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“We Don’t Have Any Intellectual Property”: Responding to a Common Startup Misconception

Whenever we meet with a new or potential startup client, one of the questions we always ask is what intellectual property the company has that it might want to protect. Frequently, entrepreneurs will respond with “we don’t have any intellectual property.” However, more often than not, this is not the case. This post aims to help an entrepreneur to begin thinking about the valuable intellectual property that her company may possess. It serves as an overview of all of your company’s assets that may fall under the “intellectual property” umbrella, and which you might be able to protect.

 

Patent

The first type of intellectual property that comes to mind for most entrepreneurs is the patent. Patents generally protect the following types of inventions:

  • Processes
  • Machines
  • Improvements
  • Composition of matter
  • Plants (asexually reproducing)
  • Designs (ornamental designs, separate from functional elements)

Patentable inventions must be useful, novel, and nonobvious. There is no patent protection for laws of nature, natural phenomena, or abstract ideas. This means that algorithms, especially purely mathematical ones, may not be patentable.

 

Copyright

Copyright protects literary and artistic expression that exhibit a modicum of originality and that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. These literary and artistic expressions that may be eligible for copyright include:

  • Books, poetry, dramatic works
  • Music
  • Dance
  • Computer programs — both the underlying code and the interface
  • Movies
  • Sculptures
  • Images, paintings, drawings, photographs
  • Designs
  • Architectural works

Note that ideas that underlie a work are not copyrightable. Instead, they may fall under the umbrella of patent. Additionally, functional elements of anything are not copyrightable.

 

Trademarks

Trademark is another aspect of intellectual property law that you have likely heard a lot about. What you may not know is what exactly trademark law can protect. Under the federal trademark statute – the Lanham Act – words, symbols, and other attributes that serve to identify the nature and source of goods or services can be protected by trademark. The following marks may be protectable under trademark law:

  • Company names
  • Product names
  • Symbols
  • Logos
  • Slogans
  • Pictures or designs
  • Product configurations
  • Product design or trade dress
  • Colors
  • Smells

The limit here is that, to receive trademark protection, the mark needs to identify to consumers the source of the good or service it identifies. In other words, it must call your company or its goods or services to mind. Additional limits include that the mark must not be a generic description of the good or service or the class of goods or services, and that the mark cannot be a functional element of the product.

 

Trade Secrets

Trade secrets are information that adhere to the following three rules: the information (1) is not generally known to or reasonably ascertainable by the public, (2) confers to your company an economic advantage (meaning the secrecy confers the value, not just the information itself), and (3) is subjected to reasonable efforts by your company to maintain its secrecy. Trade secrets can include business or technical information of any sort. This means that things eligible for trade secret protection may include:

  • Formulas (chemical)
  • Recipes
  • Data
  • Methods or techniques
  • Processes
  • Business plans (e.g. product plans, sale and marketing plans, business strategies)
    Customer lists (current, past, and prospective)
  • Supplier lists
  • Pricing, price lists, pricing methodologies, profit margins
  • Market studies
  • Computer software and programs (including object code and source code)

Any information that meets the above three criteria can be protected under trade secret laws. The above list is not inclusive of all things that may qualify as trade secrets. Note that independent discovery or invention, as well as reverse engineering, of the information contained in your trade secrets is not prohibited under this regime.

 

Why Is This Important?

Intellectual property can be one of the most valuable assets to your company.

Disney’s stories and characters are protected by copyright. Nike’s famous swoosh logo and “just do it” slogan are protected by trademark. Trademark also protects the iconic red of the soles of Louboutin shoes. Coca Cola’s Coke formula is one of the most heavily guarded trade secrets. The curved designs of Apple’s Macbooks and iPhones casings are protected by design patents. Think of where all these companies would be without their intellectual property and the regimes that protect it.

Identifying your intellectual property is your first step to protecting and monetizing it. Whether this means filing a federal application, maintaining a trade secret, or simply asking founders and workers to assign to your company intellectual property they have created, this can be one of the most important parts of your business. So go ahead and start keeping track of assets that may qualify as intellectual property.

 

Conclusion

 For a lot of this, there is a much deeper analysis of whether your particular work, mark, or invention is actually protectable under one intellectual property regimes, to what extent, and how to go about acquiring and maintaining such protection. For more details about those analyses, consult with other posts on this blog, or an attorney.

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Protecting Corporate Intellectual Property

Intellectual property is a critical asset in many startups, especially technology startups, and often provides the foundations for the value proposition of the business. As a result, it’s very important to ensure that this intellectual property belongs to the company and not to various founders, employees, contractors, or any other contributors.

 

There are numerous potential negative consequences that can occur when intellectual property isn’t adequately protected. For example, situations can arise where an individual informally yet intimately involved in the company leaves without ever transferring the intellectual property he or she has contributed. Even where an individual’s relationship with the company was formal and agreed upon in written contracts, if intellectual property is not properly assigned, the company may not own it. Both situations, along with a myriad of other possible scenarios, can result in costly litigation. Long, expensive legal battles over intellectual property can easily destroy a young company that often can afford neither the actual cost nor the corresponding damage to the company’s reputation, especially because relationships are so often critical to a startup’s success. There is also always the possibility that the company will ultimately lose in litigation, and the loss of critical intellectual property components can seriously damage a company’s value.

 

While it’s important to engage legal counsel to aid in protecting your company’s intellectual property, it’s still valuable to understand the basics as an entrepreneur. This post will describe a few of the basic notions central to the protection of intellectual property protection:

  • Intellectual property assignment
  • Proprietary information and inventions agreement (“PIIA”)
  • Works made for hire
  • Shop rights
  • Licenses

 

Intellectual Property Assignment:

A first step is often ensuring that all intellectual property created prior to these measures is affirmatively assigned to the company. Here, it’s important to think critically about who may have contributed any type of intellectual property. Beyond standard technology, consider anyone who might have contributed to the development of trade secrets, a designer who helped with a logo, or even someone who came up with the company name or slogan. If all the people involved in creating any form of intellectual property do not sign an assignment, then there are already gaps in your company’s foundation.

Once you determine who needs to sign an assignment, it’s important to make sure that the scope of the assignment includes the specific variety of intellectual property that you want assigned and that the correct legal words are utilized to make the assignment valid. These are points you should always be sure to confirm with legal counsel.

