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So it seems the gun world is up in arms (that’s right, I went there) about the fact that the Spearmint Rhino chain of strip clubs has sued gun manufacturer Chiappa Firearms for using a confusingly similar mark on its RHINO 40DS model .357 magnum (Spearmint Rhino Companies Worldwide Inc. v. Chiappa Firearms Ltd et al., 2:11-cv-05682-R–MAN, Central District of California).  I’ve seen no comment from the strip club community.  Apparently they have what they regard as better things to focus on.

Let me mention at the outset that a good friend and eminent member of the Michigan bar tipped me off to this, uh, tussle.  I appreciate it very much because a) it provides a great opportunity to talk about an enduring public misconception about trademark infringement, and b) nothing drives traffic to a blog like the phrase “strip club” in a post title.

The Spearmint Rhino and Chiappa trademarks at issue in the law suit.

Here’s a good photo showing a comparison of the marks, courtesy of this article on the GUNS.COM site.  (I couldn’t help smiling at the phrase “PLENTY of VIDEO” in the title – another savvy web marketer at work.  Touche, my friend.)

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to observe that, aside from the rhinos facing in different directions, the marks actually do look quite similar.  Spearmint Rhino has registered its rhino-outline-in-a-circle mark for “T-shirts and hats; lingerie, namely panties, g-strings, brassieres and corsets for semi-nude and erotic dancers; golf clothing, namely golf shirts, jackets, vests and caps.”  Chiappa has registered its rhino-outline-in-a-circle mark for firearms, but not clothing.

If you clicked over to the GUNS.COM article (and I hope you did), you’ll notice that both the article itself and the reader comments express some surprise and doubt that Spearmint Rhino’s suit has any merit.  I believe the phrase “snowball’s chance in hell” shows up prominently.  This line of thinking can perhaps be summed up as: no one would ever confuse pistols for panties.  Or maybe: how can you mix up guns and G-strings?  Or how about: one holds bullets, the other holds boobs – case closed!  (Sorry.  Traffic, you understand.)

So, would anyone really go out to buy a gun and come home with a G-string instead?  Okay, I’ll grant that one can imagine situations where that might happen.  But would it happen because of confusion caused by the trademarks involved?

The answer to that question is, probably not – but it doesn’t matter.  This is where the enduring public misperception comes into play.  Trademark infringement is not limited to situations where customers are confused into buying one party’s product thinking they’re buying another’s.  This is the important take-away from this article.

People often don’t realize that trademark infringement also exists when the nature of the marks and goods could cause the public to believe there is some connection (such as license, for instance) between the two companies, when in fact that connection doesn’t exist.  Again, not the undies.  This is the important part.

Looked at in that light, maybe Spearmint Rhino’s legal claims don’t seem so ridiculous after all. 

First of all, while the frilly underwear may be more fun to focus on, hopefully you noticed that Spearmint Rhino’s trademark registration also covers T-shirts, hats, golf shirts, jackets, vests and caps.  It’s not unusual at all for makers of outdoor lifestyle products to use their marks on that kind of clothing.

-          The famous GLOCK gun trademark is registered for firearms, but also for “clothing, namely, footwear; headgear, namely, caps, baseball caps, earmuffs, headbands, and headcloths; T-shirts; polo shirts; fleece sweaters; wind-resistant jackets; track suits; neckerchiefs; neckties.”  Perhaps it bears mentioning that T-shirts (at least the white ones) are also a type of underwear?

-          The famous REMINGTON mark is registered for guns, but also for similar clothing goods.

-          Heck, for that matter, the famous HARLEY-DAVIDSON MOTOR CYCLES trademark is registered for motorcycles, but also for hats and caps, and even for “T-Shirts, Tank Tops, Halters, [and] Panties.”

Second, how are these kinds of lifestyle trademarks commonly used on clothing?  By licensing the trademark to another company that’s already in the clothing business.  For some reason, people who spend all day boring out gun barrels don’t want to spend their evenings with straight pins in their mouths, basting seams. 

