Aglets, Who Knew?

SneakRTech Corp. wants you to defend their patent and challenge BadGuys, Incorporated’s patent at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB). The subject matter: aglets.

You run to the internet and find that “aglets” are the metal or plastic component on the end of a shoelace. Even more, you are surprised to find that the science of aglets is varied and deep. There is technology behind the manufacturing of the aglets themselves, the assembly of the aglets to the laces, and the design of the aglets such that they easily insert into the eyelets of the shoe. Chemistry and material science play a role in the technology related to aglets – both metallurgy and polymer science. Some of these disciplines are relatively old (e.g., at least 15 years ago they were well developed), while some disciplines are rapidly evolving (e.g., nanocoatings to provide a color-change depending on the temperature of the environment).

To complicate things further, the patents being defended and challenged have very different applications—one is an aglet for a desert rock climbing shoe, known to be exposed to high heat, low humidity, and abrasive conditions. The other is directed to a snowboarding boot aglet.

So now you face important questions. Do you need two experts? And how do you choose an expert? There are a least four considerations associated with finding the right expert. 

1. Make a wish-list

The first step in selecting an expert is simple – make a wish-list of the ideal traits you want in your expert. This requires answering, or at least thinking about, several questions.

What, and how many, technology spaces are claimed? Consider whether you need multiple experts, based on the variation in technology, including between claims of the same patent. Although Daubert seems to come up less at the PTAB, consider how to position yourself so that any expert you choose will survive a Daubert challenge.

For our example, think about desired attributes of the eventual selected expert. Are we looking for an expert in aglet design, or perhaps manufacturing processes related to attaching the aglets to the lace themselves? Are we looking for industry or academic expertise, or both? Are we looking for a focused specialist in aglets or a broader expertise in understanding the chemistry, material science, and nanotechnology of aglets. Where is the eyelet going to be (e.g., dress shoe, trail runner, hockey skates, etc.)? Does it matter?

What level of education is required to helpfully explain the technology, and relatedly, how are we planning to define the person-of-ordinary-skill-in-the-art? If the technology is relatively developed, how will our expert opine on the state-of-the-art at a time where she may not have even been out of undergraduate school?

Do you need an experienced expert with deposition and court appearances, or will a more novice expert work?

2. Identify potential expert types and sources

Once you have a wish-list of what you want in an expert, you need to determine where to look to find it. A good start can be to research publications, patents, and industry groups in the claimed technology space.

For example, one aglet patent may relate to electroplating processes of aglets specifically designed to be applied after the aglet is attached to the lace, involving complex chemistry and manufacturing concerns. The other aglet patent could be focused on shape design for ease of entry into an eyelet on a shoe.

For the first aglet, the complex chemistry may require a high level of education. The latter aglet may be better suited to a manufacturing engineer having hands on experience in a final assembly plant, or an industrial designer focused on customer experience. These experts may travel in vastly different circles, and may lend themselves to different types of searching. Additionally, consider whether you’re looking for a generalist or a specialist. For specialist experts, several databases are available to search theses/dissertations. This may provide a list of potential experts to consider that have studied your issue deeply.

3. Consider using an expert service – or two

A helpful shortcut to finding your expert and getting them retained early can be utilizing an expert search service. As a practical matter, it can be helpful to use such a service to ensure quick turnaround, especially if you have a good relationship with the headhunter. You can take steps to make the search consultant’s job easier, which will net better results. This includes providing them a list of experts already disqualified, for example based on conflicts, co-counsel or client preference, etc. Coordination with the client and co-counsel is key, and evaluating potential experts and developing the definition of a person of ordinary skill in the art can quickly narrow the list of available experts.

Additionally, provide the expert service your anticipated timeline—it is critical that the expert is available when you need them (e.g., to prepare a declaration, at deposition(s), etc.).

4. Nail the expert interview – gain knowledge and assess quickly

The interview phase needs to include at least three considerations: experience as an expert, substantive background in the technology, and availability now and throughout trial. If an expert has never been deposed before, try to determine whether they have the soft skills needed to be effectively cross-examined. Push them to see how they react to hard questions both substantively and temperamentally. Ask them for some strategy advice for your case to see how they think. Research them – look for skeletons before hiring them. Ask for references.

You now have two experts: Ms. Boot and Dr. Slipper, PhD., to assist on two separate aglet patent cases.

