to a principal’s customers by way of the grant to the customer of a perpetual licence to use a copy of the computer software, does that constitute a “sale of goods” within the meaning of that term as it appears in the definition of commercial agent in Article 1(2) of the Directive?’
The Court’s decision:
The concept of ‘sale of goods’ referred to in Article 1(2) of Council Directive 86/653/EEC of 18 December 1986 on the coordination of the laws of the Member States relating to self-employed commercial agents must be interpreted as meaning that it can cover the supply, in return for payment of a fee, of computer software to a customer by electronic means where that supply is accompanied by the grant of a perpetual licence to use that software.