Archive for the ‘Intellectual Property’ Category

What Is A Reasonable Royalty?

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Did somebody say royalty?

What is a reasonable royalty rate for licensed intellectual property?

According to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, it is not 25%–at least not as a rule of thumb.

The U.S. Patent Act requires that damages in a successful patent infringement lawsuit equal the reasonable royalty that a licensee would pay a licensor in a hypothetical license negotiation at the time the infringement began.

In Uniloc USA, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp., Uniloc prevailed at trial in its patent infringement claim and was awarded damages of $388 million, based in part on its expert witness’s testimony that 25% of Microsoft’s expected profits on its Office software suite was a reasonable baseline from which to calculate patent royalties. The infringed invention was a product activation key designed to deter illegal software copying.

The 25% rule of thumb starts with the infringer’s gross profit margin (profits divided by nets sales), multiplies that by 25%, then multiplies the resulting royalty rate by the infringer’s net sales from the infringing products, to calculate the patent owner’s damages. For example, if the present value of net sales of an invention is $6, and the present value of manufacturing expenses is $4, the gross profit margin is 33.3% (6 – 4/ 6), and the 25% rule royalty rate would be one-quarter of that, or 8.3% of net sales. The initial royalty rate is often adjusted upwards or downwards, according to the 15 factors detailed in the 1970 case, Georgia-Pacific Corp. v. U.S. Plywood Corp.

On appeal, Uniloc argued that academic studies had proven that the 25% rule of thumb was supported by evidence that patent royalties negotiated in the real world averaged around 25% of profits.

The CAFC conceded that it had tolerated the 25% rule of thumb in cases where the parties had not contested it, but ultimately overturned Uniloc’s damages award on the grounds that to be admissible, a general theory must be sufficiently tied to the facts of the case, however Uniloc’s expert had not laid the necessary groundwork to introduce the 25% rule of thumb in that case.

More broadly, the CAFC said the 25% rule failed because: 1) it did not account for the importance of the patent to the product in which it was incorporated; 2) it did not account for the difference in market power and risk assumed by the parties; and 3) it is essentially arbitrary, and does not fit within the model of a hypothetical negotiation assumed to occur prior to a finding of infringement.

So what then is a “reasonable royalty” for licensed IP?

The CAFC endorsed three of the 15 Georgia-Pacific factors for calculating a reasonable patent royalty: looking at royalties paid or received in licenses for the patent or in comparable licenses, and looking at the portion of profit that is customarily allowed in the particular business for use of the invention or similar inventions. But even these must be tied to the facts of the particular case.

By way of reference, a frequently cited rule of thumb for calculating a fair trademark royalty rate is 10% to 25% of the licensee’s expected gross profit margin, depending on the type of goods, the size of the market, and the strength of the mark. In the same ballpark as patent law’s deposed 25% rule of thumb, but with more flexibility to allow calibration of the licensed IP’s actual contribution to the profitability of the product that incorporates it.

Licensor Recovery of Attorneys’ Fees in Bankruptcy

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Photo Courtesy tristam sparks under the cc 2.0 license

The only thing worse for a licensor than losing money when its licensee files for bankruptcy is paying attorneys’ fees on top of that to stop the bleeding.

Two of the most common bankruptcy proceedings that licensor creditors get involved in are: 1) hearings related to the licensee’s attempt to assume an executory license agreement; and 2) lawsuits against the licensor to recover so-called preferential transfer payments from the licensee.

But can a clever licensor recover attorneys’ fees incurred in post-petition bankruptcy proceedings, if it had the foresight to include a well-drafted attorneys’ fee provision in its boilerplate license agreement?

Since a 2007 Supreme Court decision, the answer has been “maybe,” which was a big improvement over the previous answer of “almost never.”

