Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Social Media Is Advertising

Advertising laws are now being applied to social media. Any business with a Facebook account or is on Twitter must understand that those means of communication are legally considered advertising.

I attended a great telephone seminar today that was sponsored by the Intellectual Property Section of the California State Bar regarding advertising law. Among the many topics covered was social media as used by businesses.

The Federal Trade Commission and the courts have held that advertising and unfair competition laws apply to the use of social media by businesses. Furthermore, CAN-SPAM, the Federal anti-spam email law also applies.

Facebook has sued several business entities that spammed Facebook users. The courts held that Facebook had standing to use as an ISP under CAN-SPAM and that CAN-SPAM applied to communications on Facebook.

The FTC recently sued a plastic surgery clinic in Florida for unfair competition. The clinic used various types of social media, including blogs, to create an Internet buzz. Employees provided comments on Facebook and fake customers reviews, among other things.

The FTC sued on the basis that such practices were deceptive advertising. If an employee "Likes" his/her employer's Facebook page and provides favorable comments, and does not reveal that the he/she is an employee, then that is the same as writing a false customer testimonial. The business is liable under false advertising and unfair competition laws.

Any business that might get into any form of social media must have a social media policy that takes these legal issues into account.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Stolen notebooks = $23 million judgment

An employee quit his job and took a couple of binders of documents with him to his new job at a competing company.  This is a very common scenario; employees taking information or unique content with them when they leave a job.  They think that no one will know or care. 

However, the outcome proved disastrous for the employee and his new employer.  More than 10 years later, the employee and his new employer were hit with a judgment of more than $23 million dollars for copyright infringement. 

I tell my clients that copyright law is very strong and can provide powerful remedies for the owners of copyrights.  A recently published Federal case illustrates the strength of the U.S. Copyright Act and why one shouldn't steal documents or use misappropriated documents from another company.

In William A. Graham Co. v. Haughy, a Federal appellate court upheld an award of damages of more than $19 million and more than $4.6 million in pre-judgment interest for copyright infringement.   The infringement in this case was for the theft and use of two binders of documents that had been prepared by the plaintiff in the case - an insurance brokerage.  The binders were used by the plaintiff's agents to sell insurance products. 

An employee left the plaintiff's employment and took with him copies of the documents in the binders.  He gave the documents to his new employer, a competing insurance brokerage.  The new employer gave copies of the documents to its agents and used them for more than a decade before the plaintiff discovered the theft and use. 

The plaintiff sued the competing company and its former employer.  Although there is a statute of limitations for copyright infringement, it does start to run until the copyright owner discovers, or should have discovered, the infringement.  The plaintiff sought profits earned by the defendants that were attributable to the use of the documents in selling insurance products.  This is a form of infringement called indirect infringement.  The plaintiff wasn't seeking damages for the value of the documents themselves but the profits that were attributable to their use.

A jury found that the documents helped the defendants to attain tens of millions of dollars in profits in selling insurance.  The jury found that the portion of those profits attributable to the use of the documents was more than $19 million and added pre-judgment interest of $4.6 million.

The lessons:  register your copyrights for all the documents, art and content that you create, and don't steal or use stolen property!