How to Write a Decent Trademark Cease and Desist Letter

https://www.flickr.com/photos/tangi_bertin/541603067/
Stop by tangi_bertin from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A friend recently forwarded me a trademark cease and desist letter he received and asked if it was anything they needed to worry about. Now, I always tell my clients to take such letters seriously, and give them their due consideration, but then I read this particular letter. It was possibly the worst cease and desist letter I’ve ever read. It was written by an entrepreneur, not a lawyer, so I automatically mentally cut the sender some slack, but still, it was bad.

If you’re in a situation where you suspected a competitor is violating your trademark rights, please get your lawyer involved. And if you’re going to write your own cease and desist letter, make it a decent one.

Make Sure Your Trademark has Likely been Infringed

A trademark has two components. It’s the name, logo, slogan, etc. that you’re claiming as a trademark plus the product or service on which you’re using it. (It’s possible for two completely different companies to have the same trademark, like Delta Dental and Delta Airlines.) For many companies, the first trademark they register is just the word or phrase that is the name of your company or product/service. This is called a “word mark.” It’s just words, no images, graphics, or sounds.

When you have a registered word mark and someone uses the same word or phrase, it’s not automatically a violation of your trademark rights. For example, Paris Hilton has registered trademarks for “That’s Hot” for “multimedia entertainment services” and apparel. These trademarks do not give her the ability to stop everyone from ever using the phrase “that’s hot,” as a descriptor. If a person is not using the word or phrase you registered as a trademark for their business, it’s likely not trademark infringement.

What to include in a Cease and Desist Letter

While I don’t endorse the idea of business owners writing their own cease and desist letters, it happens. If you’re going to write your own, these are some of the things I’d tell my client to include in their letter if they insisted on doing it themselves:

  • Provide the legal name of the person or company that owns the trademark,
  • Identify your trademark including the registration number and a screenshot of the trademark listing from the USPTO database,
  • Identify the alleged infringing activity, preferably with a URL and/or screenshot if it’s online or photographs if it is not, and
  • Clearly state what you want the recipient to do in response to your letter with a due date for compliance.

When to get the Lawyers Involved

If you encounter suspected trademark infringement, call your lawyer. Even if you want to send a cease and desist letter yourself, call your lawyer first. They can help you make sure there’s a real trademark issue that requires your attention and help you craft the cease and desist letter.

Many of my clients want to reach out to the alleged infringer to speak business owner to business owner, first. They want to send friendly but clear cease and desist letter, and give the other side a chance to resolve the matter “without having to get the lawyers involved.” I have helped write many a letter that included that phrase. The other side doesn’t need to know that I’m already involved.

If they don’t respond favorably to my client’s friendly letter, then I will follow it up with a strongly worded nastygram that demands that they cease all uses of my client’s intellectual property and failure to do so will result in litigation (or whatever consequences my client has selected).

My recommendation for clients is to refrain from making threats in cease and desist letters unless they’re willing to follow through with it. Otherwise, if the other side calls your bluff and you don’t follow through, you will lose all credibility and any further demand letters will likely be ignored.

If you threaten litigation in your cease and desist letter, be ready to pull the trigger if the suspected infringer doesn’t comply with your demands. Some people won’t take you seriously until a lawsuit has been filed. A lawsuit will force them to deal with the situation because of the court-imposed due dates or risk the effects of a default judgment if they ignore it.

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How to Legally Use User-Generated Content

https://www.flickr.com/photos/zoidberg72/16243539933
Selfie by dr_zoidberg from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Here’s a question I get from companies and their marketers: What are the legal dos and don’ts for using user-generated content? These are situations where a company wants to use a photo, video, or text created by one of their fans, usually from a site like Instagram, Facebook, or Trip Advisor. Many companies merely want to approach the person through the platform where they found the content they want to use and ask for permission to use it. While this strategy is convenient, it may not be in the company’s best interest.

Using Content Within a Platform

It’s easiest when a company wants to share someone’s post within the social media platform – e.g., sharing someone’s Instagram photo on the company’s Instagram. Many social media sites build this option into the platform where you don’t even have to ask for permission to share someone’s post on another’s account.  

