Counterfeits Can Take the Joy Out of the Holidays

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As the holiday shopping season reaches peak fervor and consumers seek out the best deals available on hot products, gift-givers are more at risk of purchasing counterfeit products of all kinds.  Recently, news articles have warned of counterfeit Fingerlings – the latest “it” toy – along with fake versions of popular electronics, clothing, personal care products, and many other types of goods.  Government bureaus like the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol regularly release holiday bulletins advising of the escalating volume of phony products entering the United States (for example, https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/buyer-beware-counterfeit-goods-and-holiday-shopping-season).  Counterfeits are far from harmless.  Not only are these counterfeit goods generally inferior to authentic products in both quality and safety, fake products are fraud, theft, and infringements of valuable trademarks and other intellectual property.  Sales of counterfeit products can even be criminal.

As a consumer, what can you do to help ensure you’re receiving the genuine article?  The most obvious method is to avoid unfamiliar sources and to buy directly from the manufacturer’s website or from an authorized retailer whenever possible.  If buying on websites like Amazon and eBay (where products are often actually sold by unrelated third parties), it helps to make sure that the seller of the product is the manufacturer or Amazon itself, not an unknown third party.  Often times, third party sellers do not have the ability or desire to properly perform checks on the goods they are selling, and in many cases the third party sellers never actually possess the products – when they receive your order they simply forward the product from a warehouse they have never even seen.  While outlets like Amazon and eBay have some anti-counterfeiting policies and procedures, experience has shown that not every fake product will be screened out.  Consumers should also check the price of the goods to ensure that it is not abnormally low, and examine the packaging and presentation of the product as depicted on the website to help determine whether the product might be fake or foreign-labeled goods.  Compare the look of the product offered with the same product on the manufacturer’s website – if it’s different, that’s a red flag.  Consumers should also not hesitate to contact the manufacturer if they suspect that they have received counterfeit or foreign-labeled goods – in addition to being the primary victims, consumers are often the first line of defense in the fight against counterfeiting.

As a manufacturer or trademark owner, what can you do when you discover your products being sold in an unauthorized channel, with risk of counterfeiting?  Conkle, Kremer & Engel has extensive experience helping manufacturers and distributors to investigate and, when necessary, litigate counterfeit and other trademark- and intellectual property-infringement claims.  CK&E attorneys are well-versed in the careful initial steps that should promptly be taken when sales of illicit products are suspected.  If the seller is cooperative, litigation can often be avoided.  But if the seller is not, that is a strong indicator that the seller has been selling, and will continue to sell, infringing products unless stopped through litigation.  Whatever you choose to do, consult experienced counsel and decide on your course of action promptly – unreasonable delays can seriously harm your ability to protect your rights.

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The Conkle Firm Featured Panel of 2017 PCPC Legal & Regulatory Conference

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorney H. Kim Sim was on the featured panel of this year’s Legal & Regulatory Conference sponsored by the Personal Care Product Council.  The featured panel, called “California: The Wild, Wild West,” explored the changes and challenges of the new business landscape in California, which boasts an economy that would place it sixth among the world’s nations.  The panel discussion was held on May 10, 2017 at Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines in San Diego, California.   John Conkle, the CK&E attorney originally scheduled to speak on this panel, was unable to appear due to a federal court trial conflict.

 

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The Conkle Firm Wins Injunction Prohibiting Trade Dress Infringement by Zotos

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In September 2016, Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys filed a case on behalf of Moroccanoil against Zotos International, Inc. for trademark infringement by its “Majestic Oil” products. Just four months later, CK&E obtained a Preliminary Injunction against Zotos’ competing products, and within days the case was over.

A Preliminary Injunction is a powerful litigation tool that can immediately stop a defendant from selling products during the litigation. Securing a Preliminary Injunction at the beginning of the case often brings a prompt settlement, as the defendant must decide whether to settle or to fight over the product packaging that it cannot sell.

