What was up with General Mills’ Legal Terms?

General Mills Kids Breakfast Cereals by Mike Mozart from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

General Mills Kids Breakfast Cereals by Mike Mozart from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I got lots of messages last week when it came out that General Mills’ legal terms said that if you downloaded their coupons, connected with them on social media, entered a contest, or purchased any of their products that you agreed to resolve all disputes with the company through binding arbitration or informal negotiation via email.

And everybody lost their minds.

I can understand requiring arbitration for disputes related to contests. I write terms of service for websites all the time and I also include a dispute resolution where my client specifies where, how, and using which state’s law problems will be resolved. I would never tell a client to write their terms in a way that dictates how they’re going to resolve problems that are not related to a website.

I think it’s ridiculous that they’d even try to tell consumers that making a purchase forces them to resolve disputes in arbitration unless those provisions are available on the packaging and in print that might make a consumer take notice. I’ve never thought to examine a cereal box for contract terms.

Thankfully General Mills saw the light and reversed its decision and voided the offensive terms this past Saturday. In a blog post, General Mills spokesperson Kirstie Foster wrote, “No one is precluded from suing us by purchasing our products at a store, and no one is precluded from suing us when they ‘like’ one of our Facebook pages.”

General Mills still supports arbitration for resolving disputes and I understand why. It can be a faster and more cost-effective way to resolve problems. However, some disputes are better left to litigation where there is the option to pursue a class-action lawsuit when the situation warrants it.

We agree to contract terms all the time. Every time we click the “I agree” button for an online service or to create an account on a social media platform, we are agreeing to the terms of the contract (even if we don’t read the terms). The next time you go to a concert or a professional sporting event, flip over your ticket and read the fine print on the back. That’s a contract. I have no problem with these contracts as long as they make sense for the situation and don’t overreach into scenarios where it would be unreasonable for the terms to extend.

My Neighborhood Whataburger

My Neighborhood Whataburger

For example, I recently heard that there was a sign at a Whataburger restaurant that put consumers on notice that by eating in the restaurant, they agreed to resolve all disputes related to their dining experience via arbitration. I tried to confirm this but I didn’t see such a sign in my neighborhood Whataburger. I visited their website and didn’t see such a provision; however, I was perturbed to see terms and conditions that said:

By giving us permission to use your post or tweet, you agree that we may, at our discretion, use your real or social media user name and the content of your post or tweet (including all accompanying images) on our website to promote our company, products and services for such time period as we wish. You give us the right to edit your post or tweet for brevity, clarity and the like and to modify any image in any manner we deem necessary to use it on our website. You will not have the advance right to review or approve what we post on our website….You will not receive any compensation for granting us the above rights. We agree that you may withdraw the permission you have given us at any time by sending us an email at customerrelations@wbhq.com.

Whataburger’s Facebook page says they can use anything you post on their page but I didn’t see any similar verbiage on their Twitter profile. I think they’re trying to set themselves up so they can use anything you post about the company on social media, including editing it which I’m not too keen about the verbiage they used.

This is a topic that is worth watching to see what becomes the norm in social media marketing. I f you want to talk more about terms of service or social media law, connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. Please subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter and visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

U.S. Copyright Office is Raising its Filing Fees on May 1, 2014

Burning Nature by Vinoth Chandar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Burning Nature by Vinoth Chandar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Last week, the U.S. Copyright Office announced that it is raising its fees to register your work. Effective May 1, 2014, the cost to register a single work or a collection of works using their online system will go up from $35.00 to $55.00 per application. For those of you who are old school and prefer to register your work by mail, the fee will go up from $65 to $85.

So if you have projects that you were planning on registering with the Copyright Office, now would be a really good time to get them done.  You only have to get your application in before May 1st; it may take the Copyright office until after May 1st to process it.

There is one piece of good news in the fee hike announcement. The U.S. Copyright made an exception for individuals who are registering single works that are not “works made for hire.” If you are a photographer, writer, or some other artist and you want to register you works individually, your filing fee will remain at $35 per application.

I had a question about this exception because I know many artists who create a lot of works that are not works made for hire, but they do it under an LLC for liability and tax purposes.  I called the Copyright Office and they confirmed that you only qualify for the $35 fee if you register as an individual person. If you register your work under your business name, you have to pay $55 per application, even if you are the only person in the business.