Until 2007, there were two hurdles against a licensor creditor recovering its attorneys’ fees in a bankruptcy proceeding. The first was that many courts invalidated attorneys’ fee provisions to the extent that they applied to bankruptcy proceedings, arguing that the Bankruptcy Code had a general policy to invalidate contractual clauses that were triggered by bankruptcy. The second was that some courts interpreted the Bankruptcy Code to prohibit recovery of attorneys’ fees by unsecured creditors under any circumstances.

In 2007, the US Supreme Court removed the first hurdle in Travelers Casualty & Surety Co. v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which held that the Bankruptcy Code did not contain a blanket prohibition on recovery of attorneys’ fees for bankruptcy related proceedings, as long as the attorneys’ fees provision is valid under state law.

But the Travelers case did not address the second hurdle, and there is currently a split among various courts whether unsecured creditors can recover attorneys’ fees even pursuant to a contractual provision valid under state law. So far, the Second Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Sixth Circuit federal appeals courts have permitted such recovery, while the First Circuit and Eighth Circuit (in pre-Travelers opinions) have not.

Sigh, so confusing. What is a licensor to do? Well of course, put attorneys’ fee recovery language in your boilerplate license agreement. The worst that can happen is the court says no.

A starter attorneys’ fee provision might read as follows:

“If any legal action, arbitration, or other proceeding is brought under or in relation to this Agreement, including but not limited to any legal action, arbitration, or proceeding under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, then in addition to any other relief to which the Licensor is entitled, if the Licensor is the successful or prevailing party, then the Licensor is also entitled to recover, and the Licensee shall pay, all: (a) reasonable attorneys’ fees of the Licensor; (b) court costs; and (c) expenses, even if not recoverable by law as court costs (including, without limitation, all fees, taxes, costs and expenses incident to arbitration, appellate, bankruptcy and post-judgment proceedings); incurred in that action, arbitration, or proceeding and all appellate proceedings. For purposes of this Section, the term ‘attorneys’ fees’ includes, without limitation, paralegal fees, investigative fees, expert witness fees, administrative costs, disbursements, and all other charges billed by the attorney to the Licensor.”

Adjust the above to be valid under the state law that governs the license agreement. Check whether that state law makes the provision reciprocal, by deeming that if an agreement grants one party the right to recover attorneys’ fees, then the other party is automatically entitled to recover its attorneys’ fees under like circumstances. Then cross your fingers.

Dealing With a Licensor’s Bankruptcy

Monday, June 21st, 2010

In January, we explained how a licensee’s bankruptcy looks from a licensor’s point of view.

What about a licensor’s bankruptcy from a licensee’s point of view?

The landscape is quite similar, except that in the first scenario, the main concern of the licensor is usually whether it will be paid by the bankrupt licensee, while in the second scenario, the main concern of the licensee is usually whether it will continue to receive the benefit of the license from the bankrupt licensor.

Thanks to a revision of the Bankruptcy Code, the licensee can usually continue to receive most of the benefits of the license even against the wishes of the licensor, except if it is a trademark license.

A bankrupt licensor gets to make the same choices about an executory license agreement as does a bankrupt licensee– to assume it, to assume and assign (sell) it, or to reject it.

Assumption is usually good for the licensee because it retains the benefit of the license. The licensor will elect to assume if it thinks that the license is a revenue producer that is beneficial to its Chapter 11 reorganization efforts, or if it decides to sell the license to a third party as part of a Chapter 7 or Chapter 11 asset sale.

The licensor’s decision to reject is normally bad for the licensee, unless the licensor’s performance had become so erratic that the licensee wanted to end the relationship anyway.

However, the licensor’s decision to reject does not need to be the end of the story. The licensee can either: 1) accept the rejection and file a claim for damages caused by termination of the license (and probably receive no more than the proverbial ten cents on the dollar); or 2) elect to continue receiving the benefits of the license under Section 365(n) of the Bankruptcy Code, the so-called Intellectual Property Bankruptcy Act of 1988 that was enacted to prevent hardship to licensees when a license is a core part of their business.

