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Over the past month, Kawhi Leonard, one of the NBA’s most iconic players, has continuously been in the news for leading the Toronto Raptors its first ever NBA championship. However, Leonard has also made news for his actions off the court. On June 3rd, Leonard initiated a lawsuit against Nike for ownership rights to a logo (seen below) that he claims Nike stole, “fraudulently” filed a copyright application for, and threatened to sue him over. The case is a great example of why individuals (in the esports context, players and streamers) must make sure that the ownership rights in their intellectual property are clearly established, expressed, and protected to the fullest extent prior to entering into sponsorships, endorsements, or other types of licensing arrangements.
In his complaint, Leonard begins by stating that he originally created his logo while in college, long before he entered into three-year endorsement deal with Nike. This is an important fact in the case because if true, under United States copyright law, Leonard would have obtained ownership rights to the logo upon its creation.
After making this assertion, Leonard explains that Nike started discussions with him about developing a unique logo to affix on its merchandise shortly after he signed his endorsement deal with the company. Since Leonard had already created a logo, he maintains that Nike repeatedly asked to revise his existing logo, and sent him multiple modified designs based upon the mark he created. After denying several mock-ups, Leonard finally approved a refined design, and authorized Nike to use it on its merchandise.
Throughout the term of their relationship, which had been extended to July 2018, Leonard believed that he retained ownership in the refined logo since it was based on his original design and he never expressly transferred any ownership rights in the mark to Nike – he only authorized Nike’s use of the mark. However, Nike also believed it was the true owner of the new refined mark, and the company even filed an application with the United States Copyright Office to register the mark. Nike’s application was granted in 2017 and its registration lists the company as the sole author and owner of the mark, and describes itself as an “employer for hire.”
Typically, these types of endorsement agreements will include language that provides the company with ownership rights in any intellectual property created by the company during the term of the agreement. This language defines the business as an “employer for hire,” which signifies that it will own any designs created by its employees or independent contractors, as these designs are considered works made for hire. Still, this type of provision would not apply to marks that were created by an individual prior to entering into agreement, which appears to be the case here. Generally, in those situations, the owner of the mark would either sell the mark outright, or agree to license it to the business at the outset of their partnership. In both situations, a written agreement would clearly define ownership rights in the intellectual property and any modifications to the mark.
Here, Nike may try to argue that the “refined mark” was completely different than Leonard’s original logo in hopes of establishing its own copyright in the mark. It may also contend that Leonard expressly transferred any ownership rights in the mark to the company once it made modifications. In either event, Nike will need to provide strong evidence corroborating its argument. While it appears the parties are approaching this matter cordially, executing a well-drafted licensing agreement at the inception of their relationship would have prevented this matter from escalating to this point.
How does this apply to esports?
As the profiles of many players and streamers in the esports industry continue to increase in popularity, these individuals need to be mindful of their intellectual property. They must take the appropriate steps to ensure that ownership of such property is clearly established in all agreements and protected to its fullest extent. This is especially necessary for players and streamers when entering into endorsement or sponsorship agreements with companies, as these businesses may look to use or further develop an individual’s existing intellectual property. As seen with the Leonard case, this is particularly critical with any associated logos or marks. Clearly establishing and expressing ownership rights in a mark will make it apparent to the business that an individual owns the mark it wishes to use.
In order to do so appropriately, individuals should first ensure that they legally own their mark. Oftentimes players and streamers hire parties to design their mark for them. In this case, individuals must make sure that they receive a written work-for-hire agreement from any party who designs their mark. This agreement will state that any rights to the design have been assigned from the artist to the streamer or player. Without this agreement in place, the designer may still have ownership interest in the mark.
Players and streamers should also look to register their mark with United States Copyright Office and United States Patent and Trademark Office. In most cases, proof of copyright and trademark registrations will provide a party with strong evidence of ownership rights in a mark, and also provide them with a number of other benefits.
Once these measure are taken and retention of ownership is firmly in place, individuals can express their ownership rights in mark to any company that wishes to enter into an endorsement deal and proceed to license their mark effectively.
Distinguishing ownership rights to intellectual property can become increasingly difficult when multiple parties begin to use such intellectual property, like a logo. Since companies executing endorsement or sponsorship deals may look to use or further develop a player or streamer’s mark in the activation of these agreements, individuals must make sure that their ownership rights in the mark are clearly defined and expressed to the company at the outset of their relationship. By doing so, companies will be aware of the individual’s rights in a mark and look to license the mark appropriately. Effectively executing this type of agreement should prevent any ownership confusion and/or subsequent litigation, saving both parties time and money.
