Archive for the ‘New Businesses’ Category

Jan
13

NON- DISCLOSURE AGREEMENT WORDING:  THE POTENTIAL TO IMPACT THE OUTCOME OF A PATENT-INFRINGEMENT LAW SUIT

These days, Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) templates are readily available on-line, often free-of-charge, making them an attractive alternative for many.  The problem with these templates is they are not necessarily applicable to the contracting parties’ unique circumstances and/or do not properly anticipate dealings between the parties. A poorly drafted, one-size-fits-all NDA can make or break a patent-infringement case many years into the future.   These assertions are supported by the Dec. 7, 2020 decision in Sionyx, LLC v. Hamamatsu Photonics K.K. by the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (CAFC).

In Sionyx, the CAFC concluded that the district court mistakenly concluded that it lacked authority to compel the transfer of ownership of foreign patents from Hamamatsu Photonics, K.K. (Hamamatsu) to Sionyx, LLC (Sionyx).  Moreover, the lower court abused its discretion in distinguishing between the U.S. and foreign patents at issue in the case. The CAFC affirmed the district court on most other issues, including that Hamamatsu breached its non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with Sionyx, and that Sionyx was entitled to co-inventorship and sole ownership of the U.S. patents, as well as damages and an injunction.

The decision is largely based on the NDA signed by the parties in 2006.  This blog discusses the decision and emphasizes that an NDA can have consequences years later.  As the decision demonstrates, had the NDA lacked certain wording, Sionyx may well not have prevailed.

Background

In 1998, Professor Eric Mazur and his student, James Carey, discovered a novel process for creating “black silicon.” The two inventors filed a provisional patent application on May 25, 2001, from which U.S. Patent 8,080,467 ultimately issued, among other patents. Four years later in 2005, the inventors founded Sionyx and met with Hamamatsu – a company that produces silicon-based photodetector devices – a year later.  The two companies entered into an NDA to share confidential information for the purpose of “evaluating applications and joint development opportunities of pulsed laser process doped photonic devices.”

The NDA stipulated that a party receiving confidential information “shall maintain the information in strict confidence for seven years after the expiration of the agreement, after which the receiving party may use or disclose the confidential information.”  Commentator’s emphasis. The NDA also said that the receiving party of confidential information acknowledged that the disclosing party claims ownership of the information and all patent rights “in, or arising from” the confidential information.  Commentator’s emphasis.   The NDA also required that all confidential information received must be returned within 30 days of the termination of the agreement.  The term of the NDA was three years.

Hamamatsu and Sionyx worked together for about two years, at which time Hamamatsu said it wished to develop its products alone. Surprisingly, Sionyx did not request the return of any confidential information from Hamamatsu.  Hamamatsu began developing its own products and emailed Sionyx in 2009 to alert the company that it would be releasing a new photodiode at an upcoming exhibition that it did not believe infringed Sionyx’s IP or breached the confidentiality obligations. Hamamatsu then filed Japanese patent applications for photodetector devices and later filed in several other countries, including the United States, claiming priority to the Japanese patents.

One of Simony’s customers alerted the company to Hamamatsu’s U.S. patents five years later, in 2014.  When discussions between the two company’s failed, Sionyx sued Hamamatsu in the District of Massachusetts for (1) breach of contract; (2) unjust enrichment; (3) infringement of the ’467 patent; and (4) the equitable relief to transfer the foreign to Sionyx and name Carey as an inventor.

District Court Declines to Transfer Foreign Patents

A jury found in favor of Sionyx, awarding almost $800K for breaching the NDA in February 2009, when it first referred to Sionyx’s confidential information in an internal report, and almost $600K in damages for unjust enrichment. The jury also found that Carey should be added as a co-inventor to the U.S. patents. At the post-trial motion stage, the district court then granted Sionyx sole ownership of the disputed U.S. patents, injunctions on Hamamatsu’s accused products practicing those patents and the ’467 patent, pre- and post-judgment interest on damages for breach of contract, and pre-judgment interest on damages for unjust enrichment. The court denied Sionyx’s motions for ownership of the disputed foreign patents because it was uncertain that it had jurisdiction to grant ownership of foreign patents and because Sionyx had failed to adequately identify the foreign patents for which it was requesting ownership.

