Three Idea & Design Protection Tips For Interior Designers Ping® July 2015

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Interior Design can be a competitive business. It is no secret that one designer may begin a project, only to have it completed by another, including a former employee. As a result, Designers need to be vigilant about protecting both their designs and relationships. The case of Hunn v. Dan Wilson Homes, Inc., 13-11297, 14-10365, 114 qUSPQ2d 2002 (5th Cir 2015) offers several lessons for Designers.

Synopsis.

Ben Lack, who was employed as a draftsman at the Plaintiff architectural design firm Marshal Hunn Designs (HD), resigned from his job while in the middle of a project for the firm’s client, Dan Wilson Homes, Inc. (DWH). After Lack’s resignation, Lack was hired by DWH to complete the project. HD sued Lack and DWH alleging that they secretly agreed in advance with DWH to cut HD out of the business. The court ruled in favor of Lack (and DWH) finding they never entered into any “secret agreement” and there was no merit to the eight other legal claims, including copyright infringement and false designation of origin under the Lanham Act.

Facts.

DWH is a custom home construction company. DWH contracted with HD to produce plans for four (4) custom homes. DWH wanted the plans drafted by Lack. Lack was the only HD employee who worked on the four custom homes for DWH and HD’s only representative at all weekly meetings with respective homeowners.

While the home construction projects were still underway, Lack informed HD of his desire to resign. Lack also requested by email that a friend of his convert some of the project files into AutoCAD versions. This conversion was required because Lack maintained his own copy of AutoCAD software on his home computer.

HD permitted draftsman to take home files because they often worked on projects on their own home computers as well as work computers. Lack had permission to work on the files at home.

After Lack’s employment ended, HD ask Lack to return physical files related to the project, but not the AutoCAD files.

The relationship between DWH and HD deteriorated. DWH offered to pay HD a prorated amount for the work completed up to the date of termination of Lack. HD refused. DWH later tendered payment for the full contract price, even covering items and services that had not been completed.

HD declined to accept payment and responded by filing a complaint alleging eight causes of action: 1) copyright infringement, false designation of origin under the Lanham Act, 3) breach of contract, 4) breach of fiduciary duty, 5) breach of covenant not to solicit, 6) tortious interference, 7) violation of the computer fraud and abuse act, and 8) conspiracy.

During his deposition, Lack indicated that he believed he would have had at least two more weeks of employment after tendering his notice of resignation, and that he would be able to complete the plans. DWH also believed that Lack would complete the plans under the employment of HD.

The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants Lack and DWH on all claims. HD appealed the judgment. The appellate court affirmed the District Court’s decision.

Analysis.

The District Court found that there was no breach of contract because DWH’s only duty was to pay for the services which he offered to do.

The District Court found there was no breach of fiduciary duty because any duty terminated upon termination of employment, and Lack did not disclose trade secrets or any confidential information. Although HD alleged that the AutoCAD files were confidential and proprietary information, the court held that they were not because HD had disclosed them to Lack without restriction.

The District Court found that there was no violation of the computer fraud and abuse act because Lack never exceeded his authority. HD routinely permitted employees to take files home and put them on their personal computers.

Although Lack had a non-complete clause in his at-will employment agreement, the Court found there was no violation because the clause was unenforceable. The clause states “in the event you leave or are separated from Hunn Designs’ employment, you agreed not to solicit, either directly or indirectly, business from, or undertake with any customers serviced by you while the employment of Hunn Designs, or any other Hunn Designs customers for a period of two years thereafter.”

The District Court held the non-compete clause was unenforceable do to a lack of independent consideration. Continued employment in at-will agreement is illusory.

The District Court ruled that even if the drafts of house designs were copyrightable, there was no violation of copyright because of the existence of an implied license authorizing use of the designs.

The court found particularly interesting “the fact that the home owners themselves essentially came up with their design ideas and sought to have those self designed homes built [after their ideas were] placed into the drafting stage.”

The District Court cited the 7th Circuit case of I.A.E., Inc. v. Shaver 74 F.3d 768 (7th Cir. 1996) for the proposition that an architect in a similar situation had granted an implied license. Even though the architect in Shaver testified that he did not intend for use of the drawings past the drafting stage unless he was the architect on the project, this was not supported by the record.

The court found there was no violation of the Lanham ask prohibition against false designation of origin, because there was no evidence that use of the plans had a substantial economic effect on interstate commerce, as required by the Lanham Act.

Take Aways:

Based on my review of the court’s opinion, there are potentially three (3) things the Plaintiff (Hunn) could have done differently that may have changed the outcome of this case. First, have a clear, written policy in place defining what constitutes trade secrets and other proprietary information and proper methods for handling those. Second, have policies restricting how and when employees may take company property and files home, and addressing storage and return of property and files. Third, create and enforce clear conditions for access, distribution and use of drafts, proposals, files and other works-in-progress to avoid inadvertently granting an implied license to third parties such as contractors, consultants or clients.

*THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE*

*CONSULT A QUALIFIED ATTORNEY ABOUT YOUR SPECIFIC SITUATION*

Five Best Ways to Protect Your Ideas

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When I first meet a client, I am often asked “How can I protect my ideas?” While it may seem like a simple question, getting the answer right is often tricky. That’s because one can’t actually own an idea, in and of itself. Sounds confusing, I know. The five best ways to protect your ideas are 1) Identify, 2) Organize, 3) Register (or restrict), 4) Monitor, and 5) Enforce. This articles focuses on how to identify the best ways to protect your ideas.

Regardless of industry, Ideas are the keys to any successful business. While one cannot “own” an idea, one can protect one’s Intellectual Property rights that relate to the embodiment or manifestation of that idea. For example, Copyright, Patent, Trademark, Trade Secret and Publicity Rights are all forms of Intellectual Property rights that grant exclusive rights to the owner, both artistic and commercial.

Copyright protects works of creative artistic expression such as books, movies, audio-visual music, paintings, photographs, and importantly, software. Copyright protection requires that a work be “fixed” in tangible format (this includes electronic format) and gives the owner (called the “author”) of such works the exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, publicly display, publicly perform, and modify a work for a certain period of time.

Patents (utility and design), Trademarks and Trade Secrets protect creative commercial expression sometimes known as “industrial properties,” as they are typically created and used for industrial or commercial purposes.

A Patent protects the invention or discovery of “any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.” A Patent gives the inventor “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States or “importing” the invention into the United States for a period of time.

A Trademark is any word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination, used, or intended to be used, in commerce to identify and distinguish the goods of one manufacturer or seller from others, and to indicate the source of the goods. In short, a trademark is a brand name or logo that is a distinctive sign which is used to prevent confusion among products in the marketplace. A Trademark enjoys protection indefinitely, as long as it is being used.

An industrial design right protects the form of appearance, style or design of an industrial object from infringement.

A Trade Secret is an item of non-public information concerning the commercial practices or proprietary knowledge of a business. Public disclosure of trade secrets may sometimes be illegal. A Trade secret enjoys protection indefinitely, as long as it is being kept secret.

Some rights are “statutory” in that they exist because they are granted by the Constitution of the United States, e.g. Copyright and Patent. Other rights arise from “use,” e.g. Trademark and Trade Secret rights. Some arise under State law, e.g., Rights of Publicity. Not all types of intellectual property require registration in order to obtain, maintain or enforce one’s rights. However, registration is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED if available, is required in certain circumstances and, even when not required, registration often confers several benefits that enable enforcement, reduce the risk and costs of enforcement, and provide additional incentives and remedies for enforcement.

The term “Intellectual Property” denotes the specific legal rights described above, and not the intellectual work, concept or idea itself. Oftentimes, the largest value of a businesses can be traced to its intangible assets. Knowing how to identify intangible assets and understanding which Intellectual Property rights apply to these assets is critical to the ability to protect and commercialize one’s ideas. Therefore, great care should be given to maintaining and enhancing their power and value. Value can be increased through a carefully planned and executed strategy. Innovative companies that successfully leverage their Intellectual Property rights will stand to benefit most from the opportunities presented by the current economic marketplace and demand for innovation.

 

Focus | Vision | Perspective | Passion

Executives face a confusing and dynamic set of challenges ensuring their business remains legally compliant. Yet few can afford the highly-qualified and versatile legal staff needed to deal with today’s complex legal & regulatory environment.

Adler Law Group was created to provide clients with a competitive advantage by enabling them to leverage their intangible assets and creative content in a way that drives innovation and increases the overall value of the business.

For a FREE, no-obligation 1 hour consultation to learn the best ways to identify, protect and leverage your ideas, please call: (866) 734-2568, click: http://www.adler-law.com, or write: David @ adler-law.com.

Adler Law Group – Providing innovative legal counsel that elevates aspirations to achievements.™

Why Every Trademark Owner Should Care About B&B Hardware

Does a Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) decision that there is a likelihood of confusion between two trademarks prevent federal district court trademark litigation?

The purpose of a trademark is two-fold: to identify the owner or “source” of goods and services, and to prevent consumer confusion in the marketplace. Therefore, the test for trademark infringement under the Trademark Act of 1946 (Lanham Act), is whether use of a trademark is “likely to cause confusion” with an existing, registered mark. A person generally may neither use nor register a mark that would be “likely to cause confusion” with an existing trademark. If a person uses a mark that one believes is likely to cause confusion, the owner of the registered mark may sue in federal court for trademark infringement. 15 U.S.C. § 1114(1). If a person seeks to register a mark that is likely to cause confusion with an existing registered mark, the owner of the existing registered mark may oppose the registration of the new mark before the TTAB. 15 U.S.C. § 1052(d); see id. §§ 1063, 1067(a).

In B&B Hardware, Inc. v. Hargis Industries, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2899 (US 2014), the United States Supreme Court was asked to decide whether the TTAB’s determination of a likelihood of confusion precludes a trademark litigant from re-litigating that issue in a federal court infringement action involving a likelihood of confusion element.