As most business owners know, running a business is extremely difficult. Aside from all the internal decisions that must be made in order to operate a company successfully, business owners must also handle a wide variety of external problems that arise. One external issue that companies often deal with relates to its trademarks. It is not uncommon for new, competing businesses to try and exploit an established brand’s reputation by using a similar name or logo in order to gain recognition and grow its own brand within a marketplace. This infringement activity can be damaging to an existing brand’s reputation, as consumers may associate and confuse the two brands when making a purchase or utilizing its services. This post will explain what trademark infringement is and how deal with infringing activity should it take place.
What is trademark infringement?
Trademark infringement occurs when an unauthorized party uses a trademark or service mark, or a substantially similar mark, in connection with goods and/or services in a manner that is likely to cause confusion as to the actual company that produced the product or service. In a trademark infringement matter, a junior mark holder – the second business to adopt and use a particular mark with its goods or services – attempts to use a mark that is confusingly similar to senior mark holder’s – the first business to adopt and use a particular mark with its goods or services – mark without the senior mark holder’s approval. This confusion between the companies is problematic to the senior mark holder, as it can lead consumers to buy the junior mark holder’s products or services, resulting in lost profits or damage to the senior mark holder’s brand.
Do I have a claim for trademark infringement?
When determining whether you have a viable claim for trademark infringement, you should first ask yourself if you hold the rights to the specific mark. For maximum protection, it is best to have your mark registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”), but trademark owners are still afforded some limited protections under common law. Common law trademark rights start once a mark is used in commerce for the first time within a geographic region. These rights allow to trademark owners to stop competing businesses in their area from using a confusingly similar mark, but it is much more difficult to recover any monetary damages without federal protection. Sophisticated business owners should strongly consider registering their mark with the USPTO, as there are a number of benefits to completing this process.
Next, trademark owners should ask themselves, at a basic level, if there is a likelihood of confusion between the alleged infringing mark and their mark. Would consumers in the relevant markets confuse the two marks? In most situations, trademark owners who ask this question already believe that the similarity between the marks causes a degree of confusion, but it is prudent to ask an independent party (or multiple) for an impartial perspective. This basic assessment should further solidify a trademark owner’s belief in any potential infringement claim.
Having an understanding of how courts evaluate claims for trademark infringement will also help trademark owners analyze their situation, and allow them to evaluate their claim more thoroughly. Courts use an eight-factor balancing test when determining whether there is a likelihood of confusion between two marks. Each factor used in the test is important when measuring the possibility of trademark infringement; however, the first three factors are arguably the most heavily weighed in a court’s evaluation:
Other factors include: (4) evidence of actual confusion; (5) the likelihood that the prior owner will “bridge the gap” in the marketplace; (6) intent of the junior user; (7) sophistication of buyers in the marketplace; and (8) quality of the junior user’s products or services. All of these factors will play a significant role in the court’s evaluation since no single factor is determinative, but doing an elementary assessment using first three factors should provide trademark owners with a strong foundation in assessing the strength of their own potential infringement case.
What do I do now?
If a trademark owner believes that someone is infringing upon its mark, there are a couple of options available to facilitate a resolution. Generally, the first step that can be taken to stop the infringement is to send the infringing party a cease and desist letter. The goal of this letter is to inform the infringing party that the use of its mark infringes upon the trademark owner’s rights and to ask it to discontinue its use. This letter should describe any ownership rights in a specific mark and explain how the junior mark is infringing upon these rights. The letter should also clarify what remedy is sought. Along with the request to stop the use of an infringing mark, some parties may also ask for compensation for past use or pose an offer to license the mark for future use.
Typically, a cease and desist letter will at least start a conversation between the two parties. However, this method is not always well received and can be ineffective, as the letter poses no immediate legal implication on the infringing party. Oftentimes, trademark owners will reach out to the infringing party multiple times before deciding to escalate the matter to its next step - litigation. Once litigation proceedings have commenced, trademark owners will then be able to ask the court for a preliminary or temporary injunction, which if granted, will order the alleged infringer to stop using the mark in question pending the outcome of the lawsuit. As with most litigation, fees for trademark infringement cases can be costly, so trademark owners should consider exhausting all available options before filing a claim.
