Archive for the ‘IP Licensing’ Category

Jun
28

Understanding a Trademark Licensor’s Obligations: Avoiding a “Naked License” Finding

This blog describes an area of trademark law that is often given short shrift.  The licensor of a registered trademark has important obligations during the term of the licensing agreement.  Failure to follow these obligations could result in loss of registered trademark rights.

Background on Trademark Law

A trademark or service mark is a distinctive word, phrase, logo, or graphic symbol that allows consumers to identify the manufacturer, merchant, or service provider responsible for the goods or services.  Basically, a trademark or services mark is a brand.   In contrast to inventions and creative works, both of which have an express basis in the U.S. Constitution, trademarks are not specifically referred to within the Constitution.  Instead, trademark law derives from the Constitution’s commerce clause which provides Congress with the power to regulate interstate commerce

The Lanham Act is the federal statute governing federal trademark registration.  It pertains to marks used in interstate commerce which Congress has the right to regulate under the Constitution.  The United States Trademark and Patent Office (USPTO) is the administrative agency in charge of determining whether an applied-for mark is eligible for federal trademark registration. States, including Florida, also provide for registration of trademarks & service marks. Marks used within only one state are limited to relying on state law protections. Marks which are registered simultaneously in both a state and the USPTO may rely on both federal and state law protections.

Trademark law’s focus is on the protection of the consumer. The objective is to prevent consumer confusion as to the source of the goods and to prevent “palming off” where one producer attempts to pass of its goods as originating from another producer.   That is, the consumer has the right to know that what they are buying is actually from the owner of the mark.  A registered trademark is given to the business/individual to signify to consumers the origin of the product or service bearing the registered mark symbol (the circled R).   Hence the reason why trademark law is encompassed by U.S. commerce law. The other three types of IP are instead focused on protecting the rights of the inventor, creative works creator, and trade secret developer.

Once a registered trademark is granted by the USPTO, the continuation of registration status is dependent upon periodic proof filed with the USPTO that the mark is still in interstate commerce and the payment of a maintenance fee.  Registered TM protection can go on indefinitely as long as the fees are paid and the mark is indeed being used in commerce.

 Trademark Licensing Considerations

As with patents and copyrights, trademarks can be licensed.  Patent and copyright licensors generally stay out of the licensee’s “commercialization” endeavors unless the licensee’s involvement is required to get the invention or work to market.  Trade secret licensing is a really tricky proposition and not something often recommended.   Trademark licensors, on the other hand, have on-going obligations!  Failure to follow these obligations can result in a loss of registered trademark rights if the license is viewed as a naked license by courts or the USPTO.

Example

Mary has developed an organic spice mixture as a seasoning which she has been selling through a website.  She has been featured on HSN and developed a loyal following.  She specifically developed the spice rub for individuals having a histamine intolerance like herself so they too could enjoy tasty food.  She secured a catchy registered trademark under which the spice mixture is sold.  She has been approached by Spiced Right, a national spice manufacturing and distribution company to sell her product on a nationwide scale under her brand name.   They have promised her that her product’s quality will be maintained with large scale manufacturing processes.  The royalty payment is attractive and will allow her to put money away for retirement.  She entered into a detailed exclusive licensing agreement which was devoid of any role on her part.  The agreement also failed to clearly specify component sourcing – specifically organic components from specified suppliers all certified by an independent organic certification authority.

A couple of years later, Spiced Rights started substituting non-organic spices to increase profits.   A substantial number of Mary’s previous customers started complaining on social media that her brand’s quality had declined.  Almost immediately thereafter Spiced Right stopped paying royalties.

Mary sued Spiced Right under 15 U.S.C. §§ 1117, 1125(a) for violation of her rights as a trademark owner (right to receive royalties in this case).  The case was dismissed on the ground that Mary abandoned her mark by engaging in naked licensing – that is, by allowing Spiced Right to use the mark without exercising “reasonable control over the nature and quality of the goods, services, or business on which the mark is used by the licensee.” Restatement Third of Unfair Competition §33 (1995).

Naked licensing issues may also come up during application opposition and registered mark cancellation proceedings before the Trademark Trial & Appeal Board.   See e.g., Barcamerica International USA Trust v. Tyfield Importers, Inc., 289 F.3d 589 (9th Cir. 2002)(finding that the trademark should be cancelled).

What Happened?

  1. Mary relinquished control over the quality of her spice. For trademark licensing purposes, quality does not mean “high end” goods and services. The sort of supervision required for a trademark license (REMEMBER FOCUS ON THE CONSUMER) is the sort that produces consistent quality and expectations in the mind of the consumer.
  2. Mary’s licensing agreement should have specified, g., that she would be policing Spiced Right’s product and the specific quality assurance steps she would take. For example, by regularly buying and sampling the products and receiving reports of the suppliers being used by Spiced Right to formulate her product.  Contingencies for addressing product deficiencies should also have been delineated.
  3. As an aside, generally, the licensor, as the owner of the registered mark, is responsible for filing the necessary documentation for establishing that the mark is in commerce at the Lanham Act’s specified renewal time frames.

 KEY TAKEAWAYS

  1. Trademarks are indicators of consistent and predictable quality assured through the trademark owner’s control over the use of the designation.” Restatement Third of Unfair Competition 33, comment b.
  2. A trademark’s function is to tell shoppers what to expect. Mary’s customers had come to expect a certain taste/quality and it was her reputation that was at stake.   Similarly, a franchise restaurant licensee is expected to provide food/cleanliness/service (the experience) consistent with the franchisor’s requirements as detailed in lengthy franchise agreements.  The licensor’s reputation is at stake in every restaurant outlet so it invests to the extent required to keep the customer satisfied by ensuring a repeatable experience and overseeing the activities of its licensees.
  3. The failure to monitor one’s trademark is seen as an effective relinquishment of a trademark owner’s responsibility under the law.
  4. All IP licensing agreement should be reviewed by an experienced IP attorney who is well-versed in IP licensing nuances. This is especially true for trademark licensing agreements where the licensor/trademark owner has important obligations.  Failure to comply with these obligations may result in loss of valuable registered trademark rights.

 

THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST IN THIS BLOG.   THE CONTENT IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE.  WE SUGGEST YOU CONSULT WITH AN ATTORNEY IF YOU ARE CONSIDERING AN ACTION WHICH COULD HAVE LEGAL CONSEQUENCES.

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