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


The Conformist

Garment Manufacturing Asia

Have you ever had the experience of going into a fitting room and trying on two of the same item in the same size, perhaps only in different colors, only to find that they fit quite differently—to the point that one might not fit at all although the other did? Production line manufacturing may be efficient, but no one ever claimed it to be an exact science.

No one expects the retailer to guarantee that every item sold under the same SKU will fit exactly like every other item bearing that SKU in the same size. But in fashion licenses, that kind of elasticity in expectations can become the subject of negotiation.

It typically plays out like this: the licensee agrees to provide pre-production samples to the licensor for approval. The licensor either approves or disapproves; if it disapproves, the licensee is often entitled to a second try, adjusting the style to suit the licensor’s expectations. Once the styles are approved, the licensee initiates production. More typically in the fashion business, the licensee contacts someone else, often half a world away, and tells him or her to initiate production.

The licensor may demand, in the representations and warranties section of the license (which has been the subject of this series of posts), that the licensee warrant that production models will not deviate from approved samples. If the licensee is careful, that may be qualified by adding in any material way or by breaking the force of terms like will conform by dropping in the forgiving qualifier substantially. But bolts of cloth from different batches can easily have variations, and sometimes the chosen buttons, snaps and other accessories run out and others need to be substituted; the list of potential deviations goes on. In a seasonal business such as fashion, where a handful of weeks can make or break a SKU, a style, a look, a collection or even an entire business, the date on which finished goods are to be sent to retail doors is hardly the time to get into an argument over whether something already bought and delivered does or does not substantially or materially conform to the appearance or other attribute of an approved prototype.

The first rule of warranties applies here as it does to all others: for the licensee, never make a promise that you cannot keep; for the licensor, never ask anyone else to make a promise that you can be reasonably sure he or she will not be able to honor. To avoid surprises, it is useful for the parties to think through, and to talk through, contingencies due to variations in manufacture and to consider adding to the license, as a defined term, exactly what they mean when they say something must conform to what has been approved. Even if something is completely non-conforming, alternatives such as sale into outlets or other lower end channels, or outside the territory, perhaps with labels removed, can sometimes work.

In the end, however, all licenses, like all contracts, rely more on the element of trust (and forgiveness) than lawyers can hope to draft into them. Simply, a well-written contract can get you a favorable result in court, but working with the right people is a good way to help stay out of court.

Here as with most else in licensing, the name of the game is cooperation. The devil, as they say, will always be in the details.

Credit: Alan Behr

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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

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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

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When Just the Licensor is Not Enough

magnifying glass with trademark icon

Companies often place their trademarks in a separate subsidiary or affiliated company. And then, sometimes, rather than being the direct “licensor” of the trademarks, the owner will enter into a master license with another subsidiary or affiliate. Use of a master licensor/licensee structure is appropriate from an operational perspective if the sole business of the trademark owner is to own the trademarks, since it therefore would be unable to provide the services normally required of the “licensor” under any of the various license agreements it hopes will be consummated.

Just as a licensor should require representations from a guarantor of its licensee’s obligations and should seek to bind the guarantor to many of the restrictions imposed on the licensee, sometimes parties receiving licenses (technically, sublicenses) from master licensees will think to ask for various representations from the master licensor/trademark owner, such as those relating to the rights and authority of the master licensee, to the absence of grants of conflicting rights to any third parties, etc., and some of these sublicensees will think to bind the trademark owner to some of the restrictions imposed on the master licensee under the sublicense agreement, particularly in regard to honoring whatever exclusivity rights may have been granted to the sublicensee. But most sublicensees will not think to protect themselves against the potentially adverse effects of changes in the master license agreement itself. For example, if for some reason the master license is terminated during the term of the sublicense agreement, the trademark owner should be bound to substitute itself or a successor master licensee as the (sub)licensor under the (sub)license agreement. And similarly, the customary “binding on successors and assigns” provision of the sublicense agreement should be expanded so that, if ownership of the trademarks is transferred during the term of the sublicense agreement, it is clear that the sublicense agreement is binding on the new trademark owner; and it would not hurt also to bind the trademark owner to be required to cause the new trademark owner to agree that it (or its master licensee) automatically will be substituted as the (sub)licensor under the (sub)license agreement upon the closing of the transfer of the trademarks.