PIIA:

It’s also important to ensure that any intellectual property developed forward is retained within the company, and PIIAs can often help meet this goal. PIIAs include language constituting a nondisclosure agreement and provisions assigning intellectual property created during a specified term (commonly the term of employment) to the company. The breadth of the intellectual property that a PIIA covers is typically up to the drafter, and it will be important to discuss with counsel what you intend to accomplish with any PIIAs that you request. Some PIIAs can even assign ideas conceived by individuals during the term of their employment.

Works Made for Hire:

Some specific types of intellectual property are protected by the works made for hire doctrine under copyright law. This is a complicated doctrine, and is often less useful than anticipated by entrepreneurs. It only protects works that are created in a “fixed form,” and only applies to specific items. Moreover, it only applies to works created by employees or works specially commissioned and only in very specific circumstances. Because intellectual property protection under this doctrine is so scant, it’s best not to rely on it and to have other protection mechanisms in place.

Shop Rights:

Shop rights occur when intellectual property is created by an employee and applies to inventions or patents. This right is not codified in law, but is an equitable judge-made solution for instances where an employee utilized an employer’s resources in creating an invention but never assigned ownership to the employer. This right is similar to a non-exclusive, no-cost license; the company can use the invention without paying any fee to the former employee, but has no ownership rights and cannot prevent anyone else from using the invention. While shop rights can somewhat protect your business model because you are not at risk of losing a critical invention, they cannot protect you from competitors.

Licenses:

Licenses can also be a useful tool to gain access to more intellectual property that was not created within the company. There is often open source code available for use in software, and using these usually entails some type of license agreement. Licenses are also useful in obtaining freedom to operate if your company’s invention is not useful without utilizing the invention of another entity.

 

In general, it’s important to establish measures to protect your intellectual property early. Many founders don’t like to spend time on this because it doesn’t typically have an effect in early day-to-day operations of the company, but it can make an enormous difference down the line if this framework is or isn’t in place in the event of a dispute. More importantly, it is very difficult if not impossible to remedy weak intellectual property protection once a dispute has already arisen.

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Employer-Employee Relationship Matters in Patent Ownership

When an employee creates an invention and later is issued a patent on that invention, does the employer get any rights to the patent? This might be a strange question to ask for some people, especially to those without expertise on patent law. They might take it for granted that an inventor owns all patent rights to his or her invention. However, this is not always the case.

 

Patent Law: Ownership is Different From Inventorship

A person must show that he or she contributed to the claims of a patentable invention in order to qualify as an inventor of the patent. By default, the inventor becomes the owner of the patent, but this ownership can be assigned away through a written document, or in some instances through an implied-in-fact understanding (discussed below).

It is the owner, not the inventor, who enjoys all property rights to the patent. With these property rights, the owner of a patent can license the patent to third-parties; sell the patent ownership; sue a potential infringer; and manufacture, offer to sell, sell, or use a product covered by the patent. If the inventor assigns his ownership to someone else, then he or she will not have any of these rights.

 

Ownership and Inventorship in Employer-Employee Relationship

The general rule is that the employee who creates an invention owns the patent rights to the invention. There are two exceptions to this general rule: (1) intellectual property (IP) was explicitly assigned to the employer or (2) the employee was specifically hired to create the invention at issue.

Explicit assignment of IP usually occurs in the form of signing an IP Assignment Agreement. The agreement would provide that all IP that the employee has created or may create in connection with the services provided to the company and/or derived from the company’s proprietary information shall be the property of the company. Different states have different laws regarding the scope of work that this assignment can cover. For example, California’s labor law stipulates that an employee owns the patent rights to his or her invention if the invention is made entirely on the employee’s own time, without using any of the company’s equipment or technology, as long as the invention (a) does not related to the company’s business, and (b) did not result from work performed by the employee “as an employee” of the company.

Even if an agreement was not signed between the employee and the employer, the employer might still have been assigned the patent rights if the employer explicitly hired an employee to invent the product that was patented. This arises from the implied-in-fact understanding that the employee was specifically hired and paid to create the invention and therefore, any fruition of patenting the invention should be the employer’s.

 

Where Assignment Has Not Been Made, Employer Might Still Have “Shop Right”

So is the employer completely without any remedy if the assignment scenarios above do not apply? Not if the employee used the employer’s resources, such as its computers or laboratories, to create the invention. A judge-made doctrine called a “shop right” allows employers to practice inventions created by employees that the employer helped to subsidize.

However, a shop right does not involve transfer of ownership. A shop right is basically a non-exclusive and royalty free license given to the employer. The employee still holds the ownership of the patent and is free to go to third parties and negotiate non-exclusive licenses. Also, the employer cannot sell or transfer this shop right to a third-party.

One important note: the shop right doctrine is not a substitute for an assignment. The doctrine is only a defense to patent infringement in court. In other words, it only arises in situations where the employer is sued by the employee for infringing the patent that the employee was issued by practicing the invention.

 

Implications for University Students and Faculty

Many startups are formed by the students and faculty of universities. Graduate students and faculty typically sign an IP assignment agreement with the university, which means that the employer-employee relationship discussed above is established. A good example of this relationship is Larry Page, one of the co-founders of Google, and Stanford University. As you can see from the excerpt of patent number US 6,285,999 below, the inventor of this patent that served as the foundation of Google was Larry Page. However, he was not the owner of the patent because he was a Ph. D. student at Stanford. As a result, the assignee of ownership was Stanford University, and the university received 1.8 million shares of Google stock in exchange for long-term license of this patent, which translated to $ 337 million.

Meanwhile, each university has its own policy regarding IP assignment of undergraduate students and other students who are not employees, but typically, universities do not seek to claim rights to patents issued as results of class participation. For example, the University of Michigan policy states that:

“The University will not generally claim ownership of Intellectual Property created by students. (A “student” is a person enrolled in University courses for credit except when that person is an Employee.) However, the University does claim ownership of Intellectual Property created by students in their capacity as Employees. Such students shall be considered to be Employees for the purposes of this Policy. Students and others may, if agreeable to the student and Tech Transfer, assign their Intellectual Property rights to the University in consideration for being treated as an Employee Inventor under this Policy.”

