Consumers are Exposed to Extreme Risks from Counterfeit Products

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Some consumers may view offers of brand name goods from sellers not within the manufacturer’s regular distribution chain as just a way to “get a good deal.”  But those offers can result in purchasers receiving counterfeit products, which are no bargain and can expose unknowing consumers to some of the worst risks imaginable.

At the very least, counterfeit products are frauds – they are not from the manufacturer whose trademark appears on the product, so the consumer is cheated out of the quality that the brand represents.  But in reality, the consumer has absolutely no idea what the contents and construction of a counterfeit product may be – it is a product of unknown origin, regardless of whether the consumer purchased from a known reseller.  Because virtually any product a consumer can purchase can be counterfeited, consumers can be placed in great danger from unknowingly purchasing substandard products.  A couple of recent events in the news highlight the extreme risks of counterfeit products.

In April 2018, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it had raided sellers of supposedly discount brand name cosmetics, and seized $700,000 of counterfeits.  Consumers had complained to the brand manufacturers that makeup products they purchased were causing rashes and bumps on their skin.  The products were determined to be counterfeits that tested positive for high levels of bacteria and animal waste.  This is undoubtedly because the counterfeits are not manufactured with any quality controls or regulatory oversight – they are the result of a black market, pirate operation.  LAPD Detective Rick Ishitani was quoted in the press as saying, “Those feces will just basically somehow get mixed into the product they’re manufacturing in their garage or in their bathroom — wherever they’re manufacturing this stuff.”  One of the brands asserted to be counterfeit was Kylie Cosmetics. Kylie Jenner’s sister, Kim Kardashian West, tweeted:  “Counterfeit Kylie lip kits seized in LAPD raid test positive for feces. SO GROSS! Never buy counterfeit products!”

The risks to consumers of counterfeits unfortunately do not stop even there.  An even more extreme case of product counterfeiting hit the press a few days later.  Tragically, famed rock artist Prince died in April 2016.  It was soon determined that he had died from an overdose of fentanyl, an extremely powerful and dangerous synthetic opioid.  But in April 2018, local prosecutors announced that Prince had consumed the fentanyl by taking tainted counterfeit Vicodin, a brand name medication of AbbVie, Inc.  There was no determination as to how Prince obtained the counterfeit Vicodin pharmaceuticals.  “In all likelihood, Prince had no idea he was taking a counterfeit pill that could kill him.  Others around Prince also likely did not know that the pills were counterfeit containing fentanyl,”  Carver County, Minnesota Attorney Mark Metz was quoted as saying at a news conference.

Some believe that counterfeits can be identified by the price alone, and warn against buying brand name products at steep discounts.  While an inexplicably low price is certainly a red flag of a potential counterfeit, in fact counterfeit products are often sold to consumers at prices very close to those of the brand name product.  This is often because many intermediaries have handled the product, taking a profit with each transaction, in the course of a murky gray market distribution process.

The popularity of online sales make the risks even worse for consumers, as it is nearly impossible for the consumer to inspect the product before purchase and delivery, and it is often very difficult for consumers to determine who is actually selling the product online.  For example, many popular online sellers act as marketplaces for innumerable third party sellers, and a purchaser cannot always determine which seller will actually deliver the product purchased.

If you are a consumer, you really need to exercise great caution when considering purchases of brand name products from sellers who are not in that manufacturer’s authorized distribution channels.  It generally matters little whether the seller is known to the consumer – it only matters where the seller obtained the product.

If you are a brand name manufacturer or trademark holder who suspects that unauthorized parallel market sellers may be offering counterfeit products, you are well advised to promptly contact counsel well-versed in the issues and methods of enforcement of your intellectual property rights.

 

 

 

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California’s Cleaning Product Right to Know Act Requires Ingredient Disclosure

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California became the first state in the nation to have a cleaning products disclosure law, after Governor Brown signed the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act of 2017 (S.B. 258 (Lara)) into law in late 2017.

The Cleaning Product Right to Know Act requires manufacturers of certain cleaning products sold in California to disclose on the product label and on the product’s Internet web site certain information related to known hazardous chemicals contained in the product.  Manufacturers will have until January 1, 2020 to comply with the online disclosure requirements, and until January 1, 2021 to comply with the product label disclosure requirements.  However, any intentionally added ingredient that is regulated by California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (commonly known as Proposition 65) will not have to be listed until January 1, 2023.

The new law applies to so-called “designated products”, which are defined as a finished product that is an air care product, automotive product, general cleaning product, or a polish or floor maintenance product used primarily for janitorial, domestic or institutional cleaning purposes.  It does not apply to foods, drugs and cosmetics, trial samples, or industrial products specifically manufactured for certain industrial manufacturing processes.

The product label will be required to disclose each intentionally added ingredient contained in the product that is included on any of 22 specified designated chemical lists – including chemicals listed pursuant to Proposition 65.  Alternatively, manufacturers may list all intentionally added ingredients contained in the product unless it is confidential business information.  The Act also requires the disclosure of fragrance allergens greater than 0.01 percent (100 ppm).  Additional requirements include the manufacturer’s toll-free telephone number and Internet web site address on the product label.

