Let’s Talk About Trademarks

https://www.flickr.com/photos/trippinlarry/5987691227
“Lemonade, anyone?” by trippinlarry from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I’m going to say “no” a lot today. I’ve seen many trademark questions lately, many of which make me cringe.

Here’s what you need to know about trademarks. They are synonymous with branding. Your trademarks are the names, logos, slogans, etc. that you put on your products or services that differentiate you from the competition. They inform consumers about the origin and quality of the product or service.

When you apply to register a trademark, you have to tell the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) what you’re claiming as a trademark and on what products or services you’re using it. The USPTO won’t register your trademark if it’s too similar to a previously registered trademark. If they have a problem with your application, they’ll send you an Office Action with an explanation of the problem, and they give you 6 months to submit a response.

This is also why it’s possible for two companies to use the same trademark when they’re products and services are so different that no one would think they came from the same company, like Delta Airlines, Delta Faucet, and Delta Dental.

Onto the questions . . .

How would an Unregistered Trademark be Better for “Brand Image” than a Registered Trademark?

 A trademark is a trademark regardless of whether you register it or not. What changes is the rights you get with your brand when it’s a registered trademark. Having a registered trademark gives you the ability to stop competitors from entering the marketplace in the U.S. while using a trademark that is confusingly similar to yours. (Trademark rights are limited by country. If you have a registered trademark in the U.S., that doesn’t mean someone couldn’t register the same trademark for the same goods somewhere else.)

When you don’t register your trademark, you only can get common law trademark rights based on the geographic area where you are using the mark in commerce. You won’t have the ability to stop a competitor from using the same or a confusingly similar trademark in another geographic area in the U.S. like you’d be able to do if you had a registered trademark.

Additionally, if you don’t register your mark, there’s a risk that your competitor will, which will limit your ability to use your trademark to the area established by your common law rights when the other mark was registered. This happened to the first Burger King restaurant. The first Burger King was “frozen” in its established area when the franchise registered the trademark. If the first Burger King company wanted to expand beyond that area, it must do so with a different trademark than “Burger King.”

If your company is going to license its trademark to others, having a registered trademark is more valuable that an unregistered trademark. For many companies, their most important asset is their intellectual property.

If I Want to Apply to Register a Trademark and There’s a Competitor That’s Already Registered a Similar Name, Will I have a Better Chance with the USPTO if I Apply to Register my Logo that Contains the Company Name?

Why do you want to a brand that’s similar to your competition? It baffles me when companies knowingly pick a name that’s like one that’s already in use. It makes wonder if the owners are trying to ride a competitors’ coattails (which is illegal) or if they don’t understand how branding works.

The purpose of having a trademark is to prevent consumer confusion. The USPTO does not want to grant companies the similar trademarks if they’re selling similar products or services.

For a lot of companies, I recommend filing the word mark for just their name (assuming it’s trademarkable) as well as the logo, because logos often change over time. The name of the product or company usually doesn’t.

The USPTO requires separate applications for the logo and the word mark if you want both as registered trademarks. When a logo contains words, those often are given more weight than the rest of the logo in terms of whether there’s confusion because that’s often the most prominent part of the logo. The logo components may help differentiate your trademark from the competition, but it may not be enough. You can always apply and see what happens.

Can I use a Cancelled Trademark if the Owner is still Manufacturing the Product?

When you do a search on the USPTO trademark database, it will show the trademarks that are “live” and “dead.” A dead trademark may be “abandoned” or “cancelled.” An abandoned trademark was one that was applied-for but never registered. A cancelled trademark was registered at one time but not anymore.

When a company has a cancelled trademark but is still using it, it likely means that they registered the trademark and did not file the renewal when it was due. The company still has common law trademark rights based on its geographic market.

It may be possible to use a cancelled mark that’s still in use as long as you’re not in the competitor’s established geographic market, but I usually don’t recommend it. It sounds like a situation where you’d be setting yourself up to get a cease and desist letter and/or sued for common law trademark infringement and unfair competition.

On the flip side, I have seen companies use trademarks that have been cancelled and the previous owner has long since stopped using the trademark or the previous owner went out of business. A few years ago, I saw popsicle companies doing this – claiming abandoned trademarks and bringing the product back to market.

Is it OK if my Trademark is Barely Different than Someone Else’s – Like Adding or Removing a Space or Adding a Word?

The key to whether your trademark is different enough is based on whether consumers will be confused. As such, the USPTO treats trademarks that look and sound the same as being the same. You can’t take a registered mark and change the spelling slightly and have a valid trademark for the same product or service.

When you take someone’s trademark and add a word to it, the USPTO will consider how similar the marks are. If the main part of the mark matches an existing registered mark for the same type of product or service, it’s less likely that the USPTO will register your trademark as well.

There is no equation or formula you can use to guarantee that your trademark application will be approved by the USPTO.

Can I File my Own Trademark Application?

Yes. You don’t have to be a lawyer to submit a trademark application to the USPTO, though I recommend using one. At the very least, it’s best to have a lawyer review the application before you submit it. I’ve run into too many people who submitted a trademark application by themselves for trademarks that aren’t registerable. They could have saved themselves time and money by consulting a lawyer.

