Do you work with start-up companies and need a basic understanding of the various intellectual property issues that can arise?
I will be co-presenting in this online seminar that will help you:
- understand the trademark and copyright problems your client may encounter with branding;
- learn how to protect your client’s branding once established;
- familiarize your practice with patents, including what they protect, timing, and strategies to prevent inadvertent loss of patent rights before filing the application;
- understand trade secrets and the importance of non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements;
- recognize intellectual property issues relating to technology, including open source code and the cloud;
- establish a proactive approach toward intellectual property ownership between cofounders, employees, and vendors; understand business names, domain names, promotional issues, and website content concerns.
The program qualifies for 1.5 hours MCLE credit.
I would like to personally invite you to attend the upcoming Law Ed program titled, “Identifying Intellectual Property Issues in Start-Ups,” which I will be co-presenting via live webcast on Tuesday, May 27th.
Presented by the ISBA Business Advice and Financial Planning Section
Co-Sponsored by the ISBA Intellectual Property Section
February 12, 2014
One of the key issues that must be examined when negotiating or drafting any contract is how the parties may get out of, or “terminate,” that contract. While many attorneys will rest on standard “termination for breach with notice and cure” language, the recent case of Powertech Tech. v. Tessera, Inc. demonstrates how artful drafting can put limitations on a party’s right to terminate. The Opinion in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California case No. C 11-6121 can be found here.
Powertech and Tessera were parties to a patent license agreement, although the court’s reasoning does not seem limited to only those types of agreements. The license agreement allowed Powertech to use Tessera’s patents in exchange for payment of license fees.
The contract contained the following clause regarding termination for breach:
“Termination for Breach. Either party may terminate this Agreement due to the other party’s breach of this Agreement, such as failure to perform its duties, obligations, or responsibilities herein (including, without limitation, failure to pay royalties and provide reports as set forth herein). The parties agree that such breach will cause substantial damages to the party not in breach. Therefore, the parties agree to work together to mitigate the effect of any such breach; however, the non-breaching party may terminate this Agreement if such breach is not cured or sufficiently mitigated (to the non-breaching party’s satisfaction) within sixty (60) days of notice thereof.”
The court held that Powertech was not permitted to terminate a license agreement with Tessera for Tessera’s breach because Powertech itself was in breach of the agreement by its failure to pay royalties to Tessera.
Acknowledging Powertech’s argument that Tessera was itself in breach, that in and of itself did not give Powertech the right to terminate the contract. Only a “non-breaching” party may terminate the agreement. Said the court “[a]lthough the first sentence of the termination clause is broad – ‘Either party may terminate this Agreement due to the other party’s breach’ — the language of the clause as a whole makes clear that only a non-breaching party may terminate. Reading the clause as a whole, the court concluded “[t]he termination clause refers to a “breaching party” and a “non-breaching party” in every sentence after the first… [therefore]…the clause requires the party seeking to terminate for the other party’s purported breach to be substantially in compliance with its own obligations first.
The Powertech agreement’s termination clause is useful because it put conditions on a party’s ability to terminate the agreement even when the other party was in breach.
July 19, 2013
Fifield v. Premier Dealer Services, Inc.
The plaintiff in this declaratory judgment action had been employed by a subsidiary of an insurance company that marketed finance and insurance products to the automotive industry. After a sale of that business, plaintiff’s employment was terminated, but he was offered employment conditioned upon his acceptance of an “Employee Confidentiality and Inventions Agreement” (the agreement) which included non-solicitation and non-compete provisions. The agreement states in pertinent part:
“Employee agrees that for a period of two (2) years from the date Employee’s employment terminates for any reason, Employee will not, directly or indirectly, within any of the 50 states of the United States, for the purposes of providing products or services in competition with the Company (i) solicit any customers, dealers, agents, reinsurers, PARCs, and/or producers to cease their relationship with the Company *** or (ii) interfere with or damage any relationship between the Company and customers, dealers, agents, reinsurers , PARCs, and/or producers *** or (iii) *** accept business of any former customers, dealers, agents, reinsurers, PARCs, and/or producers with whom the Company had a business relationship within the previous twelve (12) months prior to Employee’s termination.”
Plaintiff successfully negotiated with Premier a provision that the restrictive covenants would NOT apply if he was terminated without cause during the first year of his employment (the first-year provision). Three months later, plaintiff resigned, began working for a competitor and sued to have the restrictive covenants held unenforceable stating that plaintiff had no access to confidential and proprietary information. The trial court held that the restrictive Covenants were unenforceable for lack of “consideration” – a legal term of art that generally means a bargained-for exchange of value. The appeals court affirmed.