Getting a Preliminary Injunction can be challenging because the plaintiff must show that it is likely to win the case, and that it will be irreparably harmed if the defendant’s products are allowed in the market while the case proceeds to trial. Recently, courts have made Preliminary Injunctions tougher to get by raising the standards for showing irreparable harm.

In Moroccanoil’s case, the Preliminary Injunction prohibited Zotos from selling its Majestic Oil products in packaging that was confusingly similar to Moroccanoil’s distinctive trade dress. Zotos is a subsidiary of Shiseido America.  Drawing on its knowledge of the beauty industry, CK&E’s presentation of irreparable harm to Moroccanoil’s reputation proved effective – the Court found that continued sales of Majestic Oil products would erode Moroccanoil’s premium position in the hair care market as a professional brand. The Court’s Order granting Moroccanoil’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction is available here, and is published at Moroccanoil, Inc. v. Zotos Int’l, Inc., 230 F. Supp. 3d 1161 (USDC C.D. Cal. 2017).

On the heels of the Preliminary Injunction, the parties settled the case with Zotos agreeing to pay a substantial portion of Moroccanoil’s attorneys’ fees and to drop the confusingly similar trade dress of the Majestic Oil products. In total, the case was fully resolved within 6 months of filing, and the only litigation activity was CK&E’s Motion for the Preliminary Injunction.

To learn more about the case, contact the CK&E attorneys who lead the team for Moroccanoil, Mark Kremer, Evan Pitchford and Zachary Page.

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Trade Secrets: Part 2 of CKE Article on Restraints of Trade

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As described in earlier posts, Conkle, Kremer & Engel represents commissioned sales representatives (“reps”) and manufacturers or distributors (often termed “principals”) who contract with them.  Contracts drafted by manufacturers or distributors often include post-termination non-competition clauses, which can be tricky for both parties.  California generally disallows non-competition clauses as unlawful restraints of trade, but it is nonetheless possible to have effective trade secret agreements that can substantially restrict a former rep from working with competitors.  In addition, reps and principals often work across state lines and many states allow post-termination non-competition terms that are “reasonable” in scope.  Principals and reps must be conscious of which state’s law controls their agreement, and the state venue in which any dispute would be determined by a court or arbitrator.

CK&E attorney Eric S. Engel earlier contributed an article to the October 2016 edition of Agency Sales Magazine, published by the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA) to help reps and principals understand and grapple with the non-competition/restraint of trade issues that they face.  In November 2016, the second installment of this article, Trade Secret Protection in Rep Agreements, was published in Agency Sales Magazine to further explain the related issues of trade secret protection in the principal-rep relationship, and how trade secret concerns can limit the ability of a rep to compete with his or her principal during or after termination of the representation.

CK&E is proud to be able to assist reps and principals to negotiate the sometimes difficult legal issues that can help or hinder their effective partnership in serving their customers.

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At Critical Juncture, CK&E Defeats Consumer Class Action Against Charity

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On October 13, 2016 Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys Eric S. Engel and Zachary Page successfully defended a charitable organization faced with an attempted consumer class action.  In Delgado v. Cars 4 Causes, a charity that accepted donations of vehicles was charged with fraud, false advertising, unfair competition and violation of the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA).  Plaintiff Delgado had donated a boat and trailer to Cars 4 Causes, and later complained that Cars 4 Causes did not adequately disclose its fees before providing a portion of the net proceeds from sale of the donation to Delgado’s designated third party charity.

In a class action, a critical juncture is reached when the plaintiff files a motion to ask the court to certify a class.  Without a class certification, the action is just an individual claim, often with little value on its own.  In Delgado v. Cars 4 Causes, CK&E was able to present compelling evidence and legal arguments that the claims of the prospective class members did not have sufficient common issues of fact, and that the proposed class members were not sufficiently ascertainable, to permit class certification.  When class certification is denied, courts often allow the plaintiff a second or third chance to modify his class definition or otherwise amend his claims in order to meet the class certification requirements.  But in Delgado v. Cars 4 Causes, CK&E was able to present such solid evidence and legal argument that the court was convinced of the futility of any such additional chances for the plaintiff.  As a result, the court denied Delgado’s motion for class certification
“with prejudice.”  This permanent denial of class certification ended the plaintiff’s effort to pursue a class action against Cars 4 Causes.