So, when we strip away (sorry) all the rhetoric, what do we have here?  Two marks that are pretty darn similar in appearance.  One is used on guns, and one is used on a line of products that often have famous gun trademarks on them, via trademark license. 

Could anyone see the Spearmint Rhino mark on, say, a baseball cap and mistakenly believe that the mark was licensed by the gun maker Chiappa?  You can draw your own conclusions, but hopefully I’ve given you a better legal framework to think the matter through.

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Having not read this blog post, Smedley and Popoff thought they were about to get rich by stealing a competitor's trade secret.

The first post in this series discussed exactly what defines a trade secret.  In many states any piece of information you possess, which has value to your business because it is unknown to the general public and to your competitors, can potentially be a trade secret.

But in order to qualify for protection for your trade secret, you must also take reasonable steps to guard the secrecy of that information.  This post will examine how that is accomplished.  We also will explore the circumstances under which trade secret protection may be preferable to seeking a patent. 

If I Have A Trade Secret, How Do I Protect It?

By its very definition, a trade secret must remain a secret.  That means that, as noted above, you must take reasonable steps to maintain the actual secrecy of your trade secret. 

What kinds of steps are recommended?  To some extent, it depends on the nature of the secret.  In every case, you should limit access to and disclosures of the trade secret to those with a need to know, requiring your employees and contractors to sign non-disclosure agreements if they may be exposed to a trade secret. 

You also should keep all trade secret materials in a secure place.  In the case of secrets that encompass paperwork, the papers should be locked up and marked “CONFIDENTIAL.”  If your trade secret is a manufacturing technique or process, you should carefully restrict access to/visibility of the production areas where that method is used.

How Far Must I Go To Maintain Secrecy?

To what lengths must you go to protect the secrecy of your trade secret?  Generally speaking, the key word here is reasonableness.  You don’t need to take wildly expensive measures to defeat even the most imaginative forms of industrial espionage.  The courts usually find such spying constitutes trade secret misappropriation.

In duPont v. Christopher, a famous case arising in Texas, a competitor chartered a plane and flew over the plaintiff trade secret owner’s factory while it was under construction.  By taking aerial pictures of the plant in this way, the competitor was able to figure out duPont’s trade secret.  duPont sued, and the court held that the trade secret owner need not have taken the extraordinary precaution of preventing airborne espionage while its factory was built – the competitor’s actions were misappropriation of the trade secret. 

On the other hand, if your measures are effective in avoiding discovery of your trade secret, you won’t have to go to the expense of litigating to protect it.  How extensive your confidentiality measures should be boils down to a judgement call, based on the level of competition your industry. 

Why Not Just Get A Patent?

With all the precautions necessary to maintain a trade secret it is reasonable to ask, “Why not just get a patent instead of bothering with all of that?”  There are at least two good reasons to use trade secret protection instead of seeking a patent, under the right set of circumstances.

First, patents are expensive and difficult to register.  Not everything that might be useful in the competitive arena would qualify for patent protection – in fact, most things would not.

And second, put very simply, patents expire.  A patent provides a window of time during which the patent owner has a complete monopoly over the manufacture and use of the patented invention.  Once the patent expires, the invention falls into the public domain and anyone can make or use that invention.  So a patent is basically a trade-off – you’re trading long-term exclusivity for the absoluteness of the patent monopoly.

Trade secret protection, by contrast, is easier to arrange.  And, if you take the proper precautions, you may be able to exploit your trade secret forever – it has no automatic expiration date, in any event. 

Get Legal Advice

If you think you may have a trade secret and want to protect it, it is a very good idea to consult an attorney with experience in trade secret law.  That attorney can help you set up the appropriate safeguards and precautions in order to maintain the secrecy of your trade secret.

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This series discusses trademark issues that arise in the context of band names.  My previous posts in the series have covered finding a name, registering that name, and avoiding problems when selling so-called “merch” goods, especially clothing, bearing the name.  To close out this series, I’d like to take a few moments to discuss exactly how it is that bands own their names, from a legal perspective.

