As COVID-19 spreads, many businesses, Henderson Franklin among them, have instituted remote work programs voluntarily or in response to state or local “shelter in place” orders. With the idea of continuing business as usual, companies have provided employees with hardware and software to gain remote access to networks or have allowed employees to use their own computers and devices to access the company network so they can seamlessly continue working. While these policies certainly help limit employee exposure to COVID-19, they can inadvertently increase a business’ exposure to theft of intellectual property, specifically trade secrets.
Growing companies face all kinds of challenges. From financing to staffing, growth takes effort and attention. Among the many things that both drive growth and need this attention is the company’s intellectual property (“IP”). What follows are a few thoughts about some IP-related issues expanding businesses should keep in mind.
Button Up Protection
As businesses grow they must review their IP assets to ensure they are protected, especially the ones that are driving growth. These assets might include trademarks for new product names or brand extensions, taglines and logos, as well as patents for new technologies. Sometimes growth happens quickly and a business does not want to leave important assets unprotected.
The past ten years have seen amazing advances in technology and the next ten promise even more. How has the law kept up to ensure intellectual property rights are adequately protected and what are some major driving forces that will shape IP Law over the next decade.
- Globalization. With the rise of e-commerce and the Internet, falling borders and widening markets, businesses are now almost instantly global. No matter where a business is located, it must think beyond its borders and where its customers are and must take steps to protect their intellectual property across national boundaries. While only a select few businesses needed to worry about global IP protection during the 2000s, by 2020 the issue has become far more generally applicable. This has required businesses and their IP counsel to consider global issues at all phases of IP development and to devise appropriate global protection strategies.
- The Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA). This 2011 overhaul to the United States Patent Act altered the long-standing US rule that the “first to invent” had superior rights to a “first to file” rule. This significant change brought the US patent system in step with the majority global rule. The AIA implemented other changes in the patent system, but the “first to file” change was most significant and just one of several that updated an antiquated statutory regime.
- IP as a Business Asset. For decades, the value of a business was primarily represented by its tangible assets — property, equipment, inventories, etc. This has changed, however, and intangible assets, specifically intellectual property assets, now account for significant portions of business valuation. Indeed, according to the IP-oriented merchant bank Ocean Tomo over 84% of the value of the S&P 500 in 2015 was represented by intangible assets. Further, the USPTO has reported that in 2014, “IP intensive industries” accounted for approximately one third of US GDP. With intellectual property becoming such a major component of the value of a business and such a significant element in our national economy during the past decade, businesses have had to adapt and become much more proactive to protect those assets.
- Alice. In Alice Corporation v. CLS Bank International, the Supreme Court ruled that merely applying an abstract idea on a computer is not patent eligible. What this effectively meant was that computer software programs that simply took abstract ideas—like hedging currencies—and implemented those ideas electronically could not be protected by the patent laws. This led to invalidation of a significant number of software patents and made it extremely difficult for software designers to patent their software. Designers had to react by resulting to different means to protect their inventions. While very few software patents have been issued since Alice, courts are beginning to interpret the decision in ways that pave the way for at least some wider availability of patent protection for software.
For all of 2016, one of the most significant developments in the Intellectual Property field was the implementation of the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (“DTSA”).
Before implementation of the DTSA, trade secret protection was a matter of state law. While businesses had federal rights for patents, trademarks and copyrights, trade secret was solely governed at the state level. The DTSA changed this legal landscape to provide legal uniformity and federal protection for trade secrets as well as access to the federal courts to enforce trade secrets.
Under DTSA a “trade secret” is broadly classified as any “form of intellectual property that allow[s] for the legal protection of commercially valuable, proprietary information.”
As noted, under the DTSA, a trade secret owner can sue for misappropriation n the federal courts. This is a significant development because having adjudicated patent infringement matters for decades, the federal courts are prepared to understand complex trade secrets and the technologies behind them.
