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Posts Tagged ‘attorney fees’

What's in the pocket there, chief? Don't let this employee walk away with your trade secret!

The first post in this series discussed what defines a trade secret.  The second post considered what reasonable steps must be taken to guard the secrecy of your trade secret. 

But what happens if, despite your best efforts, your trade secret is discovered?  This post will focus on some specifics you should know if you are thinking of taking action against the “bad guys.”

What is misappropriation of a trade secret?

If someone learns, uses or discloses your trade secret as a result of improper means, that generally constitutes an unlawful taking or “misappropriation” of that trade secret.  So if you want to take action for misappropriation of a trade secret, you must show that it leaked out as a result of “improper means.”  That in turn raises the question of what constitutes “improper means,” in this context.

In the last post in this series which covered maintaining the confidentiality of your trade secret, we learned that if someone learns a trade secret through theft or “spying,” that can be improper means.  Generally, obtaining a trade secret through bribery or misrepresentation will be considered improper means.  The same can be true (though not always) if the secret leaks out the result of a breach of someone’s duty to maintain secrecy.

One common scenario for claims of trade secret misappropriation is when an employee with access to confidential trade secrets leaves to work for a competitor.  Consider, for instance, a salesman with access to a confidential customer list; a marketing person with knowledge about upcoming advertising and marketing plans; a tech employee with extensive knowledge about upstream research and development activities. When these kinds of employees are hired away by a competitor, it’s only natural to assume that they will use and/or disclose the trade secret in the course of their new employment. 

What is not misappropriation?

You should bear in mind, though, that there are ways a competitor can learn your trade secret that are not regarded as misappropriation.  If someone learns your trade secret as a result of your failure to take reasonable precautions to protect its secrecy, that is not improper means and thus not misappropriation.  Similarly, if someone learns your trade secret by purchasing your product and taking it apart to learn how it works (called “reverse engineering”), that is not improper means either, and thus not misappropriation.

Even if your trade secret has been misappropriated by one party, in some cases others who learn the secret from the original “thief” may not have any liability.  This is particularly true of the second parties engaged in no misconduct in learning the secret. 

The problem of Internet posting

This issue of the “innocent” second party is a real problem if, for example, the thief posts your trade secret on the Internet.  There are interesting cases on this subject from California, Virginia and Colorado courts, involving the Internet posting of alleged trade secret materials of the Church of Scientology. 

In the Church of Scientology cases, the courts found that the original posters may have liability, but those who merely downloaded the posted information committed no misconduct.  The courts went on to find that trade secret protection had been lost through the posting, because the information had become “generally known” and thus no longer secret. 

What remedies can I get through a misappropriation lawsuit?

If you are successful in your trade secret misappropriation lawsuit, you can get a permanent injunction that bars the misappropriating party from use or further disclosure of the trade secret.  You may also be able to obtain a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction while the lawsuit is pending, to prevent a threatened misappropriation or to prevent use of the trade secret until a judgment is rendered.

You also can seek money damages for your actual injury and/or the defendant’s profits from the use of the trade secret.  In the case of willful misappropriation the court may even double the award and/or award you attorneys’ fees.

Get Legal Advice

My comments here are general in nature, of course.  As I noted earlier in this series, there is no preemptive federal statute on the subject and thus trade secret laws vary from state to state. 

If you suspect misappropriation has occurred, you should work with an attorney with experience in the field of trade secrets.  He or she can look closely at the circumstances with reference to your state’s trade secret statute, to determine whether you may have an action for misappropriation.

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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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My previous two articles in this series have dealt with proceedings by trademark owners against cybersquatters under the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, or “ACPA.”  The ACPA has been inserted into the Lanham Act, the U.S. federal trademark statute.  As a result, successful plaintiffs under the ACPA can select from a range of remedies available under the Lanham Act. 

Lanham Act remedies, however, often are not the most efficient way to combat cybersquatting.  As a result, we now will discuss an alternate approach offered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or “ICANN.”

Take advantage of the UDRP alternative and you'll be "master of your domain" again in no time. Wait, what?

UDRP Alternative

ICANN is the organization that governs the assignment of domain names by the individual registrars.  ICANN offers what often is a less expensive and more efficient – if narrower – remedy against cybersquatters.  This approach is called the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy, or “UDRP.” 

The current rules governing UDRP proceedings are published at the ICANN site.  A new set of rules have been approved and will take effect for UDRP proceedings filed on or after March 1, 2010. 