 

Advice for Startups

If you’re a startup, there are many other issues regarding IP that should concern you. Regarding the employee IP assignment issue, make sure that all employees sign IP assignment agreements. Litigation is expensive. You don’t want to go to a court to argue that you had an implied-in-fact assignment or that you have a shop right defense to infringement. IP assignment agreements are a lot easier.

Also, find out whether you are working with university faculty or grad students already in an employment relationship with a university. This pertains to your employees as well as independent contractors who will participate in creating inventions for the company. Your employee or independent contractor signing multiple IP assignment agreements could cause ownership problems further down the line.

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The On-Sale Bar to Patentability: A Pitfall for the Startup

onsaleSales are generally a good thing. A startup company’s first sales of a new technology, “must-have” product, or innovative service are proof that the company has arrived. They can initiate a steady source of income and signal legitimacy to creditors, including friends and family who have kept the venture afloat through its early days. Most importantly, sales validate founders’ excitement for sharing their passion with the world.

But sales can also spell disaster. Due to a pitfall built into United States patent law, first sales of a product or service can prevent a startup from pursuing patent protection on its key technologies. Startup founders should be aware of the “on-sale bar” to patentability, which can kill an early-stage venture’s ability to attract investors and ground the company just as it about to take flight.

 

Getting to Know the On-Sale Bar

Patent protection is not usually the first thing on busy entrepreneurs’ minds. That is, until they begin seeking funds from investors. Venture capital firms, especially those investing in tech startups, often insist on robust patent protection before bankrolling a small company’s growth. This makes sense when one considers what a patent is: the right to exclude others from practicing the subject technology. Investing in startups is risky and expensive. Exclusivity reassures investors that they have a chance of recuperating their investments if the company ever gets up and running full tilt. That is why, for many, lack of patent protection is a deal killer.

As it turns out, those celebrated initial sales can doom the startup. Under American patent law, certain acts by an inventor can prevent him or her from ever patenting his or her invention. The Patent Act reads, in relevant part:

A person shall be entitled to a patent unless . . . the claimed invention was patented, described in a printed publication, or in public use, on sale, or otherwise available to the public before the effective filing date of the claimed invention.

35 U.S.C. § 102(a)(1) (2012). There is a one-year grace period built into this law. The upshot is that an inventor who places his invention “on sale” anywhere in the world one year or less before filing a patent application cannot obtain a patent on that invention. This means losing the exclusivity some investors demand.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court and the Federal Circuit have interpreted the law to mean that the on-sale bar applies where the claimed invention (1) is the subject of a commercial offer for sale and (2) is ready for patenting. With respect to the second prong, we can assume for our purposes that if a startup is selling its product or service, the technology at issue is mature and “ready for patenting.” But what about the first prong? When is a product or service “on sale” under the law? Startups should familiarize themselves with what constitutes an “offer for sale” and why our laws discourage patenting an invention that has been on sale for too long.

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How Can Sales Be a Bad Thing?

Patent law reflects a quid pro quo between the inventor the public. In exchange for full public disclosure of new technology, the inventor gets a temporary exclusive right. The idea is that we can incentivize rapid technological innovation by granting a temporary “monopoly,” while the public receives technological knowledge and the certainty that comes with legal notice as to what it can and cannot do. The public also gets freedom to practice the technology after the patent term expires, when the invention becomes part of the public domain.

Once something is in the public domain, it is unfair to remove it. Imagine the uncertainty that would surround any new technology if it could be given to the public, then taken back. Anybody building upon known technologies to create the next big thing would be on shaky ground if an inventor could remove that technology from the public domain at any time, then threaten an infringement action. Such a policy would discourage the technological progress that the patent system was designed to promote.

Although we like the idea of incentivizing innovation, we are also fond of concepts like certainty and notice. This is where the on-sale bar comes in. Selling a patented widget to the public is, in effect, putting it out there for the public to see. And the business community wants to know what it can do with the widget. Can innovators invest huge sums of money around using the widget to make the next next big thing, or are their resources better spent on alternative approaches? The longer the widget is on sale, the more patenting it feels like taking it out of the public domain. Therefore, United States patent law does not allow inventors to commercially exploit their inventions for long before public policy demands they patent it or dedicate it to the public.

  

What the Startup Should Know

With the above discussed public policy in mind, below are some helpful guidelines entrepreneurs should remember to avoid falling prey to the on-sale bar:

  • Courts have signaled that they will look to the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) when determining whether a communication rises to the level of a commercial offer for sale. A key feature of such an offer is that acceptance by the other party would create a contract transferring title of the goods. If the seller retains title to the goods themselves, a transaction might not constitute an offer for sale.
  • The invention itself must be the subject of the offer for sale. Offering to sell rights to the invention or promotional items related to the technology at issue won’t trigger the on-sale bar.
  • A finalized sale is not required. A mere offer for sale is enough to spell trouble. In fact, even a rejected offer has been held sufficient to bar a patent. Similarly, delivery is not required. For example, courts have held that a signed purchase agreement is enough to bar a patent, even when the subject goods or services are never delivered.
  • Conditional sales count too. The fact that a sale is conditioned upon the buyer’s satisfaction, for example, does not get around the on-sale bar.
  • The on-sale bar applies anywhere in the world. Under the old U.S. patent laws, which applied to patent applications filed before March 16, 2013, only offers to sell within the United States would trigger the on-sale bar. Today’s startups must proceed more cautiously. Under the America Invents Act (AIA), passed in 2011, the on-sale bar now has no geographic limitation. Offering to sell your widget in Nepal or on the internet can trip you up as easily as selling it from a booth down the street.
  • Secret sales may trigger the on-sale bar. Under the old patent laws, the “on sale” provision was interpreted as including secret or private commercial activity. It remains unclear whether the courts will interpret the “on-sale” provision in the same way following enactment of the AIA.
  • Even unauthorized third party sales may trigger the on-sale bar. This is important for a startup to keep in mind when entering into a manufacturing or distribution agreement.

Although these guidelines do not outline all the contours of the “on sale” provision, the take home point is clear. Startups with patentable technologies should not offer goods or services for sale to anyone, anywhere, before filing for patent protection. 