If the licensee chooses to retain its rights under Section 365(n), then it can continue to use the licensed intellectual property as it existed on the filing date of the licensor’s bankruptcy for the remainder of the license term and any renewals, however it cannot force the licensor to provide new or affirmative performance. For example, a licensee of software can continue using the software as it existed on the bankruptcy filing date, but cannot compel the licensor to provide updates, maintenance, or indemnification against third party claims, even if required per the license terms.

The licensee’s election of Section 365(n) comes at a cost. It must continue to pay royalties per the original terms of the license with no offsets for the licensor’s non-performance of its affirmative obligations.

But as mentioned above, there is a big loophole in Section 365(n)’s protection of licensees. It only applies to licenses of “intellectual property” as defined in the Bankruptcy Code, which includes trade secrets, patents, copyrights, and mask works, but NOT trademarks. The reasons are somewhat murky, but it appears that since licensor quality control is an indispensable requirement for trademark licenses, Congress was concerned that trademark licenses were inherently incompatible with the “no affirmative obligations” concept of Section 365(n), so excepted them from that section’s shield. But the legislative history also hints that bankruptcy judges should have discretion to shield trademark licenses from rejection in the interests of justice. Also, where the trademark license is inseparable from associated copyright or patent licenses to a particular technology, the licensee might be able to retain its trademark license. But otherwise, the licensee of a rejected trademark license is probably out of luck.

A final note. A licensee that wants to terminate the license relationship cannot invoke the licensor’s bankruptcy, even if the license agreement stipulates that the licensor’s bankruptcy is a default that justifies termination. Bankruptcy law overrides such “ipso facto” provisions, and requires licensees to continue performing (including paying royalties) under the license agreement in the interim between the licensor’s filing for bankruptcy and its election to assume or reject, except if the licensee makes a motion and gets a court order terminating the license.

Fashion Licensing Corner: Legal Protection for Fashion Designs

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Fashion Pirate

This is truly the age of Fast Fashion.

Within days of an innovative new design appearing on a fashion runway in a global metropolis, that design is tweaked, manufactured in China, and loaded on the racks of Forever 21, H&M, Uniqlo, and other fast fashion retailers for under $50 in suburban malls around the world.

Can designers do anything to stop knockoffs? Under existing US intellectual property law, not much, but that could change.

Below is a thumbnail guide to US and European law protecting fashion designs.

The two most relevant forms of intellectual property protection for fashion designers are copyright and trademark law.

Current US Copyright Law

US copyright law protects “original expressions,” such as text or graphics, but not functional elements. Fashion accessories such as belt buckles or jewelry are considered decorative non-functional items that are eligible for copyright protection, while the shape and silhouette of apparel are considered to be “utilitarian” and therefore not eligible for copyright protection. Accordingly, copyright normally protects only the completely decorative elements of apparel, such as graphic images or patterns (including stitching) on fabric. Even then it is often easy to design around any potential copyright infringement claim. The standard of copyright infringement is substantial similarity between the original and the knockoff, specifically whether the knockoff has the same aesthetic appeal as the original to an ordinary observer. But if the knockoff has a distinguishable variation from the original, and is not merely a slavish copy, it will not infringe the original.

Proposed Amendment to US Copyright Law

The above state of affairs would change under the proposed Design Piracy Prohibition Act (HR Bill No. 2196), which would grant copyright protection for a term of three years to most varieties of apparel, handbag, and eyeglass frame designs (defined to include “the appearance as a whole” of an article of apparel) registered with the Register of Copyrights, and impose liability on designs that copy them, except if the accused design: 1) is original and not closely and substantially similar in overall visual appearance to a protected design; 2) merely reflects a trend; or 3) is the result of independent creation. The penalty for copying would be the greater of $250,000 in the aggregate or $5 per copy, and secondary liability could be imposed on parties that benefit from the infringements, including sellers and distributors.