"Hello and welcome to our partnership meeting! Sing along if you know the words!"

So, you’ve got yourself a band and things are going well.  The band’s name is becoming more and more well known, and the future looks bright.  Bands differ in many ways – they may play different music, using different instruments, in different venues, to different audiences, to different audiences.

Then again, anyone with any experience playing music will tell you that all bands have one thing in common:  they tend to break up, sooner or later.  When that happens, who owns the name?

To answer that question, which is after all a legal conclusion, you have to consider what exactly the band was…  From a legal standpoint, that is.  (And here’s a hint:  it’s even better to think about this issue before your band breaks up…)

Partnership Is the Default Status

The law of Illinois and Indiana, where I am admitted to practice (and also the law of many other states), presumes that when a group of individuals act together for a common purpose and when they share the profits and losses of those actions, they have created what is generally referred to as a “common law partnership.”  This includes people working together as a band since, when you stop to think about it, a band’s activities fit that general definition quite well. 

Without a written agreement to the contrary, the law in most states will assume a number of things about a band’s partnership.  One of those assumptions the law makes is that all members of the partnership have equal ownership of, and an equal right to use, all the assets of the partnership.  In the case of a band, those assets include the band’s name. 

Problems Under Partnership Law

So under general partnership law, unless there is a written partnership agreement to the contrary, all band members/common law partners would be equal owners of the band name and any associated logos.  In addition, any current or former member would be permitted to use the name.  Because trademark rights are determined by who uses a mark and not who created it, each of the members of the Band would be an equal co-owner of the group name under trademark law.

Given the propensity of musicians to join and quit bands, the prospect of former band members having some ownership interest in the name tends to be a little disturbing to the remaining band members.

Solution:  A Written Partnership Agreement

Obviously, you can own and use a band name trademark as a common law partnership – most bands never even consider the issue, and as a result that’s how they own and use their names.  You can even register the name as a trademark, listing the common law partnership as the entity that owns the mark.  But absent a written partnership agreement to govern ownership of the name in the event a band member/partner leaves or the partnership dissolves (i.e., the band breaks up), figuring out who owns the rights in the name could get very messy. 

Obviously, in the case of most music groups, a written partnership agreement is preferable to general partnership law.  Once a band partnership agreement is created, it can function like a prenuptial agreement and, if need be, help make the break-up process less painful. 

Other Alternatives: LLC or Corporation

It’s also possible to form a limited liability company (also known as an LLC) or a corporation for the band.  These more formal forms of organization may work better for your band, depending on the sophistication of the band’s operations. 

In either event, it’s a good idea to work with an attorney who knows the ins and outs of each form of organization, as it relates to music groups.  As with many areas, spending a little money now on legal assistance may avoid much greater costs and headaches later.

PICTURE COURTESY OF PUBLICDOMAINPICTURES.NET.

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Gwen Stefani isn't going to screw up and step on someone's toes in the rag trade. You, on the other hand, might.

In the preceding post in this series, I mentioned some reasons why it’s a good idea to hire an attorney with experience in trademark law to handle the application to register your band name.  There are other reasons why hiring an attorney for this process is a good idea, though.  For instance, your attorney will have the experience to know whether existing trademarks covering peripheral “merch” goods categories are problematic.

What do I mean by that?  Well, when you put your band name/trademark on goods like clothing, you are wading into an industry not directly related to music or entertainment.  The apparel industry has its own brands and, unless you’re Gwen Stefani, as a musician you may be unaware of another identical or highly similar brand name in that industry. 

Music and fashion tend to track similar trends, attitudes and tastes, however.  Both emphasize youth, rebellion and counterculture style.  This makes it understandable that similar or identical names might arise in both the music and fashion industries.  So, as an example, it would’t be surprising for a band named “RAGE OF ANGELS” to bump into an existing clothing brand also called “RAGE OF ANGELS.”

Is this a problem?  Well, if the brands are identical as in the above example, and if you hope to use and register your band name for clothing, the answer is almost certainly yes.  That’s a relatively easy call for anyone to make.  But what if the names are not identical but merely similar to a greater or lesser extent?  Now it becomes a judgment call.  And this is by far the more common occurrence, by the way.

