Two software companies wanted to integrate their software products. The relationship soured and one of the parties - McHenry - purported to terminate the Software Licensing and Development Agreement and then launched a lawsuit in the Federal Court in the US, claiming copyright infringement and breach of contract. The other party - ARAS - countered by invoking the mandatory arbitration clause in the software agreement. The US court compelled the parties to resolve their dispute through arbitration in Vancouver. After the arbitration, the arbitrator’s decision was appealed in the BC Supreme Court. In that appeal, McHenry sought a “sealing order” asking the BC court, in effect, to order confidentiality over the March 26, 2014 Arbitration Award itself. This is because ARAS, who prevailed at arbitration, circulated the arbitration award to others.
In the recent decision (McHenry Software Inc. v. ARAS 360 Incorporated, 2014 BCSC 1485 (CanLII)) the BC Supreme Court considered the law of “sealing orders” and confidentiality in the context of a dispute between two software companies.
The essence of McHenry’s complaint was that the arbitrator’s award should be treated confidentially, since it contained confidential and sensitive information about the dispute, which could harm or disadvantage McHenry in its negotiations with future software development partners.
The court reviewed the legal principles governing sealing orders. A “sealing order” is simply court-ordered confidentiality over court records or evidence. While there is a presumption in favour of public access in the Canadian justice system, there are times when it is appropriate to deny access to certain records to prevent a “serious risk to an important interest” as long as “the public interest in confidentiality outweighs the public interest in openness”. (To dig deeper on this, see: Sierra Club of Canada v. Canada (Minister of Finance), 2002 SCC 41 (CanLII), 2002 SCC 41.)
If you were hoping for a handy three-part test, you’re in luck:
First, the risk in question must be real and substantial, and must pose a “serious threat” to the commercial interest in question.
The interest must be tied to a public interest in confidentiality. The SCC said: “a private company could not argue simply that the existence of a particular contract should not be made public because to do so would cause the company to lose business, thus harming its commercial interests.” Courts must remember that a confidentiality order involves an infringement on freedom of expression, so it should not be undertaken to satisfy purely commercial interests.
Third, the court must consider whether there are any reasonable alternatives to a confidentiality order, or look for ways to restrict the scope of the order as much as possible in the context.
Ultimately, the BC Court was not sympathetic to McHenry’s arguments for a sealing order. If McHenry was so concerned about the confidentiality of these proceedings, the court argued, then McHenry would not have launched a lawsuit against ARAS in the US Federal Court, where there is no confidentiality. In pursuing litigation, McHenry filed numerous documents in the public record, including its Arbitration Notice, its Statement of Claim in the Arbitration and its petition in the BC Court proceedings, some of which contained potentially sensitive information.
“Moreover,” the court continued, “there is no general principle that the confidentiality of arbitration proceedings carries over to court proceedings when the arbitration is appealed. On the contrary, such court proceedings are generally public.”
This case serves as a reminder of the confidentiality issues that can arise in the conext of a dispute between software companies, both in arbitration proceedings and in the litigation context.