Archive for the ‘Employee Agreements’ Category

Why IP Assignment Agreements Matter, Supreme Edition

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

The Supreme Court schooled Stanford University in legal writing in Trustees of Stanford University v. Roche Molecular Systems, ruling that sloppy drafting of an intellectual property assignment agreement required Stanford to share ownership of an important patent for HIV detection technology.

As summarized in an earlier post, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Stanford’s patent infringement lawsuit against Roche because a poorly drafted intellectual property assignment agreement signed by one of Stanford’s researchers in effect made Roche a co-owner of the patent and thus immune from a patent infringement lawsuit. The Stanford agreement said that the researcher “agree[d] to assign,” his rights in any inventions, i.e. at some time in the future, but that was trumped by a later assignment that the researcher signed with Roche’s predecessor, but which was phrased in the present tense (“do[es] hereby assign”), to take immediate effect.

Before the Supreme Court, Stanford’s argument focused not on the language of the assignment agreement, but on the Bayh-Dole Act, which regulates intellectual property ownership and commercial exploitation of inventions created as part of a federally funded project. Stanford argued that its HIV research project was subject to Bayh-Dole, and that the law vested ownership of the invention directly in Stanford, so that the researcher had no rights to assign to Roche.

The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that patent law had traditionally vested initial ownership of inventions in inventors, regardless of whether they invented on their employers’ payroll. (For that reason, most employers make sure to have their researchers sign assignment agreements that transfer ownership of all inventions upon creation to the employer.) The Court admitted that the Bayh-Dole Act was not a model of clarity on the issue of initial ownership of inventions, but ruled that a statute would need to directly and unambiguously vest ownership in the research organization to change the “inventor owns” rule, but Bayh-Dole had not.

Takeaway: as we said back in January, 2010: “A lot of folks DIY basic contracts like employment agreements by cutting and pasting poorly drafted templates from the Internet. A lot of other folks sign non-disclosure and similar basic agreements without a glance at the actual contents. This case shows why neither is a good idea.” If you are a federally funded research organization subject to the Bayh-Dole Act, it would be wise to review your IP assignment agreements for compliance with the Stanford decision.

The Bratz Are Back

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Did You Miss Me?

They suffered a legal whipping, but the Bratz are back with more attitude than ever.

A federal appeals court last week reversed a decision in Mattel v. MGA Entertainment handing ownership of the billion-dollar brand of high fashion, high attitude, multiethnic dolls to Mattel, home of archrival California beach blonde Barbie.

As reported earlier, after Mattel proved at trial that its former employee, Carter Bryant, came up with the concept, name, and preliminary sculpture and sketches for the Bratz while still employed by Mattel, Judge Stephen Larson dropped a legal bomb on the Bratz’ owner, MGA Entertainment, and ordered:

  • MGA to pay damages of $100 million for copyright and trademark infringement
  • MGA to transfer ownership of the Bratz dolls and their molds to Mattel
  • MGA to withdraw infringing product from store shelves
  • a receiver to monitor MGA’s finances and collect royalties pending full transfer of ownership to Mattel

However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals put the transfer on hold pending its review of the decision, and last week reversed major parts of that decision, leaving Mattel with little choice but to retry major portions, and probably the entire, trial from scratch.

The appeals court first questioned Judge Larson’s determination that Bryant’s employment agreement with Mattel transferred all his “ideas” to Mattel, including the name “Bratz” and the name of one of the original dolls, “Jade.” That error by itself would compel a retrial, the panel ruled. But even assuming that the trial judge’s reading of the contract was correct, the appeals court ruled that Judge Larson’s transfer of the entire Bratz trademark portfolio, which included dozens of other doll names, was excessive and unfair, because MGA had created a multi-billion dollar brand by virtue of its own added development, marketing, and investment since 2000. Rather, only those specific trademarks devised by Bryant while a Mattel employee (presumably just “Bratz” and “Jade”) could be transferred to Mattel, assuming that Bryant’s contract actually vested ownership in Mattel.