This is no small issue.  Many bands rely heavily on the money they make from sales of “merch” goods, and tee shirts and other clothing items form a dominant part of those sales.  All the more reason to have an experienced attorney search the name for these goods at the outset, in order to avoid these problems.

An attorney with experience in trademark law is better equipped to make that judgment call.  It probably would be more than worth the cost of a bit of attorney’s time to avoid wasting $275 – $325 in filing fees (for a clothing category), not to mention whatever problems and costs may come with a challenge or opposition by the clothing brand.

You want to focus on rockin’ the joint up, not on cease and desist letters from fashionistas.  Save yourself the headaches and work with an attorney who knows how to spot a potential issue in this arena and can help you avoid problems.

PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR USER BRAYAN E., UNDER THIS CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE.

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The first post in this series discussed issues related to finding a band name that is available for your use.  Now we can talk about protecting your band’s name against encroachment by other acts.

So now you’ve found a band name that everyone in and out of the band loves, and it has passed the availability searching test I discussed in the previous post.  How do you create and strengthen your rights in the name, so no one else takes it? 

Rehearsing is great guys, but maybe you should take five and get started on that trademark application for THE EEL RIVER BOYZ.

First, you use the name.  You use it in the band’s promotion and performance.  You create the same types of sites you were searching for earlier, using the band name prominently on your website, on a Facebook page, a Myspace page, and so on.

Next, you register your band name.  You register it as a domain name; you register it on the band name databases; you set up a presence on Sonicbids.  And, most importantly, you register your band name as a trademark and service mark for the goods and services you sell under the name.

Trademark Registration

Before starting down the path towards registration of your band name as a trademark, it’s important to understand that trademarks are not registered for all possible goods and services.  Instead, your trademark wil be registered to cover the specific goods and/or services you identify in your application.

So what do you sell, as a band?  Live entertainment services?  Recorded music?  What about the “merch” you’ll sell bearing the band’s name – shirts, hats, posters, stickers, buttons, jewelry, key chains, shot glasses/beer glasses/coffee mugs?  All of the above?  Depending on your budget, you’ll want to cover as many of these goods and services as possible in your trademark application. 

Coverage for Your Application Means USPTO Filing Fees

I mention your budget because the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office charges filing fees when you file a trademark application.  Those USPTO filing fees are based on how many International Classes of goods and services your claimed goods and services fall into.  The International Classification system categorizes all conceivable goods and services into 45 separate Classes – a very general breakout of what falls within each Class can be found HERE.

USPTO filing fees vary depending upon how idiosyncratic your descriptions of the goods and services need to be.  If you are willing to use fairly generic pre-approved wording for the descriptions (and meet other requirements for your application), you can limit your filing fees to $275 for each International Class your goods and services fall into.  If for some reason accurately describing your goods or services requires more customized wording, the USPTO will charge $325 per Class in filing fees.

In my experience, for most bands the most important services to cover in a trademark application (in order of decreasing importance) are: 

Ÿ  Live entertainment services (which fall into International Class 41);

Ÿ  Recorded music in various formats (which falls into International Class 9); 

Ÿ  Clothing bearing the band’s name and/or logo (which falls into International Class 25); and

Ÿ  Printed goods such as posters, stickers and event programs (which fall into International Class 16).

As you can see, filing fees can add up quickly.  Covering just the above four Classes in your application will amount to $1,100 in filing fees charged by the USPTO.  This means that you’ll want to think carefully about what’s most important to cover in light of your band’s finances.  Perhaps your budget only allows for one or two Classes, in which case I would opt for the first one or two categories above. 

Do You Need an Attorney?

If you hire an attorney to file and prosecute your trademark application, that attorney also will charge separate professional fees for those services.  Why go to that expense, you may ask yourself.