Sionyx appealed the district court’s decision to refrain from transferring the foreign patents.  The CAFC agreed with Sionyx, holding that “the evidence that established Sionyx’s right to sole ownership of the Disputed (Hamamatsu) U.S. Patents also applies to the Disputed Foreign Patents.” The decision added:

As we discussed above with respect to the Disputed (Hamamatsu) U.S. Patents, we agree that the jury’s findings compel the conclusion that those patents arose from Sionyx’s confidential information and that Hamamatsu has not shown that it contributed [its own] confidential information entitling it to joint ownership. And because the Disputed U.S. Patents claim priority from Hamamatsu’s Japanese patent applications, the Japanese applications must be for the same inventions as the Disputed U.S. Patents. See 35 U.S.C. § 119(a). Thus, Hamamatsu’s Japanese patent applications and any applications claiming priority from the Japanese applications in other countries must also have arisen from Sionyx’s confidential information.

Simply put, the CAFC found that Hamamatsu’s Japanese and U.S. patents emanated from Sionyx’s confidential information which Hamamatsu became privy to under the terms of the 2005 NDA.  According to the court, Hamamatsu itself never provided its own confidential information to Sionyx, which might have justified joint inventorship of the patent with Cary as the jury had concluded.

Abuse of Discretion Standard

Accordingly, Sionyx was entitled to sole ownership of the Japanese applications and any foreign applications claiming priority therefrom. The CAFC further explained that “it is well established that courts have authority to compel parties properly before them to transfer ownership of foreign patents, just as they would any other equitable remedy,” since such an order is “an exercise of the court’s authority over the party, not the foreign patent office in which the assignment is made.” As such, the district court abused its discretion in distinguishing between the two groups of patents.

The CAFC denied Sionyx’s motion for fees under 35 U.S.C. § 285 on cross-appeal, declined to address the issue of willfulness, and affirmed the following findings by the district court: a) Hamamatsu breached the NDA; b) Sionyx is entitled to the damages and pre-judgment interest awarded by the jury, as well as post-judgment interest at the statutory rate for its breach of contract and unjust enrichment claims; c) Carey is a co-inventor of Hamamtsu’s U.S. Patents; Sionyx is entitled to an injunction prohibiting Hamamatsu from practicing its U.S. Patents for breach of the NDA; and d) Sionyx is entitled to an injunction prohibiting Hamamatsu from practicing its 467 patent.

Conclusions

The outcome may well have been different had the NDA not “directed” the ownership of all future patents emanating from Sionyx’s confidential information to Sionyx.   Furthermore, any resulting patent relying on confidential information emanating from both parties should have designated both Cary and an Hamamtsu inventor as joint inventors no matter where the patent applications were filed.  Inventorship does not, however, mean that the inventor(s) is also the owner(s) of the patent.  Generally, R&D and engineering personnel who work for companies assign any patent rights they may have over to their employer-company (e.g., Hamamtsu).  Or, where inventors establish a business entity, the inventors often assign their patent-related interests over to the company as part of their capital contribution.  (e.g., Sionyx).

As this case illustrates, an NDA can be a critical factor in determining patent (and other IP) ownership.  An NDA should be tailor-made for the particular situation at hand with particular emphasis on protecting the disclosing party which is often an individual inventor or a small start-up company.  Anticipate problems into the future since patents in particular can take several years to issue meaning that infringement lawsuits, patent ownership disputes, etc. may occur many years down the road.  It is also important that the disclosing party take steps consistent with protecting its confidential information upon early termination of the NDA or expiration by time.  For example, it is not clear why Sionyx did not insist on the return of all its confidential information when Hamamatsu indicated negotiations were over.

Take Home Points

1. Do not presume a generic NDA template will adequately protect your interests.  An NDA should reflect the parties’ particular situation and the nature of their business relationship under which confidential information may be disclosed.

2. Know and follow the procedures required of you and your company in the NDA as the Disclosing or Receiving Party.

Contact Susan at 305-279-4740 on matters related to your NDA to ensure it addresses potential scenarios consistent with the particular circumstances involving the contracting parties.   We are here to serve you and answer your questions related to intellectual property & business law in both transactional matters and litigation.  Check her reviews at AVVO.com where she has received Client’s Choice Badges for both 2019 and 2020.  She is a registered patent attorney.

