Celebrities And Snapchat Feuds: Are Recording Phonecalls Legal?

Snapchat Kim Kardashian Taylor SwiftAs most people know, there has been on-going feud between Taylor Swift and Kayne West. Last night, more fuel was added to the fire when Kayne’s wife, Kim Kardashian, went to Snapchat and posted recordings of a conversation between Ms. Swift and Mr. West which purport to show that Taylor was aware of off-colored lyrics in one of Mr. West’s songs, and gave her blessing to include before the album released. To date, Taylor denies giving such approval. Taylor went to her Instagram account soon after, writing: “That moment when Kanye West secretly records your phone call.”

Besides the tabloid juiciness of the story, there is an interesting and very serious issue regarding the legality of the recordings. In many states it is illegal to record a telephone conversation without the consent of both parties participating in the telephone conversation. California, where it is believed Mr. West and Ms. Kardashian reside, is one of these “two-party consent states.” In fact, California has some of the strictest laws when it comes to secretly recording telephone conversations. California provides criminal penalties for not gaining consent from all parties, and additional penalties for disseminating or publishing a recording. In addition, California allows for civil remedies for recording a communication without prior consent.

One of the biggest issues is which state Mr. West and Ms. Kardashian were located when they made the recording. For example, in New Jersey, we are a “one-party” consent state. The New Jersey Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act N.J.S.A. 2A:156A-3 permits a party who is participating in the conversation to record the conversation. In my practice as a matrimonial attorney in New Jersey, the issue of recording telephone communications is very common, as estranged spouses often want to record communications of abuse and/or misconduct on the part of the spouse. In those cases, a spouse who is participating in a conversation with their spouse is legally permitted to record said conversation.

That all being said, even if the Mr. West was lucky enough to have initiated the telephone call from a “one-party consent” state, such as New Jersey, Ms. Kardashian may still not be in the clear. New Jersey law is clear in that the party recording the communication must be a party to a communication; in other words, they must participate in the conversation. In the recordings posted by Ms. Kardashian, it does not appear that she participated in the conversation and therefore was not a party to the conversation, making her recording illegal.

At this time, it is too soon to know what if any civil and/or criminal ramifications Mr. West and Ms. Kardashian might face, but I am sure we will all keep a close eye as the drama unfolds.

ARTICLE BY Kevin A. Falkenstein of Stark & Stark
COPYRIGHT © 2016, STARK & STARK

Telecommunication Leases: Battle Over Subleasing Rights

Telecommunication leases can be a unique animal due to the nature of the tenant’s use and business model. In negotiating these leases, the telecommunication leasesparties can run into difficulties negotiating the subleasing rights. Landlords are typically reluctant to agree to a tenant’s ability to freely assign or transfer. In the context of telecom leases, however, it may be worthwhile to consider why these rights, particularly subleasing, are so valuable to tenants and may even be beneficial to landlords.

The Business Model

Several tower companies act as operators and managers of the telecom infrastructure, in other words the “cell tower”, and are often not wireless carriers themselves. Therefore, for these tenants the ability to freely sublease becomes integral to the success of their business, the value of the tower, and the landlord’s ability to reap the benefits. The reason being is that carriers, both nationally recognized like Verizon and AT&T and smaller companies such as a local radio station, seek to sublease space on the tower for which to locate their telecom, wireless or broadcast equipment for the operation of their business. Unlike the standard sublease, the original tenant typically remains an active party, facilitating the operation and management of the tower as permitted under the lease. In this model, the carrier pays rent to the tenant under the sublease of the lease, and the landlord typically receives a base rent and often times a revenue share of the carrier rent or flat fee per carrier as additional rent from the tenant.

The Valuation of Tower Sites

The most desirable towers, aside from location, are those on which carriers can most efficiently install their equipment and become operable. Carriers don’t want to be held up while the tenant obtains written consent for the sublease from the landlord; when they want to locate, they want to locate immediately.  Time is money! Carriers don’t want to worry if consent cannot be obtained for weeks or more because it got lost in the mail or the landlord is on vacation. Instead, the carrier may look for a different tower to locate on altogether eliminating both the tenant’s and landlord’s ability to benefit. Therefore, these desirable towers often become the most valuable since they sublease to multiple carriers. The benefit to the landlord is sustained lease term and base rent, since most telecom leases allow the tenant a unilateral termination right of some sort, and in addition, larger amount of revenue share payments or flat rate payments.

