February 2011 Archives

February 20, 2011

Just what IS a limited liability company? Part 6. It offers choices of management structure.

[This is the sixth post in a seven-part series discussing the characteristics of limited liability companies and comparing them to the characteristics of corporations, general partnerships, and sole proprietorships. Here's the entire list.

Part 1. Background on sole proprietorships.
Part 2. Background on partnerships.
Part 3. Background on corporations.
Part 4. LLCs are distinct legal entities, separate from their owners.
Part 5. A limited liability company's owners are not liable for the LLC's obligations.
Part 6. Options for an LLC's management structure.
Part 7. Options for an LLC's tax treatment.]

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for iStock_000008153479XSmall.jpgPrevious posts discussed the management structures of the three classic business entities that we're using as a framework for discussing limited liability companies and, in particular, exactly who is responsible for running the business day-to-day.

Sole Proprietorships. Remember Drucker's General Store, the example I used to illustrate sole proprietorships? Sam Drucker ran his own store on a day-to-day basis. In fact, I'm not sure Sam even had any employees. That's the prototypical management structure for a sole proprietorship -- the proprietor himself or herself runs the business on a day-to-day basis.

Corporations. Once again, corporations are at the opposite end of the spectrum from sole proprietorships. As discussed earlier,the owners of a corporation (i.e., the shareholders), have no role in the day-to-day operation of the business. Instead, their role is limited to electing a board of directors who, in turn, usually delegate responsibility to officers and employees of the company. Of course, in a closely held company, it's very common for the owners, acting as shareholders, to elect themselves as directors and then to appoint themselves as officers.

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General Partnerships. The management structure of general partnerships varies a bit more, but usually the day to day affairs are managed by the partners themselves -- by all of the partners, or by a management committee composed of partners, or by a single managing partner.

Limited Liability Companies. Fundamentally, there are two different ways limited liability companies can be managed -- by the members themselves or by one or more managers, who are appointed by the members. In other words, a limited liability company has the flexibility to be managed like a sole proprietorship and many partnerships are managed -- by the owners of the business themselves. However, it's also possible for the owners to be relatively far removed from the day-to-day operation of the company, with a role largely restricted to appointing one or more managers to operate the LLC. Note, however, that the members of a manager-managed LLC are free to name one or more of their own as manager(s).

Even a single-member LLC has the same choices of management by the members or management by managers. A few days ago, in explaining why a single-member LLC needs an operating agreement, I touched on some of the reasons that the sole owner of a limited liability company might choose to make their LLC manager-managed.

So one of the advantages of a limited liability company is that it offers choices for management structure. Next we'll see that a limited liability company offers choices for tax treatment as well.

Continue reading "Just what IS a limited liability company? Part 6. It offers choices of management structure." »

February 19, 2011

Copywriters Accused of Infringing Copyright

iStock_000009859856XSmaller.jpgA few days ago I wrote about a whole raft of copyright infringement lawsuits that have been filed by a company called Righthaven, LLC. My hope was that drawing attention to those lawsuits might educate business owners and nonprofit organizations about the potential legal problems associated with posting copyrighted material on their websites.

Since then I learned of a company that recently paid $4000 to settle an accusation of infringing the copyright of photograph that would have cost about $10 to license. The company is in the business of writing copy for web sites. Yes, that's correct -- they're copywriters. Apparently, the problem arose when one of them pulled a photo from the internet and placed it on a customer's blog under the mistaken belief that if the photo didn't have a copyright notice, then it was in the public domain and thus fair game. If you read my previous blog entry, you already know how wrong that is. Now the copywriters do, too.

You can read the entire story here.

February 18, 2011

Why should a single-member LLC have an operating agreement?