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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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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.

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

What Went Wrong with Fate Brewing Company

Photo Courtesy of Fate Brewing Company (Scottsdale, AZ)

Photo Courtesy of Fate Brewing Company (Scottsdale, AZ)

Earlier this month, Fate Brewing Company announced that they were changing their name to McFate Brewing Company.
Wait…what?! Is this awesome local brewery turning itself into some type of fast food brewery?
No, but they ran into a legal snag that forced the name change.

In 2012, Fate Brewing Company opened in Arizona. In 2013, someone else opened Fate Brewing Company in Boulder, Colorado. In legalese, the Fate Arizona is called the “senior user” of the name since they opened first and the Fate Colorado is the “junior user.” Despite being the junior user, Fate Colorado sued Fate Arizona for trademark infringement.

How Is This Allowed?
Easy: Fate Colorado registered the trademark “Fate Brewing Company” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). It’s the Burger King situation all over again.

By doing business first, Fate Arizona had rights to use “Fate Brewing Company” for beer and restaurant services, but since they didn’t register their trademark with the USPTO, their rights only extended to the geographic area where they did business. When Fate Colorado got their registered trademark, they obtained the exclusive right to use “Fate Brewing Company” for beer and restaurant services everywhere in the U.S. except where Fate Arizona had an established market. Likewise, Fate Arizona couldn’t expand its market beyond its established boundaries without infringing Fate Colorado’s rights.

I suspect Fate Colorado sued Fate Arizona for trademark infringement in part because their trademark was granted in 2013 and Fate Arizona South opened in 2015. Fate Colorado could have interpreted the new location as a market expansion that violated their trademark rights.

New Logo for McFate Brewing Company - opening June 25, 2016

New Logo for McFate Brewing Company, Photo courtesy of Fate Brewing Company

What’s Next for Fate Arizona?
Even though Fate Arizona could have made a legal argument that they had the right to use the name as the “senior user,” they have opted to take the high road to rebrand rather than spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on this legal fight. The re-branding party for McFate Brewing Company (named after the owner, Steve McFate) is scheduled for June 25, 2016 according to Fate Arizona’s Facebook page.

I hope Fate Colorado wasn’t a jerk about this process. A company has an obligation to protect its intellectual property or risk losing it, but there is more than one way to pen a cease and desist letter.

How Could Fate Arizona have Avoided This Problem?
Yes. Fate Arizona could have beaten Fate Colorado to the USPTO and filed a trademark application before they did. They could have staked their claim to the name and gained exclusive right to use the name nationwide, shutting down Fate Colorado or forcing them to rebrand from their start.

Many new businesses are more concerned about getting off the ground than federal trademark filings, especially when the business only has aspirations of being a local brand. Unfortunately, this leaves them vulnerable to being boxed in geographically, called into court, or forced to rebrand like it did here.

If you have questions about your company’s trademark or how to select a trademark for your new venture, 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.

Creator Rights | Phoenix Comicon Recap

Photo by Scott Adams for Phoenix Comicon - sorry I had to crop out the Phoenix Comicon logo to fit the dimensions of my site. View the original here: http://bit.ly/1QqlW48.

Photo by Scott Adams for Phoenix Comicon – sorry I had to crop out the Phoenix Comicon logo to fit the dimensions of my site. View the original here: http://bit.ly/1QqlW48.

I had an awesome time presenting on Creator Rights at Phoenix Comicon this year with Javier Hernandez. His comic book series, El Muerto, was recently made into a movie and a fan created a fan film that was shown at the Con. It was really interesting to hear his story as an artist trying to muddle through the legalities of working in the arts with the help of his lawyer.

I don’t prepare much for my talks at Phoenix Comicon. I feel like it’s my job to be there to explain legal concepts in plain English and answer the audience’s questions about copyright, trademarks, contracts, and fan art. There’s always a fun smart audience with thoughtful questions. It’s a privilege to be invited back multiple times. Here are some of the highlights from this year.

You have Rights in your Original Creations
There is no legal protection for ideas but there is for original works of authorship once you’ve captured your ideas in a tangible medium such as paper or a digital file. The copyright laws were designed to protect original story lines and fully-formulated characters. I often recommend that artists at least register their “story bible” with the U.S. Copyright Office to maximize their legal rights related to their work.

Once you create a comic, you have the exclusive right to copy, distribute, display, perform, or make derivative works from your original work. That’s why the movie studio had to get the option (aka license) from Javier to make a movie from El Muerto, because a movie is a derivative work. Javier didn’t authorize the creation of the fan film and so when he went to see it, part of his motivation was to see if he wanted to exert his legal rights to stop the creators from showing it in other forums.

Protect your Trademarks
Someone in the audience shared a horrific story. He created a comic and after he started sharing his work with others, someone else started a similar comic – with the same name. Here’s the kicker, the second guy registered the name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. What a nightmare. I told him to call a lawyer to try to sort out this mess.

A lot of beginning artists and people who create art as a hobby don’t understand their rights and how they can avoid problems like this by registering their trademark before their competition does. Or if they understand their rights, they don’t invest the money to file the proper applications with the federal government. These types of problems happen all the time. Check out what happened when two restaurants decided to call themselves “Burger King.”