The appeals court also questioned Judge Larson’s determination that almost all Bratz dolls infringed Mattel’s copyrights in Bryant’s preliminary sketches and sculpture of the Bratz dolls. Again, the appeals court ruled that the trial judge was too sweeping in his interpretation of Bryant’s employment agreement with Mattel. The judge had determined that the agreement transferred ownership of any “design” devised by Bryant during his employment with Mattel. But it was also possible to interpret that the agreement only transferred ownership of designs devised during Bryant’s working hours and/or within his normal working duties as a collectible Barbie fashion and hair stylist, not a doll designer, and the appeals court ordered Judge Larson to make that distinction at the retrial. The appeals court further ruled that even if the agreement had clearly transferred ownership of the preliminary sketches and sculpture from Bryant to Mattel, it was an error for Larson to then rule that virtually all Bratz dolls infringed Mattel’s copyrights. The main similarities between the preliminary sketches and most of the later Bratz dolls was a certain “bratty” attitude, and big-headed, pouty appearance, however, both attitude and general appearance are “ideas,” and ideas are not protectable by copyright. In the retrial, the jury would need to find similarities among specific physical details of faces, hairstyles, body features, clothing, etc. in order to support a finding of copyright infringement.

Takeaway: MGA gets the Bratz back, and has announced plans to relaunch the line in August, but it is a somewhat bittersweet victory. The question is whether there is much left of the brand after almost two years in legal limbo. In addition, there is a second, separate trial pending in which Mattel has accused MGA of racketeering and theft of trade secrets. Which gets back to our original point: when accepting contributions of intellectual property, especially from independent contractors and new employees, know who originally created it, and where it really came from, and back it up with documentation.

Update, 4/25/11: A California jury last week gave the Bratz something to pout about, big time. In 2008, Barbie maker Mattel not only put the Bratz out of business but also won $100 million in damages against MGA, but that was overturned on appeal (above). After a retrial, the jury found that on the contrary not only had MGA not infringed Mattel’s rights, but that Mattel had stolen MGA’s trade secrets, and awarded MGA $89 million in damages. In addition, the jury ruled that Mattel’s theft was willful and malicious, raising the possibility that the court could award punitive damages that would increase total damages to three times the initial verdict. In doing so, the jury implicitly rejected Mattel’s argument that all IP rights in the Bratz belonged to Mattel because Bratz designer Carter Bryant developed the names and images while still a Mattel employee, and subject to an employment agreement that transferred all his ideas and designs to Mattel. However, the jury’s precise rationale was not apparent from the jury verdict sheet. Despite incurring an estimated $400 million in legal expenses to date, a bloodied but not bowed Mattel has declared that it will make a motion for a retrial, and reserved its right to appeal. So take that!

Startup Corner: Tips To Protect Your IP

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Intellectual property and other intangible assets constitute 80% of the market capitalization of S&P 500 companies. Nowadays, it is as critical for companies to properly maintain their patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets as it is to maintain their plant and equipment.

Below is a quick checklist of eight items your company should follow to protect and preserve its IP.

1. Implement Intellectual Property Ownership Agreements

For most forms of intellectual property, the default rule is that whoever created it, owns it, so have all employees sign employment agreements and independent contractors sign service or consulting agreements that stipulate all intellectual property they create while working for your company is either a work made for hire, or if not, that the creator automatically assigns ownership of its IP to you as of the time of its creation. For similar reasons, on joint projects that could result in patentable inventions, have co-researchers sign agreements assigning ownership of all IP to your company, or if that is not possible, specifying the terms of co-ownership of any patents. Having these agreements in place will save you from a claim that someone else owns valuable IP that you paid for.

2. Put All Licenses and Assignments in Writing

You should not allow other parties to use your inventions, creative content, software, logos, confidential information, etc., nor should you use theirs, without a license agreement in place. If there is a dispute, then at best it would be hard to prove who was allowed to do what for how much money, and at worst, you may lose ownership of your IP in part or in whole. Furthermore, where ownership in patents, copyrights, or trademarks are transferred (an assignment), then often a signed writing is required to make it legally binding.

3. Preserve Confidentiality of Trade Secrets

Trade secrets are valuable commercial information or formulas that maintain their protected status only so long as their owner takes reasonable measures to preserve their confidentiality. Therefore, companies should implement policies that require employees to preserve confidentiality of confidential information, and follow good housekeeping procedures, including: placing “confidential” or “proprietary” stamps on documents; requiring employees to sign nondisclosure agreements; requiring password protection for all computer-stored trade secrets; restricting physical access to areas containing trade secret information and implementing sign-out log procedures; and conducting exit interviews with departing employees. And before release of any valuable confidential information to an outside party, require the recipient to sign a nondisclosure agreement that requires the recipient: 1) to take at least reasonable steps to maintain confidentiality of the information; and 2) to only utilize it for the purposes allowed in the agreement.