Trademark infringement can be extremely harmful to a brand and must be dealt with as soon as a trademark owner becomes aware of any infringing activity. After analyzing the infringing activity to determine whether it is actually infringement, trademark owners should try to communicate with the infringing party and inform it of its unlawful activity. In order to make sure there is a record of these correspondences, a cease and desist letter would likely be the most effective form of communication. If these attempts are unfruitful, litigation may be imminent to in order to stop the infringing activity. While this may be a costly endeavor, it is necessary to prevent any further damage from being done to your brand by the infringing party.
Analyzing and fighting trademark infringement claims tend to be a complicated matter. If you have any questions regarding trademarks or potential trademark infringement, please feel free to contact us.
As we discussed previously, licensing can be a great way for businesses to profit off of their intellectual property without completely transferring or assigning all of their ownership rights to another party. A license authorizes a licensee to use a licensor’s certain intellectual property rights in specified manners in exchange for compensation. This arrangement allows both parties to exploit each other’s strengths (i.e. brand strength or production methods) for commercial gain. While these types of arrangements can be extremely profitable for both parties, licensors and licensees should have some familiarity with the language of the deal in order to ensure that they are not agreeing to unfavorable terms. This post will discuss the terms common to licensing agreements, and also highlight certain issues that can arise during the course of the contractual relationship.
Grant of Rights
The “Grant of Rights” section is the foundation of any licensing agreement. Here, the contract will identify which parties are involved in the transaction and what intellectual property is being licensed.
Correctly identifying the parties to a licensing transaction should not be overlooked. Oftentimes, a parent company may comprise of a number of entities so it’s important that the drafter makes sure the intended party is accurately described. For example, by entering into a deal with Activison Blizzard instead of the Overwatch League entity specifically, the extent of your transaction may exceed your original intention, as all of Activision Blizzard’s affiliated companies may be granted the right to use the licensed intellectual property.
Additionally, this section should also describe what intellectual property is being licensed. Depending on the purpose of the arrangement, the extent of what intellectual property will be made available can be broad (i.e. all intellectual property) or narrow (specific trademark/slogan). Precisely identifying which intellectual property will be the subject of the license is necessary to ensure both parties are on the same page and not exceeding their rights.
Scope of the Grant
The scope of the grant will dictate how the licensee will be able to use the license. Parties should determine whether the license will be exclusive, restrictive to certain geographic locations or sectors, and the term of the agreement when defining the scope of a license.
Generally, there are three types of licensing agreements: exclusive, sole, or non-exclusive. In an exclusive license, the licensee is only the party that can use the licensed intellectual property. This restriction on use also applies the licensor, which tends to cause these types of arrangements to be the most expensive. If a licensor wishes to continuing using the licensed intellectual property, the licensor should look to execute a sole license. This type of license provides the licensee with the right to continue to use its intellectual property, along with the licensor. In a non-exclusive licensing agreement, the licensee will be able to use the intellectual property, but the licensor holds the right to license the property to other businesses. Licensees will often try to push for some kind of exclusivity in a licensing agreement in order to prevent any potential competitors from also obtaining the rights to use the licensed intellectual property in a defined category, but this will also command a higher cost.
Territory rights must also be clearly defined. Parties will want to clarify where the licensee will be able to use the rights granted during the term of the agreement. Many agreements will grant licensees worldwide authorization, but it is not uncommon for licensors to add geographic restrictions if a licensor wants to reserve those areas for other potential partners in the future. These geographic restrictions can be structured in any fashion, but oftentimes will organized by continent, country, or region. For instance, a licensee may be granted a limited right to use the licensed intellectual property within only North America, or more narrowly, the United States, for the duration of the term. These limitations can get tricky as a licensor could also grant to a party exclusive rights for certain territories and nonexclusive rights in others.
As with any agreement, the term must also be defined in the agreement. The term of an agreement establishes the time frame of the deal. When deciding on the term, parties should be realistic and consider how long it may take for a licensed product to hit the market. A six-month license may not be wise if this time frame does not allow for adequate product manufacturing, distribution, and marketing. Parties should thoroughly consider this in order to maximize returns from the partnership. The Term may also provide for a specified run-off period beyond the initial term itself whereby the licensee can continue to sell off any remaining stock of licensed items/merchandise. This potentially reduces the sunk cost of remaining inventory.