When Contracts are Involved, Call a Lawyer
If you are lucky enough to create art that someone wants to buy or license, call a lawyer. The other side is going to present you with a contract that was written solely based on their interests. You need someone who is equally versed in entertainment contracts to represent you. Lawyers talk to lawyers – so hire someone who can explain the process, understand your priorities, and advise you of your options.

Javier and I had a fantastic time doing this panel – sharing our experiences and knowledge from the creator’s and lawyer’s perspective. It was a wonderful juxtaposition for the audience. I also did a panel at Phoenix Comicon on Fan Art/Fiction and Copyright. If you want to know more about that specific topic, check out this post I wrote last year with a handy mnemonic device.

If you have questions or want to chat more about creator rights, please contact me directly or connect with me on social media via TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Clothing Line Intellectual Property

Geek & Graphic T-shirts by nicolas 'nclm' from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Geek & Graphic T-shirts by nicolas ‘nclm’ from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Recently I’ve had a few questions about intellectual property related to starting the clothing line or T-shirt business. These people asked me how they can protect their work. Is it trademark? Is it copyright? The answer is, it’s probably both!

A trademark is anything you put on your goods or services to differentiate them from the competition. And a business can have several trademarks. They are your company name, brand names, slogans, logos, etc. Likewise, a clothing line can have several trademarks including your company’s name, the name for each collection, slogans, and your logos. The triangle patch with the question mark on it is a trademark for Guess jeans as is the alligator logo for Lacoste brand clothing.

Before you select the trademarks you want for your clothing line, be sure to check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database to verify that the trademark you want has not already been claimed by another company in the apparel industry or a related industry. If a trademark has already been registered that company could stop you from entering the marketplace using a trademark that is confusingly similar to theirs. (See the story of The North Face v. The South Butt for an example.)

Your clothing line may also contain several copyrights. If you design T-shirts, you will have copyright rights in each design. You may also have copyright rights in your logo. You have rights in what you create the moment you create it; you don’t have to register them with the U.S. Copyright Office to obtain your rights (however, you do have to register if you want to sue for copyright infringement.) If your design is simply a short phrase on a shirt, it may not be copyrightable because short phrases are often not original enough to warrant having a copyright. Depending on what your phrase is, if you’re using it as a slogan, it could be a trademark.

If you outsource the creation of the designs for your clothing or the creation of your marketing materials, make sure you have clear written contracts with these independent contractors to ensure that you own whatever you have hired them to create. Otherwise you may find yourself in a situation where the artist owns the intellectual property rights in what they created, and you merely have a license to use it.

As you can see, determining what intellectual property you have may be a complicated question. It’s best to consult an intellectual property attorney to assist you in identifying your intellectual property and determine the best strategies to protect it, which may include registering your copyrights and trademarks.

If you have any questions about copyrights or trademarks, feel free to shoot me an email or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Top Three Legal Tips for Dad Bloggers from Dad 2.0 Summit

Awesome Bo-Gos at the Dad 2.0 Summit 2015

Awesome Bo-Gos at the Dad 2.0 Summit 2015

I had an awesome time at Dad 2.0 Summit – an awesome conference for dads who blog. I was invited to the conference to hang out in the Knowledge Bar during the breaks to talk with people about the legal dos and don’ts when it comes to their blogs. One gentleman asked me what three tips I’d give to the conference’s audience. Here’s what I said.

1. Be Thoughtful about what Images you Use on your Site.
Unfortunately, a lot of people think they can use any image they find online as long as they give an attribution and a link back to the original. What you’re likely doing is committing copyright infringement and telling the artist what you did. I recommend getting permission from the person to use their image or only use Creative Commons images for your site. I only use images that come with the license that lets me modify and commercialize them.  For more information about this topic, check out this post and/or watch this video.

2. Register your Trademarks.
This is my soapbox issue for the year for bloggers, vloggers, and podcasters – register your trademarks! If you don’t, someone else can start using it, register it with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and they could essentially shut down your site. You’d have to decide whether to fight them for it or rebrand. It’s easier and cheaper to protect yourself by registering your brand first. Then that way you’ve secured your rights to your name, logo, and slogan everywhere in the U.S. For more information about this topic, check out this post and/or watch this video.

3. When you get Free Products or Write Sponsored Posts, Disclose It.
Federal law requires you to only give true and accurate reviews when you do product reviews and you must disclose when you are compensated for giving your opinion. You have to tell your audience when you get products for free, participate in campaigns for compensation, or have sponsors. This rule applies to blogs, review sites, and anywhere you post on social media when you’re compensated for doing so. For more information about this topic, check out this post.

The laws regarding blogging and social media are still developing so it’s important that you stay abreast of changes as they occur when they apply to you. I will do my best to create content on developments in social media and internet law. If you’re looking for a resource that reviews the laws that apply to bloggers, please check out my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. You can always send me an email if you ever have questions, and please stay connected with me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and YouTube.

If I don’t see you before then, I look forward to re-connecting with you at Dad 2.0 Summit next year!