Of course, I’m a risk-adverse lawyer so I tell my clients to review the terms of service first to see what happens just in case it turns out the person who created the post you shared didn’t have the right to do so and now you have to deal with the fallout. Depending on the circumstances, I might contact the person to ask the person if they took the photo (which would indicate if they’re likely the copyright holder), try to verify that the original poster is complying with the platform’s rules

Using Content Across Different Platforms

Here’s where it gets a little more complicated. These are the situations where you want to take content from someone’s post on one platform and share it on a different social media site, your website, or another third-party platform. For this situation, I recommend you have a contract drafted by a lawyer. You could have them create a template for you if curating user-generated content is part of your marketing plan.

If I were creating a contract template for obtaining permission to use content created by a user or fan, I’d likely include terms such as:

  • The user owns the IP in the content: either they created it or they have permission to use it
  • The user has authority to grant the company permission to use the content
  • The user grants the company a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, sublicensable, paid-in-full, royalty-free license to the company to use the content for any purpose without needing the person’s consent or credit, including the creation of derivative works (or in the alternative, that the user grants the company a copyright assignment)
  • The user will reimburse the company’s legal fees and damages if it is accused of wrongdoing because the company used the user’s content

Such a contract would also include boilerplate verbiage, like a dispute resolution provision that states how the company and user will resolve disputes if one occurs.

Always Apply Reality

In any potential legal situation, be sure to apply reality. If a company wants to use a photo with two people in it, whoever posted the image may not be able to speak on behalf of the other person in the photo, and you may need release from identifiable people to avoid being accused of violating their right of publicity.

Additionally, it will likely take longer to get permission if you want to use images and other content across platforms. Be sure to build that into your timeline if your marketing plan involves using user-generated content.

There are also those who may question whether it’s worthwhile to have a lawyer create a contract for these circumstances. When there are no issues, a contract may seem superfluous; however, contracts are imperative in situations where there is a dispute and/or the parties forget the terms of their agreement. When you work with your lawyer to create you contract, make sure it has provisions that will apply to situations that are likely to occur as well as the worst-case scenarios.

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Legal Checklist to Protect Online Entrepreneurs

Labib Ittihadul from Flickr (Public Domain)

I was recently asked to create a list of what legal steps an entrepreneur should take if they operate solely online to protect their business. The person who asked appears to be primarily a YouTuber. Here’s the list I created for him: 

1. Consider having Two LLCs. One is a holding company for the intellectual property and licenses the IP to the other LLC to use it. This way if the holding company is sued for infringement, there are no assets to be collected if the holding company loses the lawsuit. We recommend this tactic for many businesses, not just online entrepreneurs.

2. Create an Operating Agreement if the LLC has more than One Owner.  Yes, this includes if you go into business with relatives, best friend, or romantic partner. This is a master document that lays out how the company will operate, each person’s obligations and responsibilities, and how the owners will address problems when they occur.

3. Move your Website to a Server Outside the U.S. The reason for doing is if there is ever a court order against the website, it will be more difficult to enforce if the website is house by a company outside the U.S. and not bound by U.S. law.

4. Register your Trademarks with the USPTO. So many legal issues could be minimized or avoided if every company properly registered their trademarks. This could include company names, product names, event names, logos, and slogans. When you have a registered trademark, you can stop a competitor from entering the marketplace while using a trademark that is confusingly similar to yours. If you have a strong international presence, it may be wise to register your trademarks in multiple countries.

5. Create a Copyright Strategy. Many professional content creators do guest posts for and collaborations with others and allow guest posts on their sites. It’s best to have contract templates for these situations that include clarification about who owns the copyright, what the other person gets, any limitations regarding the content, and an indemnification clause if appropriate.

Additionally, your copyright strategy should address when and how you can use others’ materials. You should have an understanding about fair use and where to look for materials that come with a license to modify the original as well as a license to use it for commercial purposes.

6. Consider Registering your Copyrights. You do not have to register your copyright to get your copyright rights, and you do not have to register everything you create; however, it’s beneficial to have the discussion about what you might want to register. You are required to register your copyright if you want to sue for infringement. Additionally, I frequently recommend registration to people who want to license or sell their copyrights.

