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:


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


What Chanel and Kleenex Have In Common

Chanel-Words-BoardedStoreFront

When Chanel filled the back cover of WWD with an advertisement that was nothing more than black words on newsprint—without a perfume bottle, a skirt suit or even Karl Lagerfeld anywhere in sight—you knew that the topic was serious. The ad was an open letter directed to “fashion editors, advertisers, copywriters and other well-intentioned mis-users of our Chanel name.” It reminded them that CHANEL stands for the designer Coco Chanel, the signature perfume and the company’s other products, and that, “CHANEL is our registered trademark…”

And right they are. There are major brands that are virtually nothing other than trademarks. Run as design studios, they own no factories, and at least under US law, often have little hope of securing legal protection for the exclusive rights to their most successful designs. The good will, which for them is the core of enterprise value, is in the trademarks that identify the source of the products marketed under their brands and by which the public and trade recognize their goods.

The easiest way to dilute or otherwise damage a mark is for the owner and others to misuse it. That is why Chanel insists that a jacket not be called “a CHANEL jacket” unless Chanel makes it. Another easy way to lose a mark for goods is for it to become a generic term, which can start to happen when it is misused as a verb when applied to the goods of others, as in (to use Chanel’s hated examples), “Chanel-ed” and “Chanel’ized.” The ad closes the way you would expect by a piece that, by necessity, is a mild scold—by blaming the lawyers.

Kleenex-Tissue-BoxChanel is right, and even its lawyers are right. So are the lawyers for Xerox, who have been after writers for decades to knock off saying, “Go xerox it” or, just as bad, calling a rival maker’s photocopier a “Xerox machine.” They would rather that you say instead, “Go make a photocopy on the Xerox machine” or, even better, “let’s trade in that clunker of a photocopier for an authentic Xerox brand device.” As that example shows, the price of popularity of a trademark is that it comes to symbolize not merely a single source but an entire product category, which could cause the owner actually to lose exclusive rights to the mark. Other beneficiaries of this happy dilemma are KLEENEX, for facial tissues, and, in the UK, HOOVER, where it is often misused as a verb for operating any vacuum cleaner, as in, “Get your bum off the sofa; I’m going to hoover the floor now.”

Should any trademark for your fashion brand become so well known that it brings to mind an entire product category, you should consider doing what Chanel has done—get the word out that your trademark belongs to you alone and that it identifies you as the exclusive source of your products. To help achieve that goal in day-to-day usage, always use your trademark as a proper adjective, as in, “For my birthday, honey, I’d just love a little trinket, nothing more—say, a Chanel watch.” Your mark should never to be used as a (lower case) noun as in, “I had such a chanel moment today,” (when being admired while walking the dog in a Nike tracksuit). And it must never be used as a verb, as in, “Go chanel your look with a counterfeit Gucci purse.” (The two wrongs in that sentence do not make a right.)

Trademarks last as long as they are used and protected. Use yours well.

Credit:  Alan Behr


Seeing Red–and Your Brand

Louboutin

One of the ways to build brand identity in fashion is to create strong customer recognition of a particular color as a signature of the brand. That has value across all lines of commerce. We can be sure, for instance, that no one will consider starting a worldwide package delivery service that uses solid-brown trucks and driver uniforms. In fashion, there are many examples, from Tory Burch’s orange doors to the red outsoles of Christian Louboutin footwear—the latter of which became the subject of important litigation in the United States.

In the Louboutin case, Louboutin v. Yves Saint Laurent Am. Holding, 696 F.3d 206 (2d Cir. 2013), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that Louboutin could retain its trademark registration for red lacquered outsoles for “women’s high fashion designer footwear” in which the outsole and upper were of contrasting colors. What that means is that, if your competing shoes are monochrome, as was the YSL style (which had a red heel and insole as well), you can use red lacquered outsoles. But for all other such footwear, Louboutin owns the exclusive right in the United States to use lacquered red for outsoles. Both sides in the case were therefore able to claim victory: the particular Yves Saint Laurent style did not infringe the Louboutin trademark because it was indeed all red, but the Louboutin trademark was not stricken from the register, simply limited to what Louboutin has mostly been doing all long—which is to put lacquered red outsoles on women’s footwear with contrasting uppers.

It is not often that litigation ends in such a win-win scenario, but the message remains the same in any situation: If you have an important color that you believe is part of your brand’s “signature,” work with counsel to structure efforts to seek protection of that color as an element of both a trademark (a brand identifier in the form of words and logotypes) and trade dress (a brand identifier in the form of particular elements of product packaging and, with a bit more effort, the products themselves).

There are related issues. One is the color spectrum: if you are claiming the color blue, what range between blue-tinted white to midnight blue, on one hand, and green-blue to gray-blue, on the other, are you claiming as your true blue? Another issue is the business spectrum: what are the product categories and the markets (by type of customer, price point, etc.) for which you are claiming exclusivity for your color? And as the Louboutin case shows us, much may ride on the positioning of your “signature” color on products (and packaging) and your ability to prove that the marketplace understands that the signature is yours alone.

The takeaway from all this remains much the same as with other questions concerning branding in the fashion and accessories sectors: marketers should work closely with lawyers and get them involved as early as possible in the decisions that they make.

Credit: Alan Behr


License Agreements: Aim for Fairness — But Words Have Meaning

licensing

It can be said that a licensing arrangement is inherently symbiotic in nature, with the good faith efforts and cooperation of both the licensor and the licensee being necessary for success. The licensor provides its trademark, perhaps some degree of design expertise (particularly in the fashion field), and perhaps also brand customer relations and certain advertising and promotional assistance; and the licensee contributes its expertise in the particular industry covered by the license and possibly its customer relations, its organizational structure and capital resources. The resulting relationship, in a very practical sense, is that of a joint venture or a partnership. Although on one level the negotiation and drafting of a license agreement must be approached as an adversarial process, both parties also should recognize that they will be more likely to view their arrangement ultimately as a success if it strikes a balance, on the one hand, between the licensor’s legitimate concerns for the maintenance of its image and quality standards, for the protection of its trademark and for fair compensation for the rights it has granted and, on the other hand, the licensee’s legitimate desire to exploit the rights granted to it in an economically advantageous manner consistent with industry norms in the applicable market segments and without fear of termination if it is performing in good faith. Ideally, therefore, the parties should approach the negotiation and documentation of the license agreement from the perspective that each of them is looking to make the venture a success for both of them and should recognize and attempt to satisfy the other’s needs.

That said, no matter how much the parties aim for “fairness,” there almost surely will be provisions that a licensor perceives as necessary to protect important interests which a licensee considers unfair, unduly burdensome or overreaching. Before proceeding with an agreement, a licensee must remember that words have meaning and a licensor can seek to force the licensee to conform in its performance to what the agreement says. A licensee cannot rely on its business sense (or gut) to assume that a licensor would “never do that,” even if the licensor assures it that the licensor never has done so before. There also can be no great comfort in the thought that the provision might not be enforceable, since the time and cost involved in adjudicating the issue can be enormous, even if the licensee succeeds. If the agreement requires certain conduct or prohibits certain acts, a licensee should assume that those words control and that, if it ignores them and its licensor’s demands for conformance, it does so at its peril.

Credit:  Jonathan R. Tillem