From a landlord’s perspective, however, landlords want to give careful consideration to the effect of such expansion rights, particularly on roof top towers as this expansion may undercut your ability to further lease other roof top space to other telecom users. Roof top agreements have become beneficial sources of revenue for building owners and a landlord will want to ensure that its roof top agreements provide the ability to manage and preserve these revenue rights, and of course roof top space for building’s tenants and occupants.

Subleasing Language

Does this mean a landlord should agree to free subleasing without conditions? Not necessarily. What it means is landlords should consider the impact that the ease of doing business on their tower will have on its attractiveness to carriers. Instead of requiring “prior written consent”, as an alternative, a landlord could seek “prior notice” or “notice” or even a “deemed consent” concept after “flag” notice and a brief period of time. In this alternative, the carriers are able to locate easily and quickly, yet the landlord is still aware of the additional carrier on the tower. Moreover, the landlord’s awareness of how many carriers are on the tower can be useful when it comes time to renegotiate the lease; with an understanding of the value of the tower based on the amount of subtenants present, the landlord may be able to negotiate a higher rent. With easier subleasing rights, it is important that the lease contain adequate installation and alteration provisions (along with insurance and indemnity provisions) to protect the building and its infrastructure and other tenants and occupants. Moreover, with these more liberal subleasing rights, revenue sharing should be investigated.

Consideration and Potential Benefits for Landlords

Landlord considerations to subleasing:

  • Less restrictions on subleasing is more attractive to the potential carrier/sublessee of the tenant;

  • More carriers increase the value of the tower benefiting the landlord’s ability to receive ongoing base rent, and an increase in revenue share or flat rates per carrier received;

  • “Notice” versus “consent” can be a satisfactory alternative to both parties, and one that still provides the landlord with knowledge of how many carriers are on the tower and ultimately how valuable it may be when negotiating rent in the future.

While each party will inevitably push and pull in different directions on the issue of subleasing, from a landlord’s perspective it may be worthwhile to consider why the tenant may be seeking these rights and how the landlord stands to benefit.

© 2016 SHERIN AND LODGEN LLP

Chicago Adopts Paid Sick Leave Following Burgeoning National Trend

Chicago paid Sick leaveLate last month, the Chicago City Council unanimously approved a new paid sick leave ordinance requiring virtually every employer in the city to provide at least some paid time off to employees for sick leave purposes. Cook County’s Board of Commissioners is expected to approve a similar ordinance later this year. Chicago is not setting any trends by doing so — it is only the latest example of a nationwide trend to mandate that employers provide paid time off to employees to care for themselves or their families — a trend certain to continue and expand.

Although there is currently a patchwork of rules and regulations regarding paid sick leave across the country, Chicago’s ordinance is a fair representative of similar requirements in other states and municipalities. The ordinance, which will become effective on July 1, 2017, covers any employee based in and/or working inside Chicago’s city limits who works 80 or more hours within a 120-day period — essentially anyone taking home a paycheck on a regular basis. Employers must provide these workers the right to accrue and use up to five paid sick days (or 40 hours) per year, earned at a minimum rate of one hour for every 40 hours worked.

Further, workers must be allowed to roll over up to two and a half days (20 hours) of unused sick leave into the subsequent year — but employers can cap the total accrual amount at 40 hours, if they desire. Accrual of paid sick leave must begin on an employee’s first day of employment (or July 1, 2017, for existing employees — whichever is later), and accrual and use requirements are then measured from that date going forward. Employers may, however, restrict new employees’ use of paid sick leave until after they complete six full months of continuous employment.