7. Create an Action Plan for Addressing Suspected IP Infringement. Decide how you want to respond to suspected infringement before it occurs, so that you or your lawyer can be prepared to respond based on your desired outcome when it happens. Depending on how you want to respond, there may be things you need to do before the infringement occurs to best protect your rights.

8. Have a Contributor Contract Template. This is the contract you will use with people who contribute content to you, your site, your channel, or a social media account. It will state what rights each party has to use the content – most likely that they own it, and they grant you a license to use for certain purposes. It should also have an indemnification clause to protect you in the event you’re accused of violating another person’s IP rights or other legal wrong by using what the contributor provided to you.

9. Have an Influencer Contract Template. This is the contract to use when brands hire you so that the expectations on both sides are clear, and you state that you comply with FTC regulations. (You should probably have internal documents about FTC compliance as well.) Companies that hire influencers may have their own contracts that they want to use, but having your own template will help you analyze their contract to see how well it addresses your needs and concerns.

10. Create Website Terms and a Privacy Policy. These documents may need to comply with U.S. privacy laws, the Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL), and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and manage the expectations of visitors to your website. Many of the new privacy laws interfere with how many companies collect and use others’ personal information. These issues are complicated. Many people copy another content creator’s terms and privacy policy, but that could be a recipe for disaster if what you use is insufficient for your needs.

This may not be a complete or comprehensive list of legal steps to take to protect your business. It’s always best to consult a lawyer who understands the legal implications related to your business, preferably someone to specializes in business, intellectual property, and internet law. Hopefully this list gives you a place to start to evaluate your legal needs as a professional content creator or online entrepreneur.

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If You’re Going to “Wing It” as an Entrepreneur

“Yay!!” by Subharnab Majumdar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Plenty of entrepreneurs start out as a person or two, a business idea, and a shoestring budget. They know their craft but have limited or not experience starting or running a business. They don’t know what they don’t know – and that’s what gets them into trouble.

Many entrepreneurs employ the “we’ll learn as we go” approach to operating a business. Often times these are smart people, but if they get too focused on doing their business that they don’t take care of business within their operation, it can lead to costly mistakes: thousands of dollars in legal expenses and painful heartache to try to fix a problem that was completely avoidable.

Real-Life Facepalm Moments
I’ve had countless times where a business owner comes to me for help and I cringe and think, “We could have helped you avoid this if you had come to us sooner.” This is just a sample of my facepalm moments as a lawyer:

KAWS “At This Time” Sculpture by Guilhem Vellut from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

  • Owners who don’t create a business entity: put their personal assets at risk if the business gets sued;
  • LLC with multiple owners and no operating agreement: painful business “divorce” when things didn’t work out between owners;
  • Filing a trademark application with the USPTO that wasn’t trademarkable: the application might have had a chance if the description of the products and services was written more effectively;
  • Not filing a trademark and your competition files a trademark application that’s confusingly similar to or the same as yours: costly to make a claim against them and it may not be successful, which could force you to rebrand even though you were using it first;
  • Flawed customer contracts: doesn’t fully protect the company’s interests or address all likely contingencies;
  • Hiring a third-party contractor without a contract: if the person is hired to create an original work for the company, the company won’t own the copyright in what they hired the person to create and may have to pay to acquire it;
  • Working without a contract: so many problems. Whenever I get a call about a business deal gone bad, my first question is usually, “What does your contract say?” (Ideally, you want to be in a situation where, if the other side doesn’t perform as you agreed you can essentially respond with, “F*ck you, pay me.”)

If You’re Going to “Wing It”
If you are starting a business, my unsolicited advice is “Do your homework.” Invest the time to learn what goes into running your business and figure out what you don’t know. Reach out to established entrepreneurs to ask for their advice and avail yourself to resources in your community. In Arizona, we have dozens of these organizations like Arizona Small Business Association, Local First Arizona, and SCORE.

Even if you don’t think you can afford it, look into hiring a business and intellectual property lawyer for an hour. Bring them your ideas of what you want to do, and ask for their recommendations on how to make it happen. A good lawyer will respect your budget and tell you what you can do yourself and what you should hire a lawyer do for you. They can also recommendations resources to help you based on their experiences helping others.