The method of compensation used in these types of deals can vary, but will often take the form of: (1) a one time payment; (2) an earned royalty fee with an annual minimum; or (3) a combination of (1) and (2). By opting to use the one time payment method, the licensing party will pay a flat amount, up front, in order to the use the license for the duration of the agreement. While an upfront payment may be beneficial for a licensor who needs additional capital immediately, generally, parties will elect to use the earned royalty fee structure. Under this structure, the licensor will receive a percentage of net sales on products sold that incorporate the licensed intellectual property (approx. 6 to 10 percent). In order to protect against the possibility of poor sales, licensors may require an annual minimum payment to ensure they receive adequate compensation for the license. These payments can get complicated so parties must make sure to include clear payment terms regarding the timing and frequency of payments, as well as the mode of payment. Parties may also want to consider including language that requires a proper accounting report to accompany any royalty payment that is made. Without this, licensors would have a difficult time figuring out whether the appropriate royalty amount has been paid. Additionally, it is not uncommon for licensors that own famous marks to require both an upfront fee and a royalty payment. This allows the mark holder to capitalize on the fact that its marks are famous.
These rights define the circumstances in which the agreement may be terminated. While licenses will terminate upon expiry of the original term and after the exhaustion of all renewal periods, this section may also allow for parties to terminate the license either with or without cause.
Both parties should seek to include a list of events (breaches or defaults), which may trigger termination by the licensee or the licensor. For example, licensors will want to include language allows them to terminate a licensee if it: (1) fails to pay royalties; (2) fails to maintain licensor’s level of quality control; or (3) files for bankruptcy. A licensor may also want to include the right to terminate the license if a licensee does not release the targeted product to market within a certain amount of time.
Licensees generally have fewer termination rights, as the crux of the deal often relies on their performance. However, in certain situations, licensors may be obligated to advertise the product and conduct promotions. If they do not perform these obligations in an appropriate or timely manner, the licensor may be in breach, thus allowing the licensee to terminate. It’s important to note that agreements should give non-breaching parties the right to terminate, but not force them to do so.
These are only a few of the terms that will be included within a licensing agreement. However, familiarizing yourself with these provisions will provide you with a solid foundation when finalizing the deal. By clearly defining what intellectual property will be licensed, the scope of the rights granted, compensation, and each party’s rights of termination, you will be able to understand critical points of the deal and reduce the likelihood of major problems arising thorough the course for the partnership. Still, licensing agreements can include a number of complicated clauses, so it’s essential that you understand each section of the agreement being executing it. If you have any questions regarding the terms of your licensing agreements, please feel free to contact us.
As we have discussed previously, intellectual property is a core part of every business. Intellectual property encompasses a variety of works including trademarks, copyrights, patents, trade secrets, and propriety data, amongst other things. Assets like a company’s trademarks (i.e. logo or slogan) can be extremely valuable in commercial affairs because, if properly maintained, these rights provide owners with an exclusive right to use and monetize their creations. This means owners have sole control over who is able to use their intellectual property and how it can be used. Oftentimes, intellectual property owners will use these rights strictly for their own monetary gain, but owners can also sell these rights, or uniquely license them to another party.
What is Licensing?
Licensing is a business arrangement where the owner of certain intellectual property rights (licensor) agrees to authorize another party to use such rights (licensee) in exchange for compensation. This compensation can vary in form, but will typically comprise of a one-time, upfront fee or a percentage of all gross or net revenues received from the use of the licensed intellectual property, otherwise known as royalties. One common example of licensing occurs in the retail market, where a company may enter into a retail licensing deal with an apparel company that allows the apparel company to use its trademark (i.e. the licensor’s name or logo) on all types of clothing sold in exchange for a percent of the profits from apparel sales using the licensed mark.
Businesses frequently use this kind of arrangement because it provides them with another way of profiting off of their intellectual property without completely transferring or assigning all of their ownership rights to another party. Through licensing partnerships, a company is able to use the expertise of another business that operates in a different sector, like manufacturing, to reap commercial benefits from that sector at minimal cost. For example, a company that only creates comics books may license its characters to a toy company without having to use its resources on costs or labor associated with the production of action figures. In most cases, the comic book company would not have to take an active role in any of the production, distribution, or marketing of the action figures, and would still receive a percentage of any sales of this product. Licensees welcome these partnerships because they are able to profit off the popularity of the licensor’s brand.