Conclusions 

Startup companies considering patenting their products or processes should be cautious about offering to sell their products or services, in public or in secret. More precisely, if a startup’s founders envision fundraising through investors, they should make sure a patent application is on file before putting their company’s goods or services on the market, whether that be through a brick-and-mortar operation or, more likely, the internet. Taking precautions to secure patent protection now can help the tech startup avoid pitfalls, like the on-sale bar, that could keep it from realizing its long-term fundraising and development goals.

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U.S. Trademark Law & The Hashtag: #canthisviolatetrademarklaw?

In the past decade, with the advent of social media, companies have found a multitude of new avenues for reaching potential consumers. Instead of solely relying on traditional marketing avenues, companies have been able to take advantage of the connective world of social media to reach consumer consciousness at an unprecedented rate. The implementation of the “hashtag,” a metadata tag that allows social media users to group their posts with others who have used the same hashtag phrase, has greatly increased visibility among social media users. By using a particular hashtag, companies are able to connect directly to consumer posts, while also encouraging consumers to spread company branding through their own social media use. In addition, the hashtag has in some ways served as the great equalizer in online advertising. Even companies with limited capital have been able to engage in this grassroots marketing, since the cost of using a social media account and a hashtag is often completely free.

As companies increase their presence on these social media platforms and continue to engage in hashtag marketing, legitimate questions about trademark protection have arisen. Namely, individuals in the legal and business community have begun to wonder if there are potentially damaging trademark violations lurking in this newfangled hashtag regime. Many startup companies are reliant on their ability to gain traction through these highly cost-efficient marketing streams, and therefore, founders must ensure that they understand the rules governing the use of “hashtags” in the social media marketplace.

While there are a number of different angles to approach this topic, this post will focus on the legal community’s current (but ever evolving) understanding of the role trademark law plays in policing hashtag marketing in two instances: (1) the use of certain word marks (i.e. words or slogans that are used as source identifiers for a company which are protected trademarks) in a hashtag and (2) the acquisition of protection for hashtag phrases (so, a word mark that includes the actual hashtag symbol at the beginning).

 

(1) Can the use of trademarks in a “hashtag” on social media ever violate federal trademark law?

 In short, the answer appears to be (potentially) yes – in the very limited case law discussing this question, courts appear to indicate that the unauthorized use of a trademarked word or phrase can constitute trademark infringement. To briefly outline what federal trademark infringement entails, a plaintiff (the company attempting to prove that the defendant infringed on their trademark rights) must demonstrate that: (1) the mark in question merits protection under federal trademark law; and (2) that the allegedly infringing use is likely to result in consumer confusion, causing damage to the plaintiff. For example, if a relatively unknown cell phone company began placing the Apple and iPhone words and logos on their products (in other words, trying to pass their phones off as genuine Apple iPhones) this clearly has the potential to cause significant consumer confusion in the marketplace. The question with “hashtags,” therefore, is whether one company’s use of another company’s (or individual’s) trademarked word or phrase could result in a similar type of consumer confusion.

In a recent case in Massachusetts, Public Impact v. Boston Consulting Group, the court determined that the defendant’s use of the hashtag “#publicimact” (as well as the use of a twitter handle “@4PublicImpact”) was an infringement of plaintiff’s protected word mark, “Public Impact.” Specifically, the court stated that the defendant’s use of the same two words that constitute plaintiff’s mark as a source-identifier would be concerning in any context where the words are used without other distinguishing features. The logical conclusion, therefore, is that the court believes that “hashtags” are capable of being used as source identifying mechanisms in social media, and not just merely categorization tools. In other words, the court here seems to recognize the role social media advertising plays in generating revenue for companies, and the potential need for adequate trademark protection for companies in this sphere. As a result of this finding, the court actually ordered a preliminary injunction against the defendant’s continued use of both the twitter handle and infringing hashtag — a result that clearly demonstrates the impact these rulings could have on a company’s ability to continue conducting business as usual.

While no other cases answer this question quite as directly, courts have at least demonstrated an openness to evaluating claims of infringement via “hashtags” on the merits (meaning, that there is at least a colorable claim of infringement). For example, in Fraternity Collection v. Fargnoli, the Southern District of Mississippi stated a willingness to accept, at least theoretically, that “hashtagging a competitor’s name or product in social media posts could, in certain circumstances, deceive consumers.” While there is no judgment on the merits in this case, it at least further shows the general understanding that “hashtags” are capable of doing more than just acting as convenient grouping labels, but instead serve a valid role in company marketing.

Additionally, trademark holders have increasingly threatened litigation over what they perceive to be improper use of their trademarks in hashtags. For example, the U.S. Olympics Committee made various statements during the lead up to the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic games that they would vigilantly seek to prevent the use of their marks (e.g., “usolympics,” “teamusa”) from being used by non-sponsors of the U.S. Olympic team, including in hashtag format. Differentiating individual non-commercial use of these marks from the alleged infringing use, a representative from the USOC stated: ““athletes can certainly generically say, ‘Thank you for your support’ during the Games, but a company that sells a sports drink certainly can’t post something from the Games on their social media page or website. They’re doing nothing but using the Olympics to sell their drink.”

This should give young companies pause when thinking about how to interact in the social media marketplace. While this increased protection is potentially a boost for companies looking to protect fledgling brands, start-ups should also be wary of the potential for using other more prominent marks, especially when doing so could be interpreted as an attempt to palm off on the goodwill of the more established mark.

 

(2) Are “hashtags” trademarkable? Is this a desirable form of protection?

In addition to filing infringement claims for use of a mark within a hashtag, many companies, and other entities, have begun acquiring trademarks for actual hashtagged phrases (in their hashtag form) as a second way of increasing protection. For example, the USOC actually owns the mark: #rioready. Recently, National Football League super-star wide receiver Dez Bryant successfully filed the mark: #throwupthex, which had become his trademark slogan (to go along with his popular touchdown victory move where he crosses his arms in the air). Mr. Bryant noted at the time of the filing of the application his concern that companies would engage in misuse of the mark to generate marketing for their own brands.

While it is clear from these examples that hashtag phrases have been accepted as proper trademarks by the USPTO, there are a few observations that companies should keep in mind when evaluating the decision to register their hashtag marks.