The arguments for and against the bill echo the usual open source versus closed source IP arguments. Supporters of the bill, including many high-end fashion designers, argue that the ability of designers to profit from their designs is the greatest driver of fashion innovation, while opponents argue that the free exchange of ideas has always been the greatest driver of fashion innovation, and in any case, it is unlikely that a purchaser of a $100 Diane von Furstenberg knockoff would pay 10 times that amount for an original if the bill were enacted.

The debate may be moot. Similar bills have been introduced in the previous two sessions of Congress without passage, and no companion bill to HR 2196 has been introduced in the Senate during this session of Congress, so it has slight prospect for enactment in the near future. Update, 8/11/10: Senator Charles Schumer has introduced a fashion design copyright bill in the Senate (Senate Bill No. 3728), that he hopes to have enacted during the current session of Congress.

European Copyright Law

The European Community has already enacted an even higher level of IP protection for designers under the Community Design System than that proposed by the Design Piracy Prohibition Act. The Community Design System gives exclusive rights to the creator of a design (including but not limited to fashion designs) for three years in the case of unregistered designs and five years in the case of registered designs (renewable every five years to a maximum of 25 years). Some individual EC countries such as France have even more stringent laws. However, while they may disagree about the reasons, many analysts agree that the Community Design System has done little to deter knockoffs. In fact, three of the world’s biggest “fast fashion” retailers — H&M, Topshop, and Zara — are all headquartered in Europe.

US Trademark Law

While the purpose of copyright law is to protect original creations, the purpose of trademark law is to prevent consumer confusion as to the source or quality of goods and services. Thus, trademark law primarily protects the integrity of a designer’s name. Trademark law can also protect a design element of apparel, but not a single season design innovation, rather a design element that has become associated with a particular designer over time such that it is the designer’s “trademark.” Think for example of the Burberry beige, black, and red tartan pattern, or the Louis Vuitton gold “LV” initials and geometric shapes against a dark brown background. But in the case of Wal-Mart Stores v. Samarra Bros. Inc., the US Supreme Court ruled that there is a higher evidentiary hurdle to establish trademark protection for an apparel design element compared to a word or a packaging design trademarks. Conversely, it is comparatively easy to secure trademark protection for the words or logo on a fashion label. Which explains why many famous fashion designers often use their “label” as a prominent design feature of their fashions. They are fully aware that copyright law is unlikely to prevent knockoffs of the cut or silhouette of their designs, but that trademark law is likely to punish pirates of their names. The standard of trademark infringement is whether the challenged trademark (label, packaging, design element) is likely to confuse consumers that the product or service was produced by or originated with the owner of the accusing trademark.

Takeaway: unless copyright law changes, it will be difficult for fashion designers to knock out knockoffs, but trademark law gives them plenty of ammunition to sink label pirates.

The Google Dilemma and the China Syndrome

Monday, May 3rd, 2010
Posters courtesy http://chineseposters.net, IISH, and Stefan R. Landsberger Collections

Google was the first, but it probably will not be the last.

New rules went into effect in China on May 1 that require foreign vendors of information technology devices to disclose proprietary information if they want to sell their products to the Chinese government.

Now Cisco, Symantec, and Microsoft will need to make the same difficult choice as Google did — to continue participating in and benefiting from the miraculous economic growth of the Chinese economy, or to protect their intellectual property from theft and their customers from cyber espionage by hackers based in China.

Under the regulations, vendors of secure network routers, smart cards, anti-spam software, firewall software and other products involved in protecting digital data must meet new technology standards before being certified for sale to government agencies. However, the certification testing will be performed by government-connected testing laboratories, and as part of the testing, the vendors must disclose encryption algorithms, software source code, and design specifications that, for many of the products, are regarded as sensitive trade secrets.

The Chinese government argues that the certification and testing process is necessary in order to protect the Chinese government from viruses and hackers. Officials have also previously justified the new rules on the grounds that they would assist the fledgling Chinese digital security industry. According to one Chinese official, foreign firms currently control 70% of that market in China. Chinese officials have also argued that other nations have similar disclosure and certification programs for digital security products.

But the companies and their home governments argue that disclosure of their proprietary algorithms and source code to the Chinese government, which is also trying to promote its domestic digital security industry, amounts to an unfair trade policy. A further concern (although not officially acknowledged) appears to be that possession of such information would permit Chinese government-connected hackers to gain a “pass key” to the networks of political dissidents and economic competitors. And the knowledge that the Chinese government has such a pass key would dampen purchases by other foreign governments.

The dilemma now faced by foreign digital security vendors echoes that faced by Google, which was forced to choose between access to a market of 380 million computer users, or exposing both its intellectual property and its users to cyber espionage. Google’s decision to move its offices from Beijing to Hong Kong also not coincidentally removed direct competition for Google’s domestic Chinese search engine competitor, Baidu.

The Chinese government has significantly scaled back the certification program since it was first announced. According to an article that ran in the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun in September, 2008, the original certification program would have required disclosure of proprietary code even for consumer goods such as flat-panel televisions, and for sales to the Chinese retail market as well as to the government. Those rules were set to go into effect in May, 2009, but after vigorous protests from foreign governments, the effective date was postponed for one year, and the scope was narrowed to only goods procured by the Chinese government.

Similarly, the Chinese government has recently deleted the most controversial provisions of another program that would have required the Chinese government to give preference to Chinese companies for purchases of all information technology products.

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.

Patents in the Information Age: Bilski Preview

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

The Supreme Court’s imminent decision in the case of Bilski v. Kappos will recalibrate the definition of patentable subject matter for the Information Age, and is likely to be a landmark case in the history of intellectual property law.

35 USC Section 101 requires that as a threshold matter, for an invention to receive a patent, it must be, “… a new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter…”

Courts have interpreted the Section 101 language to implicitly exclude laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas, since they are basic tools of scientific and technological work over which no one should have a monopoly.

While that test worked well in an age when most inventions were or acted upon tangible items such as chemicals or machines, it does not work so well when many valuable innovations are intangibles like software, but not akin to laws of nature or abstract ideas.

The narrow issue at stake in Bilski is an application for a so-called business method patent proposing a series of steps to utilize futures contracts to reduce economic risk in fixed-price electric utility contracts.

The broader issue in Bilski is how close a nexus an invention must have to operations or effects in the physical world to meet the threshold requirements of Section 101.

The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in In re Bilski that under existing case law interpretations of Section 101, “processes” do not include “laws of nature, natural phenomenon, [or] abstract ideas,” but rather would need to: 1) be “tied to” a particular machine or apparatus; or 2) transform a particular physical article or substance into a different state or thing. It then ruled that the Bilski business method did not pass this test, because: 1) the application did not claim the invention was tied to a particular apparatus or machine; and 2) the invention did not transform any physical article to a different state or thing, but only manipulated abstract financial data and legal obligations.

It is unknown whether the Supreme Court will adopt the Federal Circuit’s formulation of the Section 101 test, but many observers believe that the Bilski business method will probably be held non-patentable whatever the ultimate test. (And, contrary to many media reports, the Court could easily deny the Bilski invention without undercutting the rationale of all existing business method patents.)

The more difficult task for the Supreme Court will be to set forth a formulation of the Section 101 test that while consistent with existing case law, also protects economically important innovations of the Information Age, such as software, that require great innovation and yield great economic benefits, but do not at their core operate in the physical, tangible world.

At oral argument before the Supreme Court, the attorney for the Patent and Trademark Office, which opposed the Bilski application, nevertheless asked the justices not to disturb existing patent protection for software and medical diagnostic procedures, but some justices appeared to be struggling with just where to draw the line in a way that respected prior case law without stifling future innovation.

The Licensing Law Blog will post a full analysis of the Bilski decision when it is released.

Who Owns Life?