If I’ve learned one thing as a lawyer it is that it’s easier and cheaper to prevent problems than to fix them.

True Story
Years ago, I worked with a new company where the owners hired me to create their operating agreement. I asked a lot of questions about things like intellectual property rights, compensation, and worst-case scenarios (e.g. disability of an owner) to create custom provisions for this document.

A few years later, the owners realized it wasn’t working out between then and decided to part ways. Their operating agreement dictated how they would address this situation, and they hired us again to revise the agreement to account for the exit of one of the owners. The process was professional, respectful, and cost-effective. I’m sure there were hurt feelings on both sides, but having this operating agreement helped the owners mange them and made for a smooth transition.

If you want more information about the legal dos and don’ts of starting and running a business, you can send me an email (Note: I can’t give advice to non-clients), and I maintain a mailing list where I share my thoughts about being a lawyer/entrepreneur, updates about projects I’m working on, upcoming speaking engagements, and I may provide information about products, services, and discounts. You can also connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

The 10 Legal Commandments of Entrepreneurship

“Stained Glass Window Full of Light and Color” by Stock Photos for Free from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Since becoming a lawyer in 2011, I’ve had the privilege of working with businesses on a variety of legal issues. Looking back at some of the most cringe-worthy moments I’ve experiences I’ve had and heard about from other business and intellectual property lawyers, I’ve come up with a list of the 10 legal commandments of entrepreneurship:

 

1. Thou shall have a business entity.

When you start a business, create a business entity – an LLC or corporation. Your accountant can tell you which option is best for you. By separating the business from your personal assets, you limit your personal liability if the business is sued. If you open a business without an entity (aka a sole proprietorship), you don’t have this layer of protection.

 

2. Thou shall maintain your corporate veil.

Creating a business entity is how you begin to limit your liability, and you perfect that protection with a “corporate veil.” This means having a separate bank account and credit card for the business, and the business accounts pay for business expenses and your personal accounts pay for personal expenses. This creates a clear delineation between where the company ends and the person begins in terms of your finances. If the company is sued and loses, it’s clear which assets belong to the company and your person assets are protected.

 

3. Thou shall have a signed contract at the beginning of a business relationship.

When you are hired by a client or hire someone, start with a signed contract. A contract is a relationship-management document. It is your master document that puts everyone on the same page regarding their responsibilities. This will help you avoid confusion and resolve problems. When a client comes to me with a problem with a customer, I often start by asking “What does your contract say?”

 

4. Thou shall be thoughtful and careful about looking online for a contract template.

Looking at templates online is a good place to get ideas about terms you might want to have in your contract, but don’t indiscriminately use any contract you find. You don’t know where it came from or whether it’s suitable for your needs.

 

5. Thou shall take the time to fully read and understand a contract before signing it.

Never be afraid to ask questions or request changes when considering a contract offered to you. Don’t sign anything you don’t understand, because if you sign it and later regret it, you may be stuck with it.

 

6. Thou shall respect others’ copyrights.

Do not use others’ work without permission. Create your own original content. It’s ok to be inspired by and quote others, but add something to the conversation. If we’re talking about images, do not pull any image you find using a regular Google search. Seek out sources that provide licenses for use, including images available under Creative Commons. If there is an image you want to use that’s not available, contact the copyright holder and ask for permission. To date, I’ve never had anyone say, “No.”

 

7. Thou shall check the USPTO before branding a company or product.

When entrepreneurs think “branding,” lawyers think “trademark.” The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has a database where you can see what company names, product names, and logos others have applied for and registered for their products and services. You don’t want to fall in love with, or invest a lot of time and money in, a branding idea to find out that it’s already been claimed by someone else.

 

8. Thou shall outsource your taxes.

Every entrepreneur needs an accountant. Let them do what they’re good at.

In the time it would take you to try to do your own taxes, you could make more than enough money to pay an accountant to do your taxes for you.

 

9. Thou shall consult thy attorney.

Even when you want to do things yourself, talk to your lawyer to make sure you’re not setting yourself and your business up for future problems. My most cringe-worthy moments as a lawyer have been problems clients created for themselves that we could have helped them avoid completely if they had told us what they were thinking about doing. It is easier and cheaper to prevent legal problems than to fix them.