Importantly, the Chicago ordinance does not require that employers create a separate paid sick leave scheme if they already maintain a general undifferentiated Paid Time Off (PTO) policy that meets or exceeds the required accrual rates. For example, if an employer maintains a PTO policy that provides accrual of PTO at a rate of two hours for every 40 hours worked, capping the total number of PTO days at 15, then the PTO policy exceeds the requirements. However, if PTO accrues at a rate slower than one hour for every 40 hours worked, the policy will need to be revised to meet the minimum requirements.

Sick leave may be used by employees to care for themselves or their families when they are sick, to receive medical care, including treatment, diagnosis, or preventive care, and if the employee or family member is the victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse. Employers must also give employees the ability to use their accrued sick time if the employer, or the employee’s children’s schools, are closed because of a public health emergency.

There are additional nuances to the law, some of which vary, depending on a particular workforce, including interplay with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) calculation of sick pay for tipped workers, and waiver of sick leave requirements in a collective bargaining agreement. Also, just as employers with PTO policies will want to ensure theirs is up to snuff in light of these new rules, employers without a PTO policy may want to consider adopting one to simplify their time-off benefit administration. As a result of these and other issues and trends across the country, employers should consult with counsel to ensure they are meeting or exceeding the minimum sick leave requirements in their places of work.

© 2016 Foley & Lardner LLP

To Be or Not To Be an Uber Employee: That Is [and will Remain] the Question

Federal judge probes deep on Uber’s proposed deal with drivers in 2 states as drivers in the other 48 sue, yet ride-sharing giant appears set to avoid trial on merits of misclassification issue

uber employeeIf you are waiting for an answer to the question of how workers in the “gig economy” should properly be classified, you probably should not hold your breath.

As the ride-sharing tech company Uber has grown into a megacorporation, on-demand workers have kept up a steady pace of lawsuits against it (and against its competitor, Lyft) on the theory that they are employees misclassified as independent contractors. While there is disagreement among courts, agencies, legal scholars and practitioners on the issue, most might agree on one thing: the traditional framework of employee vs. independent contractor does not account for today’s new tech-driven gig economy. Neither classification is a good fit for work performed on demand through a smartphone app that controls price and other operating standards. Yet a new, more fitting worker classification from Congress is highly unlikely. In effect, classifying workers in the gig economy will continue to present a legal quagmire for years to come.

From Uber and Lyft’s perspective, a legal quagmire (i.e., the status quo) appears to be the preferred course. After all, despite high litigation costs, the company has grown exponentially in recent years, expanding into 449 cities since it officially launched in 2011 and amassing a value most recently estimated at $68 billion. This success is attributable in part to Uber’s lucrative business model. The company avoids the costs of an employment relationship with millions of drivers while profiting from the service they provide via its smartphone app. It connects supply with demand (i.e., people who need rides) by providing a hassle-free platform for the transaction to take place. And by setting the price and imposing other usage requirements and “suggestions” for drivers using its app, Uber has developed a relatively uniform and reliable standard of service that has built brand trust from customers. On the flip side, it offers a relatively flexible means for almost anyone with a driver’s license and a car to earn additional income.

To maintain this advantageous operating model, Uber is trying to keep the misclassification issue from going to a jury. This means settling two class actions with some 385,000 California and Massachusetts drivers involving claims for business expenses and gratuities. Its proposed $100 million settlement to resolve both actions has been pending before the federal court in the Northern District of California since late April 2016. The court recently sent the parties scrambling to provide additional information which the court said it needs to determine whether the settlement is fair. To pre-approve the deal, the court has to conclude it is fair to all unnamed class members—i.e., all drivers in California and Massachusetts who have used the app since August 16, 2009. The court noted that a more probing inquiry is warranted here because the settlement seeks to (1) apply to drivers previously excluded from the class and (2) encompass claims not previously asserted in the case, but asserted and still pending in other lawsuits.

Under the settlement agreement, Uber would provide monetary and non-monetary relief, but it would not reclassify drivers. Specifically, Uber would pay out $84 million, and an additional $16 million if Uber’s future value (at its initial public offering) reaches 1.5 times its most recent valuation. Of the $84 million, $8.7 million would be taxable as wages. After shaving off sums for class administration, attorneys’ fees, and to compensate the named and contributing class members, the remaining fund would be split, with $5.5-$6 million going to Massachusetts drivers and $56-$66.9 million to California drivers. Drivers who drove the most would receive a few thousand dollars payout, while most drivers would receive a few hundred.