WE THANK YOU FOR READING THIS BLOG AND HOPE YOU FOUND IT INFORMATIVE.  HOWEVER, THE CONTENT IS PROVIDED FOR INFORMATION ONLY AND DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE.

 

©2021

Troy & Schwartz, LLC

Where Legal Meets Entrepreneurship™

(305) 279-4740

 

 

Oct
28

NEW BUSINESS FORMATION TIP – AVOID THE MISTAKE OF CHOOSING A COMPANY NAME THAT HAS TRADEMARK ISSUES, DOMAIN NAME PROBLEMS, OR OTHER ISSUES

Picking a company name that meets the above criteria is often easier said than done.   The last thing a new company needs is a legal dispute involving the alleged infringement of someone else’s trademark.  Anybody who has been involved in a lawsuit understands that they are costly, stressful, and can take on a life of their own.  A registered trademark owner may of course give you the chance to comply with an initial cease and desist letter.  However, your compliance will generally require you to stop using the mark, transfer any domain name rights, etc.  The upshot?  You’ll have to start over in branding your business.

Here are some tips on getting your company off and running with a viable name.

  1. Do a Google search on the name to see what other companies may already using the same or a similar name.
  2. Do a search of your state’s corporate or limited liability company records in the states where the company will do business to see if anyone is using the same or similar name. Also check the state’s registered trademark records since some companies do obtain state-registered marks.  For Florida, this information can be found here.
  3. Do a search of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) for federal trademark registrations of your proposed name. Do not think that merely changing a letter in your proposed name or reversing the order words in a multi-word work will save you from a legal dispute with the owner of the registered mark.  Additionally, if you plan to file a trademark registration application for your company name with the USPTO, you should select a name that has a solid chance of meeting the USPTO’s trademark registration requirements.  This means that your mark must not be confusedly similar to a registered mark.
  4. Do a search of domain name registrar websites such as GoDaddy.com to see if the domain name you want is available. Not only are domain names a necessity in today’s e-commerce world, but domain names also may have associated trademark rights.  Therefore, a minor change in the registered domain name, e.g., by registering the plural form (sABC) of the registered domain name (ABC) could result in a trademark dispute.
  5. The best company name is one that is distinctive and memorable for both branding purposes and obtaining valuable registered trademark rights.
  6. Come up with at least three names you like and get the reactions of trusted individuals.
  7. If you plan to have a logo designed, ensure that there is a contract in place assigning all of the creator’s intellectual property rights to your company.
  8. If you are a non-US company planning to expand into the United States, note that US trademark law will apply to you.
  9. Watch out for cultural implications involving your mark if you plan to register it in other countries.
  10. Consider having an intellectual property law attorney do a professional trademark search.

We are proud of the legal services we provide to our business and entrepreneurial clients on all matters related to trademark law.  Contact us at 305-279-4740 to discuss your questions on trademark law matters.   Doing things right the first time in selecting a company name and building your brand could save you some real headaches and a lot of money down the road.  

 

Troy & Schwartz, LLC

Attorneys-at-Law

Miami, Florida

Where Legal Meets Entrepreneurship

This blog is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

 

 

 

 

Jul
05

ANOTHER TRADEMARK APPLICATION BITES THE DUST BECAUSE OF UNACCEPTABLE SPECIMENS!

Imagine having a proposed mark meet the requirements for overcoming a finding of likelihood of confusion or mere descriptiveness only to have the mark rejected for registration as the result of insufficient specimens. As this post discusses, specimens can make or break a trademark application.

THANK YOU FOR READING THIS BLOG.  PLEASE SHARE IT WITH ANYONE WHO MIGHT BENEFIT.  AS ALWAYS, THE CONTENT IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE AND IS PRESENTED FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY.