Credit: Jonathan R. Tillem


BOTL III

During the course of negotiating a license agreement, a licensee may propose certain changes that may appear logical and reasonable. However, a licensor should be on the lookout for seemingly innocuous proposals that could impede its ability to operate its business.

Agreement-likeness-blurred

  • “I need a longer sell-off period after termination and the types of customers to which I can sell during the sell-off period [e.g., only closeout accounts] is too limiting.” Agreeing to these requests may not be problematic if no new licensee is in place, but the license agreement must contemplate the possibility that there may be a new licensee; and extended and extensive sell-off rights may make it more difficult to conclude a new license and may increase the pressure to give financial and other concessions to the new licensee. (In a later post, we will discuss the substance of sell-off provisions, including circumstances of termination that could result in a bar to a sell-off beyond the date of a termination of the license agreement.)
  • How much time does a licensee actually need, particularly considering that, for a seasonal business with a typical December 31 contract year/term end, sell-off actually could be starting as early as September?
  • While selling off prior seasons’ inventory should not seriously compete with a new licensee’s business and while closeout accounts may be the only meaningful customers for closeouts, it cannot be good for the licensor’s brand or the new licensee’s business if the former licensee’s products, whether or not they include “basics,” are being offered to the new licensee’s regular customers at the same time that the new licensee’s business is being launched.
  • “I would like an option to renew the license agreement.” While renewal options are quite common, and sometimes may even be offered by a licensor, accepting some common licensee complaints can have unintended consequences.
  • “The date by which I have to exercise the option is too early.” Depending on the length of the term, this could be a fair point, but a licensor must keep in mind that, if the option is not exercised, it will need time to locate, negotiate with and conclude an agreement with a new licensee and the new licensee will need time to develop its initial collection, which, for a seasonal business, will have to go to market well before the end of the current licensee’s agreement. (In a later post, we will discuss the need for provisions in an exclusive license allowing the licensor to engage a new licensee during the term and the new licensee to start business before the end of the term.)
  • “The conditions for renewal are not objective.” As noted in an earlier post, a licensee will want only objective standards when it comes to the conditions it will have to satisfy in order to exercise its option. However, is it unreasonable for a licensor to be able stop doing business with a licensee that, while not technically having defaulted in its obligations, has been a terrible partner and exceedingly difficult to deal with?
  • “I would like a right of first refusal for additional products or countries or trademarks.” A right of first refusal, in effect, requires the licensor to make a deal with a prospective third party licensee and then offer the current licensee the right to match it. There is not much chance that a prospective licensee will be willing to devote the time and expense of negotiating a license agreement in these circumstances. If pressed, giving the existing licensee a first right to try to make a deal with the licensor – a right of first negotiation – is a better, and reasonable, alternative.
  • “I want more countries in my licensed territory.” If a prospective licensee can demonstrate the wherewithal to properly exploit the proposed additional countries, the inclusion of the additional countries is often just a question of business judgment. (There may, however, be legal considerations to be addressed in the license agreement depending on the status of the licensor’s trademark rights in the additional countries.) If additional countries are included, though, a licensor should retain the right to take back countries that the licensee does not exploit adequately; and any such reversion right must be carefully drafted, particularly to take into account that getting back a few countries in a region may not be of any real value to the licensor. (What potential new licensee is going to be interested in a license for a few scattered Asian or European countries if the existing licensee retains the major markets in the region?) A possible compromise here might allow the licensee to keep the entire region if it is appropriately exploiting the major markets in the region, but to lose the entire region if it is not.

Credit: Jonathan R. Tillem

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