CK&E attorneys have substantial experience and success in defending class actions ranging from consumer unfair competition, false advertising and CLRA claims, to employment wage and hour claims.

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CKE Publishes on Restraints of Trade Affecting Manufacturers’ Sales Reps

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel represents commissioned sales representatives (“reps”) and manufacturers or distributors (often termed “principals”) who contract with them.  Often, contracts drafted by manufacturers or distributors include post-termination non-competition clauses that can be problematic in several respects.  California generally disallows non-competition clauses as unlawful restraints of trade, but it is often possible to have effective trade secret agreements that can substantially restrict a former representatives from working with competitors.  Further, reps and principals often work across state lines, and many states allow post-termination non-competition terms that are “reasonable” in scope.  Principals and reps must be conscious of which state’s law controls their agreement, and the state venue in which any dispute would be determined by a court or arbitrator.  To help reps and principals understand issues that they face, CK&E attorney Eric S. Engel contributed an article to the October 2016 edition of Agency Sales Magazine, published by the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA).  The October 2016 article, Limiting the Risks of Restraint of Trade, is the first of two parts addressing the enforceability of restraints of trade in various states, and methods to assure that a favorable venue is available if a dispute arises. Next month’s article will focus on the intersection of restraints of trade and trade secret protection.

 

 

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Making a Federal Case of Trade Secret Misappropriation

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On April 27, 2016, the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) passed the House of Representatives and went to President Obama’s desk, where it is expected to be signed.  With that, trade secret misappropriation claims will exist under federal law and can be pursued in federal courts.

The DTSA will provide businesses with more effective new tools to protect their sensitive information from misappropriation.  In the context of trade secrets, misappropriation is generally considered the acquisition of hidden information through some improper means .  The broadly structured language of the DTSA extends its protection to “all forms and types of financial, business, scientific, technical, economic, or engineering information” so long as (1) the owner has taken reasonable steps to keep the information secret and (2) the information derives its value from that secrecy.  The DTSA largely tracks the concepts of trade secrets that have long existed in most states.  But under the DTSA, plaintiffs will be able to bring claims for misappropriation of trade secrets in federal court.

Previously, trade secrets have been an outlier in the world of intellectual property.  Unlike copyright, patent and trademark claims, which receive the wider benefit and protection of federal court jurisdiction, trade secret claims have mostly been litigated in state court.  The problem with this has been that, given the diffuse and global nature of business and commerce, state courts are often not the best venue for intellectual property claims.   If a misappropriation occurs across state or national borders, a federal court is better suited to address such jurisdictional conflicts.

To gain access to the DTSA, and federal court jurisdiction, all that is required is that the “trade secret is related to a product or service used in, or intended for use in, interstate or foreign commerce.”  This is generally a very low threshold, as most products and services these days are used or intended for use in at least interstate commerce – only the most localized of businesses would not be able to meet this minimal requirement.

The DTSA will confer on trade secret holders a greater ability to pursue misappropriation beyond the borders of the United States, and can even pursue remedies before the International Trade Commission.  In addition, a secondary benefit gained from access to the federal court system is a potential for more uniform decisions and precedent than the more disparate and varied state courts decisions.

Another interesting development that the DTSA will usher in relates to injunction and damages.  Injunctions are often sought in trade secret cases to prevent the information at issue from being disclosed.  Previously,  under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA), which almost all states have adopted in some form or another, the injunction would end when the trade secret ceased to exist or after an amount of time necessary to stop any potential commercial advantage being gained from a misappropriation.  The DTSA however contains no such limitation, which presumably will give courts more discretion in applying an extended injunction.  Also, where the UTSA allows for double damages in cases of “willful and malicious misappropriation”, the language of the DTSA has upped this to treble damages.