This post was written by Jason D. Eisenberg of  Sterne Kessler., © 2017
For more Intellectual Property legal analysis, go to The National Law Review

Worried About Fake News? You Should Really Worry About Fake Drugs

While the concept of “fake news” continues to trigger Twitter followers and grab headlines, the trade in counterfeit drugs is a worldwide problem of significant scale.  This article discusses the problem and talks about some things trademark owners are doing to address the public safety issues posed by fake drugs.

The Problem.

Trademark counterfeiting?  Most think of fake Rolex watches sold on city street corners or faux designer purses sold in suburban kitchens.  While knock-off luxury goods may seem harmless, the economic harm inflicted on legitimate businesses—and the workers they employ—is enormous.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that the dollar value of counterfeit goods sold in the U.S. at $200-250 billion annually.  Many of North Carolina’s leading industries, including tobacco, furniture, apparel and pharmaceuticals, are among the most frequent targets of trademark counterfeiting. Also, according to Interpol, trademark counterfeiting often provides for a source of income and reliable import channel for those with other nefarious purposes, such as illegal drug or human trafficking and potentially even terror activities.

In addition to these very negative economic consequences, there is a particular level of harm associated with certain kinds of trademark counterfeiting.  Counterfeit goods aren’t subject to the same regulatory standards and safety inspections as items produced by legitimate manufacturers. So, in areas of manufacture where quality control is important, counterfeit products fall short.  Consider, for example, the potential harm that could be caused by substandard, bogus automobile tires or airplane parts.

Counterfeit pharmaceutical drugs are clearly an area where public safety concerns are paramount.  Counterfeit medicines have been found in all areas of the globe, including the highly regulated U.S. market, and extend to medicines, vaccines, testing and diagnostic equipment, and other medical devices.  Both branded and generic pharmaceutical products can be falsified.  And sales are not just limited to the black market—such products make their way to hospitals and pharmacies, often through internet sales trade channels.

Lifestyle or “popular” drugs are often counterfeited, and there have been recent increases in cosmetic, weight loss and opioid drugs.  However, such drugs are not limited to such trends—counterfeit malaria vaccines, cholesterol medications and cancer treatments can also be found in the U.S.  The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that an average of up to 10% of medicines are counterfeit, and in developing countries, that percentage is considerably higher.

The Center for Medicine in the Public Interest estimates the annual worldwide dollar value of counterfeit pharmaceuticals at $200 billion annually and rising. Sadly, the damage is far greater than lost sales. WHO estimates that approximately 200,000 people die each year as the result of ineffective counterfeit anti-malarial drugs.

Counterfeit medicines also may cause adverse affects or allergic reactions, and they may not effectively treat the ailment for which prescribed.  They may promote drug resistant disease strains or contain no active ingredient, the wrong active ingredient, or the incorrect strength (too much or too little) or dosage of the intended ingredient.  According to a WHO investigation, approximately 1/3 of such drugs contain no effective ingredient.  Given the lack of inspection of counterfeit manufacturing facilities, such products are often produced under non-sterile circumstances, resulting in bacterial or other contamination.  Clearly, the ways in which counterfeit drugs can cause serious negative patient outcomes are extensive and extreme.

Combating the Problem.

Drug companies, and their attorneys and security departments, take a multi-pronged approach to combating counterfeiting.  Many of these efforts are used to combat counterfeiting generally, but some have been developed with particular focus toward the nuances of the counterfeit pharmaceutical market.

The counterfeiting problem can appear daunting, given an array of unknown manufacturing sources, the breadth of possible sales outlets, and the strong consumer preference for the “cheap but name brand” combination. Successful anti-counterfeiting practices do not generally follow a reactive “Whack-A-Mole” approach, attempting to squelch every low-level advertisement or email blast that comes out. Rather, systematic and strategic prosecution, akin to practices used in the intelligence community, is preferred. Investigations of networks and relationships, rather than merely products and sellers, can help identify high-payoff targets, the disruption of which can have positive effects across several echelons of the counterfeit trade. Focusing limited enforcement resources on valuable choke points which contribute to an ecosystem response can often be the most fruitful and strategic approach.

