Saturday, December 22, 2012

Exclusive Electronic Game Distributorship Was Not a Hawaii “Franchise”

This posting was written by John W. Arden.

An exclusive Hawaii distributorship of electronic games that was not substantially associated with its supplier’s trademarks and did not pay a franchise fee to its supplier was not a “franchise” within the Hawaii Franchise Investment Law, the federal district court in Honolulu has ruled (Prim Limited Liability Co. v. Pace-O-Matic, Inc., December 13, 2012, Mollway, S.). Thus, the supplier’s termination of the exclusive distributorship, allegedly without cause, could not be held to violate the statute.

In November 2008, electronic game supplier Pace-O-Matic entered into an agreement making Prim Limited Liability Co. an exclusive distributor of “amusement devices” in an area that included Hawaii. In October 2010, Pace-O-Matic sent Prim a letter, alleging it was in default and terminating the exclusivity portion of the agreement. Shortly thereafter, Prim filed a lawsuit, asserting breach of contract, tortious interference with prospective business advantage, unfair methods of competition in violation of the Hawaii “little FTC Act,” violation of the Hawaii Franchise Investment Act, breach of express warranty, breach of implied warranty, and a right to indemnification.

Pace-O-Matic filed a motion for partial summary judgment on the unfair competition, franchise law, and implied warranty claims. The court granted summary judgment on the franchise law and implied warranty claims, but denied summary judgment on the unfair competition claims.

“Franchise” Definition

In its motion, Pace-O-Matic argued that it was entitled to summary judgment on the franchise law claim because the parties never had a franchise relationship as defined by the Hawaii Franchise Investment Law. Under the statute, a “franchise” is an agreement “in which a person grants to another person, a license to use a trade name, service mark, trademark, logotype or related characteristic … and in which the franchisee is required to pay, directly or indirectly, a franchise fee.” Haw. Rev. Stat. §482E-2. However, Prim failed to show that there was a triable issue regarding the existence of a franchise between Prim and Pace-O-Matic.

Association with trademark. Prim’s claim that the distributorship agreement allowed it to use Pace-O-Matic’s name, trademarks, and proprietary software was at odds with the language of the agreement. The agreement did not suggest that Prim was authorized to use Pace-O-Matic’s trademarks or software. Rather, the agreement made clear that Pace-O-Matic was only authorizing Prim to “purchase games and fills from Pace and exercise its best efforts to develop markets for the games and distribute the games.”

A distributorship is different from a franchise, the court observed. The distribution agreement allowed Prim to distribute Pace-O-Matic’s products; it did not “substantially associate” Prim with Pace-O-Matic’s trademarks.

“The very essence of a franchise relationship is that the franchisee represents the franchise to the public; a franchise is not created whenever one company purchases and distributes another company’s products.”

Franchise fee. Similarly, Prim failed to provide evidence that it paid Pace-O-Matic a franchise fee. It contended that its payment for “fills” constituted a franchise fee because the price of the fills far exceeded the cost of a few keystrokes to generate a fill. However, Pace-O-Matic’s profit margin is not proof that Prim’s payment for fills constituted a franchise fee, the court held.

“Hawaii law does not provide that a distributor’s profit on a distributorship agreement transforms a relationship into a franchise,” the court noted. “Moreover, there is no evidence that the cost of the fills constituted an ‘unrecoverable investment’ in Pace.”

“Little FTC Act”

Prim’s claim that Pace-O-Matic committed unfair competition in violation of the Hawaii “little FTC Act” raised genuine issues of fact. Prim’s pleadings alleged that Pace-O-Matic’s conduct caused injury to Prim’s business or property and was likely to result in damages exceeding $75,000. Prim also alleged that it was injured by the termination of its exclusive distributorship and the direct sale of fills to one of its customers. Pace-O-Matic did not dispute the termination or the direct sales.

“When the supplier itself takes on the role of competitor and seeks to do business with the exclusive distributor’s customer, it may indeed be . . . an aggravating circumstance sufficient to support a claim” under the Hawaii “little FTC Act,” the court found. Thus, the claim survived the motion for summary judgment.

The case is Civil No. 10-617 SOM/KSC.

Dean L. Franklin (Thompson Coburn) for Prim Limited Liability Co. Effie Ann Steiger for Pace-O-Matic.

No comments: