Kardashian Kase – Kontracts Kontrol

Recently, the Federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld an injunction issued for the benefit of members of the Kardashian family against their cosmetic products licensee.

The Kardashians had terminated the license agreement due to the licensee’s alleged failure to pay royalties, among other alleged breaches. The licensee continued to exploit the license and sell products bearing the Kardashian trademarks, asserting, among other things, that “the Kardashians’ termination of the license agreement was invalid because the Kardashians breached the license agreement first . . . .”

The district court found for the Kardashians, holding, unremarkably, that a licensee has but two options when faced with a breach of the license agreement by the licensor: “First, the licensee can consider the contract terminated and stop performance. Second, the licensee can instead continue making royalty payments under the license agreement, continue using the trademarks, and then sue for damages. Regardless, the licensee cannot both stop paying royalties but nevertheless continue using the trademark.”

Although the options presented to a licensee by the district court decision are seemingly reasonable, they can present real risk to the licensee. For example, if the licensee had made significant investments and engaged a large staff to support the licensed business, terminating the agreement and closing down the licensed business not only will put any number of people out of work without advance notice, but also may result in defaults under the licensee’s banking arrangements and the loss of its entire business, thus giving rise to consequential damages potentially far in excess of any award for actual damages to which the licensee may be found to be entitled. Under the district court decision, the licensee’s option in these circumstances would be to continue the licensed business and bring an action against the licensor for damages, with the attendant relationship issues potentially adversely affecting performance, while continuing to make royalty payments with no guaranty that the licensee’s damages can be recouped, even after years of expensive litigation.

There is another quite unremarkable statement in the decision, which, although not in any way undercutting the ruling, may give some guidance as to how a licensee may attempt to protect itself in circumstances like those that the Kardashian licensee alleged it was facing. The court wrote, “like all contracts, trademark license agreements are governed by general principals of contract law.”

Among the most wonderful aspects of our contract laws is that the parties can, in effect and with few limitations, create their own law as to their rights and obligations under almost any circumstances. Accordingly, a licensee familiar with the Kardashian case might look to create a contractual structure whereby it would not have to pay royalties in the event of a significant breach by the licensor or, more realistically, a contractual structure by which it would not have to chase the licensor, at great expense, to recoup royalty payments in order to continue to exploit a generally valuable license agreement.

It is not uncommon to see license agreements in which the licensor has included a right for the licensor to set off amounts due and owing to it by a licensee against any outstanding payment obligations it may have to the licensee. However, even if a licensor would be willing to make this provision bilateral, these provisions are objectively problematic because they cannot be reliably drafted to prevent with certainty a party from merely alleging that the other owes it money in order to trigger the clause (unless, of course, a claimant party is required first to obtain a final judgment as to the amount allegedly owed, which brings us back to the problems with option number two). A better and more objective protection would be to allow the licensee to put its payments of royalties into escrow, with an obligation to take some formal legal action in accordance with the license agreement’s arbitration or litigation provisions before, or reasonably soon after, it notifies the licensor that the escrow account has been established. Assuming that the licensee establishes in the proceeding that it is entitled to damages, the escrow fund, even if less than the damage award, will be available to be applied toward the satisfaction of the judgment. It also is possible that establishing an escrow account and making payments into the escrow account will help relieve at least some of the tensions arising from awkward efforts to work together while the parties are adversaries in court or in an arbitration and perhaps even salvage the relationship after the legal action has ended.

Credit: Jonathan R. Tillem


Patent Falls In Spiderman’s Web: Are You Paying Royalties Unnecessarily?

Spiderman

While the Supreme Court’s recent healthcare and marriage equality rulings garnered a lot of attention, there was another decision at the end of the Court’s term that may be more meaningful to the business of fashion – Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, the Spiderman patent litigation. Steven Kimble secured a patent for a Spiderman toy that shot the character’s “webs” from a hand. Marvel, owner of the character, purchased the patent to resolve a claim of patent infringement, promising to pay royalties on sales of the toy.

The popularity of the toy outlived the twenty-year patent term. Under a fifty-year-old Supreme Court decision, the obligation to pay royalties under a contract ends when the patent term expires, even if the agreement contains no termination date. Court decisions have applied the same rule to copyright licenses and assignments.

The Spiderman case called for the Supreme Court to reconsider the rule and permit the continued collection of royalties as provided in the contract. Although conceding that the fifty-year-old case might have been wrongly decided, as a number of courts and commentators have noted, the Court declined the opportunity to overrule it. Instead, it advised that, if the rule is to be changed, it is up to Congress to do so. Spidey is now free to cast his web without writing any more checks.