Counterfeit pharmaceuticals in particular, given their specific methods of typical advertisement and sale, are prone to certain forms of interdiction over others. It is well known that counterfeit pharmaceuticals are advertised heavily on both internet ads and email “spam” messages, all of which attempt to direct a prospective purchaser to a product-ordering website. Attempting to interdict the advertising messages, which are often sent by botnets or third-parties through a referral-affiliate relationship, or to shut down specific websites, is a losing proposition. This is the case because there are hundreds of thousands or more of each, and the costs to re-establish a confiscated website are negligible compared to the significant enforcement costs. However, academic researchers working with industry and enforcement contacts identified several potential chokepoints on which these sorts of pharmaceutical sales pathways rely. See Dharmdasani et al., “Priceless: The Role of Payments in Abuse-advertised Goods,” CCS ’12, October 16–18, 2012, Raleigh, N.C.  One key chokepoint relationship for online transactions is a seller’s host bank, nearly always non-U.S. and non-EU, that is willing to accept abusive credit card transactions related to these unlawful goods from card processors such as Visa and MasterCard.

Pharmaceutical

Nearly all online counterfeit pharmaceutical revenue can flow through these concentrated banking relationships, and researchers discovered that intercepting just one or two of these banking relationships, and seizing related funds, could have ripple effects disrupting thousands of drug transaction websites and referral affiliates. For example, a 2011 study determined that across 95% of spam e-mail for pharmaceuticals and similar goods, only three acquiring bank institutions were used. Id. This research demonstrates a guiding principal of anti-counterfeiting efforts: enforcement is most successful where the “termination cost [to the counterfeiter] is inevitably far higher— in fines, in lost holdback, in time and in opportunity cost—than the cost of the intervention itself [by the rights holder]. … [R]elatively concentrated actions with key . . .  institutions can have outsized impacts.” Id.

Targeted investigations and enforcement are only one aspect of a comprehensive anti-counterfeiting approach. Successful rights holders employ a broad-based strategy, involving secured supply chain management, thorough technology and distribution agreements with market partners, and high-tech security solutions such as secure packaging, microchips, holograms, and the like. The combination of many of these controls can make enforcement actions easier and more productive, and thus reduce the prevalence and success of counterfeit competitors. In addition, it is important to inform consumers and retailers about both the dangers of counterfeits and the value of accessing authentic products. Pharmaceutical companies should engage in advertising to alert the marketplace to the dangers of counterfeit pharmaceuticals and to also assist others in identifying counterfeit drugs – including examination of packaging and medicines for quality, condition, spelling and grammar; and checking manufacturing and expiration dates and batch numbers on both exterior and interior packaging.

The problem of fake drugs is in fact very real news and companies here in North Carolina and around the world are taking steps to defend their brands and protect their customers in the marketplace.

Authentic Vial                Counterfeit Vial

Botox Authentic    Fake Botox Vial

This article originally was published in the August 2017 edition of the Newsletter of the Board of Legal Specialization, a publication of the North Carolina State Bar.

This post was written by Sarah Anne Keefe & Stephen Shaw of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, PLLC. Copyright © 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Bring on the Bad Word Brands? What Supreme Court’s Decision in Matal v. Tam Means for Trademark Owners

The Supreme Court’s June 19, 2017 decision in the Matal v. Tam case has been burning-up the news wires all week. The decision struck down a 70-year-old ban on federally registering disparaging trademarks, finding that the disparagement clause of Section 2(a) of the Trademark Act violates the First Amendment principal against banning speech that expresses ideas that offend. The decision was joined by all 8 participating justices. The case was heralded as not just a win for the Asian-American dance-rock band The Slants, but also for the Washington Redskins whose trademark registrations were challenged based on the same disparagement clause.

The USPTO was quick to act, issuing Examination Guide No. 1-17 on June 26, providing a framework for how the PTO will examine applications following the Supreme Court’s decision. Opportunistic brand owners were also quick to act; World Trademark Review reports that at least 11 trademark applications for marks that could possibly be deemed disparaging were filed the day of the ruling.

In light of Tam, two other provisions of Section 2(a) — those that preclude registration of immoral and scandalous marks — also seem likely to fall, as both could be interpreted as banning speech likely to offend. In fact, the constitutionality of the scandalousness provision of 2(a) is currently pending before the Federal Circuit (In re Brunetti), and it seems likely the Fed. Cir. will move forward with Brunetti in the aftermath of Tam.