Perhaps the biggest tool in the DTSA tool belt is the ability to seek ex parte civil seizures.  What this means is that a plaintiff can, without giving a defendant notice, seek the seizure of property if the plaintiff can demonstrate that the defendant, or someone working in concert with the defendant, is likely to “destroy, move, hide, or otherwise make such matter inaccessible to the court”.  This type of ex parte seizure is a powerful new tool that will likely allow trade secret holders to better combat harm associated with a misappropriation.  And being a powerful tool, it may be subject to misuse among competitors.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay current on developments that may be important to their clients concerned about commercial and intellectual property issues.  If you have questions about the DTSA or other aspects of trade secret or intellectual property protection, we would be glad to hear from you.

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Labels Matter: Consumer Class Actions are Available for Organic Labeling Violations

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The California Supreme Court has affirmed that “labels matter” to both buyers and sellers of consumer products. “They serve as markers for a host of tangible and intangible qualities consumers may come to associate with a particular source or method of production.” California protects consumers from mislabeling through a number of laws, including possible class action lawsuits under the Consumers Legal Remedies Act (Civil Code §§ 1750 et seq.), unfair competition laws (Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17200 et seq.) and false advertising laws (Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17500 et seq.)

Aside from California’s general false labeling laws, there are specific laws and regulations regarding organic product labeling. The California Organic Products Act (COPA), generally requires that multi-ingredient cosmetics labeled or sold as organic contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. But COPA is designed to work in concert with Federal regulations that direct baseline standards for production, labeling and sale of organic products. The California Supreme Court recently addressed whether the Federal regulations of organic products in some manner preempt or supersede California’s consumer protection laws, so that only the very limited Federal remedies can be pursued when there are alleged violations of organic labeling laws.

In Quesada v. Herb Thyme Farms, Inc., the California Supreme Court determined that California’s general laws prohibiting labeling misrepresentation do not conflict with the Federal laws concerning organic production, labeling and sale, but rather complement those Federal laws by allowing additional remedies to be pursued when those laws are broken by fraudulent organic product labeling. The Supreme Court observed that “permitting state consumer fraud actions would advance, not impair” the goals of providing “a level playing field” to manufacturers of organic products and “enhance consumer confidence in meaningful labels and reduce the distribution network’s reluctance to carry organic products.” From this perspective, where products are fraudulently mislabeled as organic, “the prosecution of such fraud, whether by public prosecutors where resources and state laws permit, or through civil suits by individuals or groups of consumers, can only serve to deter mislabeling and enhance consumer confidence.”

The result for manufacturers, distributors and resellers is that organic product labeling can create concerns at multiple levels, including federal and state regulatory liability, and class actions under strong state consumer protection laws. All those involved in the chain of manufacturing and distribution of products labeled as organic should consult with experienced counsel to protect themselves from potential adverse outcomes that can come from several directions. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are well versed in helping their clients proactively avoid and resolve such problems.

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Why Bother with the Supplemental Register?

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The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) maintains two different registers for trademarks: the Principal Register and the Supplemental Register.

To be eligible for registration on the Principal Register, certain marks, such as descriptive marks, surnames, geographic terms and certain types of trade dress, must acquire “secondary meaning.”  “Secondary meaning” means that public primarily sees the mark as identifying the source of the product rather than the product itself.  Registration on the Principal Register gives a mark’s owner several benefits, including:

  • Presumptions of ownership and validity;
  • Constructive notice to others of ownership;
  • The right to request that U.S. Customs exclude infringing goods from import;
  • The ability to claim “incontestable” status after five years of registration; and
  • The ability to obtain certain monetary and equitable relief in an infringement action.