Heart in Pages by Vincent Lock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Heart in Pages by Vincent Lock from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The only things that are changing on May 1st are the Copyright Office’s fees. The rest of the copyright laws have remained the same.

To qualify for a copyright, you need an original work of authorship that is fixed in any tangible medium. When you have a copyright, you have the exclusive right to control where your work is copied, distributed, displayed, performed, and what derivative works can be made from it. You get these rights the moment your work is created, even if you never register it with the Copyright Office and even if you don’t put a copyright notice on your work – i.e. “© [Copyright Owner’s Name] [Year].”  If you register your work, your registration provides the presumption of ownership and validity of your copyright rights. If you ever want to sue for copyright infringement when someone steals your work, you must register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office first.

If you want to talk more about copyright, copyright registration, or intellectual property strategy, connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. If you post your original work online, I strongly recommend you check out the many chapters on copyrights in my books:

Please subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter and visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Legal Issues if you Outsource your Blog Content

Content Writer by Ritesh Nayak from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Content Writer by Ritesh Nayak from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I don’t believe in outsourcing my blog content, but I understand that some people do because they’re busy, or they’re afraid they’re not a good writer, or they’re not dedicated to maintaining their site. Whatever the reason, it happens. If you fall into this boat, there are some legal ramifications you need to be aware of and plan for.

Regardless of who you use to write your blog material, you should review every post before it goes up to ensure that the content is accurate, especially if you work in a field where misstatements can happen and readers could be harmed if they rely on your blog’s information.

Copyright
If you outsource your blog to a third party, your content creator owns the copyright in whatever they create for you unless you have a contract that states otherwise. Without this contract, they own everything and, at most, you have an implied license to use it on your site. If you want to repurpose a blog post, you have to get your writer’s permission; otherwise, you could commit copyright infringement by reusing the material from your own site.

Indemnification
When your writer creates a post, you often do not know what source material they used or where they got the images for each post. (Yes, every blog post needs an image.) There is always a risk that your writer will rip off someone else’s verbiage or image without your knowledge.

If you do not review each post before it is released on your site, there is a risk that your writer could post something defamatory or harmful to another person. The alleged victim in that case might sue you for damages because they were injured because of your website. To avoid this problem, you can protect yourself with an indemnification clause that holds the blogger responsible for the damage they cause or at least requires them to a pay your attorneys’ fees and/or damages assessed against you.

Clear Contracts
If you work with a third party content creator, you want a clear contract that explains all the pertinent aspects of your relationship – what they will create for you, deadlines, who is responsible for website problems, if they’re allowed to write similar content for others, how you’re going to resolve problems, who will own the copyright, and if the writer can use posts as work samples if they assign the copyright to you.

I love contracts. If the term “contract” is a turn-off for you, think of it as a relationship management document. All it is a document that lays out how your relationship is going to work. I made a video this week about how awesome contracts are.

When you work with third party content creators, not having a contract is not an option. If you want to chat more contracts for your content creators, connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also check out my books about the legalities of blogging:

Please subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter and visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

How to Register a Trademark with the USPTO

USPTO Seal by cytech from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

USPTO Seal by cytech from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I’ve had several people ask me what is involved in registering a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Your trademarks include the names, logos, tag lines, and anything else you put on your products and services to inform customers about the source and quality of what they’re buying.

Once you have a trademark registered with the USPTO, you have the exclusive right to use your trademark on your goods or services anywhere in the U.S.  If anyone tries to start similar business or sell a similar product with trademark that is too similar to yours, you can make them change it. The only companies that can have the same trademark as you are companies who were using the same trademark before you registered yours with the USPTO (i.e., the Burger King situation) or companies that use a similar trademark but on a product that is so different from yours that no one would think that they are owned by the same company (i.e., Delta Faucets, Delta Dental, and Delta Airlines).

Here is the process that I go through to register a client’s trademark with the USPTO:

1. Clarify what the trademark is and what products or services it’s being used on. You can only claim rights to a trademark that you’re using in commerce or expect to use within six months.

2. Determine if the desired trademark is trademarkable – not every trademark is. Your trademark can’t be the product itself.

3. Check the USPTO database to make sure no one else has registered the same trademark on a similar product as my client’s.

4. Evaluate if others are using the same trademark without registering it with the USPTO. Once your have a registered trademark, these companies can keep using it in their established geographic market, but they can’t expand without rebranding.