What does Tam mean to brand owners? It seems unlikely that the ability to now federally register offending marks will herald a seismic shift in branding strategies. The ability to use a trademark was never at issue in Tam, simply the ability to protect a mark by federal registration. Similarly, the public’s appetite for offensive brands will likely also not be enhanced by the new ability to obtain federal registration for such source indicia. Just as it is unlikely that the Court’s decision in Tam will persuade my son’s middle school principal that a T-shirt bearing the phrase HOMEWORK.SUCKS (INTA swag courtesy of the folks at dotSucks) is appropriate classroom attire. As always, the strength of a brand goes not to its novelty, but to its long-term ability to communicate the positive attributes of the associated products and services to consumers.

This post was written by Monica Riva Talley of Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox P.L.L.C.

Intellectual Property Cases to Watch in 2017

The New Year brings excitement and anticipation of changes for the best.  Some of the pending patent cases provide us with ample opportunity to expect something new and, if not always very desirable to everybody, at least different.  In this post, we highlight several cases that present interesting issues and that we anticipate may provide for new and important developments in the patent law this year.

Samsung Electronics Co. v. Apple Inc.

2017 IP cases intellectual propertyThis highly-publicized case, now on remand from the Supreme Court, concerns damages for design patent infringement.

Apple sued Samsung in 2011 for infringement of U.S. Patent Nos. D618,677 (claiming an electronic device having black rectangular front face with rounded corners), D593,087 (claiming an electronic device having a rectangular front face with rounded corners and a raised rim) and D604,305 (claiming a grid of 16 colorful icons on a black screen of an electronic device).  As we reported earlier, a jury found that several Samsung smartphones resembling the iPhone infringe those patents and awarded $399 million in damages to Apple, the entirety of Samsung’s profit from sale of the infringing smartphones.

The Federal Circuit upheld the award. The decision centered on 35 U.S.C. § 289, which provides that an accused infringer manufacturing or using a patented “article of manufacture” is liable to the patent owner “to the extent of his total profit.”  The Federal Circuit rejected Samsung’s argument that damages should not be determined based on the entire smartphone but rather should be limited to individual components covered by the patents, such as a front face or a screen.  The smartphone as a whole was deemed to be an “article of manufacture” in the context of Section 289.  The Supreme Court, in an unanimous (but short) decision, however agreed with Samsung and remanded, stating that an “article of manufacture” is “simply a thing made by hand or machine,” and is broad enough to include both a multicomponent product sold to a consumer and individual components of that product, “whether sold separately or not.”  No test however was provided on how to identify an “article of manufacture” relevant to damages.

On remand, the Federal Circuit will determine whether “the relevant article of manufacture for each design patent … is the smartphone or a particular smartphone component.”  A test for determining what exactly constitutes an “article of manufacture” for the purpose of determining damages in design patent cases is highly anticipated.

TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Foods Group Brands LLC

This case concerns a choice of venue in patent cases, and a decision by the Supreme Court is expected around June, 2017.

Kraft Foods sued TC Heartland in the District of Delaware, alleging that Heartland’s liquid water enhancer products infringed three of Kraft Foods’ patents.  Heartland moved to either dismiss the action or transfer venue to the Southern District of Indiana, where it is headquartered and incorporated.  In support, Heartland stated that it is not registered to do business and has no presence in Delaware.  After the district court denied its motion, Heartland appealed.  The Federal Circuit affirmed and stated that patent suits may be filed in any judicial district in which the defendant sells an allegedly infringing product (Heartland ships accused products to Delaware, which amounts though to only about 2% of its total sales).  The Federal Circuit has consistently applied this interpretation of the patent venue statute since its 1990 decision in VE Holding, which has since allowed patent holders to file suits in favorable courts that are perceived to be more plaintiff-friendly, such as the Eastern District of Texas. Opponents of this doctrine refer to it as a “forum shopping.”

As we reported before, on December 14, 2016, the Supreme Court agreed to review the Federal Circuit’s decision.  A decision in favor of Heartland would fundamentally change where patent cases can be litigated.  In particular, many patent holders may effectively be barred from bringing suits in the Eastern District of Texas.

Lexmark International v. Impression Products

On December 2, 2016, the Supreme Court granted Impression Products’ petition to hear a case concerning whether patent exhaustion arises from foreign sales.