First, the addition of a hashtag symbol (#) in front of an otherwise generic word or phrase does not elevate that word or phrase to a level of distinctiveness. In other words, if the mark is not protectable without the hashtag, it cannot gain protection simply from its inclusion. Second, it may not even be an expedient business decision to acquire this mark. For starters, if the company has not already obtained protection for the wordmark within the hashtag phrase itself, then there is no reason to believe that this mark would be enforceable. Further, companies should be careful to ensure that, if they do acquire a trademark in a hashtag phrase, that they are making sure to use it in a source-identifying way. It is perhaps not terribly difficult to see how (and make the argument that) another company is using an already established source-identifier to palm off the goodwill of that mark by using a hashtag containing that mark (the scenario discussed above). However, if a company obtains a trademark in a hashtag phrase, and then only uses that phrase in a hashtag context (to group their posts together) in a way that doesn’t seem to serve as a source identifier that company may have a tougher time demonstrating that the trademark in that hashtag phrase is valid. A better course of action would be to ensure that trademark protection is obtained first in the actual phrase (without the hashtag symbol).

In all, startup (and more established) companies should not rush to protectionist measures when it comes to trademarks. Much of the marketing benefit arises directly from the consumer’s ability to link directly through the use of trademarks, and owners of the contained marks should not necessarily assume that their usage by others, even other companies, is always an undesirable outcome. Further still, over-protectionist measures may generally be an objectionable decision from a business point of view. That being said, companies and their counsel should be advised to take full note of the rapidly changing landscape governing trademarks and their place in social media advertising.

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Domain Names and Trademarks: How to Get Your Website Name Sorted

 

Turns out being John Malkovich isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

One of the first thing all new businesses do today is register a domain name. Oftentimes the selection of the online identity even figures significantly into choosing the name of the business itself. But what if you’ve already selected the perfect name only to find out someone already has it registered? You actually have a lot more options than you probably think.

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Option 1: Is It For Sale?

Seems obvious and intuitive, right? Well, it may be a bit more complicated than you think. If the domain registrar’s site (like godaddy.com) says the name is not available, the next step is to pay a visit to the site. If the address doesn’t lead anywhere or what you see doesn’t look like a legitimate business there is a good chance you and the owner can make a deal. If, however, it looks like someone is legitimately using the site it may be time to move onto the other options.

Next — finding the owners. You can do this by conducting a Whois search on ICANN’s website (ICANN is the governing body of the internet and stands for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). The search results will either provide the contact information for the owner (or registrant) or designate that the owner has elected to use a privacy shield. In most cases, this is the time to call in the professionals. Many registrars offer a brokerage service where they will reach out to the owners of the name you want and try to make a deal. While this is usually going to be accompanied by a fee, an experienced, impartial party is more likely to commence a deal than someone who is emotionally involved.

If the broker is able to make a deal, your business is off and going. If the broker can’t make a deal, consider the following options.

 

Option 2: Pick a New Name

It sounds so simple, but in practice, unless you’re brainstorming and searching godaddy.com at the same time, you’ve probably already invested something in your company’s name, even if it’s only emotionally. However, in some circumstances it may be the right move, though if you’ve already invested in the business name, probably only as a last resort.

 

Option 3: Pick a New gTLD

Sure, everyone expects a web address to end in ‘dot-com,’ but what if I told you it didn’t have to. Today there are literally over a thousand other options. While none carry the same cultural weight as ‘dot-com,’ they are usually cheaper and certainly more widely available than ‘dot-coms.’ These so called ‘not-coms’ can also give customers more information about your business. For example, if I registered ‘catherine.plumbing’ it would be clear that this site is affiliated with Catherine the plumber, not Catherine the electrician. With so many options, it is unlikely your company’s name is taken in every single one, and you can probably even find something that represents your business better than a ‘dot-com’ could.

One potential drawback to this option is that people are unfamiliar with these new ‘not-coms’ and are potentially skeptical of their legitimacy. However, because there are a limited number of ‘dot-com’ addresses available, eventually internet uses will come to accept these new endings and selecting one now could put you ahead of the curve.

 

Option 4: UDRP

At this point, poor John Malkovich still might not have found any relief, so we turn to legal remedies. ICANN’s Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) provides that if someone has, in bad faith, registered your trademark, or something confusingly similar to your trademark, and that person does not have any legitimate interest in the domain name you may bring a claim of cybersquatting in an administrative proceeding against them in order to recover the domain name, but not monetary damages. The most difficult portion of this test to satisfy is the requirement that the domain was registered in bad faith. To prove this, the UDRP directs the administrative panel to look to facts that indicate:

• the individual has registered the domain with the purpose to sell the name to the owner of the trademark for more than the original cost

• the individual registered the name in order to prevent the owner of the mark from obtaining the mark

• the individual registered the name in order to disrupt a competitor’s business, or

• the individual has used the name to attract internet traffic away from the trademark holder’s site by creating confusion about the true source of the site.

This means that a competitor who registers your company’s name (or something confusingly similar), in which you have either common law or statutory trademark rights, can be forced to hand it over. The UDRP also protects against, so-called, domain trolls. These trolls buy up domain names with the intent to sell them to legitimate users for exorbitant amount.

Once you conclude that you have been the victim of cybersquatting (hopefully after consulting an attorney), you must complete a UDRP Complaint and file it with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The WIPO has available a model complaint that can serve as a guide to your filing. If the complaint is not deficient the registrar will put a lock on the domain name and a trial will be held before a panel of moderators, who will determine the winner. While this process is considerably faster and less expensive (because it is arbitration, not litigation), the most the WIPO can do is transfer to you the domain name, it cannot award monetary damages.

 

Option 5: ACPA

The Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA) (15 U.S.C. §1125(d)) provides relief in very similar situations as the UDRP. As under the UDRP, one must show that the registering individual’s registration was in bad faith, the infringed trademark was distinctive, and that the domain name was the trademark exactly or just confusingly similar. When determining whether the domain name has been registered in bad faith, the statute directs courts to look to many more factors than the UDRP does. Because the statute does not limit the appropriate evidence for determining bad faith, a judge may consider basically anything deemed relevant. If, however, the registrant had a reasonable belief that her use was fair use or otherwise lawful the statute precludes a finding of bad faith.

The most significant advantage of pursuing a claim under the ACPA is that the judge is able to award monetary damages. However, this method is almost certainly going to take longer and cost more than a proceeding under the UDRP. Because of these costs this option should almost always be a last resort.