5. Complete the USPTO trademark application which includes determining the best description of the product and which class(es) of products we’ll be applying for. The USPTO charges a fee for each class of products you register the mark for.

6. Submit the application to the USPTO with the filing fee.

7. Wait three or four months for the USPTO to get around to reviewing your application. Yes, their backlog is that big. Once I submit an application, I typically check on it at the beginning of each month to see if it’s been assigned to a reviewing attorney at the USPTO.

8. Respond to any Office Actions if we receive any from the USPTO. An Office Action is a communication from the reviewing attorney that says that there’s a problem with the application. They may request clarification, a disclaimer, or claim that the desired mark can’t be registered. Depending on what the USPTO and my client wants will determine how I respond and how much work will be required.

9. Once the USPTO approves the mark, they will publish it on its official gazette. This puts everyone on notice that your mark is about to be approved. If no one objects within thirty days, your trademark will be registered.

You should expect the entire registration process to take at least eight months, but it could be longer. Once you have a registered trademark, you can use the ® next to it. You will continue to have your trademark rights as long as you’re using it in commerce. The USPTO requires that you send in update affidavits periodically that verifies that you’re using the trademark. If you don’t use your trademark for three consecutive years, it will be considered “abandoned” and anyone can use it.

If you’re looking for more information about what a trademark is and the benefits of registering it with the USPTO, I made a video about it.

If you want to chat more about trademark registration, you can connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Be Leery of Free Image Sites: You May Inadvertently Commit Copyright Infringement

Palm Sunset by Lawrence Rayner from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Palm Sunset by Lawrence Rayner from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I cringe every time I hear people says they use Google Images to find pictures for their websites because I know most of them are using anything they find in the search results without adjusting the settings to only show images that give them permission to use them. And I love it when people, especially entrepreneurs, use Creative Commons, seek out other sources for free images, or purchase a license to use images from iStock. Unfortunately, there are times when business owners think they are doing everything right, and they don’t realize they’re not until they’re threatened with legal action.

I have heard about a few situations over the years when someone has stolen images from a photographer and made their work available for free without the artist’s permission. Sometimes the person who steals the original image cuts off the photographer’s watermark or signature before posting them online. These photo thieves may post these images on their own site as free images or wallpaper. You might download this work and use it on your site, thinking that you are acting within the limits of the law.

When the photographer realizes that their work has been stolen, they’ll probably be angry – and they might send letters than demand payment or threaten legal action to every site where their work has appeared without their permission. And rightfully so – as the copyright holder, they have exclusive right to control where their work is copied and distributed. The fact that you didn’t know that you were doing anything wrong will not absolve you. If you’ve used an image where the watermark or other copyright notice was removed, they could accuse you of committing copyright infringement (punishable by up to $150K in statutory damages per violation) and removing the copyright management information to facilitate the infringement (punishable by up to an additional $25K per violation).

So what do you do if you receive one of these demand letters? Contact a copyright lawyer immediately. You want to verify that the claim is legitimate and strategically plan your response. If the claim is legit, the artist likely wants you to pay their licensing fee and/or stop using their image. It’s probably best to let your lawyer respond on your behalf but if you choose to respond to the letter yourself, it’s a good idea to have your lawyer at least review your response before you send it to make sure that it’s thoughtful and reasonable.

What should you do to avoid this type of problem in the first place? Be leery of free wallpaper sites. I have more faith in images I find through Creative Commons – though it is possible that someone could steal another’s image and make it available with a Creative Commons license. You can always run the image you want to run the image through the Google Image search engine to see where else it is being used online. That may help you determine if the image might be stolen. If there ever is an image that you want to use on your site and you’re unsure if you have permission to use it, explicitly ask the artist for their permission.

If you want to learn more about copyright issues on the internet, please check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. It has several chapters dedicated to copyright. You can connected with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

What the Yelp Lawsuits Mean for You

People Hate Us on Yelp by danoxster from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

People Hate Us on Yelp by danoxster from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

There are a few lawsuits going on right now involving reviews on Yelp. If you are a business owner who is concerned about what people might post about you or a person who likes to post reviews of products and services online, you should be paying attention.