The UDRP currently applies to all .com, .net, .org, .biz, .info, .coop, .museum, .coop, .aero and .name top-level domains, and some country code top-level domains.  No one can register any domain name under one of these top-level domains, regardless of the registrar, without agreeing to be bound by the UDRP.

UDRP procedures provide disputants with a cheaper and quicker arbitration proceeding rather than a court proceeding.  Under the UDRP policy, the domain name registrar (not the cybersquatter) is required to transfer the domain name to the trademark owner, if the complaining trademark owner prevails.

UDRP Procedures

UDRP cases are heard by arbitration panels supplied by UDRP “providers,” organizations approved by ICANN for that purpose.  The complaining trademark owner selects the provider. 

The arbitration panel can include one or three members – unless one of the parties requests a three-member panel, the panel will comprise only one member.  A three-member panel is more expensive, but may be worth the cost as the parties get to have a say in the members of a three-member panel.

In order to prevail, the complaining trademark owner must demonstrate these facts:

1) The complainant has established trademark rights in the claimed mark;

2) The domain name is identical or so similar to the complainant’s trademark as to cause confusion;

3) The alleged cybersquatter has no legitimate interest in the domain name, and

4) The alleged cybersquatter registered the domain name in “bad faith.”

In a UDRP proceeding, a panel will consider several non-exclusive factors to assess bad faith, such as:

a)  Whether the domain name owner registered the domain primarily for the purpose of selling, renting, or otherwise transferring it to the complaining trademark owner;

b)  Whether the domain name owner registered the domain name to prevent the trademark owner from using the mark in a corresponding domain name, if the domain owner has engaged in a pattern of such conduct; and

c)  Whether the domain name owner registered the domain primarily for the purpose of disrupting the business of a competitor; or

d)  Whether by using the domain name, the domain owner has intentionally attempted to attract, for commercial gain, internet users to the registrant’s website, by creating a likelihood of confusion with the trademark owner’s mark.

Results and Remedies

The UDRP need not be the final stop for the complaining trademark owner.  If he is unsuccessful in his UDRP arbitration, he is not precluded from bringing a federal law suit against the alleged cybersquatter under the ACPA. 

On the other hand, if the alleged cybersquatter loses in the UDRP proceeding, she has ten days to bring suit if she wants to prevent the domain name registrar from transferring the domain name.  Upon receiving notice that the losing domain name holder has filed suit, the registrar will take no further action until it receives notice that the suit was settled or decided.

The UDRP provides a quick and effective remedy against cybersquatters, with decisions generally rendered within about two months.  One limitation of the UDRP approach is that it does not provide for monetary damages, attorneys fees or costs – only the transfer or cancellation of the domain name registration.  In many cases, however, that may be the most important remedy for the trademark owner. 

In any event, many trademark owners prefer to invoke the UDRP procedure, which usually is significantly less expensive than a federal law suit under the ACPA.

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

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So, you’re ready to take your business onto the Internet, and the most sensible way to do that is to register your well-known trademark as a domain name.  You try to do so, but learn that another party already has registered your trademark as a domain name.  Your brand may have been cybersquatted.  What are your options?

Jolly Roger

By the time you see the flags, it may be too late - cyberpirates have already made off with your valuable trademark.

“Cybersquatting” is a term that was coined to describe the bad faith registration and use of another party’s trademark as a domain name, with the intent to profit somehow from the good will of that trademark.  The term harkens back to the practice of illegal tenants “squatting” in derelict or condemned buildings.

A party injured by cybersquatting can sue under the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, or ACPA.  The ACPA became a part of the U.S. trademark statute, also known as the Lanham Act.

(I should point out here that trademark owners injured by cybersquatting also can proceed through arbitration under what are called the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy, commonly referred to as the “UDRP” approach.  I will be discussing the UDRP approach in an upcoming related article.  This approach can be quicker and significantly less expensive than proceeding under the ACPA, though it also offers a narrower range of remedies.)

The ACPA defines cybersquatting (which the statute refers to as “cyberpiracy”) as “registering, trafficking in, or using” a domain name that is identical or confusingly similar to another party’s distinctive trademark, “with a bad faith intent to profit from that mark.”  If the complaining party’s trademark is deemed a “famous” mark under the law, cybersquatting also occurs where the domain name would “dilute” the famous mark by tarnishing or blurring the public’s perception it.

