Archive for trade secrets

Jul
20

Take a Broad Approach to Intellectual Property Strategy

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I’ve noticed that many companies tend to emphasize patents in their IP strategy. Sometimes that’s almost all they consider. Sound IP strategy, however, requires applying a variety of tools. A broad approach to intellectual assets is more important than ever. Patents of various kinds, trademarks, trade secrets, copyright protection, and low-cost publications can all play a useful role.

Utility patents can protect your products, their components, the machines for making them, the methods of making them, and methods of using them, among other things. Design patents can protect aesthetic elements. Copyrights can protect commercial expression (ads, for example) of that function. Trademarks protect the brands that are based on the consumer perception of the product. Packaging relevant to your products may also be protected with utility patents, design patents, trademarks, and copyright.

The power of trademarks in protecting a company is illustrated in a recent case involving Adidas, owner of trademark for a tennis shoe with three stripes on the side. In May 2008, an Oregon jury ruled that Payless Shoes should pay $308 million to Adidas for infringing that trademark. (Payless appealed but subsequently abandoned its appeal after agreeing to an out-of-court settlement with Adidas.) Payless may have hoped to evade the three-strip trademark of German-owned Adidas by using four stripes, but Adidas successfully argued that their stripes create a distinctive mark that is a sign of origin, and that both two-stripe and four-stripe shoes may cause confusion in the minds of consumers. Three simple parallel stripes have become a distinctive part of the Adidas brand. This coverage may last as long as the brand does, unlike the limited coverage afforded by patents. Adidas, of course, relies on both utility and design patents as part of its IA strategy.

In recent years, U.S. trademark rights have been expanded to cover not just traditional logos and names, but to also cover colors, scents, characteristic sounds, and three-dimensional shapes. Examples include:

  • Yamaha’s distinct water spout from its WaveRunner® personal water craft. As U.S. Trademark 74321288 states, “The mark is comprised of a three-dimensional spray of water issuing from the rear of a jet propelled watercraft and is generated during the operation of the watercraft.”
  • Tiffany’s famous robin-egg blue gift box (US Trademark 75360201).
  • Intel’s five musical notes (US Trademark 78721830).

Trademarks can have an unlimited life, unlike the 14-year-life design patents have from the date of filing, or the 20-year life of regular utility patents. Under U.S. law, trademarks can be used to sue both manufacturers and distributors of infringing products.

We recommend that innovators look for creative combinations of both trademarks and patents, as well as other forms of intellectual assets.

One of those other forms can be called “digital intellectual assets,” a broad category that includes domain names. They may be trademarked, but if you don’t own the domain name, you’ll have an expensive battle trying to wrest it from someone else. As soon as you consider candidates for trademarks, quickly register the related domain names. Also consider getting the related Gmail accounts, Facebook accounts, Twitter accounts, Youtube channels, Pinterest accounts, etc. Those are free or inexpensive and can be worth a great deal if your brand name becomes important.

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Sep
20

David and Googleliath (or VSL vs. Google): A Small Company Fighting a Giant Reminds Us Why Software Patents Matter

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A small start-up company fighting one of the great giants of all time: it’s a classic story of David vs. Goliath, or in this case, David vs. Googleliath (a.k.a. VSL vs. Google).

Googleliath's Googleplex (source: Wikipedia)

Googleliath’s Googleplex (source: Wikipedia).

Many small companies have claimed that Google misappropriated trade secrets or other IP, but rarely has Google graciously (and accidentally) cooperated in providing smoking-gun evidence the way they apparently did for Vedanti Systems, Ltd. (VSL). In this case, they allegedly left sticky notes on VSL’s trade secret materials showing their questionable intentions to take Vedanti’s technology. If VSL prevails against this giant, it may be more a case of Googleliath falling on its own sword than David being great with a sling.

VSL and their partners are now suing Googleliath for infringement of patents and theft of trade secrets in two courts. The suits are against Google (here also known as “Googleliath”) and their subsidiairies, YouTube and On2 Technologies. London-based Vedanti Systems Limited and their U.S.-based parent, VSL Communications, Inc., have turned to Max Sound for help in enforcing IP rights. The patent suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, while the trade secret suit was filed in Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara.

The complaints claim that Google executives met with Vedanti Systems in 2010 to discuss the possibility of acquiring Vedanti’s patented digital video streaming techniques and other trade secrets. Vedanti’s compression technology for streaming audio and video files is far superior to what Google had, Google’s own standards for streaming video t the time led to “jittery, low-quality video and sound for large-sized video files,” according to the patent complaint.