In the first case, the court ordered Yelp to reveal the identities of seven anonymous account holders who are being accused of posting false negative reviews about a business. The owner of Hadeed Carpet Cleaning filed the defamation lawsuit claiming that these people were not customers. Posting reviews of companies you haven’t used is also a violation of Yelp’s terms of service.

The First Amendment protects people’s right to share their opinions, including anonymously. However, it doesn’t protect against defamatory speech. The challenge with anonymous speech is you could be unmasked if you do something wrong or if someone builds a strong case that you could be wrong. These cases are hard because the owner doesn’t know who is posting the anonymous review so they can’t cross check the review with their customer records so they often have to sue to identify the person so they can determine if they’ve been illegally harmed.  This case doesn’t concern me too much as long as the court is applying the proper standards to determine if the plaintiff has shown enough evidence of harm that would warrant a subpoena to reveal the posters’ identities.

In the second case, a contracting company is suing a former customer for $750K for defamation after she posted a negative review on Yelp where she claimed her “home was damaged, she was billed for work that wasn’t done and jewelry went missing after she hired” the company. Defamation generally requires a false statement about a person or entity that’s communicated to a third party, and that hurts the person or entity’s reputation. In this case, the owner claims the review has cost his company business, so there’s his damage. If anything in her review is untrue and led to the drop in business, that’s likely defamation.

Some people are concerned that these cases will prohibit people from posting negative reviews online, even when they are accurate. Given how many Yelp reviews have been posted and how few lawsuits have come out of them, I don’t think this should be a significant concern for Yelpers. I think these cases provide good lessons regarding internet law and etiquette:

  1. If you’re going to post reviews online, make sure you only share your accurate opinion. (BTW – Federal law requires you to only post your honest and accurate opinions.)
  2. The First Amendment protects your right to speak anonymously; however, if someone suspects your speech has harmed them, they may have to sue to get a subpoena for the website to reveal your identity to determine if they’ve been harmed. If you use your real name, they can cross check your review with their records.
  3. If you are a business owner, take care of your customers. If you treat them badly, have low quality products, or provide poor service, they will call you out online.

I also made a video about how to respond to bad reviews online from a legal perspective:

Most states have laws against strategic lawsuits against public participation, called anti-SLAPP laws. These are laws against filing lawsuits that are intended just to shut you up, not to address a situation where a person was legally harmed. If someone files a defamation lawsuit against you because of an online review and you feel like you’re being falsely accused, you should check to see if your state has an anti-SLAPP law.  

If you want more information about internet defamation, please check out my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. It has an entire chapter dedicated to online defamation. You can connected with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

How To Change Your Business Address with the Arizona Corporation Commission

A.C.C. Statement of Change Paperwork for Carter Law Firm

A.C.C. Statement of Change Paperwork for Carter Law Firm

One of the exciting things that’s happened at Carter Law Firm in the last few months is we’ve moved from being a virtual law practice to having a brick-and-mortar office. It’s been wonderful settling in to our new digs.

My New Office!

It’s Official!

As you all know, one of the things you have to do when you move is update your address. The firm’s mail service is paid up until March 2014 so we have plenty of time to update our information with all of our vendors, but then I started thinking about what we’d have to do with State and these were the type of questions that went through my head:

  • Ugh – How much of a pain in the ass is it going to be to update our information at the Corporation Commission?
  • Is it going to be expensive?
  • Do we have to publish?

I jumped on the Corporation Commission’s forms page for LLCs and started digging around. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that updating the business and statutory agent’s address would be relatively simple to do. According to them, all it takes is a Statement of Change and a $5.00 fee – and no publication required. The paperwork was straightforward – old address, new address, and a signature. I didn’t change my statutory agent, just their address, so I didn’t have to complete the statutory agent acceptance form. I slapped on their cover sheet, wrote a check, made a copy of the paperwork for my records, and popped it into the mail.

Rosie Watching the Office Through her Baby Gate

Rosie Watching the Office Through her Baby Gate

I could have paid an extra $35.00 to expedite it, but it wasn’t necessary so I didn’t. It will take them up to a month to update my file at the Corporation Commission, but I’ve had no trouble updating my address with anyone. I was surprised the bank didn’t ask to see my paperwork; they just took my word for it when I showed them my driver’s license.

Now we’re in the process of getting everything updated – ordering new business cards and checks, updating the website, etc. It feels good to be in a proper office – especially one that lets Rosie come to work with me. She’s still getting used to office life. Watching the world through the office baby gate is less exciting than watching the street through the front door screen, but she loves the attention from my officemates.