Lexmark, a manufacturer of printers and cartridges for those printers, sold the cartridges covered by Lexmark’s U.S. patents in the U.S. and abroad.  Some of the cartridges were sold at a reduced price and, according to a “Return program,” were subject to a single-use/no-resale restriction set forth in the user agreement.  With the goal of protecting quality and reputation of its products, and for other reasons, Lexmark required that customers who bought Return program cartridges return the empty cartridges only to Lexmark for remanufacturing or recycling.  Impression, among others, acquired and re-purposed (which included modifying the original chip) both the foreign- and domestically-sold cartridges, and sold the modified cartridges in the U.S.  When Lexmark took legal actions and other defendants agreed to settlements, Impression however argued that the first sale of the cartridges, either in the U.S. or abroad, exhausted Lexmark’s U.S. rights to exclude.

The district court partially sided with Impression, ruling that Lexmark’s sale in the U.S. exhausted its patent rights, despite the express single-use/no-resale restrictions under the Return Program, but concluded that foreign sales did not exhaust Lexmark’s patent rights.  As we said earlier, on February 12, 2016, the en banc Federal Circuit agreed with Lexmark and confirmed two important aspects of the patent exhaustion doctrine, namely that (1) a patentee can “sell[] a patented article subject to a single-use/no-resale restriction that is lawful and clearly communicated to the purchaser” without exhausting the patentee’s rights to that item; and (2) because foreign sales do not permit “the buyer to import the article and sell and use it in the United States,” an authorized foreign sale of a product does not exhaust a patentee’s U.S. patent rights to exclude associated with that product.

In re Aqua Products

This is a pending en banc case before the Federal Circuit regarding whether it is the patent owner who bears the burden of proving patentability of its amended claims in inter partes reviews before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board.

Aqua Products, Inc., as a patent owner, faced a claim amendment issue.  In particular, after an inter partes review (IPR) of Aqua’s patent on a robotic swimming pool cleaners was initiated, Aqua moved to substitute several of the challenged claims with limitations from the claims that were not challenged, effectively amending the claims.  The America Invents Act (AIA) permits patent owners to move to amend claims of a patent, and 35 U.S.C. § 316(d) states that “the patent owner may file one motion to amend the patent,” with additional motions to amend allowed in limited circumstances.

Applying its rule making authority, the PTO ruled that Aqua failed to demonstrate that its amendments would make the claims-at-issue patentable over the known prior art.  On August 12, 2016, the Federal Circuit granted Aqua’s motion for an en banc hearing and asked Aqua and the USPTO to brief whether the USPTO may require that a patent owner bear the burden of persuasion regarding patentability of the amended claims, even though the AIA assigns the burden of proving unpatentability of the proposed claim amendments to an IPR petitioner.  See 35 U.S.C. § 316(e)).

Argument was heard on December 9, 2016, and a blog post on the upcoming decision will appear in due course.

Hillary Clinton’s Intellectual Property Litigation Experience

Hillary Clinton Intellectual PropertyMany people are surprised to learn that Hillary Clinton was an intellectual property attorney when she practiced law from 1977-1992 for the Rose Law Firm.  While the New York Times has reported that former colleagues cannot remember any cases she tried and that court reporters in Little Rock say she appeared in court infrequently, there are at least three reported court decisions on which she is named as counsel.  A review of those decisions provides an interesting glimpse into Clinton’s background with intellectual property.

In a case involving allegations of false advertising, Clinton represented Maybelline Co. in a suit against Noxell Corp. regarding Noxell’s “Cover Girl Clean Lash” mascara product.[1]  According to the complaint, Maybelline’s principal place of business and only factory in the United States was located in North Little Rock, Arkansas.  Maybelline asked the court to restrain Noxell from advertising the Clean Lash mascara as being waterproof.  Maybelline submitted to the court a videotape of a Clean Lash commercial in which a voice-over claimed that “water won’t budge” Clean Lash and that it “laughs at tears,” and then submitted independent laboratory tests contradicting those claims.  Maybelline argued that the commercials were deceptive.  Unfortunately for Clinton, it was found that Maybelline brought suit in the wrong venue because Noxell was not doing business in the Eastern District of Arkansas.[2]  The case was transferred to a court in New York and settled.[3]

In a trademark infringement case, Clinton represented First Nationwide Bank against Nationwide Savings and Loan Association regarding the use of the mark “Nationwide Savings.”[4]  In particular, First Nationwide Bank sought an injunction against the Savings and Loan Association’s use of the phrase “Nationwide Savings” for financial services.  First Nationwide Bank argued that the use of the disputed phrase was likely to cause confusion among customers as to the provider of the financial services and was an attempt by the Savings and Loan Association to benefit from the valuable goodwill and reputation established by First Nationwide Bank.  Clinton helped to secure injunctive relief for the Bank to prevent the Savings and Loan Association from using the mark.