Perhaps no other area of trademark application prosecution is more misunderstood by applicants than the requirement that specimens must show use of the proposed mark with the applicant’s specified goods or services. The commentator, Susan D. Troy, who is in charge of the business and intellectual property law practice areas for the law firm, has previously posted blogs on this important topic. Today’s post relates to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s (“Board”) recent affirmance of the refusal to register the mark THE CARDIO GROUP & Design for the Applicant’s failure to submit specimens reflective of the Applicant’s services.  In re The Cardio Group, LLC  (TTAB June 20, 2019) [precedential] (Application SN 86840860).

The application’s specified services under international class 35 were for “retail store services featuring medical devices.” The Board found that the Applicant is clearly engaged in selling products. Nevertheless, the inclusion of the words “retail services” suggests that the Applicant’s products were either being sold being sold in a brick-and-mortar location, on-line, or via catalogues. The Applicant, however, did not provide specimens showing how the mark was being used in the “retail services” arena. This commentator notes that maybe the original description of services incorrectly used the word retail.

In reaching its conclusion, the Board focused on “whether the evidence of Applicant’s use of its mark creates an association between the mark and the Applicant’s retail store services.” Importantly, the specimens must show a direct association between the mark and the service activity [or goods] and the source of the services [or goods]. To create such a “direct association,” the specimens must contain a reference to the service and identify the service and its source (generally the applicant which may be an entity or an individual).

Here, the Applicant submitted a website screenshot, a confidential sales agreement, and an invoice, all displaying the proposed mark. The website specimen merely presented the results of an analysis from a medical device and no information that the Applicant was making the device available for sale on-line, by personal sales calls, or otherwise. The invoice likewise did not refer to any activity that might be considered a retail store service. The commentator notes that invoices are generally not acceptable specimens for goods or services but can serve as a proof that the mark was in in commerce as of the invoice’s date. Additionally, why the Applicant, would have provided a confidential sales agreement as a specimen that becomes available to the public at www.USPTO.gov is indeed puzzling.

The Board concluded that the Applicant’s specimens of use were unacceptable because they failed to show the mark used in connection with the specified “retail services.” Although the Applicant is engaged in selling products, “nothing in the documents submitted by Applicant … refer to a retail store (of either on-line or brick-and-mortar variety) or create an association of any kind between THE CARDIO GROUP and design and a retail store service.”

In assessing the adequacy of specimens, the USPTO must consider any explanations offered by an applicant that “clarify the nature, content, or context of use of the specimen that are consistent with what the specimen itself shows.” See In re Pitney Bowes, Inc., 125 U.S.P.Q.2d 1417, 1420 (T.T.A.B. 2018); In re DSM Pharms., Inc., 87 U.S.P.Q.2d 1623, 1626 (T.T.A.B. 2008). Here, the Applicant stated that its services are in the nature of activities provided by a retail store – i.e., it is selling goods – and it argued that such activities do not have to take place in an actual retail store. The Board noted that retail stores services may be offered in various ways, including through physical locations, catalogs, or on-line, but the Applicant’s specimens did not suggest that any of these retail “avenues” were being used to make the medical device available in interstate commerce.

The Applicant also tried to amend its description of services to retail sales services, but the Board found that the proposed change simply restated that applicant’s specimens “reflect a product sale” and not that any retail store services were provided in selling the product. Considering all the specimens along with Applicant’s explanations, the Board found “no direct association in any of the specimens between THE CARDIO GROUP and design and any type of retail store service.” The Board emphasized that the specimens had to establish that the mark and design were a source indicator for retail services. Emphasis added. Nothing in provided specimens demonstrated to the Board’s satisfaction that consumers would perceive THE CARDIO GROUP and design as a source indicator for retail store services. “Ultimate consumers who choose to purchase Applicant’s products very well may understand they are engaging in a retail sales transaction with Applicant, but even if this is assumed, it would not establish that such consumers, prior to making their decision to make such a  purchase, were exposed to any advertising or promotion of Applicant as the operator of a retail store selling medical devices.”

In conclusion, specimens can make or break a trademark application. Don’t let this situation happen to you!

A Note to Trademark Applicants

Trademark applicants who become the clients of Troy & Schwartz, LLC will understand the requirements for specimens for 1A applications from the get-go. Attorney Susan Troy also works closely with clients for whom intent-to-use applications are filed to ensure that the subsequent specimens will comply with the USPTO’s requirements by keeping in contact with these clients to discuss the specimen creation progress.  For example, she reviews websites where screen shots are to be provided as specimens to ensure that they are presented in the manner required for “website page” specimens and will make suggestions to the website designer where changes are required in her opinion to comply with specimen requirements. This hands-on approach is an example of the added value of working with our firm to achieve your trademark registration and branding goals.  We are about providing value in all our attorney-client relationships.