The decision is a reminder to licensors that patent and copyright rights do not last forever. In contrast, trademarks last as long as they are used and protected and trade secrets last as long as their secrecy is maintained. Joining a license for patents and copyrights with related trademarks or trade secrets can be a good way to maintain royalties after the patents and copyrights have expired. Licensees, on the other hand, should periodically investigate whether they are paying royalties under patents or copyrights that may have expired.

Credit: Helene M. Freeman


I’m A Good Neighbor–Most Places

fashion designer

When licensing a brand, a fashion licensee naturally wants to know not only that the licensor owns the trademarks that identify the brand to the public and the trade but that the licensee will be able to use the marks without having to contend with adverse claims from third parties. The last thing that a licensee wants is to have many thousands of units manufactured and, just as they arrive in ports and warehouses, get hit with an action for trademark infringement, alone or together with trade dress, copyright or design patent infringement. Indeed, an infringement action could contain any of those claims in combination, resulting in a rather complicated federal lawsuit. And if that is not quickly fixed, there goes the spring/summer season, and all those units, made at the licensee’s cost, might just as well never have been produced. As sub-optimal results go, that is about as low as they come for a new fashion collection.

To help protect against that from happening, counsel for the licensee will typically ask for a warranty of non-infringement. In the practical world of transactional law, there are no prizes for originality in draftsmanship, so all non-infringement clauses are like bees in a hive—they all look pretty much alike:

Fashion Company represents and warrants that the Licensed Manufacturer’s use of the Licensed Marks referenced in Exhibit A as contemplated under this agreement shall not infringe upon or violate the intellectual property rights or other rights of any third party in the Territory.

Of course, if things were that simple, licensees would not need lawyers. (Spoiler alert to licensors and licensees reading this series: Do not rely on what you read here as a substitute for legal representation. Please do not attempt to conclude a complex fashion license without benefit of counsel.)

Indeed, contractual law is about nothing if not the hidden complexity found in words and phrases. As signified by its capitalization, the word Territory should be a defined term. If the license is for a Territory defined as the “United States, its territories and possessions, and Canada,” the non-infringement warranty would cover claims made within those specific jurisdictions. Consulting the United States Patent and Trademark Office database to be sure that the licensor’s trademarks are registered and that there are no pending challenges to those registrations is good self-help for the licensee and a prudent caution for the licensor. But if the licensed Territory is defined more broadly—covering all of the Americas, Europe or even the entire world—the licensor may seek to limit the warranty of non-infringement to those portions of the Territory in which it is reasonably confident that it has protected its licensed rights.

And that is how licensees can find themselves with a predicament that is endemic but the fault of no one: there may be parts of the Territory where the licensor cannot be sure claims of infringement will not be made—as anyone who has seen, to his shock, that his trademark has been registered in another country by someone else for use on the same goods.

The solution? There are various methods that can be used here, but key is for the parties to identify the likely most important countries into which the licensed goods will be delivered (and where they will be manufactured—also an important consideration); they should work together to refine the warranty into something that is reasonable and fair under the circumstances. If that is done, the license should also provide a mechanism for the parties to cooperate in the event that the licensee will seek to introduce its products into areas in the Territory for which the warranty would not apply on execution.

The bottom line: It is a big world. Rights and remedies regarding licensed intellectual property can be very different from one nation to another. Care must always be taken to match the business plan for a license with the realities not only of the market but of the law. In the end, it is in the best interest of both parties to see that works out successfully. That proves again why all licenses are, if nothing else, documents of cooperation for the common good of the parties involved.

Credit: Alan Behr

See previously published related posts:


I Own It — I Mean, Really, I Do!

BlackPolkaDot-RedAccessories

In our exploration of the representations and warranties often seen in fashion agreements, we come to one that is at the core of licensing and distribution agreements, and it typically looks like this:

Fashion Company represents and warrants that it owns and maintains trademark registrations in the Territory [the scope of which should be clearly defined] for the licensed marks set forth in Exhibit A to this agreement.

Similar warranties can be made, as applicable, for rights to trade dress (which is an important trademark derivative for those fields, such as fashion, in which designs can be important assets) and in copyright and design patents. Those will be discussed in subsequent posts.