In another case involving allegations of trademark infringement, Clinton represented Holsum Baking Co. against W.E. Long Co.[5] regarding the use of the “Holsum” trademark in the marketing of bakery products.  Long registered the “Holsum” mark on bakery products in Arkansas and later entered into an agreement granting Holsum Baking the right to use the “Holsum” name for advertising purposes in certain areas for three years.  After that time, Holsum Baking began using the composite mark “Holsum Sunbeam” until more than 40 years later when it introduced a wheat bread product and marketed it as “Holsum Grains” with no mention of Sunbeam. Long then contacted the packaging suppliers of Holsum Baking and advised them not to sell packaging bearing the “Holsum” mark to Holsum Baking. Holsum Baking sought injunctive relief to reinstate its packaging source with the “Holsum” mark, arguing that the earlier agreement had been breached or abandoned by the parties and that Holsum Baking had acquired the rights to the “Holsum” mark due to use for more than 44 years.  Clinton helped to secure a preliminary injunction for Holsum Baking.

While the number of reported cases involving Clinton is too small to draw any definitive conclusions, the above three cases demonstrate Clinton’s advocacy for companies that had their IP rights threatened.  Some commentators have criticized Hillary Clinton’s current intellectual property platform as being vague, consisting of passing references to patent litigation reform and copyright policy. However, given her past experience, she may have more detailed thoughts on IP policy–an area that rarely is a focus in presidential campaigns.


[1]  Maybelline Co. v. Noxell Corp., 643 F. Supp. 294 (E.D. Ark. 1986).

[2]  Maybelline Co. v. Noxell Corp., 813 F.2d 901 (8th Cir. 1987).

[3]  Morrison, T.C., “The Regulation of Cosmetic Advertising under the Lanham Act,” 44 Food Drug Cosm. L.J. 49, 57 1989.

[4]  First Nationwide Bank v. Nationwide Sav. & Loan Ass’n, 682 F. Supp. 965 (E.D. Ark. 1988).

[5]  W.E. Long Co. v. Holsum Baking Co., 307 Ark. 345 (Ark. 1991).

Warning: Don’t Use Trademarked Olympic Hashtags, Images

Olympic hashtagsWith all of the hype and public attention paid to the Olympics, you and your employees should be aware of the rules that govern the use of hashtags and images related to the Olympic games. The U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have historically been very aggressive in policing any use of the Olympic trademarks, images, and hashtags. This year’s games are no exception.

In the last few weeks, the USOC has sent a number of letters to companies that sponsor athletes (who now happen to be Olympians) but have no sponsorship relationship with the USOC or the IOC warning them not to discuss the games on their corporate social media accounts. Companies have specifically been told that they cannot use the trademarked hashtags “#Rio2016” or “#TeamUSA” in any of their postings. The letters also warn companies not to reference Olympic results or to repost or share anything from the official Olympic social media accounts, this includes use of any Olympic photos, logos, or even congratulatory posts to Olympic athletes. While media companies are largely exempt, all other commercial entities should carefully monitor their social media accounts for any Olympic commentary.

Olympic trademarks are the subject of intense legal protections around the world and the IOC and USOC will pursue alleged offenders regardless of their size. In fact, previous enforcement actions have ranged from trademark suits against small restaurants with the word “Olympic” in their names to issuing cease and desist letters to companies that used trademark hashtags such as #Sochi2014 during past games. Guidelines about Olympic brand usage can be found by clicking here.

© Copyright 2016 Armstrong Teasdale LLP. All rights reserved

Intellectual Property and You: University Edition

Intellectual Property at UniversityIt may be July, but school is still in session. Today, I’ll discuss another common but mysterious topic: intellectual property ownership, specifically in the university setting. Universities sponsor research, encourage experimentation, and foster collaboration. The hallowed halls of universities are treasure troves of intellectual property. However, the process can hit a snag when it comes time to start a company and (hopefully) make money. Intellectual property is the cornerstone of many companies and at the center of many disputes. Here, I will address a few items: 1) joint inventorship; 2) university policies and grant terms; and 3) employment agreements.

