By Debby Winters
Next in this series, we will discuss the failure of the startup to recognize thrid-party rights. When we think about third-party rights in the IP, we are thinking about competitors who may have a patent for a technology within a product. Every startup should be cognizant that its company commercialization may be blocked by this type of third-party right. Accordingly, startups, at an early stage, should consider a “freedom to operate” (FTO) search or clearance to assess litigation risks. A FTO is performed to make sure that commercial products, marketing and use of the product, process or service do not infringe the IP rights of third-parties.
An FTO analysis begins by searching issued patents or pending applications and obtaining a legal opinion from a licensed patent attorney knowledgeable in that field as to whether the product, process, or service may be considered to infringe one or more patents owned by others. Patents that limit the startup’s FTO can be addressed by buying or licensing the underlying technology or patent, by cross-licensing the technology or patent, or by creatively “inventing around” the patented invention by altering the startup product or process, thus avoiding infringement.
An example of how to “invent around” would be in software development, where a startup chooses to incorporate open source software into its code. However, open source licenses also need to be carefully reviewed to ensure compliance with license terms. In some instances, the use of open source code in a startup product may transform the startup’s proprietary code into open source software resulting in public disclosure of the proprietary code. It is always best to consult a licensed patent attorney.
A startup will sometimes use third-party photographs, images, or text in marketing or product support materials. In such cases, the startup should investigate if permission is required to use the material, identify the rights needed, and contact the owner for permission or a license. Startups should make sure the copyright permission or license agreement is in writing.
Comprehensive trademark searches should be conducted early in the business planning process to make sure that the desired business, product, or service name does not conflict with a registered trademark. A startup that fails to conduct a proper trademark search risks receiving a cease and desist letter or even being sued. This may necessity a need to rebrand after launch and incur the tangible and intangible costs associated with rebranding.
Businesses need broad awareness when hiring new employees, especially those that may have knowledge of competitor’s trade secrets. This is another way to infringe on a third-party’s IP rights. New employee agreements should include clauses that prohibit employees from transferring or using proprietary information or materials from previous employers. The startup should also verify that the new hire is not subject to any binding non-compete agreements from former employers.
In dealing with third-party rights, startups are well-advised to consider their options at an early stage. In some cases, minor product or service changes, payment of a small licensing fee to the patent or copyright owner, and/or changing potentially problematic trademarks early on and implementing careful employee hiring practices may be sufficient to avoid future disputes and can improve a startup’s chances of attracting business partners and investors to support its business development plans.
In our next blog we will discuss the pitfalls of using poorly drafted agreements to cover IP, and the danger of not using a written agreement at all.