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Legal issues to consider when choosing a SaaS business model

by Peter Lavelle and Gregory Buxton

For companies offering software solutions to clients, one of the earliest and most important decisions will be whether to adopt a business model based on software licensing, or to instead opt for a “Software as a Service” (SaaS) approach. Under a licensing-based approach, the company provides a copy of its software to the customer, who may then use the software independently, subject to the terms of the licensing agreement. Under a SaaS approach, the customer is not provided with an actual copy of the software, but is instead allowed to access it remotely and use it according to the terms of a service agreement with the provider.

While the license-based approach was the dominant model for many years, recent trends in the industry indicate a shift towards SaaS as the preferred model. Following on the first major SaaS success story of Salesforce, a number of major software providers that traditionally relied on software licensing started pivoting towards SaaS, with a major example being Microsoft’s decision to offer its signature line of Office products as an online service known as Office 365. Along with Salesforce and Microsoft, other major tech companies in the field of SaaS include Amazon, Google, Fujitsu, Symantec, and IBM, just to name a few. The SaaS sector overall is booming, growing by more than 20% annually, with the global SaaS industry expected to be worth more than US$130 billion by the end of 2020.

Given the industry-wide trend towards SaaS, prospective founders of new companies will want to know the pros and cons of using a SaaS approach for their business. It is certainly not without its downsides – for example, many SaaS businesses take significant losses in the early stages of their development, as the investment made to acquire an initial customer base is only recovered slowly through regular subscription payments. That said, SaaS is appealing for other reasons, perhaps the most important being that many consumers would rather pay a regular fee for remote access instead of a single lump sum for installation of an expensive piece of licensed software, especially now that near-constant availability of internet access has become the norm in most developed economies. The age of licensing agreements and expensive, single-purchase software may be coming to an end.

Business considerations aside, what are some of the legal issues to consider before adopting a SaaS approach? Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are many and varied, and may differ from the typical issues that arise under a license-based approach. As a straightforward example, service outages are unavoidable with SaaS, including outages for scheduled maintenance. If the service contract is not worded properly, these outages could constitute a breach of contract by the provider. Service outages of this kind are generally not an issue for licensed software. It is therefore important to tailor the service contract specifically for SaaS, rather than simply adapting a pre-existing licensing agreement template. Ultimately, a well-crafted SaaS agreement – often presented to the customer as a so-called “clickwrap” contract which can be entered into with a single mouse click – may look quite different from a traditional software licensing arrangement.

Another legal issue which is increasingly important for SaaS providers is that of data security and digital privacy. SaaS users generally disclose at least some personal information to the provider when using the service, the extent and sensitivity of which can vary greatly depending on the nature of the services being provided. There is also the possibility that users may disclose information of a non-personal nature that is nonetheless highly confidential, such as when companies outsource their email, payroll, or document management systems to a SaaS provider. Whatever the nature of the confidential information being disclosed, this creates a potentially major source of liability for the SaaS provider that is unlikely to be an issue with licensed software. Moreover, the storage and transfer of such information through online networks often has an inter-jurisdictional aspect that may increase the provider’s exposure to liability for non-compliance with unfamiliar regulatory regimes in other countries. This creates a need to adapt and update data protection practices to comply with regulatory changes across all jurisdictions where the SaaS is available, which may create unforeseen expenses for the company – a lesson which many SaaS providers recently learned when the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) entered into force. Even SaaS providers with no physical presence in Europe and no familiarity with European law should consider whether they are GDPR-compliant when offering their services to European clients.

There are also legal issues which can be avoided or mitigated by using SaaS instead of a licensing agreement. One much-touted advantage of SaaS is the supposed avoidance of taxes that would otherwise apply to licensing royalties, but this advantage requires closer scrutiny. While it is true that licensing royalties are generally taxable, the notion that revenue from SaaS will never be subject to tax is incorrect, and will depend on the jurisdiction where the services are offered. SaaS may be taxed differently in the various jurisdictions where it is available, even when those jurisdictions are within the same country. For example, according to currently available information, there are many jurisdictions in the United States which impose sales tax on SaaS (such as California, Illinois, and New Jersey), as well as others which do not impose such tax (such as Texas, Washington State, and New York). The situation is similar when offering SaaS across national borders. An American SaaS provider unaccustomed to dealing with a national value-added tax (VAT) will have to take VAT into consideration when expanding into Europe, where all EU member states are required to meet minimum VAT standards. VAT in the EU used to depend on the location of the seller, which notably led Apple to domicile the European wing of iTunes in Luxembourg for its relatively low VAT. However, when the EU later changed its VAT requirements to make the rate dependent on the location of the purchaser rather than the seller, VAT increased for most iTunes transactions in Europe. As changes like this continue to happen, the global landscape of SaaS taxation will continue to evolve.

Ultimately the benefits and drawbacks of SaaS will be case-specific, and will depend on factors such as the nature of the software, the nature of the customer base, the domicile of the provider, and the jurisdictions where the service will be offered, among other considerations. If you are trying to decide whether SaaS would be the right fit for your company, seek the advice of legal counsel before making a decision. And if you are already operating in the SaaS market, it is crucial that you retain legal counsel to protect you from liabilities of which you may not be aware.

For further information, please contact Greg Buxton at gbuxton@winklerpartners.com and Peter Lavelle at plavelle@winklerpartners.com.

 

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