The settlement would not resolve the ultimate issue of whether Uber drivers are employees or independent contractors. Rather, it would allow Uber to continue operating in its current business model treating drivers as independent contractors. Yet at the same time, the settlement includes certain operational changes that would provide drivers with more job security than most at-will employees enjoy. For one, Uber agreed to write a comprehensive deactivation policy whereby it would only deactivate drivers from the app for sufficient cause, and it would share this list of reasons with drivers. Uber would also provide drivers with at least two advance warnings before they are deactivated from the app, with certain exceptions such as if a driver engages in illegal conduct. Uber also promises to provide the reason(s) for deactivation and develop an appeals process for drivers who believe they have been deactivated unfairly. Further, Uber agreed to recognize and fund a “drivers’ association” to enable dialogue between the company and its drivers. Uber also agreed to other measures such as providing more information about its rating system and making clear to customers that tips are not included in its fare price.

If the court denies approval of the settlement, this would be a major blow to the ride-sharing company. In the current proceedings, it would require Uber to offer more, else go to trial. The court’s refusal to approve this deal would also set a precedent for courts in subsequent class actions against Uber, such as one recently filed in Illinois federal court, where other judges may be inclined to take a similar approach to any proposed deal with other classes of drivers. Further, a finding that the proposed deal is not fair to unnamed class-members could embolden more drivers to sue and could tilt the scales in future settlement negotiations with other plaintiffs.

Even if the court in California approves this deal, Uber has a long road ahead. While this settlement may provide a temporary stopgap in California and Massachusetts, it creates an incentive for drivers elsewhere to sue. Less than two weeks after Uber proposed this $100 million settlement with the two states’ drivers, the company was hit with another putative class action – this time with drivers from the remaining 48 states. The new lawsuit filed in Illinois federal court likewise concerns worker classification and claims for tips, overtime, and expenses.

Meanwhile, Uber’s competitor Lyft recently achieved pre-approval of its settlement with California drivers in the federal class action of Cotter v. Lyft, Inc.—but only after it appeased the judge by increasing the value of the settlement from $12 million to $27 million. In addition to higher payouts for mileage reimbursements and other expenses, the settlement includes operational changes. Similar to Uber, Lyft agreed to changes that give drivers more job security, such as providing a finite list of reasons for a driver’s deactivation. Other changes give drivers more control over when, where, and for whom they drive, which makes the arrangement more reflective of a classic independent contractor relationship. The Uber court cited to Cotter in its recent order, and may continue to measure Uber’s proposed deal against this benchmark.

Uber’s implementation of arbitration clauses in its driver agreements should help it dodge a future of many more large-scale class actions by drivers of every other state. In Maryland and Florida, for example, two other attempted class actions with similar claims against Uber are going to arbitration. Even so, the classification of workers in the gig economy will remain a hot-button issue for the foreseeable future, and Uber seems poised to remain at the center of it.

© 2016 Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP

Sweeping Changes in EU Trademark Law and the Brexit Unknown

EU brexit referendum Brexit Street SignsBy now you have undoubtedly heard that in the Brexit Referendum held on June 23, 2016, the majority vote was in favor of United Kingdom leaving the European Union. Notwithstanding the outcome of the vote, it is presently unclear when, or even if, the UK government will give notification to the EU of its intention to leave the EU in accordance with Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. If notice is given, there will be a two-year period (which may be extended) to complete negotiations of the terms of UK’s exit from the EU.

Rights in existing EU Trade Marks (EUTM) and Registered Community Designs (RCD) remain unaffected until the UK exits the EU. Once the UK’s departure from the EU has been finalized, it is likely that existing EUTMs and RCDs will no longer automatically provide coverage in the UK. Although impact of the Brexit in that regard is unclear at present, it is anticipated that UK legislation will be implemented to ensure that such rights continue to have effect in the UK, for example, by converting existing EUTM rights to UK national rights enjoying the same priority/filing dates.

