We have said it before, because it is true. Seemingly small differences in contract wording lead to major differences in real-world consequences.
This rule especially applies when the contractual wording is in a foreign language, as Alberto-Culver, the makers of Alberto VO5 hair care products, discovered when they lost an appeal of a breach of trademark license case which turned on a Japanese legal phrase that Alberto-Culver did not completely understand and was not otherwise defined at the time of drafting the license agreement.
With licensing increasingly utilized as a tool of expansion into international markets, the case is a good lesson in what NOT to do.
In 1980, for lump-sum royalty payments of $10 million, Alberto-Culver gave Sunstar a 99 year exclusive license to manufacture and sell hair care products in Japan under the VO5 trademarks, after which Sunstar would own the registrations. The license agreement had appendices showing which VO5 logos and marks Sunstar could use. The agreement said that Sunstar’s license would have the status of a “senyoushiyouken” (専用使用権), which translates literally from Japanese as “exclusive use right.” But the license did not include an English definition of “senyoushiyouken.” Under the Japanese Trademark Act, the “senyoushiyouken” is exclusive even against the trademark owner, and the holder has other rights nearly equal to the owner, including the right to sue infringers in its own name.
Sunstar clashed repeatedly with Alberto-Culver over its ability to modernize the VO5 logos for the Japanese market. Against Alberto-Culver’s wishes, Sunstar went ahead with updated logos once in 1989, which led to a negotiated settlement with payment of an additional $10 million by Sunstar. When it happened a second time 10 years later, Sunstar refused to negotiate, arguing that under Japanese law, a licensee with “senyoushiyouken” status is legally entitled to use a registered trademark with minor format changes. For example, Article 50.1 of the Japanese Trademark Act, which deals with rescission of unused registered trademarks, recognizes that holders of “senyoushiyouken” are authorized to use:
“…a registered trademark (including a trademark deemed identical from common sense perspective with the registered trademark, including a trademark consisting of characters identical with the registered trademark but in different fonts, a trademark that is written in different characters, hiragana characters, katakana characters, or Latin alphabetic characters, from the registered trademark but identical with the registered trademark in terms of pronunciation and concept, and a trademark consisting of figures that are considered identical in terms of appearance as those of the registered trademark…).”
This set up an interesting legal hall of mirrors for the lawsuit. Alberto-Culver argued that the only reason that the word “senyoushiyouken” was used in the contract was that in 1980 the negotiating parties wanted to give Sunstar language it could use to register the license with the Japanese trademark office. (Many foreign governments require trademark licenses to be registered to be effective.) Since the agreement provided that it was to be interpreted under Illinois law, the Japanese meaning of “senyoushiyouken” and any rights granted by it were irrelevant, said Alberto-Culver. Rather, the agreement should be interpreted as an exclusive license under Illinois law, which would require the licensee to attain prior consent to even minor format changes per explicit provisions in the license agreement.
Alberto-Culver won at trial, but that decision was forcefully overturned on appeal by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Sunstar, Inc. v. Alberto-Culver Co. (decision available here by entering case number 07-3288), where Judge Richard Posner wrote that when sophisticated parties use technical terms in a contract, they must be presumed to use and understand them in the technical sense. In so doing, the court followed a common rule of contract interpretation that whenever possible, courts should interpret contracts as a reasonable third party would by looking only at the words within the four corners of the contract, and without researching the history of the negotiations or other extrinsic evidence of the parties’ subjective intent. In other words, Alberto-Culver would be presumed to understand and consent to the meaning of any Japanese legal terms included in the license agreement, and therefore Sunstar was not in breach for using modernized VO5 marks.
Takeaway: in any license or other agreement regarding the disposition of valuable intellectual property rights, avoid vague letter agreements or memorandums of understanding, especially those that contain undefined technical words and other shorthand terminology. The contract should include a definitions section with detailed definitions for any technical terminology or terms of art. It will take a little bit longer to negotiate the contract, but 注意一秒、けが一生. [Translation: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”]
Sunstar VO5 commercials featuring 1989 version of updated logo, with song advising, “Don’t cry about split ends,” because the conditioner’s UHM Silicon will fix them.