Licensing arrangements are most effective when they are solidified through a written contract. This provides all parties with necessary control and reduces the risk associated with the agreement. Parties in a licensing deal are able to determine when (duration of term), where (territory of use), and how (scope) the intellectual property can be utilized. By defining these terms effectively, a business has the ability to profit from different sectors (i.e. apparel, entertainment, etc.) in an efficient manner. Additional protections can also be added to ensure that a partnership is operating successfully. A licensor may require that certain benchmarks be met in order for the licensee to keep the using its rights. For instance, a licensor can require that the licensee meet a minimum annual revenue target in order to ensure that the licensee is adequately marketing the product bearing the licensed intellectual property. Licensing agreements that include provisions like this may provide for the return of all intellectual property rights to the owner if these goals are not met. These types of provisions can act as added security in the event one side fails to meet certain quality control or performance standards.
Licensing in Esports
Licensing partnerships are especially apparent within the esports industry. Game developers, like Riot, Activision Blizzard, and Epic Games, license their games to tournament organizers through various types of licenses so that these organizers can use games like League of Legends, Overwatch, or Fortnite in their tournaments. Additionally, esports teams will often enter into licensing deals with apparel companies to produce products like performance wear, fanwear, and other accessories. Influencers can also enter into their own licensing deals for branded products. Most recently, Ninja, through his partnership with Red Bull, entered into an exclusive licensing deal with Walmart for the sale of his unique headband. Sponsorship agreements will also oftentimes include language that defines terms of licensing, if any, between the parties as both parties will use of each other’s intellectual property (logo, slogan, etc.) in sponsorship activation. The amount of licensing opportunities within esports is endless and these types of partnerships will continue to make up a significant portion of all business transactions within the industry as it grows.
Any time intellectual property is involved, which is almost always certainly the case, companies will have the opportunity to license it for commercial gain. Through a licensing arrangement, both parties to the transaction can reap certain benefits. Licensors may be able to use a licensee’s production, distribution, and marketing network, while licensees can profit off of the licensor’s brand appeal. Still, while these types of deals seem easy to complete, there are a number of concerns that must be considered before executing a deal. Be on the lookout for a future post where we will address these concerns.
Trademarks are the foundation of branding, as they protect the rights holder from third parties using any protected words or logos for their own pecuniary gain. Fnatic, Fatal1ty, and Overwatch League, are a few of the many examples of trademarks utilized in the esports and streaming industries. Trademarks are extremely valuable assets to those who own them because they provide heightened protections and rights to owners. These benefits are not only available to companies, like when a streamer or influencer creates a company to provide their services through, but also to individuals who can prove that their name, or pseudonym, has acquired “secondary meaning”. Secondary Meaning is a legal term used to mean that the mark owner can show that the individual’s name or pseudonym is indicative of the producer of the services and not the services themselves. Popularity certainly plays a role in whether Secondary Meaning can be proven. Athletes like LeBron James and Cristiano Ronaldo have trademarked their names, nicknames and even their commonly-used phrases to provide themselves with exclusive use of these words and phrases for their own pecuniary gain. Streamers and influencers should follow in these athletes’ footsteps with respect to their intellectual property.
What are trademarks?
Trademarks are words, symbols, or phrases, used to identify and distinguish the specific source of goods or services. A trademark provides its registrant with the exclusive right to use a registered word, symbol, or phrase in connection with the goods or services specified in its registration. This means that the use of confusingly similar words, symbols or phrases in the same or similar industries could be unlawful. Trademark registration provides owners with a number of other benefits as well.
Once a trademark is federally registered, the registration serves as notice to the rest of the United States that the word, mark or phrase is being utilized in commerce by the mark’s owner. This means that if someone tries to utilize that mark, or a confusingly similar mark, for the same service or product, even if they were unaware of the registered mark, the prior registration precludes that mark from being utilized in commerce.
The federal registration also allows the mark holders to use the ® symbol. This symbol appears after the registered mark, in the upper right hand corner, when the mark is being used in connection with the goods and services listed in its registration. It gives constructive notice to potential infringers that the mark has been registered with the United State Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) and that the mark holder has the exclusive right to use and license the trademark.
Oftentimes, the registration and use of the ® symbol alone will prevent users from creating marks that are confusingly similar. However, if a third party infringer utilized a mark that is confusingly similar, a mark owner can demonstrate their ownership by directing any infringers to their registered trademark, which is publicly viewable on the internet. Federal registration also allows a mark owner to obtain statutory damages up to $200,000 (in counterfeit cases), treble damages (for willful infringement), and attorneys fees, should the mark owner need to pursue any infringement of its trademarks through litigation. For these reasons, trademarks can act as both a sword and a shield for the registrant.