You can connected with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Why You Have to Respond to Suspected IP Infringement

Cease and Desist by H.L.I.T. from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Cease and Desist by H.L.I.T. from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A few weeks ago we all had a good laugh when Jeff Briton, owner of Exit 6 Pub and Brewery in Cottleville, Missouri got a cease and desist letter from Starbucks when he named one of his craft beers “Frappicino.” Starbucks said this was too similar to their Frappuccino and even took the liberty of contacting the beer review website Untappd to get the Frappicino beer listing removed.

Briton responded with a letter and a check for $6 – the profit he made from selling the beer to the three people who reviewed it on Untappd. If you haven’t read this letter yet, go do it. It’s hilarious.

My hat’s off to Briton for writing such a brilliant response and turning this situation into an awesome opportunity to promote Exit 6. Some people might say that Starbucks’ lawyers were being jerks for sending a cease and desist letter to the little guy who wasn’t their competition anyway. But it was what Starbucks had to do to protect its intellectual property.

When you have a copyright or a trademark and you know that someone is using your intellectual property without your permission and you do nothing, you send a message that you don’t care about protecting your intellectual property rights. If you let the little guys get away with things like Frappicino beer and then one of your big competitors does something similar and you try to lay the smack down on them, your competitor will have an argument that your track record shows that you let others use your property without permission or penalty. By not protecting your intellectual property, you put yourself at risk of losing your intellectual property rights.

It’s because of this risk that Starbucks has to send cease and desist letters to Exit 6 Pub. This is why I tell clients to keep an eye out for other people using their intellectual property. In trademark situations, a cease and desist letter is usually the proper response, even in situations like Frappicino beer.

This is also why I tell bloggers and photographers to be diligent about who is using their work. If they find that someone’s using their copyrights without permission, even if they’re ok with it, I often recommend they contact the alleged infringer and grant them a license after the fact and request an attribution if the infringer didn’t give them one. If they’re not ok with what the alleged infringer did, we discuss whether the artist wants to send a cease and desist, a DMCA takedown notice, a licensing agreement with a bill, or sue for infringement. There should always be a response.

If you have questions about your intellectual property rights or your strategy to protect them, please contact an intellectual property attorney in your community. If you have questions related to copyright or trademark and blogging, please check out my book The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed.

If you want to chat with me more about this topic, you can connected with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

SMART Goal Setting for 2014

My "To Do" List: Yay for functional tattoos! by robstephaustralia from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

My “To Do” List: Yay for functional tattoos! by robstephaustralia from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Happy New Year everyone! I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season and is ready to hit the ground running in 2014. For a lot of people, a new year means new goals. I know I spent a few days in December looking back on 2013 and making plans for 2014.

I’m a big fan of writing goals for the year – personally and professionally. You can call them resolutions if you want but some people think that’s just setting yourself up to fail – use whatever term works for you.  I prefer to use the SMART method when I set a goal. SMART is a mnemonic for the criteria for what a goal must be:

S = Specific
M = Measurable
A = Action-based (Some variations says A stands for Attainable)
R = Realistic (Some variations say R stands for Results-focused)
T = Time-sensitive

I’ve found this method really works for me. To give you an example, one of my 2014 goals is to celebrate the law firm’s second anniversary and that I’ve moved into a brick and mortar office by throwing an open house event at my new office in January. What are your goals for 2014? Please share them in the comments below and if there’s anything I can do to help you achieve them. Apparently sharing your goals with others helps you achieve them too because people will be asking you about it and doing what they can to support you and your goals.

Sometimes my goal feels too big to be attainable all at once so I break it down into manageable pieces, and usually assign a specific deadline for each portion.

One thing I often ask myself as I’m setting SMART goals is how am I going to achieve it. If my goal involves meting more business contacts I have to figure out who I want to meet and where I’m going to meet them. If my goal is to make more money, I need to have a plan to either bring in more clients or make more money from each person I’m working with. So don’t just thing about the “what” but also the “how.”

I saw a fascinating video recently about why New Year’s resolutions are more successful than other goals. It’s pretty interesting and worth a few minutes of your time.

I look forward to helping you achieve your goals for 2014. Please share your goals in the comments below and feel free to connected with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.