Thumbnail image for 1065245_79106935.jpgUnder current Indiana law, you can easily start up a limited liability company (LLC) with a credit card and an internet connection. After making a quick trip to the Indiana Secretary of State's website, submitting articles of organization, and paying a fee you could have your very own LLC in about fifteen minutes. But what about creating an operating agreement for your LLC? Nothing about that process requires -- or even mentions -- an operating agreement. Strictly speaking, it's not legally required, and if the LLC has only one member, an operating agreement may even seem pointless. Nonetheless, I advise all my clients with LLCs -- even single-member LLCs -- to have operating agreements.

The reason the Indiana Business Flexibility Act does not require an operating agreement is that it contains default rules that govern the LLC if there is no operating agreement (or if there is an operating agreement but it doesn't address every issue). However, those default rules may or may not be what you want. Having an operating agreement created specifically for the needs and goals of your single-member LLC can help sort out which aspects of the Indiana Business Flexibility Act will apply to your LLC and which will be overridden.

A particular reason that I think single-member LLCs should have an operating agreement flows from the fact that I think most single-member LLCs (at least those owned by individuals rather than by another business entity) should be manager-managed rather than member-managed. Imagine you are the sole member of your own LLC, and it is member-managed. That means that you, and only you, have the authority to take actions on behalf of the LLC. Now imagine that you are in a serious accident and unable to manage your business for an extended period of time. There is no one who can step into your shoes and run the business in your absence.

However, imagine that you set the business up as a manager-managed LLC. You can name yourself as the manager and some other trusted person, such as your spouse, as the assistant manager who has the authority to step in and run the LLC if you are not able to. To do that, you'll need an operating agreement that describes the authority of the other person to run the business when you can't.

It's also likely that third parties, such as banks and the IRS, will want to know various details about how the LLC is organized. An operating agreement includes information like who has the authority to sign contracts for the LLC, the LLC's tax status, and other legally meaningful information. Being able to hand a third party a single document that clearly lays out all of the legally significant details about the LLC can save a lot of time and confusion for the member and the entities the LLC does business with.

Continue reading "Why should a single-member LLC have an operating agreement?" »

February 17, 2011

Just what IS a limited liability company? Part 5. It has a liability shield.

[This is the fifth post in a seven-part series discussing the characteristics of limited liability companies and comparing them to the characteristics of corporations, general partnerships, and sole proprietorships. Here's the entire list.

Part 1. Background on sole proprietorships.
Part 2. Background on partnerships.
Part 3. Background on corporations.
Part 4. LLCs are distinct legal entities, separate from their owners.
Part 5. A limited liability company's owners are not liable for the LLC's obligations.
Part 6. Options for an LLC's management structure.
Part 7. Options for an LLC's tax treatment.]

Thumbnail image for iStock_000006322570XSmall.jpgThe last entry in this series explained that a limited liability company has its own legal identity, separate from its members. A related concept is that a limited liability company has a liability shield, sometimes called a corporate veil, between itself and its members. That means that the members of a limited liability company are not liable for the debts or obligations of the LLC itself, just as the shareholders of a corporation are not liable for the debts or obligations of the corporation itself.

To see how that works, let's imagine that you and two of your good friends, Jack and Jill, decide to buy a bicycle shop. You consult an attorney, and he recommends that you create a limited liability company to buy the shop. He writes an operating agreement for you, which all three of you sign, files articles of organization in the Indiana Secretary of State's office, and takes care of other details such as obtaining an Employer Identification Number . At that point you are the proud owners of a limited liability company Three Good Friends, LLC . (By the way, there is no such LLC in Indiana. I know that because I ran a search on the Secretary of State's website.) The purpose of the LLC is to buy and run a bicycle shop. To raise the money, you and Jill each drain your savings accounts, and Jack mortgages his house to the hilt. All three of you put the money (called your initial capital contributions) into the LLC, and with that money the LLC buys a bicycle shop, which you rename as Three Good Friends Bicycle Emporium. The LLC's lawyer files a certificate of assumed business name showing that Three Good Friends, LLC is now doing business as Three Good Friends Bicycle Emporium.