As for the online disclosure requirements, manufacturers must list all intentionally added ingredients and state their functional purpose.  All nonfunctional constituents present at above 0.01 percent (100 ppm) must also be listed.  The website must include electronic links for designated lists and a link to the hazard communication safety data sheet for the product.  In addition, specific requirements apply for the disclosure of fragrance allergens online.

The Act also adds a section to the California Labor Code imposing an obligation on employers who are required to provide employees with Safety Data Sheets (SDS).  Those employers must similarly make the printable information from the online disclosure available in the workplace.

Although it is a state law, the effect of the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act is certain to be felt by manufacturers across the country who sell their products into California, as is true of many of California’s other regulatory schemes, including Proposition 65, and will most likely result in a nationwide relabeling of covered products.

Given the Act’s numerous and in some cases highly technical requirements, manufacturers of cleaning products would be well advised to determine whether any of their products are subject to the Act, and take steps now to ensure compliance by 2020.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stand ready to help manufacturers handle all that is coming their way.

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Big Beer, Craft Beer, and Trademark Infringement: Harm to Premium Brands

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As the craft beer market continues to expand in popularity and threaten the market share of older “macrobrewery” giants like Molson Coors and Anheuser Busch, courts have seen increased legal disputes in the beer industry as brands fight for both their independence and the attention of consumers.  Most recently, Molson Coors has been sued in federal court in San Diego by Stone Brewing Co., one of the oldest and largest independent craft brewers in the United States.  In its complaint, Stone Brewing claims that Coors is infringing the “STONE” trademark by rebranding Coors’ sub-premium, low cost “Keystone” brand as “KeySTONE,” with a particular emphasis on the single word “STONE” in packaging and marketing materials.  Because of this, Stone Brewing alleges, Coors is sowing consumer confusion between the two brands.

Keystone Rebranding Comparison from Stone Complaint

Unless there is a swift settlement, one can assume that Stone Brewing will make good on the threat in its complaint that it will move for a preliminary injunction in order to stop the sale of Coors’ “KeySTONE” branded products during the pendency of the lawsuit.  A motion for a preliminary injunction is often a critical juncture in such trademark infringement lawsuits, and Stone Brewing will need to show that it will be “irreparably harmed” if the injunction is not granted.  This showing has in recent years become more difficult, as courts no longer presume irreparable harm when the plaintiff shows that consumers are likely to be confused by trademark infringement, but rather require an additional showing of likely irreparable harm.  “Irreparable harm” (also known as “irreparable injury”) generally means injuries that cannot be readily compensated by money damages, and since money damages are usually available for trademark infringement this standard presents special hurdles for infringement plaintiffs that can be difficult to overcome early in a case.

To show irreparable harm, one argument Stone Brewing will likely make is that its “premium brand” is being tarnished by confusion with Coors’ “value brand.”  This argument is presaged throughout Stone Brewing’s complaint (referring to Keystone’s beers as “watered down” and “fizzy yellow offerings,” as opposed to Stone Brewing’s “bold” and “artisanal” products).  The argument, which has been judicially adopted in relatively few cases, is essentially that the premium or niche brand is irreparably harmed by the association with the value, mass-market brand, which usually is of lesser quality.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel, which has experience in both trademark litigation and issues specific to beer production, distribution, and marketing, has succeeded in making this premium-vs.-value argument in federal courts in California.  For example, in Moroccanoil, Inc. v. Zotos International, Inc. (230 F. Supp. 3d 1161 (USDC C.D. Cal. 2017)), a 2017 trademark infringement case with similarities to the dispute between Coors and Stone Brewing, CK&E represented the manufacturer of Moroccanoil Treatment, a luxury oil-infused hair care product sold in distinctive packaging.  The defendant Zotos, part of a large personal care products conglomerate, had created a low-cost “value” hair oil product called “Majestic Oil” that, in addition to its similar name, used packaging that was a close likeness of Moroccanoil’s trade dress.

CK&E, in its successful motion for preliminary injunction, argued that sales of low-cost “value” Majestic Oil products would erode Moroccanoil’s carefully-built premium image.  The presentation included evidence establishing that once a product is no longer perceived by consumers as “premium,” it is difficult or even impossible for the seller to regain that perception.  The court agreed with CK&E and Moroccanoil, finding a likelihood of irreparable harm and granting a preliminary injunction against further sale of the Majestic Oil products.

Preliminary injunctions can be dramatic turning points in infringement cases.  In Moroccanoil’s case, the court’s preliminary injunction prevented Zotos from any further sales, advertisement or distribution of its infringing products, and required Zotos to recall all of its infringing products already in the market.  As could be predicted, the case settled swiftly thereafter and Zotos made permanent substantial changes to its product name and packaging to avoid infringing Moroccanoil’s intellectual property rights.

Click here to learn more about CK&E’s Moroccanoil v. Zotos matter or contact CK&E attorneys who work on beer industry matters, such as the brand protection that can make or break participants in the crowded craft beer market, including John Conkle, Evan Pitchford and Zachary Page.

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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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