As e-commerce businesses have taken off, so have more issues arose relating to use of others’ intellectual property. We’ve already talked about how intellectual property like trademarks can be a delicate situation between businesses trying to protect their rights but trying to avoid upsetting their customers.
So-called patent trolling (generally speaking, this is where a company holds patents but doesn’t use them other than to try to get licensing fees from other companies) has been around for a while, but more recently, we have been seeing what could be called a form of trademark trolling. Basically, these are instances of trademark owners bullying other businesses, not really to prevent consumer confusion, but more so to end some kind of competitive business practice they don’t like (usually against direct competitors or companies selling their competitors’ products).
Take a look at this case between Multi Time Machine, Inc. and Amazon. Here, we have a watchmaker, who does not sell its watches on Amazon.com, suing Amazon for presenting consumers who search for their watches on Amazon.com (usually by entering searches like “mtm special ops”) with results of watches that are similar to MTM. (MTM has registered trademarks for MTM Special Ops and MTM Spec Ops.) Additionally, MTM was unhappy that Amazon failed to indicate to these customers that no results were found when searching for MTM products.
Naturally, Amazon wants to have the appearance of a store that has everything someone could want available for sale, and when it doesn’t have exactly what you were looking for, it wants to offer you the closest product to it. The court in this case referenced the situation where someone at a restaurant asks for a Coke and is instead offered a Pepsi. After all, is the situation in this case that different from walking into a department store and asking for a particular brand watch and the salesperson directing you to similar watches? Whether they tell you they don’t have that specific brand or not, you would probably figure it out pretty quickly by the absence of the brand name you were looking for on the products you were shown and the existence of different brand names in their place. Or perhaps the internet is different from this example, and companies like Amazon are trying to confuse customers into purchasing their alternatives under the guise of being made by MTM. Either way, the primary concern in trademark law is whether or not there is a likelihood of consumers being confused.
Ultimately, the court did not find MTM’s arguments persuasive and determined that there was no likelihood of confusion between MTM’s products and Amazon’s alternative offerings as search results. However, MTM appealed the case to the 9th Circuit, who recently heard oral argument on the matter.
Trademark rights are designed to prevent consumer confusion in the marketplace. We don’t want consumers to be confused about who makes the product they are buying, so we don’t let companies use the same or confusingly similar names on their products, especially if they are selling similar products.
If your business is thinking about using another company’s trademark, even for comparative or other purposes, it is a good idea to talk it over with a knowledgeable attorney. If you need help regarding trademarks, do not hesitate to reach out to the Law Office of E.C. Lewis, P.C., home of your Denver Business Attorney, Elizabeth Lewis, at 720-258-6647 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After you have researched whether or not your business name or idea is being used by anyone else, see How to Research Your Business Name and How to Research Your Business Idea, it is important to take measures to protect it appropriately.
If the idea is an invention, or improvement to an existing one, that is useful, novel, non-obvious, adequately described or enabled, and claimed by the inventor in clear and definite terms, then it may be patentable, and you should speak with an attorney right a way to discuss the patent application process. You may also consider applying for a provisional patent, which can protect your idea for the first twelve months and allow you to use the phrase “Patent Pending.”
If the idea is of the artistic or creative variety such as a painting, novel, or movie, then you should sit down with an attorney to discuss whether or not it is protected by copyright and whether or not it is a good idea to have the copyright registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. This is usually a straightforward process that can be done electronically.
If your idea is a name, slogan, symbol, sound, or other identifier for your business or its goods and services, then it may be protectable as a trademark. Trademark protections can exist under common law, state law, or federal law, so you should be sure to discuss what is most appropriate and cost-effective for your business with an attorney. Federal trademarks can be especially difficult and expensive to obtain and keep, so this will require some careful deliberation. You may also need to consider whether or not your business needs to be formed a particular way or if a trade name should be filed in order to help protect the name or aspects of the business idea.
If you are thinking about discussing or pitching your idea to others, you should seriously evaluate whether a Non-Disclosure Agreement or other form of confidentiality protection is suitable. These can help protect you from having your idea copied by those you discuss it with, but it can be a delicate issue to raise in front of friends, family, or potential business partners.
Remember that if you do not protect yourself, you could wind up finding yourself in a lengthy and costly court battle to stop someone from profiting off of your idea, and you still might lose. This business idea could be the livelihood of you and your family, so why risk losing it? Do not let this happen to you.
If you have questions about or need help with protecting your business name or idea, contact the Law Office of E.C. Lewis PC, home of your Denver Business Lawyer, Elizabeth Lewis, 720-258-6647 or email her at Elizabeth.Lewis@eclewis.com.
If you have a particular name that you want to use or are already using for your business, it is important to act quickly to find out if anyone else is using that name. There a few simple research steps and searches that you can do yourself, right now, which can give you a better idea of the status of your business name.
Before getting started with these steps, it is essential to remember that you perform several different searches. Try alternative spellings, as well as putting in additional words that might make sense to be included within the name. Basically, you want to try and search for anything that might sound like or get confused with the name that you have selected.
The first step is easy enough, simply run a few searches with an online search engine, like Google, of the business name. Pay attention to the results for not only exact name matches but similar matches that are making or performing related goods or services to what you had in mind with the name.
Next you can try going to a domain name registration site, such as GoDaddy.com, and entering in your business name into the domain name search. This will let you know whether or not someone already owns that website domain. Remember to take note that even if your preferred domain like .com is available, be sure to look through the other search results to see if someone is using your business name in another domain like .net, .us or others.
Digging in a bit deeper with your research, you should go to the U.S. Patent Office website. Here you will be able to see if someone has previously trademarked your business name. To run the search, go to tmsearch.uspto.gov, then click on “Basic Word Mark Search” and start running different searches to see what names have been trademarked.
Now that you have searched the national trademark database, you will want to narrow down your research more locally. You can do this by visiting the website for the Office of the Secretary of State for each state that you are or might do business in. For example, the Colorado Secretary of State website is sos.state.co.us, and from there you can select “Businesses, trademarks, trade names,” then click on “Search business database.” Now you can run searches to see trademarks, trade names, and business names.
Following these steps will help you go from a broad to narrow perspective in your research, so that you can hone in on what exactly is happening with a particular business name. With all of this new information in hand, you can begin thinking more seriously about what to do next with your business name.
If you have any questions about what your research turned up or if you are ready to take the next step in forming your business or protecting a business name, do not hesitate to reach out to the Law Office of E.C. Lewis, PC, the home of your Denver Business Lawyer, Elizabeth Lewis at 720-258-6647 or email her at Elizabeth.Lewis@eclewis.com.