Why Trademarks are Important for Streamers
A trademarked alias will provide you with complete control over the use of your name in connection with the goods and services in which your trademark is registered. For instance, if your alias is “CKNdinner”, and you file a trademark registration for that phrase in connection with Class 25 (clothing, footwear, headgear, etc.), you will be the only person or business that is able to sell t-shirts, hats, etc. with that name on it once the mark is registered. These goods will also show the ® symbol after the mark, which will help deter potential infringers before they even think about utilizing the registered mark, or a confusingly similar one, on their own goods. Further, if someone were to infringe on their registered marks, they would have a strengthened position to pursue a claim through court due to the potentially increased damages and ability to be awarded attorney’s fees.
Without the trademark on your alias, it is much more difficult to protect against a third party trying to profit off of your established brand. It sounds uncommon, but this happens more frequently than you may think. A few years ago, professional athlete Johnny Manziel was forced to take legal action against a man who sold t-shirts using his popular moniker, "Johnny Football". Although Manziel did not have formal trademark protection for the nickname, he still had common law rights to use the phrase and the opportunity to plead his case in court. Plaintiffs in these types of actions may still be successful without a registered trademark, but in order to receive a monetary award, they would have to demonstrate actual damages, which can be in difficult in many cases. Nonetheless, the federally registered trademark would grant streamers and influencers the right to sue in federal court, and due to the statutes which govern trademarks, the bar to recover monetary damages would be much lower.
As online streaming viewership continues to grow, individual brands are becoming increasingly more valuable by the week. Subscribers and companies alike are willing to pay a great deal of money to streamers and influencers in the hopes reaching their audience and showcasing its brand. In order to make sure that their brand is adequately protected, streamers and influencers should consider the benefits a trademark can provide to them. In addition to the benefits described in this blog post, trademark registration in the US may also serve as the basis for a foreign trademark registration, which is especially helpful given the increasingly global esports and streaming industries. Sophisticated streamers and influencers should follow in the footsteps of the entertainers before them, and their massive brands, in order to shield themselves from any potential infringers while they grow their brand.
If you are a streamer or influencer and you would like to discuss how our attorneys can help you with this process, please contact us.
Its Super Bowl week, and the Seattle Seahawks are back to defend their title against the New England Patriots. However, the Seahawks have made the news for some of their off-field business endeavors this week. The Seattle Times has reported that the Seahawks have filed applications for multiple trademarks since their Super Bowl victory last year. One of these applications is for "12".
The Seahawks refer to their fans and their stadium as the 12th man, largely due to the noise of the crowd not allowing opposing teams from hearing each other on the field. The team has previously attempted to trademark "12" twice, to no avail. Their applications for "12" were previously denied due to a conflict with a NASCAR team trademark and a hotel's trademark. Currently, the Seahawks are attempting to trademark "12" in the font that appears on their jerseys.
But what is a trademark? A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination of words, phrases, symbols or designs, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from another.
Effectively, the Seahawks application for "12" in their jersey's font is asserting that it identifies and distinguishes its source as the Seahawks. However, this mark is likely not distinctive enough for trademark registration. Instead, this mark would likely be found as generic. The block letter jersey font, as shown in the picture above, is strikingly similar to many other football teams' fonts, at every amateur and professional level. Because a trademark must identify and distinguish its source, and the term "12" is not distinctive enough on its own, the font's similarity to other team fonts weakens the strength of the mark.
Generic marks can be trademarked if the mark has acquired secondary meaning. That would mean that despite its prima facie generic qualities, that consumers have come to associate the mark with the source of the goods. Although there may be an argument that Seahawks fans may associate articles bearing "12" as having originated from the Seahawks, that argument seems somewhat tenuous. The strong generic nature of the mark may be difficult to overcome and achieve secondary meaning.
Although it should be encouraged for sports teams and athletes to pursue trademark opportunities to protect their brands, the Seahawks attempt to trademark "12" appears to be an overreach.
Franchises are everywhere. McDonald's, one of the most visible franchises in the US, has over 34,000 stores worldwide. Take a look at this extremely interesting spreadsheet on the number of McDonald's franchises by country over a five year period. Needless to say, McDonald's is a strong brand that isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
But how do businesses become franchises? Franchises are governed by Federal and State law, and the mix of the two have created the following best practices:
Determine if franchising is best for your business
The two primary options for a business to expand out of its area are to franchise or open branches. A branch is wholly owned and controlled by the business itself, and all of its profits flow to the business. However, opening and operating a branch are entirely at the expense of the business. Due to the expenses involved, branches are more suited for slow, calculated growth.
