Court rules Wall Street Journal can change terms of digital subscription
March 24, 2012 | 7:30 pm
A district court has thrown out a class action suit against Dow Jones (owner of the Wall Street Journal) for changing the subscription terms for its on-line Wall Street Journal service, PaidContent reports. Originally, one single WSJ online subscription price covered access to digital versions of both the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s Online. However, Dow Jones decided to spin Barron’s off into a separate digital publication with a separate pro-rated fee of up to $20 for continued access to it.
The court ruled based on a term in the WSJ user agreement that allowed Dow to amend the terms of the agreement at any time by posting notice on its website. The court felt that a pop-up ad on the website several weeks before the change took effect constituted sufficient warning.
Venkat Balasubramani at Eric Goldman’s Technology & Law Blog feels the ruling “did not comport with basic common sense and equity.”
It’s as if you sign up to on a month-long plan to purchase a particular type of combo meal deal at McDonald’s and halfway through they come along and change up the combination. Rather than forcing customers to pick between WSJ Online or Barron’s going forward, Dow Jones could have just refunded a portion of the subscription fees. The court’s decision deprives plaintiffs of this choice. It wasn’t clear from the opinion, but it seemed like the decision was made just to separate the two subscriptions–the order did not discuss some compelling reason (other than subscriptions) why Dow Jones made the decision.
It isn’t clear from either article whether the aggrieved subscribers plan to appeal. It could be interesting if they do. It’s always seemed to me that contract terms saying, “We can change the terms of this contract at any time if we tell you so in advance” make a joke out of the whole idea of a contract. I wonder if higher courts would see it that way?
Regardless, if the ruling stands it could have implications for any digital media service made available under a subscription. So, hopefully we’ll get to hear what a higher court has to say.