Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Works Made for Hire - Independent Contractors Own their Copyrights

We train our clients in how to register their copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Something that came up in such a training session the other day is worth repeating here.
Employees that create original works for their employers (articles, artwork, designs, etc.) do not own the copyrights to those works. Their employers own the copyrights under the Works Made for Hire or (Work for Hire) rule.
However, independent contractors do not follow under the Work for Hire rule unless the contractor and the company that the contractor is working for have an agreement that the contractor's work is for hire.
In this day and age, companies are hiring more and more independent contractors on a project by project basis. Sometimes the projects can the creation of critical property for the company, such as source code for software or web designs.
The independent contractor owns the copyrights to that work unless the company that hire the contractor obtains an work for hire agreement to the contrary.
Get those contractors to sign work for hire agreements!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Unfair Trademark Dilution Laws Explained

I was asked to comment on the lawsuit filed by Facebook against Teachbook.

Facebook sues Teachbook.com for using 'book' in its name - latimes.com

Facebook is suing under Federal trademark law including, in particular, the trademark dilution statutes found in Federal trademark law.

According to the LA Times article about the case, Facebook initally objected to Teachbook's application for a trademark registration. Such objections are handled by the Trial and Appeals Board of the US Patent and Trademark Office. That should be good enough but the TTAB will only decide if Teachbook is confusing similar with Facebook - which it probably is not.

Facebook's lawsuit, on the other hand, is based on Federal trademark dilutions law. To understand that, you must understand that traditional trademark law protects against infringement.

Infringement is (very generally) when a trademark that is confusingly similar to another, older trademark. The infringing trademark must be used in the same class of goods or services, or close to the same class of goods or services, and must be so similar as to create the likelihood of consumer confusion.

So, infringement is very specific to the use of the trademarks involved, the class, the markets, etc.

In 1995, in an apparent reaction to the rise of the Internet, Congress enacted the Trademark Dilution Act which amended the U.S. trademark laws. The law was backed by large established companies.

Under the dilution laws, the owner of a trademark can stop the use of a similar trademark even though the other trademark does not create even a likelihood of confusion. In other words the defendant's trademark does not need to legally infringe.

Under the dilution laws, the owner of a trademark (the plaintiff in a lawsuit) can stop the use of a similar trademark if 1) the plaintiff's trademark is famous, and 2) the defendant's trademark is will cause tarnishment or is exploiting the famous trademark's goodwill.

The language of the statues is rather vague as to what is a "famous" mark, etc.

The most famous case regarding dilution was the Victoria's Secret case. Victoria's Secret (VS) sued the owners of a small lingerie shop in Kentucky for dilution. The name of the shop was Victor's Little Secret. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case and decided that the Victor's Little Secret trademark did indeed dilute the VS trademark but VS had no case since it hadn't been damaged.

The U.S. Congress immediately amended the dilution laws to provide that the owner of the famous mark did not need to prove damage. Congress has since further strengthened the law to give a greater edge to the owners of famous marks.

Today, the shop is not called Victor's Little Secret. After many years of litigation, VS and Congress bludgeonded the shop's owners into submission even though VS never proved that it had been harmed.

I strongly dislike dilution law. I represent entrepreneurs and small business owners - the people who own companies like Victor's Little Secret and Teachbook. I have had small business owners see me about cease and desist letters from major law firms that represent large corporations. I have told my clients that the other side has a weak case, even for dilution, but other side can sue and take the case to trial. The problem is that my client's can't possibly afford to litigate a trademark case in Federal court.

And that is what the dilution law is designed to do: to allow the owner of a "famous" trademark to force the small business into court and stay there.

I have litigated hundreds of business litigation cases and tried dozens. It is an expensive process. If a case had no legal merit, then it can be thrown out on a Motion to Dismiss (in Federal court). If a case has no factual basis, it can be disposed of with a Motion for Summary Judgment. Both of those motions can be made long before trial.

The problem with a dilution case is that a large corporation can easily claim it has a famous trademark and that a similar trademark is diluting it. Since it is an issue of fact whether or not the large corporation's trademark is famous and whether or not the other trademark is diluting it, the case not be thrown out on a motion to dismiss or summary judgment. The parties must engage in expensive discovery and hire expensive experts to testify about how famous is the plaintiff's trademark and about dilution, and go to trial - and the small guys can't afford it.

I explained this to an entrepreneur one time after he received a nastygram from a major law firm claiming that his trademark diluted a so-called famous trademark. I told him he could win against the other side but he would have to hire a trademark litigation firm and pay them huge sums of money. He said, "Forget it. I'll just change my company's name." And the other side was a company we had never heard of until my client received the cease and desist letter.

The ultimate problem is that the law is not only completely unfair but it creates uncertainty. As an attorney, if someone comes into see me about starting a company called Teachbook and whether they would get in trouble with Facebook, I have say, "Well, it's not infringement, but they might sue for dilution."

The client, of course, will want to know whether or not that is likely to happen, and I have to reply that I simply don't know - but I do know that they can't afford it.

The result is that the Victor's Little Secrets and Teachbooks of America are at the mercy of large corporations and a Congress that facilitates them.

The only thing that they can do is stay as far away from famous trademarks as possible and consult with an attorney before launching new brand.

So, there is my populist rant about dilution law.

Friday, August 20, 2010

You can check an attorney's discipline history

Before you retain an attorney, you can check the attorney's discipline record on the State Bar's website. This can be important. My wife is working on a case in which the client's previous attorney did a very poor job representing the client. She is now trying to salvage the case.

The previous attorney had a history of discipline by the California State Bar and was disbarred in Nevada at the time he was filing this case in California. He is now being prosecuted by California State Bar.