On the other hand, franchising can allow a business to grow quickly, as the expenses to open and operate a franchise are paid by the franchisee, or the person buying the franchise. The business will condition the operation of the franchise upon numerous terms to maintain uniformity as much as possible, and will receive royalties for use of the brand (usually in the form of a percentage of the franchise's profits). However, franchising requires a strong brand identity that potential investors (the franchisees) want to buy into, liquidity (both for costs and regulatory requirements), and standardization of practices to be effective.
If your business has yet to do so, register your brand as a trademark. Brand identity is extremely important when franchising, whether you are building a brand or franchising an established one. Hence, it may be best to register your trademark(s) as soon as possible to begin building your brand identity. Strong brand identities can drive the price of franchises higher, so its in the business' best interest to strengthen the brand as early, and as much, as possible.
Additionally, registering a trademark gives the trademark holder a multitude of rights under Federal law.
Create a subsidiary for the business
A business should create a subsidiary entity to serve as the franchisor, or the company that sells franchises. This practice is used for several reasons. First, it helps limit the liability of the original company such that if any liabilities arise from franchising, like lawsuits, the parent company is likely protected. Secondly, the subsidiary is created for ease of accounting. The primary disclosure document, which must be created and disclosed prior to engaging potential franchisees and will be discussed shortly, requires a financial audit for several years prior. However, by establishing a subsidiary, the financial history can only reach back as far as the creation of the subsidiary and would not include the finances of the parent company.
Drafting the necessary documents
Prior to engaging in any talks with potential franchisees, several documents must be drafted. Firstly, Federal and State Law require the creation of a document compiling specified information regarding the company including its financial history, its company officers, any litigation, trademarks, and more. Depending on which accepted format of this document your business uses, this is either called the Federal Disclosure Document or the Uniform Franchise Offering Circular ("UFOC").
Additionally, all contracts that the franchisee would have to sign must be drafted. Primarily, this includes the franchise agreement. This contract sets out the many rules that franchisee's must abide by, including royalties, training, required sellers, signage, marketing, duration etc. This contract is comprehensive, but can be amended.
Importantly, these documents must continually be updated as material changes to the information it contains is available. This means that if any information changes which could impact a potential franchisee's decision to purchase a franchise, then the document must also be changed.
Such documents are highly technical as they incorporate Federal and State law, and require a financial audit. For this reason, attorneys and accountants are generally retained to prepare these documents.
Compliance with State regulations
Although Federal law regulates franchises, State laws impart additional requirements that must be met in order for businesses to offer, or continue to offer, a franchise in that State. Some of these additional requirements include:
Of course, the above are only a small sampling of the variances in State laws pertaining to franchises. Due to the complexity of the regulations pertaining to franchises, compliance should be managed by the business' attorneys so they may update and alter any documents as necessary and inform business personnel of any changes they must make in communications.
It is especially important that all people who are involved in the selling of franchises at the business are aware of the applicable State regulations, and its changes, as some laws may take effect upon first contact with a potential franchisee. Communication between these individuals, and compliance counsel (or personnel) is extremely important.
Ready, set, go!
The legal aspects of franchising are a very technical process at the outset, but once established, compliance and any additional tweaking is all that is necessary. This is only a general overview of the process of franchising, and a business should have an attorney and an accountant guide them through the process of franchising their business.
Protecting one's intellectual property online can seem like an onerous task. This is especially the case with copyrighted content. However, content creators can help protect their copyrights by taking several actions.
Keep in mind that according to the U.S. Copyright Office, a copyright is a "form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works." Notably, copyrights protect the expression of ideas, and not the ideas themselves. Additionally, copyrights attach immediately when the work is fixed in some form of tangible medium of expression (like a book, recording, painting, blog post, etc.) Although it is not necessary to register a copyright for protections to attach, a registered copyright has additional benefits should someone infringe. For more information on what a copyright is, see my earlier post here.
So what steps can you take to protect your creative, copyrighted works?
Place a copyright notice on your work. In the context of protecting copyrights online, you can place a copyright notice alongside your work. This need not be complicated, and can simply state "Copyright 2014. All Rights Reserved." Although this isn't necessary, it informs potential infringers that you are aware of your rights with respect to the work, potentially discouraging them from infringing. For photos, this can be effectively accomplished by watermarking your images.