In terms of filing new applications during this transitional period, an EUTM remains a cost efficient option for brand owners wishing to obtain protection across the EU. Until we have further information as to how EUTMs and RCDs will be addressed after the UK exits the EU, brand owners seeking protection in the UK may wish to consider filing both an EUTM and a UK application.

EU TRADEMARK REFORM

Recently, there have been several other noteworthy changes in the EU pertinent to trademarks that also deserve consideration by trademark holders. On March 23, 2016, European Union Trademark Regulation No. 2015/2424 came into force bringing substantial changes to Community Trade Mark registrations and procedures. Some of the most relevant changes are as follows:

  • The names have changed. The Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (OHIM) has changed its name to the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), and the Community Trade Mark (CTM) was changed to the European Union Trade Mark (EUTM).

  • There is a change in the fee structure for trademark applications and renewals. The “three classes for the price of one” arrangement has been replaced by a “one-fee-per-class” system. Under the new system, the official fees for three classes are higher, while registration renewal fees have been slightly reduced.

  • Under the old system, all CTM applications filed prior to June 20, 2012 that used the complete Class heading as the specification of the goods and/or services were held to include all of the goods and services in the particular class. Under the new system, all registrations that use Class headings will be interpreted according to their literal meaning, irrespective of their filing date. Therefore, registrations filed prior to June 20, 2012 may not adequately cover the trademark holder’s goods and services.

  • The new regulation allows for a transitional period of six months, from March 23, 2016 to September 23, 2016, for owners of EU registrations which cover the entire Class heading, to amend the specification of goods and services. Therefore, owners of EU registrations that cover the Class heading should check if the Class heading covers everything they want to protect. If not, they should seek to amend their registration before September 23, 2016.

GENUINE USE OF A MARK IN THE EU

Under European Union Trademark Law, an EUTM registration may be revoked if “within a period of five years, following registration, the proprietor has not put the mark to genuine use in the Community in connection with the goods or services in respect of which it is registered, or if such use has been suspended during an uninterrupted period of five years.”

An EUTM mark has been found to be in “genuine use” within the meaning of current authority if it is used for the purpose of maintaining or creating market share within the European Community for the goods or services covered by the registration. This usage standard would be assessed by considering the characteristics of the market concerned, the nature of the goods or services, the territorial extent and the scale of use, as well as the frequency and regularity of use.

It has long been generally understood that use of a EUTM mark in any one EU member country would satisfy this use requirement. However, this has been called into question by a recent UK decision, The Sofa Workshop Ltd v. Sofaworks Ltd [2015] EWHC 1773 (IPEC), that found use of a mark in only the UK only was not sufficient to maintain the CTM registration. Instead, that court and other recent decisions have called into question whether use of a trademark in only one country of the EU is sufficient and have instead looked at other indicia of “use” such as percentage of market share over the entire EU.

These recent assessments of genuine use from courts located in the currently-constituted EU should be noted by brand owners and may provide additional rationale for brand owners seeking protection in the EU to consider filing for national rights (as opposed to EUTMs) where use of the mark may be limited.

© 2016 Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP.

Emergencies on Campus: Is Your Institution Prepared?

emergency preparedness college campusLast week, El Centro College, a community college located in the heart of Dallas, found itself in the middle of the crossfire during the sniper shooting that killed five police officers and wounded several others.  The event was supposed to be a peaceful protest over recent police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota. Thanks to a decision by college administrators, El Centro was already on lockdown when the shooting took place as a precautionary measure in anticipation of the protest.  Thus, students and faculty were safely contained during the crossfire.

According to the latest reports from the Chronicle of Higher Education, El Centro dispatched a campus-wide notification approximately forty minutes after the shooting had started, advising students to shelter-in-place. According to the Chronicle, some students are critical of how the college handled the situation, suggesting that the school should have been quicker to dispatch an alert.