For trademarks, the important thing is to clarify what is actually being licensed. Scheduling the licensed marks, particularly if any involves specific colors, fonts, devices (logos) or other design elements in how they are presented, is very important because the warranty of ownership will apply only to what is specifically listed, and with trademarks, any change or variation in more than a “de minimis” or token amount may be deemed to have created a different mark—one that is not covered by the warranty.

Pitfall: licensees beware. Licensors may change their branding indicia during the term of licenses. If that happens, and the licensed trademarks are listed in the agreement, the new versions may not be covered by the contractual warranty. As an example, the mark FASHION COMPANY registered in the stylized form FASHION COMPANY will likely not be seen as the same stylized mark as FASHION COMPANY when used in the latter form. The license agreement should therefore be drafted to include any new versions of the listed trademarks within the definition of the “licensed marks”—and to require the licensor to give fair notice when any such changes in branding may be forthcoming. Financial issues concerning the costs of the changeover to the licensee can become the subject of additional negotiations.

Although due to the oddly backwards way in which United States trademark law developed (which is a long story in and of itself), it is not necessary to have a federal trademark registration to claim ownership of a mark in the USA. It is therefore common, and indeed usually prudent, for a licensee to insist on a warranty that the licensed marks have been registered for the specific goods covered by the scope of the license. Where things can get tricky is if such registrations have not yet been granted in the USA or in other jurisdictions in the territory covered by the license. The licensor may, in certain instances, be able to warrant ownership of marks that have not been registered (although it cannot so warrant ownership of the registrations themselves), or it may demand that it limit its warranty to those portions of the territory where it has registrations in place and is confident the use of the mark as licensed would go unchallenged. The business and legal risks, and the operational considerations implicit in partially encompassing warranties, should be carefully considered by both parties.

The key takeaway here is that, in the USA, trademark protection tends to be quite specific, exact and exacting. It is therefore prudent for the licensee to do due diligence to comfort itself that the licensor or other trademark owner’s warranty of ownership (and registration) is valid and accurate—because once you sign the agreement and start acting under it, you will likely be spending your money to make things happen, and no one likes throwing away money due to promises (that is, warranties) that cannot be honored.

Credit:  Alan Behr

See previously published related posts:


I Hereby Promise That You Are My One and Only-ish

Agreement-Torn

In our explorations of representations and warranties that are typical to contracts in the fashion business, we now come to one of the classics: the warranty that, by signing the contract, the party is not violating any other contracts it has signed. A typical such warranty would look like this:

Fashion Company represents and warrants that, by entering in to this agreement, it shall not violate the terms and conditions of any other agreement, arrangement or understanding to which Fashion Company or any of its affiliates is a party.

What is that about? Remember Mel Brooks’ The Producers (in any of its forms as movie, Broadway musical or movie of the Broadway musical)? The hero (loosely speaking) was Max Bialystock, a down-on-his luck Broadway producer who, with his accountant partner, tried to make a killing by selling far more than one hundred percent equity investment interests in his musical Springtime for Hitler. All he had to do to make the scheme work was to be sure that the show failed—which would not prove as easy as it first appeared.

If someone contractually sells interests in anything to different people so that they collectively have rights to more than all of what could have been sold, the seller has certainly made agreements that violate the terms and conditions of each of the sale agreements, resulting in a breach of this important warranty each time—if the seller was foolish enough to compound his problems by making such a warranty. Another all-to-common example: any Ponzi scheme or similar scam.

Surely, one of the most important places in the fashion business for such a clause is in a license agreement. The licensee needs to be very sure that the grant that it has received is valid and does not conflict with any grant made by the licensor to any other licensee; and the licensor needs to be equally certain that it is not granting conflicting rights to different persons. For example, if you are about to sign as the exclusive licensee for a brand in the “sportswear” category, would you feel that a license to another party for “activewear” violates your exclusivity? The answer, on those possible facts alone, is a resounding “maybe.” If you define sportswear broadly enough, even redundantly enough, to include, “all casual, active and athletic wear,” any license granted by the licensor to a third party for activewear would violate the warranty made to you for sportswear—and you would therefore have the basis of a claim and, if necessary, a lawsuit.

Here again, doing your diligence on your counterparty—and defining your terms—will go a long way toward making your contract into the protective blanket that you and your attorneys intended it to be.

Credit: Alan Behr

See previously published related posts:


I Promise, Therefore I Am

DeliverOnYourPromises

In our series of posts about representations and warranties we have recently explored the nature and purpose of the “reps and warranties” clause—to use familiar legal shorthand. We now will examine some common representations and warranties in fashion agreements. For convenience, in these posts, we will use warranties to reference both representations and warranties—terms that, as a practical matter, are functionally equivalent in any event.