Friday, March 19th, 2010

Those who are not patent attorneys may be surprised to learn that it is possible to patent the human genetic code.

In fact, approximately 20% of all human genes are patented.

The US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has granted patents on genes and their DNA building blocks since the early 1980s, but this practice has recently reentered public awareness due to a lawsuit (Association for Molecular Pathology v. US Patent & Trademark Office) by a breast cancer survivor against Myriad Genetics, a company that has obtained patents on two genes closely associated with increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2. These patents make Myriad the sole provider of tests to detect those genes, at a cost of over $3,000 per test.

Patents give their owners exclusive rights to use, manufacture, or sell the patented invention for 20 years from filing of the application. In order to qualify for a patent, an invention must be new, useful, and non-obvious to an expert in the field. However, patents cannot be granted on laws of nature or theoretical phenomena, for example the Theory of Relativity. Prior to the 1980s, the PTO considered that life forms were equivalent to the laws of nature, and therefore not patentable subject matter.

However, the Supreme Court ruled in Diamond vs. Chakrabarty (1980) that a scientist could obtain a patent on a lab-created bacterium that could consume oil slicks, on the grounds that the organism did not occur in nature, and therefore was a “manufacture” or “composition of matter” under 35 USC Section 101, and not equivalent to a law of nature. (more…)

5 Minute FAQ: When Is An Agreement a Contract?

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

A contract is an agreement that is legally binding, and can be enforced in court.

Q: So what are the magic ingredients that make an agreement a legally binding contract?

First, there must be a concrete, bona fide offer, for example, “I will sell you those shoes for $25”.  But if the seller had said instead, “I am not selling those shoes, but if I did I would probably sell them for $25,” then no contract can result.  (This is similar to the language used in a letter of intent, which is also not legally enforceable.)

Second, there must be an acceptance that matches the offer on at least the main terms, such that there is a “meeting of the minds”—“I will buy those shoes for $25.”  If there isn’t a match, then the reply to the offer might be considered a counteroffer (“I will buy those shoes for $20”) which requires its own acceptance.  Note that an offer can be accepted not only with words (oral or written), but also with actions, for example handing over the $25.

Another necessary ingredient is “consideration,” not in the sense of the parties being nice to each other, but in the sense of each party bargaining for a benefit, including the ever popular “money.”  Which sounds like it would always apply, because who makes an offer for which he does not seek a benefit in return?  But for example, an offer of a gift (“I will give you $1 million because you are a lovely person”), even if promptly accepted with a hearty “yeah baby!” would not “normally” be legally binding, because there is no bargained-for benefit to the gift-giver.  “Normally,” because there are exceptions where offers that lack consideration can still become legally binding.

Finally, some kinds of agreements must be in a signed writing to qualify as a contract.

Q: In some cases? You mean oral agreements can be legally binding?

Yes, if there is a valid offer, acceptance, and consideration, then most oral agreements qualify as contracts.  Certain kinds of important agreements are required to be in a signed writing.  In fact, the laws of every state except Louisiana require five kinds of agreements to be in a signed writing: 1) agreements to pay the debt of another; 2) agreements to sell or transfer real property; 3) agreements to get married; 4) agreements that cannot be completely performed within one year; and 5) agreements for the sale of goods (not services) worth more than $500.  These laws are descended from the English Statute of Frauds enacted in 1677.

In addition, assignments (transfers of ownership) of patents, copyrights, and federal trademarks are all required by law to be in a signed writing.  This often applies to exclusive licenses of patents, copyrights and trademarks, because they are often deemed equivalent to transfers of ownership. Also, a work made for hire contract with a non-employee must be in a signed writing.

Q: So oral agreements are okay?! Doesn’t that contradict what you are always saying?

I said oral agreements could be legally binding, but they are definitely not okay.  Trust me when I say— in case of problems, there will always be a conflict over just what was agreed to.  Any agreement concerning anything of value should always be in writing.  I wholeheartedly agree with the quote variously attributed to Yogi Berra and Samuel Goldwyn: “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

Q: Can a series of e-mails discussing deal terms be considered a contract?