4. Register Important Copyrights

Original, creative works such as text, images, music, websites, and software come under copyright as soon as they are fixed in a tangible medium, but in order to get meaningful enforcement capability against infringement, registration with the US Copyright Office is advisable.

5. Register Important Trademarks

Words, logos, or jingles that identify your company’s goods and services often qualify as trademarks. Some degree of protection exists even without registration, under the doctrine of common law trademark. But as with copyrights, in order to receive the maximum degree of protection, registration with the US Patent and Trademark Office is advisable. Furthermore, purchase all domain names that your company is likely to use in the future, including common variations.

6. Challenge Infringing Uses of Your IP

Perform periodic Google and eBay searches to make sure that others are not misappropriating or abusing your company’s copyrights or trademarks. If evidence of infringement is found, consult with your attorney about the advisability of a cease and desist letter or even a lawsuit. Especially in the case of trademarks, ignorance is not bliss — it can lead to forfeit of your IP.

7. Use Copyright and Trademark Notices

Use standard copyright notices, such as “© 2010 Your Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved,” for text, graphics, music, software, websites, and other original creative content, and standard trademark notices, such as “® Your Company, Inc.” or “®” (for registered trademarks) or “™ Your Company, Inc.” or “™” (for common law trademarks) next to words or logos that identify your goods or services. Better yet, have your attorney work with your marketing people to draft comprehensive guidelines for proper use of copyright and trademark notices for all products, product packaging, and company communications. This shows the outside world that you are knowledgeable and vigilant about your intellectual property rights, and also eliminates an “innocent infringement” defense in enforcement litigation. Or as Ali G says when pitching his idea for an ice cream glove to a venture capitalist, “That’s a ©, which means you can’t nick it.”

8. Post Effective Rules for Your Website

Website Terms of Service and Privacy Policies are important means of limiting your company’s legal risk and earning your customers’ trust. Although technically not IP protection devices, they are critical legal safeguards, especially for companies that engage in e-commerce.

Research Licensing Corner: License Agreement Trumps Patent Law

Monday, January 25th, 2010

If patent law says that a joint owner of a patent does not have to pay royalties to its co-owners, but a license agreement says it does, who wins?

The license agreement, according to the federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. (Original decision available here by entering case number 08-1351.) It recently affirmed a trial court’s order for Xenon Pharmaceuticals to pay $300,000 in royalties to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (“WARF”).

Xenon and WARF had jointly filed for a patent on a cholesterol-lowering enzyme called Stearoyl CoA Desaturase (“SCD”). WARF made Xenon an exclusive licensee of WARF’s patent rights, and in exchange, Xenon promised to commercially develop SCD and pay WARF a percentage of any product sales, royalties, or sublicenses under the WARF license.

Xenon then entered a sublicense with Novartis, but tried to get clever on WARF by saying that under the rule of concurrent ownership in Section 262 of Title 35 of the US Code, it did not have to pay any royalties to WARF, because Section 262 said, “each of the joint owners of a patent may make, use, offer to sell, or sell the patented invention… without the consent of and without accounting to the other owners.”

WARF then sued Xenon, and replied that Section 262 was prefaced by the phrase, “In the absence of any agreement to the contrary…” which the license agreement obviously was.

The trial and appellate courts both agreed that Xenon’s argument was too clever by half, and ordered Xenon to pay WARF $300,000 in royalties on Xenon’s revenues from the Novartis sublicense.

An interesting sidelight in this case: Xenon also claimed sole ownership of a set of therapeutic compounds arising from SCD, claiming that the WARF researcher who worked on the project had assigned his rights to Xenon via an invention assignment agreement. However, unlike Stanford’s invention assignment agreement, WARF’s assignment agreement had beaten Xenon to the punch, successfully transferring its researcher’s patent rights to WARF, so there was nothing left for him to assign to Xenon.

Takeaway: in a collaborative research arrangement that may result in a patentable invention, it is critical for the parties to draft a license or other agreement addressing development rights and revenue sharing, or else Section 262 will allow every party to strike its own separate deal.