Joint Inventorship

As it is synonymous with intellectual property, let’s first tackle patents and the concept of “joint inventorship.” 35 USC §116(a) provides that when an invention is made by two or more persons jointly, they shall apply for a patent “jointly.” Further, inventors may apply for a patent jointly even though (1) they did not physically work together or at the same time, 2) each did not make the same type or amount of contribution, or 3) each did not make a contribution to the subject matter of every claim of the patent.

Case law maintains no minimum threshold for contribution. In Burroughs Wellcome Co. v. Barr Labs, Inc. (1994), the court posited that “conception is the touchstone of inventorship.” There, the patent application was prepared before the defendant’s scientists (Barr Labs) contributed to the research on the use of a pharmaceutical to treat HIV. The court held that inventors are those who thought of the idea, not those who only realized the idea. As such, discovery that an idea actually works and reduction of that idea to practice are irrelevant for inventorship. The idea must be “definite” and “permanent” in a sense that it involves a “specific approach to the particular problem at hand.” The typical contributions of a supervisor do not necessarily qualify.

Burroughs Wellcome teaches an important lesson for startup teams: everyone should have a clear understanding of their roles and duties. Over an idea’s lifecycle, many hands may touch the idea. Confusion among these matters can create disputes and unnecessary hurdles. Teams must secure the intellectual property rights of all inventors, otherwise, the intellectual property will have multiple owners. For example, three students are working on a project for a new light tracking technology. Each student contributed, but only two students were listed on the patent, which was assigned to the company IP, Inc. The third student has inventorship rights, and as such, she can have herself added to the application and more importantly, she has rights to the patent which she may assign and license at her pleasure. Put simply, your company may have a joint owner.

University Policies and Grant Terms

Second, always–and I do mean always–look at your university’s intellectual property and technology transfer policies and any funding terms that you receive. These terms will ultimately govern your relationship with the university and dictate your responsibilities and rights. Many of your questions may be answered right in the policy.

For my fellow Wolverines, let’s focus on the University of Michigan’s Tech Transfer Policy.

1. Ownership. Generally, the University claims ownership over intellectual property made by “any person, regardless of employment status, with the direct or indirect support of funds administered by the University (regardless of the source of such funds).” These funds include University resources, and funds for employee compensation, materials, or facilities.

2. Student Intellectual Property. The University generally does not claim ownership of intellectual property created by students. The policy defines “student” as a person enrolled in University courses for credit, except when that person is an employee. However, UM will claim ownership of intellectual property created by students in their capacity as employees (i.e., persons who receive a salary or other consideration from the University for performance of services, part-time, or full time). Interestingly, a student will be considered an employee, for the purposes of this policy, if they are compensated. UM gives the following examples as compensation: stipends and tuition.

The University of Michigan is relatively generous towards its students. However, employees (professors, graduate student instructors, research assistants, post-docs) are another matter.

Employment Relationships

Lastly, as hinted above, founders should pay close attention to the terms of their engagement with the university, which will include employment agreements or other related agreements. Typically, professors, graduate student instructors, research assistants, and the like will have these agreements in place and they are bound by their provisions. Each of these agreements is likely to have an intellectual property assignment clause, which will give ownership of created intellectual property to their respective university employer.

Conclusion

Although the university setting is a boon to intellectual property creation, it does come with strings attached. IP ownership can also become very messy due to concepts like joint inventorship and a lack of proper assignment documents. An unwary student group can end up with the university, or another party, as a co-owner in his/her intellectual property.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Communicate. As stated above, it is important that everyone understand their role in your project/venture. Informed persons are less likely to assert unwarranted ownership claims.

  • Read your university, classroom, and grant policy. While some places can be student friendly (GO BLUE!), others may not.

  • Maintain clear documentation. Properly document your inventive processes. Also ensure that when you have a startup involved, have proper intellectual property assignments between participants and the startup.

  • Always read your employment agreements. These agreements can contain various obligations in regards to intellectual property. They may also contain intellectual property assignment clauses.

Keep in mind, there is a value to working with university intellectual property. The university may already have ownership, or in some cases, a venture (or students) may assign their intellectual property to tech transfer offices for help in commercialization efforts. The university is a valuable environment.

ARTICLE BY Fermin M. Mendez of Varnum LLP

© 2016 Varnum LLP