By now you have learned more about domain names than you ever wanted to know. But hopefully you’ve also learned the importance of protecting your company’s name online and what you can do if your protections fail.

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Linking to Copyrighted Content: Not a Foolproof Way of Avoiding Infringement Liability

There is a common misperception that “linking” to copyrighted content on other webpages, instead of simply copying and pasting an image, for example, is a foolproof way of avoiding liability for copyright infringement. However, students, internet users, and startups without experience in the field of copyright should be aware that this is not always true.

The Berkman Center for Internet and Society’s Digital Media Law Project splits the practice of “linking” into two categories — “deep linking” and “inline linking.” “Deep linking” refers to “placing a link on your site that leads to a particular page within another site (i.e., other than its home page).” The ABA’s Intellectual Property Litigation states that “a majority of courts have agreed that merely linking to another site (whether in the form of a simple link to another website’s homepage or a deep link to a specific page on another website) does not constitute copyright infringement.” The ABA bases this conclusion on the clear statement made by the Federal District Court for the Central District of California in Ticketmaster v. Tickets.com that “hyperlinking does not itself involve a direct violation of the Copyright Act (whatever it may do for other claims) since no copying is involved.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Internet Law Treatise also cites Arista Records, Inc. v. MP3Board, Inc. (holding that linking to content does not implicate distribution rights and thus, does not give rise to liability for direct copyright infringement), and Online Policy Group v. Diebold, Inc. (holding that “hyperlinking per se does not constitute direct copyright infringement because there is no copying”) to support the conclusion that mere linking does not violate the Copyright Act.

The Berkman Center defines “inline linking” as “placing a line of HTML on your site so that your webpage displays content directly from another site” commonly referred to as “embedding.” The Berkman Center relies on Perfect 10. v. Google in concluding that “while there is some uncertainty on this point, the Ninth Circuit concluded that inline linking does not directly infringe copyright because no copy is made on the site providing the link; the link is just HTML code pointing to the image or other material.” Rightfully so, the Berkman Center cautions that other courts may or may not follow this reasoning.

If you are feeling that the above analysis seems unsettlingly inconclusive, your uneasiness is well warranted. The Berkman Center points out that there still may be liability for linking: when either 1) the linking is to infringing works, or 2) the linking is to circumventing technology proscribed by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The first circumstance arises when you knowingly link to works that clearly infringe someone’s copyright, “such as pirated music files or video clips of commercially distributed movies and music videos.” Such linking may give rise to a specific kind of secondary liability called “inducement,” which occurs by “intentionally inducing or encouraging direct infringement.” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., (holding that one who distributed a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties). The Berkman Center instructs that “as long as you do not know that a work infringes someone’s copyright, then you cannot be held liable for contributory infringement for directing users to that work.” However, “on the other hand, it is not necessarily safe to simply claim that you ‘didn’t know’ when the circumstances make it clear the material you link to is infringing.” The Berkman Center also suggests that you may be able to avoid liability in these circumstances by following the notice and take down procedures of the DMCA.

The second circumstance pertains to §1201 of the DMCA, which makes it illegal to traffic in technology that enables others to circumvent technological measures put in place by copyright holders to control access to or uses of their copyrighted works. Trafficking is defined as “making, selling, giving away, or otherwise offering” these devices or tools to the public. Simply posting such tools to your website (which can consist of merely reposting a combination of numbers and letters that you know represent a circumventing code) or linking to other websites that host them qualifies as trafficking, as described in Universal City Studios, Inc. v. Corley, (holding that hosting and linking to the DeCSS code, which allowed users to circumvent CSS, the encryption technology used by movie studios to stop unlicensed playing and copying of commercially distributed DVDs, violated the DMCA’s anti-trafficking provisions, and this application of the DMCA did not violate the First Amendment).

In light of this analysis, it is clear that simply linking to copyrighted content on other webpages, instead of copying that content directly onto your webpage, is not a foolproof way of avoiding liability for copyright infringement. An experienced copyright attorney, or established company with in-house counsel, will likely be sufficiently knowledgeable and savvy to recognize, and avoid linking to, content from webpages that is clearly infringing or has circumventing instructions in violation of the DMCA. However, students, internet users, and startups who are not as savvy, or do not have in-house counsel, may be happy to knowingly deep link or inline link to a clearly infringing photograph, video, or song, and thus should be on notice that such behavior may subject them to copyright infringement liability.

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When Should a Business Incorporate?

wolverine-blog

Although this is a complex question, thinking about it sooner rather than later may help the startup survive cofounder conflicts such as equity distribution disagreements. The reality is that founders should start to think about incorporating as soon as they have seriously considered starting a business on their own, or have a group of people that are starting the business with them. Many problems can arise at the early stages and incorporating may be able to help the startup get through them. Finding a good attorney can help founders navigate the maze of legal complexities and provide guidance through the tough conversations to come.

There is no clear answer as to when is the right time to incorporate, but there are some situations that indicate a business is ready for this step.

 

Is there more than one founder who is contributing intellectual property (IP) or could claim equity?

If so, then it is definitely time to incorporate. When the business incorporates, an independent legal entity is created. This provides some clarity when the question of who owns the IP comes up — assuming the employees have assigned their IP to the company. The line is clearer as to who owns the IP when the business has a separate legal entity than when there is no clear separation between the business and the founder.  You can read more about IP assignments here.

Finally, if there is more than one founder who could claim equity, then the business should be incorporated. Before any of the founders start to do substantial work for the business, especially in regards to technical or engineering work, it is imperative that the business incorporate. Otherwise, if there is any disagreement, then any of the founders could simply walk away with all of their work product without any legal repercussions. Also, in general, incorporating will make it easier to figure out who gets equity and how much.

 

Is one or more of the founders signing contracts or conducting business?

If the business is not incorporated, then the founders become personally liable if something goes wrong. When the business incorporates, it can sign contracts, borrow money and do things that a “person” could do. Because the business is a legal person, the creditors are generally only able to go after the business assets. This means that a founder’s personal assets are protected. In addition, incorporation, as mentioned above, will make it clearer to see who the business is at any point.

If one of the founders is signing the contracts, and later on, the business is incorporated into an entity such as an LLC or C-Corporation, then the founder may still be personally liable for these contracts. Because the corporation did not exist yet, it is not clear that the corporation was the one signing the contract.