Why IP Assignment Agreements Matter, Part 2

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Beat on the Bratz, Beat on the Bratz...

A cautionary tale for start-ups, or any company that deals in intellectual property, is offered up by the Barbie versus Bratz tussle, otherwise known as Mattel v. MGA Entertainment in federal District Court in Riverside, California.

If you have a pre-teen daughter, you can skip this paragraph, because you already know that Bratz are the pouty-lipped, multi-ethnic, high attitude, high fashion rivals to Mattel’s perennial favorite leggy California beach blonde. Sales of the Bratz line have have topped $3.1 billion since their 2001 launch, and have also spawned several movies, a television series, video games, and even a line of diamond jewelry.

The crux of the case was Mattel’s allegation that Bratz designer Carter Bryant came up with the idea, name, and many of the original Bratz sketches while he was still employed as a Barbie designer at Mattel. Mattel claimed that (like most companies that create intellectual property) it requires employees to sign agreements assigning all their rights to any IP created during their employment to Mattel, that Bryant had signed such an agreement, and that Bryant had created Bratz while under Mattel’s employment.

Unfortunately for MGA, Mattel proved its allegations, which meant that not only did MGA lose the case, it lost its entire multi-billion dollar product line! Trial judge Stephen Larson entered orders which among other things:

  • transferred ownership of the Bratz dolls and their molds to Mattel
  • required MGA to withdraw infringing product from retail shelves
  • appointed a receiver to monitor MGA’s finances and collect royalties from sales of Bratz products pending full transfer of ownership to Mattel

In short, a devastating turn of events for the once flush MGA. Now the Bratz dolls really have something to pout about. They got a legal b*-slapping from Barbie.

The transfer of ownership was supposed to occur this month, but an eleventh hour ruling from the the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals put a hold on the transfer until it completes a full review of the trial court’s orders.

Takeaway: when accepting contributions of intellectual property, especially from independent contractors and new employees, know who originally created it and where it really came from, and back it up with documentation.

Why IP Assignment Agreements Matter, Part 1

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Clients often ask their attorneys why they spend so much time arguing about seemingly trivial differences in contract wording.  Isn’t it just interchangeable generic boilerplate gobbledygook?

And attorneys often reply that slightly different wording in even basic legal agreements can yield radically different real world results.

Stanford University found that out the hard way when the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Stanford v. Roche dismissed its $200 million patent infringement lawsuit against Roche Molecular Systems because of sloppy wording in a Stanford researcher’s invention assignment agreement.

Patent rights initially belong to the inventor, which is why all companies engaged in research and development should require employees and independent contractors to sign written agreements assigning all intellectual property rights in their work product immediately upon invention.

Stanford’s agreement stated, “I agree to assign or confirm in writing to Stanford and/or Sponsors that right, title and interest in … such inventions as required by Contracts or Grants.”  Which looks okay at first glance, but if you read it again, you realize that the employee has only agreed to assign ownership of the invention at some time in the future.

Mark Holodniy, one of the researchers on a Stanford project to use polymerase chain reactions (PCR) to measure HIV concentration in blood plasma, signed that agreement.  Holodniy worked with researchers at biotech company Cetus to learn more about PCR, but Cetus required him to sign a non-disclosure agreement that said he, “will assign and do[es] hereby assign to CETUS, [his] right, title and interest in each of the ideas, inventions, and improvements” that he developed, “as a consequence of” his work at Cetus.

Since Holodniy had not yet actually assigned his rights to Stanford via the invention assignment agreement, he wound up assigning them to Cetus via the non-disclosure agreement, which was worded in the present tense.

The PCR hit the fan when Stanford sued Roche (which had acquired Cetus’ PCR business) for infringement of its PCR patents.  The court ruled that Roche could not infringe what it already owned, and threw out the lawsuit.

Takeaway: A lot of folks DIY basic contracts like employment agreements by cutting and pasting poorly drafted templates from the Internet.  A lot of other folks sign non-disclosure and similar basic agreements without a glance at the actual contents.  This case shows why neither is a good idea.

Update, 11/9/10: The Supreme Court has decided to grant certiorari and hear Stanford’s appeal of the decision. We will continue to follow this case of great importance to the university research community.