As part of the talks with VSL,  Google had access to trade secrets such as VSL’s proprietary codec for encoding and decoding a digital data stream.  That codex has proprietary techniques for “key frame positioning, slicing and analyzing pixel selection of video content to significantly reduce the volume of digital video files, while minimizing any resulting loss of video quality.”

Shortly after the negotiations began, Google allegedly began implementing VSL technology into its WebM/VP8 video codec, applying what they had learned from VSL but not letting VSL know. The WebM/VP8 video codec is extremely important for Google. It is used in many of their services and websites including YouTube.com, Google TV, the Android operating system, and Chrome web browser. They had inferior technology, but by allegedly stealing Vedanti’s, they were able to quickly advance their business at virtually no cost.

There’s just two pesky little problems for Google:

1. Vedanti has patents for its technology and is not afraid to sue. Now you might see why Google seems to really hate software patents (rather, other people’s software patents). They have been a leading force in some of the patent reform measures and related steps that have made protecting IP rights harder than ever for little guys like Vedanti. This giant, with its easy access to the White House and many other influencers, has also been an important voice against software patents, and may have helped influence popular opinion and the courts into recent devastating attacks on software patents. But Vedanti’s patents are still alive for now, so Google has cause for concern.

2. Google seems to have assisted VSL’s case by returning VSL’s trade secret materials with tell-tale sticky notes all over them showing their intent. Huh? This is really an amazing part of this story.

Attorney Howard Ankin puts it this way in a post from Sept. 17, 2014:

When the VSL Google talks ended, VSL demanded the return of its files. The returned documents were covered with incriminating Post-it notes that had apparently been left behind by Google employees. Attorney Adam Levitt claims that the notes said, among other things, that Google might possibly be infringing VSL’s then-pending patent and that Google should “keep an eye” on VSL’s technology and sweep it into a Google patent. In addition, notes warned Google engineers not to be caught “digging deep” and to “close eyes to existing IP.”

The complaint alleges that Google began to amend its preexisting patent applications and file new applications using VSL’s technology. Then in early 2012, VSL noticed that there were significant improvements to the video quality of Google’s Android operating system as well as other Google software. In June, the staff at VSL analyzed Google’s publicly available code only to discover that the code contained VSL trade secrets. Levitt asserts that the “Defendants’ theft of VSL’s trade secrets pervades virtually every website and product offered by defendants.”

“The use of new technology by established companies should be based on original creation and innovation,” said Adam Levitt, head of Grant & Eisenhofer’s Consumer Protection practice, who is representing the plaintiffs. “Vedanti Systems created groundbreaking digital video technology — technology that has forever changed the way that video content is streamed and displayed over the Internet.”

The lawsuits allege that Google willfully infringed Vedanti Systems’ patent and did so deliberately and knowingly, while recognizing the serious shortcomings of their own video streaming capabilities prior to the infusion of stolen IP.

Whether the suit will succeed or not remains to be seen, but I find Google’s lapse in leaving sticky notes on the borrowed materials to be rather hilarious, if it is true. One thing is for sure: If Vedanti’s allegations are factual, their chances of seeing some degree of justice are vastly greater by virtue of having a patent than if they did not. Software patents are essential for protecting innovations in the hugely important arena of information technology. This is the Knowledge Economy, folks, not the Iron Age. Economic growth and progress is more likely to come from advanced software and IT innovations than from hammering out better cogs and gears, and we need an IP system that understands this. Most judges and politicians ranting against software patents or patents in general do not understand this. Recent ruling that make many software innovations not even eligible for patents show that we have judges and influencers very ignorant of the physical nature of information and computer systems. Innovations like those of Vedenati are not tantamount to mere abstraction and mental exercises. They should have just as much right to be considered for a patent (provided they are novel, nonobvious, and useful) as any tool wielded by or widget hammered out by an innovative blacksmith.

Software patents matter, and they are vitally important for the best innovators of our day if they are to stand against the anti-patent giants that want anything but a level playing field. VSL vs. Google, or David vs. Googleliath, is a compelling reminder of that.