Marks that are actually in use in the United States, but that do not qualify for the Principal Register because they have not yet acquired secondary meaning, may be registered on the Supplemental Register. As you might expect, registration on the Supplemental Register does not provide the same protection as registration on the Principal Register. For example, registration on the Supplemental Register does not create a presumption of ownership or validity; give others constructive notice of ownership; support a later claim of incontestability; imply an exclusive right to use the mark; or allow the mark’s owner to request that products bearing the mark be excluded from import into the United States.

So why bother with the Supplemental Register? The primary benefit of a registration on the Supplemental Register is that a subsequent application for a confusingly similar mark for related goods may be refused by the USPTO. The owner of a Supplemental Registration may also use the registered ® symbol on the products listed in the registration. Further, a registration on the Supplemental Register allows the owner to register the mark in other countries that offer reciprocal trademark rights. And, in the event that a Supplemental Registration’s owner is successful in an infringement action, the owner may be entitled to certain monetary and equitable relief that might otherwise be unavailable.

Given the relative advantages of ownership of a registration on the Principal Register, an applicant should always seek registration on the Principal Register first. But, if the USPTO refuses registration for lack of secondary meaning, an applicant should consider amending the application to the Supplemental Register to ensure the protections discussed above. Keep in mind that if a mark’s owner believes that the mark registered on the Supplemental Register has acquired distinctiveness, a new application for registration on the Principal Register is required.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel assists companies in all aspects of intellectual property protection, including U.S. and international trademark registrations and enforcement of trademark rights.

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Beware of Scam Trademark Solicitations

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Trademark applicants and registrants take notice:  There are increasing numbers of domestic and international outfits that issue trademark compliance and renewal notices that look like legitimate invoices or governmental requests.  In actuality, these notices are sent by private individuals or entities trying to make a quick buck.  Some of these notices are solicitations from companies offering to file renewals with the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) for an exorbitant fee.  Using deceptively official-sounding names such as “United States Trademark Registration Office”, “Trademark and Patent Office” and “Patent & Trademark Agency”, these companies charge excessive fees for routine or unnecessary services or worse, take your money and disappear.  Others, such as IP Data in the Czech Republic, seek to charge a “filing fee” of over $2,400 to publish your trademark in their own private Internet database – an expensive exercise that is not an application for trademark registration and confers no trademark rights.

This problem has become so widespread and severe that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) published a list of known international trademark registration scams.   The USPTO keeps a similar scammer database, identifying the following organizations that sent non-USPTO solicitations, prompting consumer complaints to the USPTO:

  • TM-DB Register of Protected Trademarks
  • Trademark and Patent Office
  • Trademark Compliance Center (See an example of a scam solicitation sent by TCC)
  • Trademark Registration and Monitoring Office
  • United States Trademark Registration Office
  • Patent & Trademark Agency
  • United States Trademark Maintenance Service
  • U.S. Trademark Compliance Service
  • WDTP
  • WIPT
  • TM Collection
  • TM Edition
  • Patent Trademark Register
  • Register of International Patents and Trademarks
  • Trademark Renewal Service
  • Trademark Safeguard – Trademark Monitoring Service
  • Intellectual Property Agency Ltd.
  • IOPR – Intellectual Property Register
  • GBO, Inc.
  • Intellectual Property Services USA Incorporated
  • USTM Information Services
  • Brand Registration Office

In October 2014, a New York firm successfully won a lawsuit against “Patent & Trademark Agency LLC” for unfair competition and deceptive marketing practices, putting the company out of business.  A Final Consent Judgment was entered against Patent & Trademark Agency LLC, by which it agreed to permanently discontinue marketing and selling trademark registration or renewal services in the United States.

If you receive any unexpected email or correspondence regarding a trademark registration, you should immediately contact the USPTO or your counsel to verify the veracity of the sender and the correspondence.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel assists individuals and companies in all aspects of intellectual property protection, including the filing and maintenance of trademark registrations – and we know how to discriminate legitimate vendors from scammers.

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