Defendant argued that the non-solicitation and non-compete provisions were enforceable because the offer of employment was adequate consideration, there was a mutual exchange of promises (employment in exchange for restrictions), and the covenants were pre-employment, not post- employment. Defendant further argued that “the purpose of Illinois law regarding restrictive covenants is to protect against the illusory benefit of at-will employment” which was “nullified by the inclusion of the first-year [non-enforcement] provision in the agreement.”
Plaintiff countered with the argument that the provisions in the agreement are unenforceable because Illinois law requires employment to continue for a substantial period of time and that “Illinois courts have repeatedly held that two years of continued employment is adequate consideration to support a restrictive covenant…regardless of whether an employee is terminated or decides to resign on his own.”
The appellate court agreed with plaintiff citing Brown & Brown, Inc. v. Mudron, 379 Ill. App. 3d 724, 728 (2008) which held that the promise of continued employment in the context of post-employment restrictive covenants may be an illusory benefit where the employment is at-will. “Illinois courts have held that continued employment for two years or more constitutes adequate consideration. Id. at 728-29.”
The Fifield decisions has already generated a great deal of discussion from corporate board rooms to legal blogs. Unfortunately for businesses and their lawyers, the case leaves many unanswered questions.
For example, the court does not discuss whether the outcome would have been different if the employee were a high-level executive with immediate access to a wide range of highly sensitive confidential and proprietary information. At best,mother court simply mentions the plaintiff’s allegations that he had no access to such information.
Another area of uncertainty impacts start-up and early stage businesses. Very young businesses are often highly dynamic and early employees have access to a broad swath of the company’s Intangible assets such as business and revenue models, marketing plans, computer software and hardware and prospective customers, regardless of whether they serve a customer service function or “C-suite” executive function. The requirement that an employee have two years continued employment before a restrictive covenant becomes enforceable ignores the very real dynamic of start-up companies.
Lastly, an important question that went unanswered is whether the employer can offer some other “consideration” besides two years continued employment. For example, is there a pure monetary consideration that would support enforcement of the covenant? What if the covenant only lasted as long as the period of the departing employee’s employment?
If you have restrictive covenants in your agreements with employees, it is strongly recommended that you meet with your lawyer to discuss the impact of this case on these agreements and your business. At the very least, you should carefully review your non-compete and non-solicitation agreements to see if they are supported by adequate consideration. If you have questions or concerns, or just don’t know how to begin, feel free to contact the lawyers at Leavens, Strand, Glover & Adler for a free, in-person or over-the-phone consultation. You can also email the author here: email@example.com.
July 1, 2013
Enacted by Congress in 1986, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) builds upon existing computer fraud law (18 U.S.C. § 1030). Initially, the CFAA was intended to limit federal jurisdiction to cases “with a compelling federal interest-i.e., where computers of the federal government or certain financial institutions are involved or where the crime itself is interstate in nature.” Notably, the CFAA criminalized certain computer-related acts such as distribution of malicious software code, propagating denial of service attacks as well as trafficking in passwords and similar items. Recently, the CFAA has gained prominence as a bludgeon used to prosecute a wide-range of activities, some broadly labelled “hacking” and other stretching the boundaries of “unauthorized” computer access.
Two recently introduced bills, one by Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) in the House and one by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) in the Senate aim to amend the CFAA in hopes of ameliorating application of the CFAA to claims of breach of terms of service, employment agreements. Additionally, with the nickname “Aaron’s Law,” they also seek to limit what some see as the CFAA’s tendency to allow for overzealous prosecution that they claim characterized Aaron Swartz’s case.
In short the bills would amend the meaning of “exceeds authorized access,” changing it to “access without authorization,” which is defined to mean:
“to obtain information on a protected computer”;
“that the accesser lacks authorization to obtain”; and
“by knowingly circumventing one or more technological or physical measures that are designed to exclude or prevent unauthorized individuals from obtaining that information.”
For a well-documented discussion of the application and boundaries of the CFAA, check out the Electronic Frontier Foundations Legal Treatise on civil and criminal cases involving the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act here.
As businesses become ever more dependent on digital assets and systems, a working knowledge of the legal and regulatory framework that defines and protects those assets is paramount.
If you or your executive teams has questions about securing and protecting digital assets, please feel free to contact David M. Adler for a free consultation. LSGA advises a wide range of businesses on creating, protecting and leveraging digital assets as well as computer, data and information security and privacy.
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David M. Adler | Leavens, Strand, Glover & Adler, LLC
203 North LaSalle Street, Suite 2550
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*2012 Illinois Super Lawyer http://bit.ly/gFfpAt