While you're working in the shop one afternoon, a delivery truck arrives. A LARGE delivery truck. The driver comes in and asks where you'd like to put the 700 bicycles you ordered. (I don't know if a single truck can actually hold 700 bicycles, but cut me some slack and go with me on this.) You tell him there must be some mistake because you ordered only 7 bicycles. After a frantic search through your computer files, you realize that a mistake was indeed made -- and that you're the one who made it. You really did order 700 bicycles. And they're expensive bicycles. VERY expensive. You make a few phone calls and find out that the bicycles cannot be returned and that the shop will have to pay for them. You also know that there's not nearly enough money in the LLC's bank account to pay for the bicycles.

You tell Jack and Jill what happened, expecting them to be furious -- and Jack is. As Jack often does, he imagines the worst. He says that the bicycle manufacturer is going to sue not only the shop but all three of you. He worries that not only will the three of you lose the business, but that he'll lose his house, which he mortgaged to the hilt to come up with the money for the business. Jill, being her characteristically calm self, tells Jack not to worry. The reason that they set up a limited liability company was so that none of the three good friends can be held liable for the debts of Three Good Friends Bicycle Emporium. She tells Jack that even if the LLC goes bankrupt, his house is safe from the bicycle manufacturer. Is Jill right?


Continue reading "Just what IS a limited liability company? Part 5. It has a liability shield." »

February 17, 2011

Just what IS a limited liability company? Part 4. It's a separate legal entity.

[This is the fourth post in a seven-part series discussing the characteristics of limited liability companies and comparing them to the characteristics of corporations, general partnerships, and sole proprietorships. Here's the entire list.

Part 1. Background on sole proprietorships.
Part 2. Background on partnerships.
Part 3. Background on corporations.
Part 4. LLCs are distinct legal entities, separate from their owners.
Part 5. A limited liability company's owners are not liable for the LLC's obligations.
Part 6. Options for an LLC's management structure.
Part 7. Options for an LLC's tax treatment.]

iStock_000005422636XSmall.jpgTo set the background for a discussion of the basics of limited liability companies, we've discussed sole proprietorships, partnerships, and corporations. As we'll see, a limited liability company shares some characteristics with corporations and other characteristics with sole proprietorships (if the LLC has one owner, called a member) or partnerships (if the LLC has more than one member).

The first thing to recognize about a limited liability company is that it is a separate legal entity, apart from its owners. How does that compare to the other structures? First, a sole proprietorship is NOT a separate legal entity apart from its owner. If you're running a business as a sole proprietorship, you really ARE the business, and the business is you.

At the other end of the spectrum, a corporation is a distinct legal entity, completely separate from its shareholders. For example a corporation can sue and be sued in its own name, It can enter into contracts in its own name. And it can go into bankruptcy without dragging its owners with it.

In the middle of the spectrum is a partnership. Without getting into all the details, I'll just say that for some purposes a partnership has the characteristics of a separate legal entity, and for other purposes a partnership is treated more like the aggregate of all the partners.

So in this sense, a limited liability company is just like a corporation. It is a separate legal entity, apart from its members. It can sue and be sued; it can enter into contracts; and it can go into bankruptcy, all apart from its members. And all that is true even if the LLC has only a single member.

Next we'll discuss another way that a limited liability company is like a corporation -- the liability shield.

Continue reading "Just what IS a limited liability company? Part 4. It's a separate legal entity." »

February 15, 2011

Owners of websites: Learn from the Righthaven lawsuits!

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Click here for a later post on this topic.

You may not have heard about Righthaven, LLC, a company that has filed 239 (and counting) lawsuits against alleged copyright infringers in less than a year. But if your small business or nonprofit organization has a website, you should pay attention.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Righthaven searches the internet for newspaper stories that have been copied and posted on websites, acquires the copyright to the stories, and then sues the person who posted the copied material. Righthaven seems to be an equal opportunity plaintiff, willing to sue just about anyone. So far it has taken on The Drudge Report, A Blog About History, Teapartier Sharon Angle, and the Democratic Party of Nevada.