© Troy & Schwartz, LLC

Where Legal Meets Entrepreneurship™

 

Jun
03

Trademark Symbol Usage – Are You Using the Correct Symbol?

The three trademark symbols are the circled R, and the capital letters TM for trademark and SM for service mark.  All three symbols are generally presented as a superscript.

The circled R symbol (federal registration notice) is reserved for those trademarks and service marks that have been registered by the USPTO as the result of a formal trademark application evaluation process.   Additionally, the circled R should only be used in connection with the goods or services that are listed in the federal registration issued by the USPTO.  For example, if a mark is registered for clothing goods only as evidenced by the federal registration, the federal registration symbol should not be used by the mark owner on any non-clothing goods.  The owner of the “initial” registered marks may apply for registration of the mark for non-clothing goods to obtain broader “registered mark” coverage.

Nor does registration of a mark in one or more of the fifty states of the United States entitle a person to use the federal registration notice.  The circled R is to be used only to denote actual registration of the mark by the USPTO for the goods and services shown in the registration.

The mere submission of a trademark application in no way means that the applicant can start using the registered mark while the application is pending.  Any usage of the circled R absent formal registration of the mark is a violation of federal law and may cause the USPTO to deny registration of the trademark application even if the application is otherwise acceptable.

The USPTO’s refusal to register a mark may have unintended economic consequences for applicants who have spent already considerable funds on developing their brand only to be denied registration of the mark. For example, a registered trademark can be a valuable business asset.   Lack of a formally registered mark may reduce the value of the business or interfere with the franchising process which generally involves the licensing of a federally registered mark(s). Although other factors may result in refusal by the USPTO to register the mark, applicants should also avoid losing out on acquiring registered trademark rights by misusing the circled R symbol.

Until when and if a mark is formally registered with the USPTO, the provider of goods and/or services should use the TM (trademark) or SM (service mark). These are not official or statutory symbols of federal registration.  Nevertheless, both symbols provide notice to would-be infringers that the mark owner views the mark as a trademark/service mark and that it will defend it against would-be infringers. It is entirely acceptable if specimens submitted to the USPTO’s trademark application examining attorney includes either the TM or the SM.

Specimens submitted to the USPTO examining attorney that include the circled R may present problems for the applicant. For applicants not using the services of a trademark attorney, it is therefore cautioned that the applicant ensure that website pages, marketing materials, displays, etc. submitted to the examining attorney as specimens do not show the circled R. An advantage of hiring a trademark attorney to handle trademark applications is that the attorney will:  1) verify that the specimens are suitable for submission by personally evaluating the specimens for compliance with the law prior to submission; 2) alert the applicant of any observed misusage of the federal registration notice in the specimens; 3) request new specimens for submission to the USPTO; and 4) direct the applicant to immediately refrain from using the circled R.   That is, a thorough trademark attorney will do much more than merely fill out a trademark application form.

Besides possible problems with trademark applications, are there any other legal ramifications associated with the usage of the circled R for unregistered marks?  Many times the usage of the circled R is inadvertent and based on a misunderstanding of how and when the circled R can be used.  That is, the misuse is an honest mistake.

However, the misuse of the circled R can also result in allegations of fraud to knowingly and willfully deceive or mislead consumers or others in the trade into believing that the mark was registered.  Where the cause of action is before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) such as an opposition proceeding, the TTAB may deny registration of an otherwise registrable mark.  Such conduct would also likely sustain a petition to cancel a registered mark with the TTAB.

Where the cause of action is before a federal court in a trademark infringement proceeding, fraud claims may result in invalidation of a registered mark.  Also, the defendant in a trademark infringement lawsuit may have possible false advertising claims against the mark owner who has knowingly misused the circle R symbol and a possible unclean hands defense especially when the plaintiff’s misuse of the circled R symbol is accompanied by a bad faith intent to deceive.