 

Does the business have any employees? Are they getting paid with equity?

The business should be incorporated before employees are even hired, but if the business already has them, then it is imperative to incorporate immediately. This will make it easier to protect personal assets. An employer is responsible for any actions that the employee takes that is within the scope of the employment. Thus, if the employee makes a mistake or is negligent while conducting business, then the founder’s personal assets may be at risk — unless a business entity has been formed. In addition, it is easier to grant equity when the business is incorporated. Hence, if the founder is planning to grant equity as a form of payment, then it is time to form an appropriate business entity that meets those needs.

 

Is the business in need of investors?

Even if an investor is interested in supporting an entrepreneur, she may not be able to invest in the business if there is no legal entity to accept the investment. Furthermore, investors actually prefer certain types of legal entities and will not invest unless the company is incorporated as such. Investors want to make sure that their interests are protected; the structure of certain types of companies provide these protections.   

 

Is there a problem if the founders wait to incorporate?

Forgotten Founder: One of the biggest issues that may arise if the business does not incorporate at the right time is the forgotten founder problem. The forgotten founder is someone who is part of the business in the early stages of the venture, but drops out. After the company goes through financing or is starting to pay off, this person comes back into the picture. Usually, the forgotten founder claims he had a substantial role in the company’s success and demands some form of payment. Snapchat, like many other companies, had to address this situation.

Equity: For co-founders, determining how to distribute equity may be one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome. More than half of startups fail due to co-founder disagreements and equity distribution can certainly lead to serious disagreements. For example, after more and more time passes, one founder may start to think they are doing most of the work and deserve more equity than others. She may think this is obvious and does not address it with others. Then, when the conversation finally happens, she finds out that the her co-founders disagree. If the group cannot reach an agreement, then the founder may walk away, which could lead to the dissolution of the start up.

Incorporation forces the equity conversation to happen sooner rather than later. In order to formally incorporate, the co-founders must establish and define the roles of each member, as well as the equity each receives. This is important in order to protect the company’s interests if disagreements arise later on. In regards to the example above, if a co-founder thinks that she deserves more equity, the company has legal paperwork that is enforceable and spells out what was agreed. In addition, having these documents may be able to prevent misunderstandings.

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Hiring New Employees: Beware the Risks of Assignor Estoppel

Slinky!

A drawing included for the patent for a slinky (Patent #: US 2415012 A), issued in 1947.

Startup companies frequently hire new employees from established technology companies — or even competing startups. New employees often provide creative energy and technical expertise critical to the growth of a startup. However, new employees may also bring unforeseen liabilities as a consequence of their past employment. One such liability in the domain of patent law, called assignor estoppel, could prove hugely detrimental to a startup in potential patent disputes down the line.

 

Patent Basics

Patents provide their owners exclusive rights to exclude others from practicing the invention detailed in the patent. Patents can cover a huge swath of technology areas ranging from pharmaceuticals to software. The Patent Office has even issued a patent on a method of swinging a swing.

All patented inventions must have an inventor or a set of inventors, but the inventor can assign, or transfer, her rights to the patent to another person or entity. Most commonly, this occurs when an employee at a company invents something during the course of her employment. Many employers require employees to assign all of their intellectual property rights if the intellectual property connects to the employee’s work at the company. As patent applications have flourished in recent years, particularly in the field of software, many technology employees have pending or issued patents that are assigned to previous employers.

Once a patent has issued, patent owners can sue others who infringe the patented invention; these cases generally arise in federal district courts. Defendants battling against patent owners in these cases typically have two primary lines of defense: non-infringement and invalidity. Non-infringement means that the defendant did not actually practice the invention and thus did not violate any of the patent owner’s rights. Invalidity, on the other hand, means that the Patent Office should have never issued the allegedly infringed patent in the first place, because the patent did not satisfy the criteria necessary for a valid patent. Increasingly, district courts have been invalidating patents, particularly software patents deemed to cover un-patentable abstract ideas.

 

Assignor Estoppel

The rise of patent invalidations has rendered invalidity defenses invaluable weapons in defendant companies’ arsenals. But the doctrine of assignor estoppel can eliminate a company’s invalidity defense, potentially subjecting a company to millions of dollars in patent damages.

Assignor estoppel poses the following proposition: If an inventor files an application for a patent and assigns his patent rights to someone else, he cannot later claim that his assigned patent is invalid during a district court battle. Essentially, the doctrine prevents inventors from patenting an invention and later claiming that the patent is worthless.

For example, an inventor may create a new software application and then assign his patent rights to a large company in exchange for money. Later, the inventor may want to sell the software application to others, even though he assigned away his patent rights already. If he sells the application anyway and thus infringes the company’s patent, assignor estoppel will prevent him from trying to invalidate the patent if the company sues him.

This doctrine can also apply to the new employers of inventors as well. For instance, if the inventor in the previous example joined a new company (Company B) and helped that company develop a competing application, the original company with the patent rights (Company A) might sue Company B. During the ensuing district court battle, Company B may be prohibited from raising an invalidity defense because its new employee has infected his new employer with assignor estoppel.

Assignor estoppel will transfer from a new employee to his new company if a number of factors are met. Some of these factors include the employee’s leadership role at the new company, the employee’s role in allegedly infringing activities, and the employee’s ownership stake in the new company <http://www.ptabblog.law/?p=313>. Roughly, employees with larger influences at their new company pose a higher risk of infecting their new employer with assignor estoppel. At small startup companies, this risk can be significant and pervasive.

 

Nipping Assignor Estoppel in the Bud

So how can startups hedge their risk against a potentially “infectious” employee and secure the availability of legal defenses in patent suits should the need arise? Here are a few tips that entrepreneurs and startups should consider when hiring new employees or taking on additional founders:

  1. Have new founders and employees sign a form that assigns to the company all of the employee’s intellectual property rights that relate to the company’s business.
  2. Ask new founders or employees if they have any issued patents from when they worked at previous employers. Most companies require employees to assign their IP rights, but some employees may not remember that they assigned their patent rights to a previous employer. Consequently, you should search for any issued patents or published pending patent applications with the prospective employee’s name on them.
    1. If a prospective employee has issued patents or pending applications assigned to a competing company, ensure that your new products will not infringe or potentially infringe these patents. It may be prudent to enlist the services of a patent attorney to counsel the company on potential litigation risk relating to these patents.
    2. If the prospective employee will have a leadership role or ownership stake in the startup, the risks of assignor estoppel will be higher. If, however, the employee won’t be working on product development and receives no equity, the risks of assignor estoppel, while still potentially present, will be lower.

