Articles Posted in Intellectual Property

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Retail giant Walmart is facing a two billion dollar lawsuit. The plaintiff, a Silicon Valley company called Zest Labs, says that Walmart employees stole their trade secrets, later implementing the technology for Walmart’s benefit without crediting or compensating Zest Labs.

Spoiled-fruit-73671769-e1533921700439Estimates suggest that in excess of $85 billion worth of fresh food goes to waste every year in America. The reasons for this waste are complex and various, but Zest Labs felt that they had devised innovative methods for minimizing “fresh food shrink.” The company began developing the system in 2010, and by 2015, Walmart had expressed an interest in the technology. Under an agreement, Zest Labs began sharing its discoveries and innovations with representatives from Walmart. The disclosures included demonstrations and presentations that highlighted proprietary information that Zest Labs had developed over the course of their work in the previous five years.

Zest Labs alleges that Walmart participated in numerous trials over a two-year period. Then, the company abruptly pulled out of the arrangement in November 2017. In the complaint, Zest Labs executives describe being “stunned” by the sudden about-face, and their consternation only grew four months later when Walmart announced its new Eden project.

Zest Labs employees felt that the similarities between their technology and Walmart’s new Eden system were too significant to ignore. They argue that “Walmart used its years of unfettered access to plaintiffs’ trade secrets, proprietary information, and know how to steal the Zest Fresh technology and misappropriate it for Walmart’s own benefit.” The complaint goes on to say that “Walmart integrated the Zest Labs technology into Eden without authorization and without compensating Zest Labs.”

While this particular case represents something of a David vs. Goliath situation, no organization of any size can afford to neglect the protection of its intellectual property. This includes valuable trade secrets that help one company differentiate itself from the competition. Whenever confidential information or trade secrets are shared, it is advisable to have an enforceable non-disclosure agreement signed first. This not only protects the company that is sharing its proprietary information but also provides them with additional leverage should court action become necessary.

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Disney and Redbox are continuing their legal battle over the codes that customers use to download digital copies of movies. Typically, these codes are included in movie “combo packs” that include DVD and Blu-ray versions of films plus a code that customers can use to download a digital version of the film. Redbox has been purchasing these combo packs, placing the DVDs and Blu-rays in their machines and also enabling customers to purchase the digital download code. Disney says that Redbox’s practice is a breach of their copyrights to the media.

redbox-1Redbox argues that Disney engages in practices that include false advertising, misuse of copyrights and unfair competition. Additionally, they say that Disney’s behavior is anti-consumer, and they go on to assert that the restrictions that Disney puts on its media is tantamount to copyright misuse.

However, Disney attorney Glenn Pomerantz argues that Redbox is not Disney’s direct competitor. This means that Redbox wouldn’t be able to claim that Disney is using unfair tactics to gain dominance in the marketplace.

Attorney for Redbox Michael Geibelson responded by accusing Disney of “aggressive” behavior in their efforts to prevent Redbox from purchasing movie combo packs, but Pomerantz refutes this claim. He says that Disney and Redbox entered into a contractual agreement, and that Disney is simply trying to enforce that agreement.

Geibelson countered by asserting that Disney does not appropriately outline the terms and conditions of the purchase of movie combo packs. Once again, Pomerantz disputed this argument, saying that customers who purchase a download code have no way of knowing that it came from a combo pack, and therefore they could not be aware of the terms and conditions nor could Redbox claim false advertising.

Both parties acknowledge that talks between them are ongoing. As they continue to battle it out in the courtroom and conference room, it seems clear that the outcome of this case may have a far-reaching effect on other media companies. Now is the perfect time for businesses to consider how well protected their intellectual property is and to explore the efficacy and comprehensiveness of their contracts.

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Electric car company Tesla has filed a lawsuit against a former employee over what it claims are stolen secrets. Martin Tripp is named as the defendant.

System-Failure-51347065-001Tripp began working for Tesla in October 2017. His job was at the organization’s Nevada battery factory. As a process technician, Tripp was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement like other employees. Supervisors at Tesla began noticing problems with Tripp’s employment after a few months. They allege that Tripp was combative with colleagues and caused disruptions. In May 2018, he was reassigned to another department. The company also claims that this prevented Tripp from getting a promotion that he felt he deserved.