Generally, fraud claims must be alleged with particularity whether the matter is before the TTAB or a federal court.   Fraud claims are not easy to prove because of the requisite intent requirement as it pertains to deceiving of the public.  The Federal Circuit has held that how quickly a trademark owner corrects misuse of the registration symbol after learning of the misuse, will impact the determination of whether the trademark owner is charged with an intention to deceive the public.  Therefore, trademark owners should periodically review the presentation of their marks to the public to ensure that the proper trademark symbol is being used.

Example: A website designer is told that the owner of the website has a trademark or service mark. The website designer, thinking that the mark(s) is registered, uses the circled R when the appropriate symbol was the TM or SM.   The mark owner should ensure that the circled R symbol wherever used on the website is removed and replaced with the appropriate TM or SM symbol until when and if a registered mark is secured.

In conclusion, to avoid any unpleasant legal surprises resulting from the misuse of the circled R symbol, just don’t use this symbol unless the mark is listed as a registered mark according to the public records available at www.uspto.gov.   And then use it only with the mark owner’s goods and services specified for the registered mark.

WE HOPE YOU FIND THE ARTICLE INSTRUCTIVE. HOWEVER, THE INFORMATION PRESENTED IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE AND IS PROVIDED FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY.

 

© Troy & Schwartz, LLC 2019

Where Legal Meets Entrepreneurship™

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jun
03

Trademark Registration Pitfalls: Not Understanding that Certain International Classifications of Goods/Services Are Considered Closely Related by the USPTO for Section 2(d) Rejection Purposes

A company wanting to protect its brand identity and thereby enhance its valuation generally seeks federal registration of its trademark/service marks which may include names, logos, and slogans.   In applying for a mark that is “close” to an already registered mark, applicants sometimes make the mistake that the examining attorney will not find a likelihood of confusion if the applicant’s mark involves a different international classification (IC) of goods/services from the registered mark’s specified IC(s).

This assumption is incorrect.   Sometimes applied-for marks that are deemed by the USPTO’s examining attorney to convey a similar commercial impression with an existing registered mark will be denied registration even if the two marks do not involve the same international classifications of goods/services.   One of the determining factors is whether the specified international classes involve closely related goods/services.  Thus a registered mark for IC class 030 (e.g., pizza as a food product) and an applied-for mark for IC 035 (restaurant services) may be found to involve related goods and services that could result in a likelihood of confusion as to the provider of the pizza food product/restaurant services.

Similarly, IC 025 for clothing is a class that the USPTO routinely finds overlaps with other IC classes, particularly jewelry (IC 014), purses (IC 018), and eyewear (IC 09). The “clothing” applicant will generally not prevail if the examining attorney can provide evidence that a single entity is likely to offer for sale both clothing and complementary items such as jewelry, purses, and eyewear.  For example, in In re Manja Studio SDN BHD (May 17, 2019), the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) affirmed the rejection of the applicant’s mark for clothing, finding that the applied-for mark was likely to cause confusion with an existing similar registered mark for watches.    The rejection was affirmed even though that applicant’s mark was for relatively inexpensive “T-shirts, outerwear, and hats” while the registrant’s mark was for “luxury designer watches.”

Take Home Points:

The trademark registration is not as simple as it seems.  Many factors can enter into the calculus.  An experienced trademark attorney can help identify pitfalls upfront.  Sure, an applicant can appeal a rejection to the TTAB but statistics show that the TTAB affirms about ninety percent (90 %) of likelihood of confusion rejections.  Besides, appeals are expensive.  Why spend money on the process if there is a solid chance of rejection?

If you are considering filing a trademark application with the USPTO or have encountered trademark registration problems, contact the commentator to discuss your trademark registration questions and learn about our reasonable legal fees for prosecuting trademark registrations on behalf of clients both in the U.S. and abroad. Clients’ applications are handled at all stages by an attorney and all clients are advised upfront of potential registration issues.

 

WE HOPE YOU FIND THE ARTICLE INSTRUCTIVE. HOWEVER, THE INFORMATION PRESENTED IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE AND IS PROVIDED FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY.

 

© Troy & Schwartz, LLC 2019

Where Legal Meets Entrepreneurship™

 

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