 

10. Thou shall act with integrity.

Put your energy into your own business, creating quality products or services for your audience.

You don’t need to stoop to bad-mouthing the competing, using trademarks that are confusing similar to others, or ride other’s coattails by doing things like using a web domain that will allow you to pull an audience based on someone else’ popularity (e.g., cybersquatting). Be so good at what you do that you don’t need to use others to make a name for yourself.

One last note: If you’re an entrepreneur, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Accountants help you make money, lawyers help you keep it, and your peers will share their experiences so you can learn from them. If you are an entrepreneur, or have plans to become one, I hope you have people around you who can help you be successful.

If you want additional information about the legal dos and don’ts of starting and running a business, I maintain a mailing list where I share my thoughts about being a lawyer/entrepreneur, updates about projects I’m working on, upcoming speaking engagements, and I may provide information about products, services, and discounts. Please add yourself if you’re interested. You can also contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Model Release and Regret

“Subway Ballet” by J Stimp from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Recently, I received an email from a photographer (not my client) who had a question about the validity of model releases. As I understood the situation, he hired a model (over age 18) to do a photoshoot at his studio. The model was photographed nude for at least part of the shoot. The model signed a model release and was paid for her modeling services.

After the photoshoot, the photographer censored some of the images to comply with Facebook’s rules and posted them online.  The model saw the images and was upset. The photographer asked me if the model had any authority to force him to take the images down.

The Rules of Model Releases
Model releases are standard in the photography world. In most cases, the photographer owns the copyright in their work from the moment the photo is created, not the person in the photo, and the model owns the right to publicize their own image.

The model release transfers the model’s right to publicity in those images to the photographer, which allows the photographer to use the images per the terms of the release. Usually, when I write a model release or a model release template, the model gives the photographer permission to use the images in any way and for any purpose, without restriction.

In general, once the model release is signed, the model’s given up their rights. If the model later regrets signing it, there may be nothing they can do to “unring that bell” unless the photographer is willing to negotiate another agreement – such as a copyright assignment where the model purchases the copyright rights in the images from the photographer.

Think Before You Sign
If you are a model, read the model release carefully. Never sign the release without reading and understanding it. Many of them allow for unfettered use by the photographer, including the right to license the images to others. Treat the images as if they are going to end up all over the internet, on billboards, on products or marketing campaigns you hate. Chances are, that’s not going to happen, but it could.

I write not just as a lawyer, but also a model myself. On a number of occasions, I have written and signed my own model release. Models may give up substantial rights when signing these documents, so it’s not a decision to make lightly.

What Could Invalidate a Model Release
Even if the model release was written by a lawyer and appears to valid on its face, there are situations where a model release might be invalid due to the circumstances surrounding the shoot:

  • The model was minor (Depending on your state, minors may not be able to sign contracts or they can withdraw their consent upon reaching the age of majority.)
  • The model was an adult but lacked the capacity to enter into a legally binding contract. (These people usually have an appointed guardian to sign for them.)
  • The model was intoxicated. (In general, intoxicated people can’t enter into valid contracts.)
  • The model was forced to sign the contract under duress. (You can’t get a valid contract if you use threats or force to get someone to sign it.)

There can also be instances where the photo in question was taken outside the scope of the model release and so the model release does not apply.

I get questions every day about photography, image rights, and copyright. If you are a photographer or model (or aspiring to be one), it’s imperative that you understand these issues. Many disputes can be avoided with well-written contracts and accurate information. I’m constantly doing work in this area, so if you want to keep up with what I’m doing or if you need help, you can contact me directly or check out the other posts and videos I’ve done on the legal side of photography. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Copyright Notice Done Right

Copyright Notice on Burn

Last weekend, I watched a documentary, Burn, about the Detroit Fire Department. (It’s an intriguing documentary film about these amazing people and how the economy’s crash impacted these firefighters and their community.)

