The Thorny Issues of “Personal Use” in Direct Selling

The Thorny Issues of “Personal Use” in Direct SellingThere exists tension between the direct sales industry and industry regulators as to the role of “personal use” of products and services by distributors of MLM companies. The broad and ambiguous language in pyramid legislation has contributed to the problem. Pyramid statutes have always prohibited the payment of commissions in a multilevel program unless based upon the “sale of goods or services.” To whom must those goods or services be sold in order to avoid being a pyramid? The distributor, the end-consumer, or both?

Almost all major direct selling companies have defined “retail sales” to include sales to non-distributors, as well as sales to distributors for actual use or consumption (distributors like to use the products they sell too). Many regulatory officials, however, have maintained that the “mark of legitimacy” is found in the programs where primary sales revenue comes from sales to non-distributors, i.e. consumers.

As a theoretical goal, the regulatory position is admirable. The fact is that personal use in the direct selling business creates high sales revenue for many companies from the moment of their inception.

For many years after the 1979 Amway decision, a “live and let live attitude” prevailed between the MLM industry and regulatory community. Although periodic legal skirmishes occurred, the industry and regulators appeared to be content to “agree to disagree.” Instead, the focus on legal investigation was upon inventory loading, cash pyramids, phony products, and earnings hype.

The comments of a federal appeals court in a 1996 class action case involving a company called Omnitrition invigorated the debate on personal use. In that decision, which involved an interim ruling in the case, the federal appeals court questioned whether or not a network marketing company could be viewed as legitimate if its sales were not derived from nonparticipant customers (i.e. distributors). The language in the decision was heavily criticized by the MLM industry, and the Direct Selling Association (DSA), in fact, filed an amicus brief citing the importance of personal use in direct selling marketing programs. However, the decision stood firm. In the trial court’s ruling, the court recognized that products purchased for personal use by distributors constituted a retail sale in the same fashion that sales to nonparticipants would constitute a retail sale.

In the aftermath of the decision, both state and federal regulatory agencies were emboldened to sue or obtain consent decrees against network marketing companies which contain very restrictive requirements regarding recognition of personal use by distributors. State agencies were all over the board on their position. Some demanded 50 percent sales to non-distributors. Some demanded 70 percent sales to non-distributors. Some demanded 80 percent to non-distributors. Even the FTC awakened after 20 years of dormancy and demanded that more than 50 percent of sales be to non-distributors in various consent decrees.

The aggressiveness of government activity was alarming to the industry. The industry quickly marshaled forces, and in short order, at least four states adopted legislation specifically recognizing personal use as a legitimate end destination for products. Other states were likewise targeted for such legislation and the industry was of the belief that a trend would be started that ultimately would be recognized by all state and federal agencies. So strongly did the industry feel about it, that its leading trade association, the DSA, undertook consideration of a formal amendment to its ethics code which would recognize that, for purposes of a pyramid analysis, a retail sale would include sales to nonparticipants, as well as sales to participants for actual use or consumption.

Notwithstanding the ongoing debate on personal use, the industry seems to thrive in almost all states. These is no question; however, that the “personal use” issue is a thorny issue and one issue upon which the industry and regulators must carry on an earnest ongoing dialog to reach a consensus that protects consumers, distributors and network marketers.

Learn more about the multilevel marketing industry and personal use. Watch expert Attorney Jeff Babener’s videos:

What Is the U.S. and International Trend in Recognizing the Validity of Personal Use by Distributors in Pyramid Cases?

Is There a Message to the Direct Selling Industry on Next Steps after the Burnlounge Case on Personal Use?

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