First, keep in mind that, when lawyers and fashion business people read the same contract, they rarely read the same clauses with particularity. In a fashion license, for example, it is quite typical for the business people to read the grant of rights, promotional obligations and financial clauses—and that may well be about all. The lawyers, meanwhile, are absorbed to the point of obsession over the warranties and the related indemnities clauses—because those terms can determine who wins and who loses, and for how much, in any litigation concerning the contract. So please forgive your lawyer for going OCD over the warranties; he or she is just doing the job the way that nature intended.

The typical first warranty is an affirmation of a party’s existence. That may seem rather unnecessary: if someone is signing the contract, would that not mean that the signatory exists, for that reason alone? The answer is no. Except in those rare cases of a person signing on behalf of his or her sole proprietorship or a partnership in which he or she is a general partner, the person signing is doing so on behalf of an entity that has a separate, albeit fictive existence. Corporations and limited liability companies, that is, are in effect virtual people. They have many of the rights (such as making money) and duties (such as paying taxes) as real people, and they do it without corporeal existence. These “persons” under business law are liable for what the real people who act on their behalf do for them, but those real people, whether employees, equity holders or other participants are, except in specific cases, not personally liable for the acts and omissions of the entity they serve or represent.

In the United States, the entity can only be such a legal “person” by being formed under the laws of a particular state, and it can only trade consistently within another state by being granted the right to do so. And you guessed it: each state involved extracts various fees and taxes for being the virtual location, in whole or part, of the premises and activities of the fictional person. For that reason, the entity will often be called upon to give a warranty that it has done all that is necessary to maintain its existence. The reason is that, if it has not done so, there may literally be no party able to perform under the terms and conditions of the contract that apply to that entity. A typical, if somewhat long form of a warranty of existence looks like this:

Fashion Company represents and warrants that it is a corporation duly organized and existing under the laws of the State of New York, is authorized to do business in the State of California, and has paid all fees, taxes and governmental charges in connection with the foregoing.

In short: the party making the warranty is affirming that it exists and can do business as promised—and that it is current on its obligations to those governmental authorities that grant those allowances. It is a simple promise to make, but it is just about the most important promise that one business entity can give another because, if it is wrong about any of that, it may not even be an entity capable of making any promises at all—in a contract or otherwise.

In contractual due diligence, it never hurts to investigate independently by checking with the databases of the governmental authorities in question that those promises are accurate. That is because, as cynics and pragmatists everywhere remind us, for some out there, “Promises are meant to be broken.”

Credit: Alan Behr


No Guarantees In Life But Plenty In Contracts

Contract to sign

I was buying yet more consumer electronics of questionable utility (everyone needs a hobby) when the salesman recommended that I take the extended warranty. I told him no. As he was trained to do, he then launched into a grave speech about how badly I would be burned if what he had just sworn was the finest piece of technology in its class turned out to be complete crap—but only after the expiration of the manufacturer’s warranty. I explained, as I always do, that I have consistently refused extended warranties and have already won the bet: if all the consumer electronics of questionable utility that I buy from now until the end of my stay on earth should indeed turn into junk during the term of the extended warranties that I will likewise recklessly decline to purchase, I will have saved so much money from all such prior refusals that I will still come out ahead.

Warranty: In a consumer context, it is often the next most important thing (after the brand itself) that gives a potential purchaser confidence in what he or she is about to buy. In a legal context, however, the word has a more demanding set of meanings attached to it.

The clause we are discussing is typically headed “Representations and Warranties.” There has been some debate on what the distinction between a representation and a warranty might be (outside the context of insurance), if indeed there is one: Some believe that this is another of those situations in which lawyers have two words to describe the same thing and, afraid that one might be found incorrect, shove both of them into their contracts. (That is a form of the legal practice commonly known as “belt and suspenders” drafting.) About the best distinction between representations and warranties that has been made comes from the Section of Business Law of the American Bar Association: “Representations are statements of past or existing facts and warranties are promises that existing or future facts are or will be true.”

The main point is that, whatever you call them, the contractual form of what can loosely be called a guarantee is a statement of facts given for the other party to rely upon in agreeing to the covenants in the contract that govern the relying party’s conduct. If the party providing the warranty misstates the facts, grounds have been given for claims of misrepresentation and for breach of warranty.

In upcoming posts, we will explore the implications of that for agreements in the fashion, accessories and related businesses.

Credit:  Alan Behr