In the complaint, Tesla alleges that Tripp’s reassignment and the denied promotion are what sparked the employee to retaliate. Tripp admitted to internal investigators at Tesla that he wrote a software program that was capable of transferring gigabytes of data to computers outside the company. The data included photographs and videos, and Tesla claims that all of the data was privileged. Tripp is alleged to have placed the hacking software on the computer systems of three other employees so that he could continue to receive data even after he left the company. Additionally, this measure would implicate the other employees in the data theft.

According to the complaint, Tripp then leaked some of the stolen data to the media, combining it with falsehoods such as a claim that punctured battery cells were used in Tesla’s Model 3 car. The company further alleges that Tripp falsified data regarding the amount and value of scrap metal that is generated in the organization’s production processes.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk warned employees in an email about the hacking and the falsehoods that were leaked to the media. He noted that many other entities, like oil and gas companies, “want Tesla to die,” and that this is leading them to investigate whether or not Tripp acted alone.

It is not known if any criminal investigation has been launched, but this situation serves as a reminder of the importance of protecting intellectual property using all legal means available.

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The Walt Disney Company recently suffered a setback in a California federal court. Specifically, a judge has denied Disney’s request for a preliminary injunction against Redbox that would have forced the DVD-rental company to stop reselling the download codes for digital copies of the studio’s films.

redbox-1Redbox’s movie rental kiosks have become a familiar part of the landscape in recent years. Consumers stop by these kiosks for the latest releases. For the most part, Redbox has distribution deals with the major movie studios that allow them to profit by renting out the studios’ films. However, Redbox has no such agreement with Disney.

Accordingly, Redbox purchases Disney-distributed movies from retailers, then slips them into their kiosks for customer rental. Disney and other movie studios frequently put new films in combo packs that feature DVD and Blu-ray copies of the films along with a download code for getting a digital copy. In addition to renting DVDs and Blu-rays, Redbox has been selling the download codes on slips of paper that are obtainable at their kiosks.

When Disney found out about this practice, they immediately launched a lawsuit. Among the charges in the complaint were copyright infringement, false advertising, unfair competition, tortious interference with customer contracts and breach of contract. Redbox quickly countersued, arguing that the studio was trying to stifle possible competition for its soon-to-be launched digital streaming service.

Not only has a federal judge denied Disney’s request that Redbox be stopped from re-selling download codes, but also the judge says Disney is actually misusing copyright law. On each Disney movie combo pack, consumers will find language stating that the download code cannot be sold or transferred. The studio argued that this constitutes a legally binding contract, but the judge did not agree. In fact, the judge said that there is no law that prevents what Redbox did. After the “first sale,” which was the lawful purchase of the combo pack, the owner is then free to dispose of the copies as they wish.

Copyright law can be incredibly nuanced. Work with a skilled business attorney to protect your intellectual property rights.

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When an individual or a company obtains a trademark registration in the U.S., they are granted certain rights and protections. If they discover that another party is using a mark that is the same as or confusingly similar to their registered trademark, then they have a right to bring legal action against the alleged infringer. This concept is at the heart of a lawsuit against well-known outdoor outfitter company L.L. Bean.

Trademarks-47837347-001A good trademark acts as a source indicator for the products it covers. However, what happens when two companies in the same industry decide to adopt similar marks? Consumers may have difficulty differentiating the offerings of one company from those of its competitor. The result can mean lost sales and a tarnished reputation if the products are not as good as those of the competition.

Utah-based outdoor and mountaineering gear manufacturer Alfwear, which uses the KÜHL trademark as their brand name for outdoor clothing, brought the lawsuit against L.L. Bean based on their registration of “The Outsider” mark. The mark is registered for “rugged outdoor clothing, namely, belts, bottoms, hats, jackets, pants, shirts, shorts, T-shirts, tops,” and has been in use since June 2015.

Recently, L.L. Bean launched a marketing campaign with the tagline “Be an Outsider.” The company even filed a trademark application to register the mark “Be an Outsider” in June 2017. The phrase is being used in various advertisements across the country.

The lawsuit from Alfwear argues that these marks are too confusingly similar. Moreover, Alfwear believes that L.L. Bean deliberately choose their “Be an Outsider” phrase in an attempt to mislead, confuse or deceive consumers.

Among other relief, Alfwear is asking that L.L. Bean be ordered to stop using the phrase “Be an Outsider” altogether. The company is seeking damages for lost profits as a result of consumer confusion.

