Common law trademarks

Common law trademarks can shield against Federal trademarks
Common law trademarks can sometimes shield against Federal trademarks

Think that a Federal US trademark applies throughout the US? Not always. Welcome to the murky world of common law trademarks.

Under trademark law, certain types of legal rights, often called “common law trademark rights”, automatically (without any registration) go into effect as soon as someone starts using some sort of distinctive mark (word, logo) to identify a product or service that they are selling in commerce.

Common law trademarks are murky because it is often hard to determine who first used a particular mark to sell a particular product or service at a particular geographical location.

Sounds strange?  To better understand common law trademarks, think back to an earlier era when long distance communication was poor and most commerce was local. In earlier eras, Federal and state-level trademark registration systems were either non-existent or impractically hard to use.

Occasionally different merchants, located in geographically different areas and unaware of each other, would innocently start using confusingly similar marks for their local products and services. The problem might go undetected for years until one merchant eventually expanded into another’s geographic area. Customers would then get confused, and the merchants would file lawsuits.

It wasn’t fair to strip an innocent merchant of all rights to their mark.  As a compromise, at least for merchants who had been clearly acting in good faith, the courts would often award each merchant exclusive local trademark rights to their respective marks.  As a result, under common law, different merchants, operating in geographically different areas, could even legally use the same trademark.

Communications and transportation improved, and the need for a Federal level trademark system became apparent.  However Congress faced some problems: 1) due to Constitutional limitations, they believed that they lacked authority to phase out the older, state-level, common law system; 2) it wasn’t even a good idea to phase-out the older system because it was still very important to commerce. Congress’s solution was to acknowledge that the older system would continue to operate and to make the newer Federal trademark system “backward compatible” with the older common law trademark system.

The net effect is that although a Federal trademark normally gives exclusive rights throughout the US, there are some limited common law trademark exemptions or defenses, such as 15 U.S. Code § 1115 (b)(5) and (6).

Consider a merchant (company) who didn’t register a Federal trademark, but who was otherwise innocently using their mark in geographic region “A”.  Assume that this use was prior to the Federal trademark filing of a confusingly similar mark by another merchant, previously only selling in geographic region “B”.  Under 15 U.S. Code § 1115 (b)(5) and (6), the merchant in region “A” can argue “common law rights”, and with adequate proof keep using this mark in region “A”. The Federal trademark holder (the other merchant) will otherwise have full US rights outside of region “A”.

Copyrights and creativity

macaca_photograph300
Macaca self-photograph. No human creativity, so no copyright?

Copyright protection requires that a work have at least a minimum amount of human creativity, but the laws are vague as to what this minimum is.

Legally, US copyright protection is provided for information (typically preserved in a non-transitory medium) that has at least a small element of a human author’s own creativity. Courts have held that mere facts and ideas alone can’t be copyrighted. The amount of creativity can be very small, but it isn’t zero.  For example, using human judgment to select and compile facts according to personal criteria often qualifies, and an author’s annotations of facts may also qualify, but routine alphabetical sorting is not enough (Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone, 499 US 340, 1991) .

From an engineering or mathematical perspective, these rules may look vague. This is in part because copyright concepts date back hundreds of years, back to the early days of printing presses, and have evolved slowly over time through various laws and court decisions. However copyrights are big business, and copyright law enforcement tends to be efficient and harsh. So like them or not, the rules are important.

One area where the rules are fuzzy is short works, such as short sections of text or individual photographic images. What is the minimum work (creative information) that might get copyright protection?  The rules are not uniform throughout the world, and here we are discussing US laws.

Short text:  Very short text fragments are often considered too trivial (de minimis) for copyright protection, but the court will consider originality here, and more originality gets better protection. Although there is no minimum word-count cut off, text fragments of 11 words or less at the “news article” level of originality are often considered non-infringing.

Individual photographs:  Again the law requires a small amount of human creativity for copyright protection.  The US copyright office will not register works produced by non-humans, and lower court cases are consistent with this decision.  Additionally, exact copies of public domain work (Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp.) are also exempt from copyright. Otherwise, the courts often ignore the creativity requirement.  This raises some interesting questions for future cases. However, unless the law changes, assume that copyright applies to nearly all human-produced photographs, no matter how repetitious, trivial or otherwise non-creative.

There are other copyright exceptions.  Federal Government work is often not copyrightable.  Further, under “fair use”, there can be additional exceptions where it is OK to reproduce another’s copyrighted work.  Fair use rules are complex and will be the topic of another discussion.

Halo and reckless infringement

The Halo decision
The Halo decision

The Halo decision; and how to avoid court-ordered punitive damages for culpable patent infringement (recklessly infringing known patents)

One problem that both startups and established corporations face is what to do in situations where their product might infringe on someone else’s patent.  If the corporation ends up in court, and a judge determines that the infringement was somehow unusually extreme (e.g. egregious), then the judge may punish the offender by awarding up to three times actual damages (punitive damages). This can severely damage or destroy the infringer.

But what is “unusually extreme”?  Is it when an engineer is worried about a particular patent, or a competitor sends a warning letter, but the company proceeds anyway?  How close does the product have to match the patent?

The law has been going back and forth on this.  Earlier the rules were strict. Then the rules became so lax that punitive damages were hardly ever awarded. Now, in the June 2016 case of Halo Electronics v. Pulse Electronics, SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) has clarified that the rules are somewhat in-between these two extremes.

In the Halo decision, SCOTUS clarified that what is relevant is “culpability”, which in essence is the state of mind of the person (actor) at the time of the conduct.  In a corporate setting, this is likely the state of mind of the decision makers at the time they either decided to launch the product, or decided to keep selling in the face of some knowledge of infringement.

In particular, the issue is one of acting recklessly (not like a normal person) and/or with willful misconduct while knowing that there was a patent infringement issue.  The court can determine this if the majority of the evidence supports this conclusion (i.e. preponderance of the evidence standard).

Getting advice of legal counsel:

Earlier, when the rules were strict, the courts, in essence, created a duty to get the advice of legal counsel before acting. However later, when the rules were lax, there was not much of a need for this.  Courts in this era set the threshold for punitive damages so high that such damages were almost never awarded.

Now, with the present rules, the situation is in-between.  Failure to get the advice of legal counsel does not automatically prove that a company acted recklessly. However getting advice before acting (e.g. launching a product) can help prove lack of recklessness. Timely advice can help establish that the company acted with normal caution, thus hopefully avoiding punitive damages.  But note that there is a timing issue:  the legal standard is the state of the mind at the time of the (infringing) conduct. SCOTUS is not impressed by legal arguments concocted afterwards.