Absolutely.  And under the federal Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce (E-SIGN) Act and the largely complementary Uniform Electronic Transactions Act enacted in 47 states and the District of Columbia, an electronic signature in a business or commercial record will be given the same legal effect as a handwritten signature if it is: 1) a sound, symbol, or process; 2) attached to or logically associated with an electronic record; and 3) made with the intent to sign the electronic record.  So an e-mail agreement could be legally binding even if it concerned one of the five “Statute of Frauds” categories of agreements.  Typically, the problem will be figuring out whether in the back and forth of e-mails there was ever truly a meeting of the minds—an offer of terms that was substantially accepted by the other side.

Q: Putting this in the context of license agreements—are so-called “clickwrap” and “shrinkwrap” software license agreements legally binding?

Yes, they can be.  If the licensor made the terms of the license clear and visible to the licensee, and gave the licensee an opportunity to manifest its acceptance, either by removing the shrinkwrap on the install disc or clicking a “Yes, I Accept These Terms” button on a website before downloading the software, then the licensee will be bound by the license terms.  On the other hand, courts have ruled that where the license terms were on a submerged screen not visible from the download screen, then the downloader is not legally bound.  Similarly, if the license terms were not clearly and completely visible to the buyer/licensee before he removed the shrinkwrap, then he would not be bound.  I will examine some of these cases in greater detail in future posts.

Fashion Licensing Corner: Japanese Designers Need to Protect, Monetize Their Ideas

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

日本語訳:日本の時代を先取りする創作性の高いファッションデサインは世界の注目を集めても、海外でコピーされ、販売されるせいで、日本のファッション業界は多くの利益とビジネスチャンスを失っているということです。ビジネス戦略には知的財産の保護と海外で展開を含めるべきです。

In the United States, we tend to think of Japan as a high-tech, exporting powerhouse.

That is certainly true in the automotive and consumer electronics industries, where company size and manufacturing prowess are indispensable.

It is not as true for small and medium sized companies, where ideas and creativity, not industrial manufacturing, are the predominant ingredients in the value added mix.

Exhibit A: an interesting New York Times article, which notes that Japan is home to some of the most creative, cutting edge fashion brands in the world, but those small companies do not have the know-how or infrastructure to export.  Rather, Western retail chains “buy up bagfuls of the latest hits. The designs are then whisked overseas to be reworked, resized, stitched together and sold under Western labels.”

Japan earned a mere $416 million from clothing and apparel related exports in 2008, compared to $3.68 billion for US apparel companies, and a staggering $113 billion for Chinese clothing exports.

According to experts quoted in the Times article, in order to turn the situation around, “Japan’s fashion industry needs…more concrete help in marketing and setting up shop overseas….The government could also play a larger role helping Japanese labels protect their intellectual property rights, they say.”

In my opinion, the most effective means for Japanese fashion labels to protect their IP would be to negotiate license and/or distribution agreements with partners in foreign countries.  Copyright law is usually not an effective means to protect against copying fashion designs, and trademark law would not help unless the labels were already selling in the foreign markets.

Exhibit B: a failure to protect intellectual property rights has had a severe economic impact on another field where Japan is a global creative leader—animation or “anime” (アニメ in Japanese).  Anime enjoys growing worldwide popularity for its complex, creative art and storytelling, but a combination of absurdly high prices for legitimate DVDs and a failure to challenge massive Internet piracy has had a devastating economic impact not only on foreign distributors of authorized anime, but on the Japanese anime studios as well.

Japan’s automotive and consumer electronics industries have thrived in part because they learned how to export and how to protect their intellectual property in foreign markets. (Japanese companies are the largest foreign filers of US patent applications.)  Small and medium Japanese IP companies can follow their example and prosper.

Coming soon: an article explaining how small and medium foreign businesses can start doing business in the United States.