As a lawyer, one of the things I liked about this film was the simplicity of its copyright notice. It had the standard FBI and Interpol warnings (which play through while I’m grabbing a snack), but this last notice caught my eye. It said, “This copy of ‘Burn’ is licensed for Private Home Viewing Only. Any other use is prohibited.” The notice went on to state how to request permission for other uses.

One of the complaints about the use of legal verbiage in everyday life is that it’s often too long to be worth reading, it’s filled with complicated legalese, and it’s in a tiny font. (How many times have you accepted the terms on a site without reading it?) This notice combats everything that’s wrong with the current systems:

  • It used plain language.
  • It was short.
  • It was readable.

A ten year-old could read this and understand what it means. I have never met a ten year-old that’s tried to read the FBI warning before watching a movie.

This notice made me smile. I wish more creators do things like this when declaring their rights and informing others how to seek permission for different uses. Sometimes complicated legalese is necessary, but generally not in mundane situations. Legalese in everyday life should use everyday language.

I’m an advocate of writing contracts and notices in plain English and keeping them as short as possible while still being effective.  If you have questions about your copyright and contract needs, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Trademark Rights in Website Domains

Business Entrepreneurs by Airsoftpal.com (Creative Commons License)

I regularly get questions about whether a person should use a business name based on whether their desired website domain in available. There is also the reverse – if a company has a registered trademark, is it a deal-breaker if you want to use a similar name for your business? For example, if a company has a registered trademark for The Ooga Booga and the domain theoogabooga.com for their children’s book series, does that mean you can’t have the domain, oogabooga.com for your business?

Ooga Booga is my default fake trademark when describing trademark concepts. As of this writing (3/5/2017), no one has a registered trademark in the U.S. for “Ooga Booga.”

Two Parts to a Trademark
There are two elements to every trademark – the mark itself and the product or service with which you are using it. It’s possible for two different companies to use the same trademark so long as the products and services with which they are using it are so different that no consumer will be confused about what they’re buying. That’s why it’s possible to have Delta Faucet, Delta Airlines, and Delta Dental. No one would think these products and services come from the same company.

Do your Homework when Selecting a Domain
When it comes to selecting your company or product name and the corresponding domain, be thoughtful. Do you some searches to see if other companies have similar domains and how they are using them.

If you see someone using a domain that is similar to yours, or a product or company domain that has a corresponding registered trademark, it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for your business plans, but you may want to do further research. There’s nothing wrong with two companies have similar websites as long as you have a legitimate reason for using it and you’re not violating the other company’s rights.

Let’s say you wanted oogabooga.com as your website, examine the difference between your product or service and the registered trademark for The Ooga Booga. They sell children’s books; so as long as your product or service isn’t in the arena as children’s entertainment, education, or related products, you could be ok. Most likely, no one will think that your affiliated with this other company if you’re selling something like wetsuits, wine, or financial planning services.

If you’re in a situation where you don’t want other companies having a similar domain as yours, spend the money to buy these other domains. It’s cheaper and easier to have a slew of domains related to your product rather than invest time and money monitoring, sending cease and desist letter, or pursuing other legal action against these other companies.

Only the Trademark Holder is a Threat
The good news in this type of situation is only the person who owns the trademark or other intellectual property rights can go after you for suspected infringement. If they don’t know or don’t care about what you’re doing, you face any legitimate legal threats.

Of course, when in doubt, consult a trademark lawyer to discuss your thoughts about your business or product name and website domains. If you’re interested in discussing your trademark needs, you can contact me directly or an intellectual property lawyer in your community. I regularly post about legal issues impacting entrepreneurs on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

More Information about Trademarks:

Photo credit: Airsoft Pal

No Protection for Short Phrase T-Shirts

FUNNY ASS SHIRT by Douglas Muth from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I regularly get questions from people who sell shirts on Etsy, Café Press, or a similar website and they claim that another user is stealing their design. When I look more closely at the situation, I see all the person is selling is shirts with a short phrase, in a common font, and no other artwork or design elements. Many times, I have the unfortunate responsibility of telling them that there’s no intellectual property in their design, so there’s no infringement (that’s legalese for “stealing”).