To enhance student and staff safety, and to minimize liability risks in these challenging times, colleges and universities should review their policies and procedures on emergency preparedness, including protocols for communicating to faculty, students, and staff members during an emergency.  Further, the Clery Act requires all federally-funded institutions to disseminate timely warnings and emergency notifications.  Additionally, institutions may wish to provide their faculty, students, and staff members with training on emergency situations.

© Steptoe & Johnson PLLC. All Rights Reserved.

Federal Trade Commission Continues to Scrutinize Social Media Influencer Programs

Social Media Influencer ProgramsThis week, as part of its ongoing focus on influencer programs, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settled charges against Warner Brothers Home Entertainment, Inc. regarding its use of such a campaign to market the video game Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. This investigation of Warner Bros. was brought under the FTC Act, which prohibits deceptive marketing, and requires that endorsers “clearly and conspicuously” disclose any “material connection” to the brand they are endorsing.

In late 2014, Warner Bros. and its advertising agency, Plaid Social Labs, LLC, hired “influencers” (i.e., individuals with large social media followings) to create videos and post them on YouTube, and promote the videos on Twitter and Facebook.  One of the influencers hired for the program, PewDiePie, is the most-subscribed individual creator on YouTube, with more than 46 million followers. Warner Bros. paid each of the influencers from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars for the videos, in addition to providing free copies of the game. Under these contracts, Warner Bros. had the ability to review and approve the videos.

The FTC alleges that Warner Bros. failed to require sponsorship disclosures clearly and conspicuously in the video itself, where viewers were likely to notice them. Instead, Warner Bros. instructed influencers to place the disclosures in the description box below the video. Warner Bros. also required the influencers to include other information about the game in the description box, so most of the disclosures appeared “below the fold,” visible only if consumers clicked on the “Show More” button. Additionally, when influencers embedded the YouTube videos on Facebook or Twitter, the description field (and thus, the disclosure) was completely invisible.  Some of the disclosures also only mentioned that the game was provided free, and did not disclose the payment.

This continues the FTC’s focus on influencer programs with insufficient disclosures. In March, the FTC settled charges against national retailer Lord & Taylor related to its use of an Instagram influencer program with insufficient disclosures, where the influencers were paid and provided with a free dress. The influencers were required to make a post with the hashtag #DesignLab, and tagging @LordandTaylor, but were not instructed to disclose the payment or the free goods. At the same time, Lord & Taylor placed a paid article in Nylon, an online magazine, and purchased a paid placement on the Nylon Instagram account. Neither the post nor the article indicated they were paid advertising.

Likewise, in September 2015, the FTC settled charges against Machinima, an online entertainment network. Microsoft, through its advertising agency, hired Machinima to promote its Xbox One gaming console and video games. The  FTC alleged Machinima gave pre-release versions of the console and games to influencers, as well as payments of tens of thousands of dollars in some cases, in exchange for their uploading and posting endorsement videos.  Machinima did not require that the influencers disclose the sponsorship.

In each of these cases, the FTC entered consent agreements that require the brands to closely monitor and review its influencer content for appropriate disclosures, and terminate influencers who fail to accurately and conspicuously disclose their paid endorsements. The brands must keep records of their compliance and the FTC may review them at any time—with penalties of $16,000 per violation.

As marketing teams continue to try to reach consumers in new and creative ways, the FTC continues to signal its intention to closely scrutinize each development. As these methods evolve, brands should be conscious of their obligations to ensure appropriate disclosures in every format and to monitor for compliance.

© 2016 Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP.

UPDATE: San Diego’s Expansion of Minimum Wage and Paid Sick Leave

San Diego Earned Sick LeaveOn July 11, 2016, the San Diego Earned Sick Leave and Minimum Wage Ordinance became effective. As of the effective date, employers are required to pay employees who work at least two hours in a calendar week within the geographical boundaries of the City of San Diego a minimum wage of $10.50. Employers are also now required to provide employees one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. The City also published the notices employers are required to post in the workplace regarding the new minimum wage and sick leave laws.