Hiring an attorney who is experienced in the practice of trademark law is not an absolute necessity for the registration of your mark with the USPTO.  But an experienced practitioner knows how to prepare an application and deal with the USPTO examiner in a way that helps ensure that the resulting registration will give you with the broadest rights possible.  Is it worth the money?  You bet it is.

File Right Away

The USPTO will accept your application right away, you don’t need to begin using the band name before you file your application as long as you can assert that you have a bona fide intent to use the name.  In fact, it’s best to file sooner rather than later.  Every day that goes by is a day someone else could file an application that blocks your registration.

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All businesses have trademark issues that should be buttoned-down.  Family-owned businesses, though, tend to have more trademark issues – and potentially thornier ones – than many other types. 

Okay, MAYBE this family business can get by without addressing trademark issues, but YOURS CAN'T!

Long-standing and thriving family businesses can implode for many reasons when the patriarch or matriarch who started the business retires or dies.  Sometimes family members in succeeding generations lack the business skill or drive of the original generation.  Sometimes they disagree as to the best way to run or expand the business.  There are plenty of reasons for such businesses to run aground.

Trademark Issues are Different in Family Businesses

Often family members from one or more later generations have worked hard to develop and expand the business, and feel a sense of ownership.  Each member of each generation tends to develop the expectation that someday he or she will inherit ownership of at least some part of the business.  For these reasons, family businesses that fail to deal with succession planning in advance are even more likely to fail when succeeding generations take over. 

And what asset of a family business is more valuable than the trademark?  The trademark literally symbolizes all of the good will that each family member has worked to build for the business.  And making matters more sensitive, the primary trademark for many family businesses is the family name – something that all family members naturally feel entitled to use. 

Complicating things even further, it’s not unusual for different family members – brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, and so on – to take over the independent management (even ownership) of different stores.  This is quite common in family restaurant businesses, for instance.

How Problems Arise

While the original generation is still in place, such arrangements usually can hang together.  But when that original generation leaves the business the succeeding generations can end up pulling the business to pieces, and the disputes often boil down to who owns and controls the right to use of the trademark.

I am aware of one family restaurant business where the business was started by a group of five brothers.  Eventually, the brothers opened up their own separate restaurants using the same name.  Later, some of their children opened up restaurants of their own, using variations on the name.  After many years had passed, a potential dispute arose over who controlled rights in the name.  Obviously, such a twisted skein of interlocking rights would be a nightmare to unravel.

I should point out also that trademark disputes in a family business not only can hobble or completely cripple the business, they also can make the business unsalable.  No purchaser wants to buy a business where the right to use and control the business’s primary brand name is in question.

Another problem that can arise where multiple family members claim rights in a family business trademark:  it is unclear who, if anyone, can enforce the trademark against an ouside infringer.  Where more than one party claims rights in the same trademark, the ability for one of those parties to enforce the mark is greatly compromised.

Solutions for Family Businesses

For all of these reasons, it should be obvious that trademark ownership is one of the succession planning details a family business absolutely must attend to, if family members want to ensure long-term survival of the business across generations.  How is this accomplished?

Ÿ  To begin with, the business’s trademark should be registered if possible.  I say “if possible” because family names are regarded by the law as a form of descriptive mark, and as a result they are inherently difficult to register as trademarks.

Ÿ  It is preferable that, if at all possible, the entity that owns the trademark registration should be a corporation or LLC – a formal legal entity in which the rights can be vested.  The governing documents for that entity should specify very carefully how ownership and control of the trademark will be handled when one shareholder or member dies or retires. 

Ÿ  In my opinion partnerships are less desirable for the purpose of trademark ownership (especially common law partnerships with no partnership agreement in place) because often partners hold an equal share in all partnership assets – that doesn’t solve the “who controls the name” problem, does it?  Whatever the entity, however, trademark ownership and succession should be specifically set forth, in writing and in a form that is binding upon all involved.

Ÿ  Further, starting as early as possible in the life of the family business, great care should be taken that all uses of the trademark by any “branch” locations or businesses are controlled through a written trademark license. 

Ÿ  These measures should be handled (or at least overseen) by an attorney skilled in the practice of trademark law.  Each member of the family business should have separate counsel looking after his or her interests, to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.