No Copyright in Short Phrases
Copyright applies to original works of authorships when they are fixed in a tangible medium. A t-shirt is a tangible medium, and it’s possible to have an original work on a garment. However, short phrases aren’t original works, so the act of merely printing one on a shirt does not create a copyright-protected article.

If that’s all you’re selling – word or a phrase on a shirt – there’s likely nothing you can do (from a copyright perspective) to stop your competition from selling a shirt with the same phrase on it. If you look on any of these DIY shirt and craft sites, you’ll see the same phrases on shirts from different sellers. There’s no copyright protection for words, images, or phrases like “geek,” “reasonable person,” “Introverts Unite! Separately in your own homes,” and even more creative phrases like “terminally soulless douche canoe.”

The Anti-Titanic Shirt

This used to be less of a problem before we had Teespring, Zazzle, and sites that make it easy to create and sell shirts and whatnot. In the past, if you wanted to sell a shirt, you had design it, have it printed, and then sell them in shop or on the street, or if you had html skills, you could create a website and people could mail you a check for a shirt. That’s what my friend, Peter Shankman, did when he sold anti-Titanic shirts in 1998. He started selling them in Times Square and then sold them online. He was a success, in part, because he had no competition.

What Could be Infringement
Every t-shirt design on Etsy is not up for grabs. Copyright does not protect short phrases, but it does protect designs with original artwork on them. Additionally, copyright protects the images you post of your shirts on your site. If you see another seller using your photos, that would likely be infringement (assuming it’s your photo). Sending a DMCA takedown may be sufficient to get them removed from their online store.

The other thing to watch for is trademark infringement. A seller can use a short phrase as a trademark to brand their wares. They can also create a logo that they put on their products. If you see someone using your trademark or a mark that is similarly close to yours, that could be infringement and worth investigating.

Beat the Competition in the Marketplace
For anyone who is selling these types of shirts, the best way to deal with your competition is be better than they are. Give your customers a reason to buy from you than from another seller, or having it made at a t-shirt shop. It could be your prices, the quality of the garments, or something about your company that makes you more desirable than the others.

Beyond that, you may want to consider upping your t-shirt game by creating or purchasing designs that will be protected by the Copyright Act.

Copyright is an area of the law with many gray areas, so if you’re having legal issues regarding your copyright rights, you can contact me directly or an intellectual property lawyer in your community. I regularly post about copyright and other IP issues on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.

Trademarks: Register or Rebrand

WordPress Swag by Caspar Hübinger from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

One of my entrepreneur friends recently asked me if he “had to” register the logo for his company. I responded with, “How much would it suck if you had to rebrand?”

Why Register your Trademark
Your trademark is the name, logo, and other branding you put on your products so consumers can tell the difference between your brand and your competition’s. When you have a registered trademark for your brand, you can stop anyone from entering the market with a similar brand on a similar product as you. The law doesn’t like it when your competition tries to ride your coattails by looking too similar to your brand. When you register your trademark, your rights extend to everywhere in the United States, even if you’re not doing business everywhere in the country yet.

If you don’t register your brand, you can only get “common law” trademark rights that are limited to where you’re doing business with your mark. Your competition can use the same or similar brand where you haven’t established yourself. And if they register the brand before you, you may find yourself frozen only to your established marketplace, which may be quite small. Just ask the original Burger King restaurant what that’s like.

Cheaper than Rebranding
What does it cost to have a logo designed?
What about a website?

The fee to submit a trademark application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is $225-400, if it’s only for one type of product or service. Even with the fee to have a proper trademark lawyer submit and track the application, it’s often cheaper to apply for a registered trademark instead of rebrand. If someone else registers your trademark before you, you may be forced to rebrand if you want to continue to grow your business and expand your marketplace to reach more potential customers.

Brand Theft Happens
I have seen and worked on a number of situations where a company could have avoided a lot of heartache and legal bills if they had registered their trademark, because their competition registered the same or similar trademark before they did. Turner Barr essentially had his trademark, Around the World in 80 Jobs, stolen out from under him. He had to cease operations to address the situation. Thankfully for him, his story had a happy ending. Other companies are not as lucky.

A substantial portion of my work involves analyzing, registering, and challenging trademarks. If you need help with your trademark situation, you can contact me directly. I also post about these issues on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.