The San Diego City Council is currently in the process of considering an implementing ordinance for the Earned Sick Leave and Minimum Wage Ordinance. The implementing ordinance will, inter alia, designate an enforcement office, establish a system for receiving and adjudicating complaints, amend the remedy for violations and the accrual requirement for sick leave, and clarify the language of the Ordinance. If the implementing ordinance takes effect it will:

  • Allow employers to cap an employee’s total accrual of sick leave at 80 hours;

  • Allow employers to front load no less than 40 hours of sick leave to an employee at the beginning of each benefit year;

  • Clarify the enforcement process including a civil penalty cap for employers with no previous violations; and

  • Clarify language regarding the award of sick leave to be more consistent with State law.

Read the Implementing Ordinance.

Read about the noteworthy changes, including the minimum wage increase schedule.

View the required minimum wage and sick leave notices.

© 2010-2016 Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis LLP

Congress Passes GE Labeling Standard

GE Labeling Standard Genetically Engineered DNAOn July 14, 2016, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a genetically engineered (GE) labeling standard with bipartisan support. The bill is identical to S. 764, which passed the Senate last week, and represents a compromise brokered by Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Pat Roberts. The White House has indicated that President Obama will sign the legislation into law.

Significantly, the legislation sets a national standard that preempts current and future attempts by states to require labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients, including Vermont’s mandatory labeling standard that went into effect July 1.

The legislation establishes a mandatory disclosure standard that applies to all food products intended for human consumption containing bioengineered ingredients. Food companies may satisfy the disclosure requirement through text, a symbol, or by use of certain embedded electronic or digital links, such as a QR Code.

Animal-based products such as beef, pork, poultry, eggs and milk are prohibited from being considered bioengineered foods solely because the animal consumed feeds containing GE ingredients. The legislation does not require animal feed to comply with the disclosure requirement.

Under the legislation, the Secretary of Agriculture is required to promulgate rules that implement the national standard within two years. The legislation requires the Secretary to provide additional flexibility for small food manufacturers in the regulations, including additional disclosure options and more time to comply with the standard. Some very small food manufacturers will be exempt under the regulations.

White House press officials indicated that the administration was pleased with the Roberts–Stabenow compromise effort. “While there is broad consensus that foods from genetically engineered crops are safe, we appreciate the bipartisan effort to address consumers’ interest in knowing more about their food, including whether it includes ingredients from genetically engineered crops,” spokeswoman Katie Hill told reporters in an e-mail.

The federal standard comes just days after Vermont’s standard, passed in 2014, went into effect and follows failed attempts to mandate labeling in states such as Colorado, Oregon, and California. Food manufacturers expressed concern that a patchwork of state laws would make compliance difficult and potentially reduce consumer choice if manufacturers elected to pull products off store shelves rather than implement costly labeling requirements. After being signed into law, the focus will quickly turn to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s implementation of the legislation and how the agency will define key terms that directly impact applicability (for example, the definition of “small” and “very small” food manufacturers).

© MICHAEL BEST & FRIEDRICH LLP

Federal Circuit Clarifies the “Commercial Offer for Sale” Prong of the On-Sale Bar

On July 11, 2016, a unanimous Federal Circuit en banc affirmed that The Medicines Company’s (“TMC”) use of third-party contract manufacturing services did not invalidate U.S. Patent Nos. 7,582,727 and 7,598,343 (the “patents-in-suit”) under the on-sale bar, reverting back to the district court’s original ruling but on modified grounds. The Medicines Company v. Hospira, Inc., No. 2014-1469 (“Hospira”). The Court provided useful guidance for companies and patentees that have third-party agreements to ensure they do not run afoul of the bar.

The on-sale bar under pre-AIA 35 U.S.C. § 102(b) prohibits patentability if “the invention” was “on sale” more than one year before the effective filing date of the invention. Here, TMC contracted with a batch manufacturer, Ben Venue Laboratories (“BV”), to produce Angiomax®, a blockbuster blood thinning drug covered by the patents-in-suit. More than a year before the effective filing dates of the patents-in-suit, TMC contracted with BV to manufacture a new formula of Angiomax® that met FDA requirements. In a decision penned by Judge O’Malley, the Federal Circuit reached the opposite conclusion from last year’s 3-judge panel decision holding that the patents-in-suit were not invalid under the on-sale bar.