Plaintiff B&B Hardware Inc. (“B&B”) produced industrial fasteners for the aerospace industry under the mark SEALTIGHT since 1990. B&B’s SEALTIGHT mark was registered with the PTO in 1993. Subsequently, Hargis Industries, Inc. (“Hargis”) adopted the mark SEALTITE for its self-drilling, self-taping screws for use in the metal-building industry. Hargis applied to register SEALTITE with in 1996, but its application was initially refused due to the existence of B&B’s registration. Hargis then sought to cancel the B&B registration alleging that the B&B mark had been abandoned. However, prior to a final decision by the Board, B&B sued Hargis in U.S. District Court alleging infringement of its registered SEALTIGHT trademark.

A jury in the District Court found in favor of Hargis that there was no likelihood of confusion between the marks. The parties appealed to the Eighth Circuit which affirmed the District Court decision and the issue was ultimately taken by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Reversing the Circuit Court, the Supreme Court remanded the case for further proceedings, holding that a likelihood of confusion determination by the TTAB should have preclusive effect as long as the ordinary elements of issue preclusion are met and the usages of the marks are materially the same.

“Issue preclusion” or “res judicata” is an important concept for both fairness and judicial economy. Essentially, litigants should not get two bites at the same apple. In the past, the TTAB would suspend its proceedings if a case was simultaneously pending in District Court.

The key take away for trademark practitioners is strategic since trademark oppositions and cancellations do not result in a damages award or determination of infringement. Yet, its decisions can now be used as the basis for finding infringement in District Court where an adverse decision may have far-reaching effects.

Zombie Cinderella ‘Survives’ Walt Disney’s Cinderella Trademark- No Likelihood of Confusion

United Trademark Holdings, Inc. (“Applicant”) appealed a decision by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office refusing registration of its “ZOMBIE CINDERELLA” trademark for dolls when the USPTO held that it was confusingly similar to the registered “WALT DISNEY’S CINDERELLA” trademark.

In any likelihood of confusion analysis, two key considerations are the similarities between the marks and the similarities between the goods at issue. Applicant demonstrated that the story of “Cinderella,” is a “well-known narrative … involving a beautiful young lady, her antagonistic stepsisters, a fairy godmother, a ball, a prince, and a pair of glass slippers, existing since at least as early as 1697.”

The USPTO cited to nine other doll lines that use the name “Cinderella” holding that: 1) the mark is weak, and 2) CINDERELLA is not the dominant component of the cited, registered mark. The court found that while the dominant part of the mark -the term CINDERELLA – was similar, use of the terms “Walt Disney” and “Zombie” differentiated the two. The USPTO also found that “the design element of “WALT DISNEY’S CINDERELLA” may function, for juvenile customers, as a stronger source indicator than the term CINDERELLA, because it depicts a specific version of Cinderella that is associated with the Walt Disney animated film” of the same name.

Lastly, although the word “zombie” has little significance or distinctiveness as a source indicator in the marketplace for toys, the combination of ZOMBIE with CINDERELLA creates a unitary mark with an incongruous impression.

Identifying Intellectual Property Issues in Start-Ups – Live Webcast!

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

Owning Design: Protecting Original Design in an Age of Knock-Offs

A presentation on what goes into creating original designs and how these differ from copycats.

WHERE: Decoration & Design Building, J. Robert Scott Showroom, Suite 220

WHEN: Wednesday, October 2,2013 !2 p.m.

WHAT: From film to fashion, creative industries are taking steps to protect and promote original work. Designers and manufacturers need to know what steps they can take to protect their designs, their businesses, and their profits. The discussion will address issues related to how to protect original design (copyright & design patent) and the manufacturers (trademark, unfair competition).

WHO:

INTERIORS Magazine Editorial Director Michael Wollaeger

J. Robert Scott Founder Sally Sirkin Lewis

Designer Laura Kirar [Web Site]

Intellectual Property lawyer David Adler

Showroom reception to follow.

 

Download the full Fall Decoration & Design Building Market Brochure Here.

Copycat Conundrum: Tips For Protecting Original Furniture & Textile Designs

On October 2, 2013, I will be attending the Decoration & Design Building Fall Market where I am giving a presentatIon on protecting original furniture & textile designs. Those in attendance share a belief that style and design matter.

As designers and purveyors of good taste, you may spend months developing a concept, selecting materials, agonizing over the exact curve of the arm of a chair. Manufacturers may refine the design, invest in tooling to build it, promote it, and get it to market. Merchandise buyers may spend months reading, researching, attending events such as this to obtain and fill your showrooms and catalogue with ineffable elements of style. This is original, authentic design. Authentic designs—pieces produced by designers or their authorized manufacturers—are investments.

Therein lies the problem for today’s furniture designers and retailers. It takes intellectual and financial capital to conceive, create and produce good design. Yet, today’s consumer driven, price-focused economy is making it more and more difficult for a designer to protect and profit from the investment of this intellectual capital.

This presentation will focus on why certain designs are protectable, how to protect them, and how to defend against knock-offs.