In a rare example of getting something done, the Senate and House of Representatives have passed Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (“DTSA”) and it is now headed to the White House for signature. President Obama has indicated he will likely sign the legislation. With this in mind, it is a good time to review just what proprietary information your business has and how thoroughly it is protected.
Until now, trade secrets have been protected by state law. While the law is relatively standard there are some slight variations state by state. Indeed, 48 states, Florida included, have adopted the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (“UTSA”) in order to provide businesses with uniformity. At the federal level, while providing protection for other forms of intellectual property like patents, trademarks and copyrights, trade secrets had no specific protection. The DTSA is changing this legal landscape.
Last spring, we discussed Tesla’s problems securing trademark rights in its name in China. See our post here. The moral of the Tesla story was to seek trademark registration in China as early as possible. Now, Apple has lost a trademark battle in China that underscores the importance of the Tesla lesson and gives an additional twist.
In 2002, Apple registered the IPHONE trademark in China for computer hardware and software and mobile telephones. In 2007, Xintong Tiandi, a leather goods maker, sought and obtained registration of the IPHONE trademark for leather goods, including phone cases. Apple, claiming that its IPHONE mark was famous and well known in China, challenged Xintong Tiandi’s IPHONE registration in the China Trade Mark Review and Adjudication Board, where it lost. Apple then took the fight to the courts in China and lost in the lower court. Apple appealed and The Beijing Municipal High People’s Court has ruled against Apple again, stating that Xintong Tiandi registered the IPHONE mark before Apple, thus giving it superior rights, and Apple’s IPHONE trademark was not sufficiently well known in China at the time Xintong Tiandi registered IPHONE for leather goods. As the first user of the mark, Xintong Tiandi had the greatest rights and Apple’s claims failed.
The NCAA Basketball Tournament is here which also means local pride is high and many businesses use the Tournament as a marketing opportunity. Many promotions will refer to terms like MARCH MADNESS or FINAL FOUR for impact. The NCAA, however, is always vigilant and aggressively protects against unauthorized uses of its trademarks, especially during the Tournament. The NCAA has a number of registered trademarks relating to the Tournament including MARCH MADNESS, FINAL FOUR, ELITE EIGHT, and THE BIG DANCE. Use of these trademarks in ways that connote come sort of connection or affiliation with the NCAA or the Tournament will likely draw an objection from the NCAA.
Dos and Don’ts
Businesses routinely conduct inventory audits to account for goods on hand, stocks of parts or components, equipment audits to account for machinery and its condition, and financial audits to locate and account for cash and business valuation. Businesses that do not conduct audits invariably run into problems.
Intellectual Property (“IP”) represents an asset class that businesses should regularly audit for a variety of reasons, including:…
Trade secrets are proprietary pieces of information, unknown to others, that give you an advantage over competitors. While thoughts of trade secrets often conjure such iconic examples as the formula for Coca-Cola or Colonel Sanders’ “11 herbs and spices,” they can be far more mundane. However exotic a trade secret might be, all businesses have them and the central key to protecting them is keeping them confidential. This post will show some of the steps that can be implemented to ensure protection of your proprietary information.
- Create Processes to Identify Trade Secrets in the First Instance
As noted, trade secrets are things not generally known outside your organization that provide you with an advantage over competitors. While trade secrets can take many forms, the cornerstone is they are meant to be confidential. Trade secrets can include, among other things, recipes and formulas, process steps, customer lists, supplier information, pricing schedules, forecasts, business plans and prototypes. The key consideration is they are things you want kept hidden from competitors.
Business relationships often lead to the exchange of sensitive information or access to highly confidential matter. When faced with this situation, is it enough to merely tell your business partner that something is confidential? According to a recent decision, it appears the answer is no.
Trade secrets are those things that provide your business with a competitive advantage over others. Classic examples of trade secrets are the recipe for Coca-Cola or Colonel Sanders’ blend of herbs and spices. Many different types of information can be protected as a trade secret. However, in order to maintain a trade secret and protection for it, the owner of a trade secret must take “reasonable steps” to protect the information from disclosure to others.
Lessons from the WSI Decision