The Federal Circuit addressed the first prong of the U.S. Supreme Court’s two-prong Pfaff test, which holds that a “claimed invention” is “on sale” when it is: 1) the subject of a commercial offer for sale; and 2) ready for patenting. Because the Federal Circuit dispensed with the issue on the first prong, it did not reach either the second prong or experimental use. The Court held that a “commercial sale or offer for sale” must bear the “general hallmarks of a sale pursuant to Section 2-106 of the Uniform Commercial Code,” i.e., when parties, intending to be legally bound, agree to give and pass property rights for consideration. An offer for sale can also trigger the bar when the offer rises to a “commercial” level—that is, an offer that another party could make into a binding contract by simple acceptance (assuming consideration).

Here, the Federal Circuit held that the transactions between TMC and BV did not rise to a commercial level. The Court reasoned that § 102 requires the claimed invention to be “on sale,” in the sense that it is “commercially marketed.” The product and product-by-process claims of the patents-in-suit covered a product. But, the contract between TMC and BV was a manufacturing service contract for the claimed product, not a contract for the sale of the product. The Court identified four factors in reaching its decision:

  • Manufacturing Service-Style Terms and Conditions: The Federal Circuit indicated that the invoice between TMC and BV was “to manufacture” the product, and the amount paid to BV was only about 1% of the ultimate market value of the manufactured product— indicating a service, not a sales, contract.

  • No Title Transfer: After clarifying that title transfer is a “helpful indicator” and not dispositive, the Court found that BV lacked title in the claimed products as it was not free to use or sell the products or to deliver the products to anyone other than TMC—reflecting a lack of commercial nature to the transaction (“[T]he inventor maintained control of the invention, as shown by the retention of title to the embodiments and the absence of any authorization to [the manufacturing service provider] to sell the product to others.”)

  • After noting that the confidential nature of the transaction is an important factor but not one of “talismanic significance,” the Court held that the “scope and nature of the confidentiality” imposed on BV supported the view that the sale was not a commercial sale of the patented invention.

  • “‘[S]tockpiling,’ standing alone, does not trigger the on-sale bar.” The Court clarified that mere “commercial benefit” does not trigger the on-sale bar. E.g., mere stockpiling of a patented invention by a purchaser of manufacturing services—irrespective of how the stockpiled material is packaged—does not constitute a “commercial sale” as it is “a pre-commercial activity in preparation for future sale.” Instead, the Federal Circuit focused on “those characteristics that make a sale ‘commercial’ in the most well-understood sense of that term and on what constitutes commercial marketing of a product, as distinct from merely obtaining some commercial benefit from a transaction….”

The Court also refused to create a blanket “supplier exception,” upholding its prior precedent and noting that the focus must be on the commercial character of the transaction and not solely on the identity of the parties.

Takeaways after Hospira

  • Now that contract manufacturing does not per se trigger the on-sale bar, drugmakers and others that cannot make products in-house can rest assured that their patents are free from challenge (“We see no reason to treat [TMC] differently than we would a company with in-house manufacturing capabilities” as “there is no room in the statute and no principled reason . . . to apply a different set of on-sale bar rules to inventors depending on whether their business model is to outsource manufacturing or to manufacture inhouse.”). Yet, careful attention should be paid to the type of contractual terms between patent owners (and/or their exclusive licensees) and third parties.

  • Structure supplier agreements as service manufacturing agreements, not product purchase/requirement contracts, and retain rights with title-retention clauses. The role of confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements over sales or offers for sale, as well as trade secrets, may expand to potentially avoid triggering the on-sale bar.

  • Pre-commercial activities, such as stockpiling and publicizing upcoming availability of a product for sale, should not trigger the on-sale bar. Nonetheless, active steps should be taken to not create an “offer” in the commercial sense, which another party could merely accept to create a contract.

For practice-based tips for practitioners which still apply despite Hospira’s holding, please click here and scroll down to Section IV.  To view the Court’s opinion, please click here.

© 2016 Sterne Kessler