Family businesses face enough challenges in generational succession, there is no reason to create more problems by ignoring important issues like trademark ownership.  These precautions won’t guarantee that no issues will arise when a family business changes hands, but they certainly will help to minimize that risk.

PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR USER HANSOL, UNDER THIS CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE.

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Choosing a new brand name is not as simple as “Do I like it? Okay, let’s go with it!”  Whether it is to be your flagship brand or just a new product or service in your line, there are many factors to consider in choosing a new brand name.  In this post and the others in this series, I walk you through the most important of those steps.

My earlier posts in this series discussed the importance of getting good legal advice, of understanding the function of trademarks, and of deciding whether your marketing plans require exclusivity on the name.   I also have discussed the strategic value of coming up with a list of potential name candidates and of having your name candidates consumer tested and searched for potential conflicts.

My more recent posts discussed the value of filing trademark applications and registering appropriate domain names to reserve your narrowed list of name candidates.  The most recent installment discussed two steps: brand rollout and monitoring the marketplace for infringements.

We now come to the final step on my list: maintaining your trademark and domain name registrations, so that they do not expire or get cancelled. 

Failing to plan ahead for renewals is asking for disaster.

Step 11:  Maintain and Renew Registrations For Your Name

If you have gone to the cost and effort to stake out trademark and domain name registrations for your brand name, it only makes sense that you will want to keep them in place.  These registrations provide you with important safeguards against encroachment by competitors.  You should make concrete plans now, at the time of brand rollout, to take the necessary maintenance steps. 

Trademark Renewal

Unlike some other types of intellectual property protection, trademark rights can last forever provided you make continuous use of your marks and enforce them against infringers.  Trademark registrations also can be perpetual, but you must take the necessary steps to keep those registrations in force.

If you want to keep your U.S. Trademark Registration alive, you must make periodic filings with the USPTO to prove that the mark in question is still in use (and still used in the same form as it was registered.)  If you don’t make these filings, depending on the point in your registration’s life, it will be cancelled automatically or simply expire.  Your trademark practitioner can assist you in making the necessary filings on a timely basis, but ultimately it’s up to you to make certain the mark remains in ongoing use and that the registration is maintained.

Cancellation or expiration of your trademark registration doesn’t mean you lose all rights in your mark.  If the mark has been in continuous use on your product and remains in use, you still will have common law rights.  But the protections you can leverage using common law rights are far inferior to those provided by a U.S. Trademark Registration.  If the U.S. Registration for your mark expires or is cancelled, my best advice is to file a new application to register the mark as soon as possible. 

Domain Name Renewal

As with trademarks, domain name registrations cover a fixed period of time and will eventually “die” if you fail to renew them.  (One important difference is that with domain names, you can determine the length of your registration and pay registration fees accordingly; with trademarks the maintenance and renewal periods are fixed and uniform.)

If you build your brand into a valuable commodity, then the corresponding domain name will be an equally valuable piece of property.  You can bet there will be opportunistic parties waiting around for you to fall asleep at the switch and let your valuable domain registration die.  Indeed, there is an entire industry built around “snatching” expired domain names. 

SOMEBODY needs to keep their eye on the ball.

Make certain SOMEBODY in your organization stays alert to upcoming renewal and maintenance deadlines.

Your Assets, Your Responsibility

You should create within your brand organization a job function responsible for calendaring, tracking and renewing trademark and domain name registrations.  Because these events often take place years in the future, this responsibility should be bestowed on a particular job title, not a particular person.  Individual people may come and go, but job titles (and their responsibilities) remain.

You can in many cases outsource these responsibilities, but I recommend keeping your own calendar of upcoming renewals as well.  Bear in mind that if someone else fails to take the necessary actions, you are the one who will feel the loss of rights.  Any law suit you could bring against your failed “watchman” would be small comfort – money damages are a poor substitute for the value of your lost rights.  Ultimately, these are your assets and you should assume ultimate responsibility for keeping them safely registered.

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