Posts

Corona virus and force majeure in construction contracts: Has your contract been immunised

While many were recovering from New Years’ celebrations, corona virus was starting to make its way into the headlines. For the last 2 months, corona virus has dominated the news with many people and businesses starting to feel its impact as borders are shut down and quarantines are imposed. At the time of writing, the World Health Organisation has reported that corona virus has spread to many parts of the world including Australia, North America and parts of Europe. With much of the corona outbreak concentrated to China, several businesses are starting to feel the economic impact. As the manufacturing hub of the world, China is responsible for much of the world’s imports. Further, as the corona virus spreads and causes further border shutdowns, it becomes harder for businesses to have certainty in knowing when they will be able to import or export their goods. With businesses having to meet their contractual deadlines, the uncertainty can create a real issue for some. Consequently, many businesses may be put into a position where they are unable perform their contractual obligations. This article focuses on the different ways a construction contract may deal with situations such as corona virus.

The clause typically suited to situations or events like the outbreak of corona virus is a force majeure clause. Force majeure means ‘superior force’ and commonly covers natural events such as earthquakes or unforeseeable and disruptive manmade events such as war and industrial strikes. In the Australian context, force majeure clauses are creatures of the contract. This means that they only exist by virtue of a contractual provision which allocates the risk between the parties. Further, Australian courts will interpret these clauses strictly, giving the clauses the minimum application available within the ordinary meaning of the provision. In the construction contract context, it is unusual to see a specific force majeure clause. By way of illustration, the Australian Standard contracts do not contain a standard force majeure clause. Therefore, it is up to the parties to amend and insert a specific force majeure provision into the contract if they wish to have a specific mechanism dealing with the risk arising from these types of events.

As many readers may be aware, at the core of construction contracts is the allocation of risk through program. Therefore, construction contracts may, by their very essence, be differentiated from non—construction contracts. For example, extension of time (EOT), delay costs and liquidated damages clauses assign time related risks between the parties. The definitions of qualifying causes of delay and compensable causes in the Australian Standard provide a mechanism to pass time and cost related risks from contractors or subcontractors to the developer or head contractor. Amending the definition of qualifying causes of delay to extend to force majeure events is one way a construction contract can account for circumstances such as the corona virus. The key difference between allowing relief through a force majeure clause and allowing an EOT for force majeure events is that an EOT provides a contractor or subcontractor protection against liquidated damages. This is differentiated from a force majeure clause which may generally limit a party’s liability under the contract.

Irrespective of the way force majeure events are incorporated into construction contracts, care must be taken in drafting these clauses. When getting into the force majeure territory, contractors and subcontractors need to make sure that the definition of ‘force majeure’ or ‘force majeure event’ is drafted clearly, but not too broadly. For example, stating that a subcontractor is entitled to an EOT for anything outside of their control may be clear, but too broad to specifically cover corona virus. However, stating that the subcontractor is entitled to an EOT for delays related to the corona virus may be clearly drafted, but it does not provide much further scope. The clause would not protect from outbreaks or re-emergence of SARS or other endemics, epidemics or pandemics. A balance must be reached between these two extremes and will depend on the specific project.

When drafting a force majeure clause, it is important to consider some broad points. Firstly, force majeure clauses are usually exhaustive in nature, meaning that only what is in the contract is covered. Secondly, the party affected by the force majeure event must not have caused or contributed to the event and will required to take all steps to overcome or mitigate its effects. There also needs to be a connection between the force majeure event and the performance of the contractual obligations. For instance, the mere occurrence of the corona virus is not sufficient to justify an EOT in all cases. It will only entitle relief from liquidated damages when the event has caused a delay. By including these conditions, a force majeure clause (whether in EOT form or specific clause form) will generally entitle a party to relief or suspension of their obligations under the contract.

A significant problem with force majeure events is that it can be difficult for parties to establish that they should be entitled to relief under the clause. For example, in relation to the mitigation element discussed above, a party is often required to show that it cannot fulfil its supply obligations. While a party may have its preferred third party supplier, the mere fact that supply is not available from this supplier will not justify force majeure relief. The parties are bound by their contractual deal and this remains the case even if the obligations become significantly more onerous or expensive to complete. However, if all of the supply of product X is unavailable, then a party should be entitled to relief under the relevant clause until the supply becomes available again.

If you or someone you may know is in need of advice on existing contracts or advice regarding the force majeure clause, please contact our office by phoning (02) 9248 3450 or by email at info@bradburylegal.com.au.

Protecting your plans: intellectual property basics for architects

Architectural designs and plans are a valuable commodity in the building and construction industry. With technology facilitating the seamless reproduction, transformation and dissemination of printed and digital material, architects should be vigilant in protecting their original creations and their livelihoods.

This article provides an overview of copyright law in Australia and explains how architects may take steps to protect their original works from copyright infringement.