L.L. Bean has not publicly commented on the lawsuit, but it is natural to assume that they will be fighting against Alfwear’s claims. Intellectual property is one of a company’s most valuable assets, and protecting it with the help of a California business attorney is imperative.

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Patent trolls may find it harder to do business thanks to a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. That is good news for any business or entrepreneur who has ever been the subject of a frivolous patent infringement lawsuit. However, the decision also may make it more difficult to pursue legitimate infringement complaints.

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Companies that function as patent trolls make a practice of buying up patents merely for the purpose of suing large companies for infringement. They don’t make a product, nor do they provide a service. They earn a “profit” by collecting settlements from businesses that want to avoid the time and expense of a lengthy lawsuit.

Formerly, patent trolls could file complaints in any court district that they felt would be most advantageous to them. The Eastern District of Texas, in particular, is considered friendly toward such lawsuits. Most of the cases were decided quickly in favor of the patent owner, resulting in large settlements. In fact, the favorable climate for filing infringement lawsuits in the area became something of a cottage industry. One hotel in Marshall, Texas even purchased an account with the U.S. District Court’s online database to improve their appeal to visiting lawyers.

Under this model, the company being sued didn’t have to be located or associated with Texas in any way, forcing representatives to travel to defend themselves. This new decision by the Supreme Court changes that as it requires that patent infringement lawsuits be filed in the state in which the defendant is incorporated.

The decision was rendered on a case involving TC Heartland, an Indiana company that was being sued for patent infringement by Kraft Heinz in Delaware. Counsel for TC Heartland argued that they shouldn’t have to be sued in Delaware, and the Supreme Court ultimately agreed. While this decision is likely to slow down patent trolls, it also may make things more difficult for entrepreneurs who want to assert their patent rights against an organization in another state.

Anyone who is being sued for patent infringement or believes that their rights are being infringed, needs to retain intellectual property counsel.

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Getting a high-profile celebrity to endorse a product or service can be a major coup. After all, in a society that emulates famous personalities, what could be more desirable than an A-list star saying that they use a company’s wares?

Reputation-Management-105888720-001While celebrities are public personalities, this does not necessarily mean that their images can be used for a marketing campaign without their permission. Traditionally, lawsuits have sprung up around campaigns that utilized the voice or image of a famous person without their consent. These campaigns were problematic because they caused the public to believe that the celebrity was endorsing the product.

While those kinds of lawsuits still occur, a recent lawsuit that Sofia Vergara settled against Venus Concept highlights a new wrinkle in this area of law. The trouble began in 2014 when Vergara posted a photo to her WhoSay account. Vergara was undergoing a massage using a Venus machine. Venus Concept learned of the image and subsequently used it on their social media accounts, claiming that Vergara “loved” the treatments.

Unfortunately, Vergara contends that she found the treatments a waste of time and money, and that she had no intention of starring in a campaign for the company. Arguing that she had been paid $15 million for other endorsements, Vergara sued Venus Concept for that amount, which would approximate the money she would have received if she had agreed to endorse the product.

The early settlement of the suit suggests that Venus Concept backed off fairly quickly. However, their legal troubles were probably completely unexpected. It’s easy to imagine that executives at the company were eager to promote their brand and an apparent association with an A-list television star. They made the mistake of not even asking for permission to re-use Vergara’s image, let alone negotiating a deal that might have been mutually beneficial.

While it is exceptionally easy to re-post the social media commentary of others, it is not always a good idea to do so without seeking their permission. This is particularly true with high-profile personalities. When in doubt, it is always best to seek legal counsel.

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Does a company have the right to use someone’s image without their permission? That question is central to a new lawsuit. While the lawsuit’s merit remains undetermined, it is stirring up negative publicity for the company. Entrepreneurs who are starting an ad campaign may want to consult with an experienced business attorney to avoid finding themselves in a similar situation.

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Plaintiff Leah Caldwell filed her lawsuit against Chipotle Mexican Grill. The complaint names Steve Ells, the company’s founder and CEO, as a defendant as well as a photographer named Steve Adams.

Caldwell alleges in her complaint that her photograph was taken without her knowledge while she ate in a Chipotle restaurant in Denver during the summer of 2006. She recalls that the restaurant was virtually empty, and she also states that she did not see any cameras or notices of a photo shoot being underway. Nevertheless, as she left the restaurant, she alleges that Adams approached her and asked if she would sign a release for the use of her image. Caldwell refused.