Bear in mind that the domain name used by the cybersquatter need not be (and in fact, often is not) identical to the trademark at issue.  One practice that domain pirates quickly adopted is “typosquatting,” which involves registering common misspellings of a trademark as domain names.  When an unwary web-user accidentally types the misspelled trademark, he or she is taken to the pirate’s site.  The ACPA is broad enough to cover this practice, provided it can be shown that the misspelled domain name is confusingly similar to the plaintiff’s trademark.

The ACPA’s definition of cybersquatting creates several issues of proof for the would-be plaintiff, which I will discuss in an upcoming article.  For now, let’s examine the remedies that the ACPA provides for those injured by cybersquatting.

If a violation of the ACPA is found, the court can order the forfeiture or cancellation of the offending domain name, or its transfer to the trademark owner. The trademark owner also can recover up to three times his or her actual damages.  Actual damages include any profits the cybersquatter made through his use of the domain, along with any losses sustained by the trademark owner through the cybersquatters activities (such as lost sales or harm to the mark’s reputation.)

The trademark owner also has the option of foregoing actual damages and instead taking statutory damages (similar in nature to the copyright statutory damages I discussed in an earlier post) in the amount of $1,000 to $100,000 per domain name.  The statutory damages amount is left to the court’s discretion – presumably, the more odious the cybersquatter’s actions, the higher the award.

Finally, in suitable cases a successful plaintiff can get an injunction prohibiting further cybersquatting by the defendant, and in “exceptional cases,” can also recover attorney’s fees from the cybersquatter.

Where the cybersquatter is offshore and therefore not subject to the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, a provision of the ACPA allows the injured party to proceed “in rem,” or directly against the domain name itself.  In these cases the only remedy is that the domain will be awarded to the plaintiff.

If your trademark has been cybersquatted, the ACPA provides a range of legal options you can use against against the pirate.  My next article will discuss what your law suit must show, in order to get an award of the remedies provided by the ACPA.  Another related upcoming article will discuss the UDRP approach and evaluate the respective benefits of ACPA vs. UDRP.  Stay tuned for more discussion!

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

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For the first substantive post here, I thought I would honor the obsessions interests of certain unnamed family members and report on a current ruckus in the designer bag industry.  The story here is that mega-retailer Target Corporation has been sued for trademark infringement by Coach Inc., the marketer of costly prestigious COACH® brand handbags and personal accessories. 

Coach brought its suit in federal district court in the Southern District of New York, where the company is headquartered.  The complaint asserts that this summer, mass merchandiser Target began selling bags which are “exact and/or confusingly similar reproductions of Coach’s Ergo designs and Signature Patchwork designs.”  

Coach’s Ergo bags apparently are designed to be ergonomically correct (sidebar: good luck protecting that mark), while the Signature Patchwork (ditto) bags are pieced together using patches of different fabrics.  Coach has, not surprisingly, asked the district court to issue an injunction preventing Target from selling the bags.  It also seeks undetermined damages and attorney fees.

Coach’s Ergo bags look like this:

coach-ergo-patchwork-bag

This bag also happens to feature one iteration of the Signature Patchwork design. 

My online review of Target’s handbag line turned up any number of fabulous bags, but nothing that looked to this reporter like an “exact and/or confusingly similar reproduction” of the Coach handbag.  Of course, Target very likely pulled the bag(s) in question once the suit was filed.

Since I don’t have a picture of Target’s bag to give you, the least I can provide is an image of the company’s famous logo:

target-logo

Presumably, Target Corporation didn’t consider the “vexatious litigation” angle when selecting its brand name and logo.

For those keeping track, the two companies have a history of friction, and this is not the first time Coach has sued Target for infringement.  Coach filed suit in 2006, claiming that Target sold counterfeits of Coach’s Python Signature Striped Demi purse.  Coach dismissed the suit after only three weeks when it came to light that the bags in question were legit Coach bags purchased by Target “at a major department store liquidation sale.”  Coach also currently has a suit pending against Brown Shoe Company for infringement of the Ergo and Signature Patchworks bags.

Coach maintains a page on its website as well as a telephone hotline, both devoted to reporting COACH counterfeits.  The web page points out that “counterfeit quality is typically poor,” and goes on to intone that COACH counterfeiters “illegally profit at the expense of Coach and affect the entire economy through lost revenues and taxes.”  Frankly, I had no idea that the luxury handbag market was such a dominant force in our national economy.

I have not seen the actual complaint as yet, and thus have no basis to provide my own vaunted SOLID GOLD™  analysis of whether Target’s bags infringe.  Stay tuned for further comment when I have more information.

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