Hiring great employees involves a number of important considerations completely divorced from legal risks down the line. However, an employee’s prior patent assignments can create huge legal risks for burgeoning startups. Consequently, startups should be mindful of these risks when making hiring decisions.

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The Dangers of Copying Terms of Service and How to Avoid Them

It might be tempting to copy the Terms of Use from another website, but should you? Attribution: Cathy Olson.

It might be tempting to copy the Terms of Use from another website, but should you? Attribution: Cathy Olson.

Facebook has 1.55 billion users, and each of them has a contract with the company. At their scale, there are few documents more important than their Terms of Service (ToS). Understandably, many Internet entrepreneurs are and should be concerned about this critical part of their business, even if they don’t have the same reach as the Facebooks of the world. Unfortunately, many resort to simply reproducing an existing ToS from a comparable company, but such copying can be risky, in addition to painting companies as cheap knock-offs of their competitors.

Sometimes, another company’s ToS will be very attractive because it contains specific provisions that are relevant to your company as well. If you’ve built an application that tracks your users’ location, then it will be very tempting to copy Uber’s ToS, for example (or large parts of it). But would doing that be in the best interest of your company? Further, would it even be lawful?

Leaving You Vulnerable

The most significant downside of copying a ToS is that it will not contain the provisions tailored to your particular business. If a user or customer were to take legal action against your company, you would be missing the language that could make all the difference in settling or winning the dispute.

Competitors may be using a surprisingly different process to provide similar services. For example, if you’re providing a service based on wireless communication protocols, your competitor might be operating with a different technology, and the provisions of their ToS will very likely reflect that. There might be clauses arising specifically from the technology used, such as the reliability of connectivity, say over the RFID protocol (radio-frequency identification), that are irrelevant to your company, which might be using the NFC protocol (near-field communication). If for whatever reason a dispute arises that implicates the reliability clause, having a custom-tailored ToS is essential.

Governing Law

A ToS can in fact be protected by copyright, and entrepreneurs and their lawyers should take heed. At least one court has found a company liable for copyright infringement when they have copied important sections of public-facing contracts used by competitors.  In AFLAC of Columbus v. Assurant, Inc. et al (2006), a federal district court in Atlanta found that the non-boilerplate sections of AFLAC’s insurance policies were protected by copyright, and that competitors in the insurance market would be liable for infringement if a court found substantial copying. Since an insurance policy is a contract like any other, the same logic would hold for a ToS.

It may come as a surprise, since any practicing lawyer knows that the building blocks of most contracts are copied from others, but contracts that are sufficiently original and creative may be entitled to copyright protection. Accordingly, a contract containing many commonly used provisions can still be protected by copyright because the particular arrangement of provisions could constitute an “original” (and thus copyrighted) compilation.

Practical Risks

The risk of being sued for copyright infringement is small. However, there is a non-legal risk of others viewing the product or service as derivative and unoriginal, making competitors look like the first-mover and innovator in the relevant market. This is especially true for more sophisticated readers of the agreement, such as strategic customers or investors, who may look at the ToS more closely. This obviously doesn’t apply to the standard boilerplate provisions that can be found in almost all contracts, such as a force majeure clause, but in the areas of the Terms that are unique to that particular business, it will look bad.

Open Source Contracts

On the other hand, some companies have generously made their ToS available for the public to use, so long as they provide attribution. Automattic, the company behind the popular WordPress.com, recently open sourced their ToS (in the spirit of their own open source software). They’ve made it available under a Creative Commons Sharealike license, which enables others to copy and repurpose the document so long as internal references are relabeled and attribution is given to WordPress.com.

In conclusion, if you’re tempted to copy another company’s ToS, you may be infringing on their copyright if you take provisions that are unique or distinct from industry custom. If instead you copy just boilerplate or commonly accepted industry provisions, you should be in the clear.

The question then is, if you’re a lawyer, or even an entrepreneur who’s not afraid to draft a ToS, how should you draft solid language that is not a direct rip-off of your competitor’s? See Part 2 of our ToS series to find out!

Part 2: Drafting a Unique and Effective Terms of Service

Lawyers have an ethical obligation to provide fundamentally sound legal advice to their clients. This advice often includes work product that is memorialized, and in the case of a ToS, publicly displayed. This presents an interesting issue: How can the new ToS be distinguished from the original without sacrificing the client’s objective of superior work product? The original document  might be legally sound, comprehensive, well-organized, and narrowly tailored to your market. Yet, completely plagiarizing an existing document has ethical implications, as well as the issue of outside perception mentioned above.

To that end, it’s advisable to start with a series of strong sample documents from sources like CooleyGo, UpCounsel, or Docracy. These are released into the public domain and thus present no copyright concerns.

One process used at our Clinic allows practitioners to create effective ToS documents without plagiarizing. You begin by finding several samples. We found it helpful to begin with documents from the most successful technology companies. By comparing the ToS’s of Apple, Facebook, Google, Uber, and others, we were able to more readily identify boilerplate language common to software and Internet companies. We were able to identify how these companies dealt with specific risks, like server failure, data breach, and personal injury.

Armed with the knowledge of how the biggest and best tech companies minimize risk, we then looked for smaller companies that were in the same field as our clients and had more relevant language to reference. We identified the sections of these ToS’s that were not boilerplate and we stripped them of their legalese. Once we had a version in entirely laymen’s terms, we then translated back to legalese using our own verbiage and adding our own relevant language. This created an authentic ToS that was tailored perfectly to our client’s business.

Other Information

For other information on this topic:

http://newsroom.fb.com/company-info/

http://pub.bna.com/ptcj/1051462Jan11.pdf

https://www.quora.com/Does-copyright-apply-to-contracts

http://scholarship.law.umassd.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1083&context=fac_pubs

http://www.law360.com/articles/5247/insurance-policies-can-be-copyrighted-judge-rules

http://www.americanbar.org/groups/professional_responsibility/publications/model_rules_of_professional_conduct/model_rules_of_professional_conduct_preamble_scope.html