Caldwell was in Orlando in December 2014 when she visited another Chipotle location, only to see her image displayed. In her complaint, she says that the image was digitally altered, most notably by including bottles of alcohol in her vicinity. A few months later, she visited two other Chipotle locations in California, only to see her picture yet again.

She responded by filing the lawsuit, claiming that Chipotle did not have the right to use her image in their marketing campaign. Caldwell is representing herself in the case, and she has asked for a settlement of more than two billion dollars, the amount which she says the restaurant chain earned as a result of the use of her unauthorized photo.

Chipotle has not commented publicly on the suit, and much investigation will be required to determine whether or not Caldwell’s rights were violated and if so, how much money she may be entitled to. Speaking with a qualified business attorney is the best way to avoid legal pitfalls when it comes to using or designing marketing materials.

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A screenwriter/producer is suing The Walt Disney Company over its award-winning animated film “Zootopia.” The writer claims that the entertainment giant stole his idea after he pitched it to studio executives in 2000 and 2009.

Copyright-Law-135827413-001Gary Goldman, whose many credits include writing the script for “Total Recall” and acting as an executive producer for “Minority Report,” filed the lawsuit in March 2017. Goldman asserts that he produced a treatment in 2000 that dealt with “an animated cartoon world that metaphorically explores life in America through … anthropomorphic animals.” His treatment included a human cartoonist who creates the world of the anthropomorphic animals, which would be called Zootopia. The title of the project was “Looney.”

Goldman says he pitched his idea to a Disney executive in 2000, but that the studio passed on the project. The subject came up again in 2009, this time with Goldman providing executives with a more developed treatment that included illustrations and descriptions of characters. Disney said the project would be considered, but Goldman alleges that they never contacted him. Shortly afterward, Disney appeared to be developing a Zootopia project of their own.

The plaintiff in this case appears to have done almost everything right. He registered the original treatment with the Writer’s Guild to protect ownership of the source material. However, current media reports do not disclose whether or not he took further steps to protect his rights, like asking Disney executives to sign a legally-binding agreement before showing them any intellectual property.

The question of whether Disney “stole” or was at least “inspired by” Goldman’s ideas remains unanswered at this time. Comparing the character illustrations commissioned by Goldman with the final look of the characters in the completed film does show some similarities. However, this is not necessarily enough to convince a judge that Disney borrowed someone else’s ideas. After all, anthropomorphic animals confronting human issues in a cartoon world is hardly a concept that hasn’t been explored in detail before Zootopia.

Companies and individuals that want to protect valuable intellectual property are encouraged to consult with legal counsel before sharing their ideas.

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Ownership of some of the most well-known Beatles songs has been on a tortuous path for decades. Sir Paul McCartney, a former Beatle and writer or co-writer of many of the group’s biggest hits, is taking legal action to reclaim the rights to his creations. It’s an ongoing odyssey with no end in sight.

Beatles-Imagine-2902823-001McCartney is the author of many famous Beatles songs. Sometimes collaborating with John Lennon, he wrote tunes like “Love Me Do” and “Yesterday.” However, the rights to those songs were often immediately signed away. Most of the rights were lost between 1962 and 1971. Various publishers snapped up the rights, but by the 1980s, publisher ATV owned most of them. When an Australian businessman who owned a controlling share in the songs put them up for sale in 1984, Michael Jackson notoriously outbid Paul McCartney to become the owner of the Beatles’ catalog.

In fact, Jackson and Sony formed Sony/ATV, with the Beatles’ works being among the company’s major assets. The Jackson family sold their share of the company to Sony after Michael Jackson’s 2009 death. Now that Sony/ATV can claim sole ownership, McCartney is suing them to regain ownership of his work.

The lawsuit, which was filed in New York, is based on a facet of the 1976 Copyright Act, which stipulates that any creative works made prior to 1978 be returned after 56 years to their originators. McCartney’s filing is timely considering that he and Lennon first began writing together in 1962, precisely 56 years before 2018. Accordingly, a court could decide that McCartney may reclaim the lucrative rights to his songs as early as next year.

McCartney has been trying to reclaim those rights for many years. Thus far, Sony/ATV is unwilling to accommodate his request. They cite a long-term relationship with McCartney, and express disappointment that the musician filed the lawsuit, which they call unnecessary and premature.

The battle over the rights to the Beatles’ catalog is likely to continue for many years, which only highlights the need for individuals and companies to protect their intellectual property rights.