Define others' rights in utilizing your work. Create a policy (and place a link to it on your site) that tightly defines how people may use your content with and without your permission. Effectively, this creates a route for potential infringers to utilize your work in a manner that respects your copyrights by offering them a limited license under terms you decide. Even better, these terms establish how other people can freely advertise your work.
Consider registering your copyright. Some content, especially if used as a means of generating income, may warrant a Federal Copyright Registration. This is purely optional, although there are benefits to registering a copyright which primarily manifest during litigation. Some of the added benefits of registration include: the ability to sue for attorney's fees; the ability to sue for statutory damages (which is easier to prove than actual damages); a presumption (after 5 years) that the copyright is valid and all facts in its registration are true; the registration itself constitutes notice that said content is copyrighted. Additionally, registration may allow you to transfer copyrights easier.
Find out if your copyrighted material is being infringed upon. Once you are aware that your work is being infringed upon, you can take steps to have the infringing work taken down, or at least attribute credit to you, whichever you deem appropriate. There are many different tools you can use to find out if your works have been infringed upon. Not surprisingly, a Google search is a great place to start as the search engine has both text and image search capabilities. Sound recordings are much more difficult to police as there can be multiple copyrighted elements, in addition to the technical difficulties of searching audio recordings.
Contact the infringer. Generally, there is some manner available to contact someone that improperly posts your content, be it via email, comment, or message. Utilize whatever method you believe to best contact the infringer and request that they remove your content, or point them in the direction of your use policy and request that they abide. If they fail to remove the content or fail to adhere to the policy, locate the website's ISP information. To do so, you can use this site or this site. Once you have the ISP's information, send a Takedown notice (free samples can be easily found through a Google search) to the ISP, which states that one of the sites it is hosting contains infringing material. The Digital Milennium Copyright Act allows for an ISP to be held liable for hosting infringing content. Generally, once the ISP is notified that they are hosting an infringing work, the website will be taken down so the ISP can avoid liability.
When to hire an attorney. If the ISP fails to remove the content, or take down the website, then you may wish to hire an attorney to prosecute your claim of intellectual property infringement. If you have yet to register the copyright of your protected content, then you may have to do so before any litigation may commence.
Following these steps will help you protect your copyrighted content online, allowing you to only worry about creating more content to share with the world.
Last week, the NCAA eliminated a controversial provision of the contracts it requires DIvision 1 athletes to sign. That is, the organization removed the provision that allows the NCAA, or an assigned third party, to use the name and likeness of the athlete to promote NCAA events without compensation.
Currently, the NCAA is awaiting the decision of a Federal Judge in the O'Bannon v. NCAA trial, which is a class action lawsuit brought by former, and current, Division 1 athletes principally challenging the NCAA's use of the athletes' names and likenesses in television broadcasts, rebroadcasts, and video games without compensation. The NCAA's elimination of the name and likeness provision appears to be an effort to distance the organization from the practices which resulted in the O'Bannon lawsuit.
Name and likeness rights, also known as publicity rights, are the personal rights to control the use of one's name, image, or likeness for commercial use. These rights continue to exist after death and are freely assignable. Publicity rights are State specific.
Publicity rights are an important issue for collegiate athletes because intercollegiate athletics, particularly Division 1 football and basketball, is a multi-billion dollar industry where the athletes do not get paid to play, nor for the use of their names and likenesses. Meanwhile, some NCAA conferences and schools have been making millions on media deals and broadcast rights for their sporting events which rely on the use of the athletes' names and likenesses. Additionally, the NCAA had been licensing the use of these athletes' likenesses, at a profit, for video games. In some cases, athletes' likenesses were used years after their college career had ended, capitalizing on players' success and popularity as a professional. Not only were the athletes unpaid for their on-field performance, but they were also unpaid for the use of their likeness, seemingly in perpetuity prior to the O'Bannon lawsuit.
Although there has yet to be a decision by the Federal Judge in the O'Bannon case, it is telling that the NCAA is removing its name and likeness provision from its athlete contracts. However, some individual colleges and conferences still require athletes to sign name and likeness releases. It will be interesting to see how the Court rules on the O'Bannon case, as it has the potential to reshape the business of intercollegiate athletics.
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Attorney Advertising. The information presented in this site should not be construed to be formal legal advice nor is it intended to form any attorney/client relationship. Our attorneys, collectively, are licensed to practice law in the States of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Copyright Roger R. Quiles, Esq., 2020. All rights reserved.