Application of copyright law to architectural designs

Federal copyright protection was introduced in Australia in 1905 and has since evolved into the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) which is currently in force. This Act includes broad categories of subject matter benefiting from its protection, to keep pace with emerging technologies.

The subject of copyright material comprises ‘artistic works’ or ‘forms of expression’ rather than ‘ideas, information or facts’ – that is, the actual production of work in a material form, rather than a mere idea or thought.

Architectural drawings and designs (whether sketched or generated with software), models of buildings and the buildings themselves all fall within the category of ‘artistic works’ and are therefore protected by copyright law. An architect will also have copyright over plans drawn from ideas or instructions received from a client, as they have been produced and expressed in a material form.

What is copyright infringement?

The owner of copyright work has an exclusive right to reproduce it in material form, publish the work and communicate it to the public.

Infringement of copyright occurs when a person does anything that constitutes the exercising of these rights, or the authorising of another person to do so without permission of the owner.

Essentially, the creator of the work should have control over its commercial exploitation including licensing the use of the work to a third party.

To prove infringement, there must be a fundamental link between the original work and the copy. This link can often be established where an infringing party has seen or had access to the original work.

The alleged reproduction of the work must be in a material form with an objective similarity between the original and copy. The objective similarity need not relate to an entire work provided a substantial part of it is reproduced.

In copyright cases concerning architectural drawings and plans, the reproduction of unique, distinctive or important design aspects can be influential in determining whether the work has been infringed.

Protecting plans from infringement – service agreements

Because copyright subsists in an original creation, such as architectural drawings and designs, there is no requirement (or method) to register the work with an authority to obtain the protection of copyright law. This makes the process appear simple, however it opens the door to disputes over who is the original creator of the work.

Architects can be proactive in protecting their original work by ensuring that a service agreement is entered into by every client who retains their services.

The agreement should set out the terms of retainer, the parties’ respective rights and their respective responsibilities. It should also include provisions regarding intellectual property rights and the licensing of the work created by the architect.

A licence may be exclusive or non-exclusive.

Generally, a service agreement will provide that an architect retains ownership in the copyright of their work but allow for the licensing of the work created to the client who has paid for it.

An exclusive licence will allow the client of the architect (the licensee) to exercise the rights to the exclusion of all others. This means that the licensee may take action against others for infringing the copyright and using the material, including action against the original creator of the work.

A non-exclusive licence limits the use of the material by the client (licensee) in accordance with the terms negotiated and contained in the agreement. A non-exclusive licence will enable the architect to continue to use the works and allows the architect to grant further non-exclusive licence rights to other parties. This may be appropriate if an architect intends to reuse the work elsewhere.

Implied licences

If there is no service agreement or if an agreement is silent as to the assignment of copyright, the law generally recognises an implied licence for the benefit of a client who has commissioned the architect for a certain purpose, such as the production of plans for a specific site.

The extent of the implied licence will depend on the circumstances. However, it is generally limited to one-off use of the plans on the site for which they were designed.

The recognition of an implied licence may leave an architect vulnerable in circumstances where the relationship between the architect and client breaks down and the retainer is terminated. A written agreement with provisions stating that any implied or express licence will be revoked, and that the agreement is terminated in the event that the client refuses to pay the architect for the services, should help to protect the architect in such circumstances.

Other steps to protect copyright works

In addition to having a service agreement in place before commencing work, there are other steps architects can take to protect their designs.

Copyright notices and the copyright symbol “ © ” should be placed in prominent positions on all original work.

When giving sample drawings and designs to potential clients, architects should also provide a written warning stating that allowing access to the plans does not constitute an implied licence to use them, and that copyright remains at all times with the original creator.

Architects can also keep original drafts, drawings and references tracking the production of their work, and any other information such as commencement dates, instructions, notes and communications, that all may assist in proving the work’s originality, should this become necessary.

Remedies for infringement

Proceedings for copyright infringement may be instigated in the Federal Court or the Federal Circuit Court.

Remedies include an injunction (restraint) which prevents the immediate and future use of the copyright material by the infringing party, an award of damages for financial loss, or an account of profits requiring the infringing party to forward all profits made from the material to the owner or licensee. The infringing party may also be ordered to pay legal costs.

When calculating damages, the Court may consider the infringing party’s conduct and whether it was deliberate or reckless, the benefit accrued to the infringing party and the need to deter others. Exemplary damages, which are additional damages, may be awarded for conduct that is flagrant and deliberate.

Conclusion

Copyright laws acknowledge that creators of original material should receive legal recognition and reward for their efforts and that third parties should not benefit unlawfully from a creator’s work.

Although copyright subsists for the benefit of the creator of an original work, architects must be proactive in protecting and enforcing these rights.

Builders should also be cautious when requested to work with clients who bring ‘their own’ architectural designs to be used in a proposed building project to ensure that use of the design has been authorised.

If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on +61 2 9248 3450 or email info@bradburylegal.com.au