Righthaven doesn't restrict its targets to large organizations or famous names. Over thirty of the Righthaven lawsuits have been filed against individuals who posted on their websites the same copyrighted photograph from the Denver Post photo featuring a Transportation Security Administration officer patting down a passenger at Denver International Airport. While some of the defendants admit to copying the photo directly from the newspaper's website, most of them claim they found the image somewhere else on the internet and had no idea the photo was copyrighted until they received notice of the lawsuit.

Not even charitable organizations get a free pass. Trauma Intervention Program of Southern Nevada Inc. (TIP), a Las Vegas non-profit organization, was sued by Righthaven for re-posting news articles to their website. TIP organizes volunteers and sends them to emergency scenes to comfort traumatized witnesses of accidents, crimes, fires, etc. In response to the lawsuit, TIP replaced the full length articles with links back to the newspaper's website.

As you might imagine, there are some strong and differing opinions about Righthaven. Some of its critics refer to it as a "copyright troll," and to the defendants in Righthaven lawsuits as its "victims." On the other hand, some copyright owners, such as the Denver Post complain about widespread copyright infringement and see Righthaven as a means of enforcing their copyrights.

No matter how you feel about Righthaven, it's important to guard against infringing a copyright that belongs to someone else. The first step is to assume that everything you find on the internet is protected by copyright. At one time, material subject to a copyright had to be marked as such, but that hasn't been true for years. Although some materials are in the public domain, it's far safer to assume that everything you find on the internet is copyrighted even if it does not explicitly say so! Unless you have received permission from the owner, never post copyrighted text, images, or videos on your website.

It's true that under some circumstances, copyright law allows a limited amount of copying under the doctrine of fair use. The problem is that the boundary between fair use and infringement is very difficult to discern. To say it's fuzzy is an understatement. Summarizing or paraphrasing the original story are better ways to provide the same information to your readers without potentially infringing someone else's copyrighted material. Remember: a copyright protects the expression of an idea, not the idea itself.

But what about pictures? Fortunately there are sites on the Internet you can find images and obtain free or low-cost licenses to them. Stock photo websites allow you to use keywords to search for all different types of images. Take a look at our blog - almost every entry includes a photo, and we found all of them on stock photo sites! Well, all of them except the picture of the Indiana Statehouse. That photo demonstrates another way to avoid infringing someone else's copyright. It's an original photo taken by a member of our staff and is therefore copyrighted exclusively for the use of Smith Rayl Law Office.

Remember, just because it is relatively simple for you to find a picture or news story online does not mean you should post it! There can be real consequences to copyright infringement, even when it is unintentional.

Continue reading "Owners of websites: Learn from the Righthaven lawsuits!" »

February 2, 2011

Indiana General Assembly Report: L3C Bill Introduced

In the next few days, I'll get back toThumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for 100_3697.JPG the discussion of the basics of limited liability companies, but first I want to mention a bill that has been introduced in the Indiana General Assembly that takes on an advanced, cutting-edge topic: the low-profit, limited liability company or "L3C." The bill is Senate Bill 501, authored by Sen. Brandt Hershman (R-Lafayette).

The L3C is a new variation on a limited liability company. The primary purpose of the L3C is to pursue a charitable mission, with the generation of a profit being a secondary purpose. The L3C is not, itself, a tax exempt organization. Instead, it is intended to be a vehicle that can attract both private capital and philanthropic investments to address issues such as low income housing.

Why? Primarily because the L3C is designed to be eligible for program related investments from private foundations. A program related investment is an alternative to a traditional philanthropic grant. An example of the use of program related investments in Indiana is the support of charter schools by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

You can read more about L3C's from Americans for Community Development.

Continue reading "Indiana General Assembly Report: L3C Bill Introduced" »