VSL’s patents in Europe are already causing pain for Google. Here is an excerpt from “Court Seizes Google’s Infringing Android Devices in Germany at IFA,” Stockhouse.com, Sept. 11, 2014:

SANTA MONICA, CA–(Marketwired – September 11, 2014) – VSL Communications, creators of Optimized Data Transmission technology and Max Sound Corporation (OTCQB: MAXD) (MAXD) creators of MAX-D HD Audio solutions, have been granted multiple preliminary injunctions from the District Court Berlin against OEM’s (Original Equipment Manufacturers) to stop the sale of certain Google Android devices in the Federal Republic of Germany at the Premier show IFA in Berlin (Internationale Funkausstellung, http://www.ifa-berlin.de/en), the world’s leading fair for Consumer Electronics and Home Appliances).

Max Sound, under agreement with VSL Communications, is enforcing intellectual property rights on VSL’s behalf and has obtained preliminary injunctions against Shenzhen KTC Technology Co. Ltd and Pact Informatique S.A., France. German Customs authorities further inspected several other exhibitors of smartphones and tablet PC’s with Android operating system. Shenzhen KTC Technology Co. Ltd. is one of the largest Chinese electronics groups operating worldwide, and Pact Informatique is a French electronics company operating in many European countries under the brand Storex. Max Sound’s actions were based on infringement of VSL’s European Patent EP 2 026 277 concerning an Optimized Data Transmission System Method. The Infringement was found on the basis that Google’s Android OS implements the H.264-Standard for video encoding, which is protected by VSL’s patent. A bailiff seized all smartphones and tablets of KTC and Pact at the trade fair IFA in Berlin on September 10, 2014. The injunctions have no automatic time limit, and opponents can file an opposition.

So what will Google do? For starters, I’m predicting we’ll see VSL and their allies soon being called some kind of “troll.” I also think we can rely on Google’s friends at the USPTO and beyond to find all sorts of reasons why Vedanti’s patents aren’t even drawn to patent eligible subject matter, regardless of how novel they may be. But the trade secret case is where I think tiny Vedanti might have a fighting chance, thanks to Googleliath’s cooperation with the sticky notes. Who said IP law wasn’t entertaining? Weird Al could have a lot of fun with this story. Suggestions for what tune to use in his spoof?

Note: The US cases referred to are captioned as: Vedanti Systems Ltd. and Max Sound Corp. v. Google, Inc., YouTube, LLC, and On2 Technologies, Inc., No. 1:14-cv-01029 (D. Del., filed Aug. 9, 2014) and Max Sound Corp., VSL Communications Ltd., et al. v. Google, Inc., et al., No. 114-cv-269231 (Cal. Sup Ct.).

Related stories:

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Dec
13

Open Innovation and Trade Secrets

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A culture that can protect trade secrets is vital for innovative companies. Such a culture becomes especially important in collaborative innovation efforts where failure to protect trade secrets can severely damage partners and the offending company’s reputation. 
Chinese companies are increasingly recognizing the value of what the West calls “open innovation.” In fact, forms of open innovation were the basis of a great deal of innovation in China long before the term was coined in the West. Innovation in China tends to be fueled by guanxi with trust between partners being far more important than the legal details drafter by lawyers for a joint venture or other collaborative effort. Innovation in China, though still largely overlooked by the West, frequently occurs as trusted friends or acquaintances discuss their needs and challenges and find new solutions by crossing disciplinary borders. The many partnerships and allies involved with leading innovators like Ten Cent, Alibaba, Foxconn, and Huawei testify to the fluidity and rapidity of innovation in China achieved via collaboration and shared vision among partners. 

However, when companies in China or anywhere collaborate to find innovation, the inevitable sharing of trade secrets between partners puts the players at risk should there be inappropriate disclosure. Two leaders may fully trust each other, but if one of them leads a company with a weak IP culture where individuals fail to respect trade secrets, the partnership can be destroyed and severe damage can be done. Those engaging in a collaborative venture should be aware of the risks and consider their own culture and processes, as well as the culture, processes, and track record of partners. Zealous efforts are needed to avoid harm, even when there is no intent to harm or defraud. Simple slips can disclose information inappropriately and hurt a partner and one’s own reputation. Those pursuing open innovation need to pay particular attention to trade secret protection and ensure that only a few well trained employees will be exposed to the trade secrets involved in the partnership. 

Unfortunately, university culture in China and throughout the world, generally speaking, is inherently geared toward sharing and publishing information, so partnerships with universities should be carefully pursued with the realistic expectation that information may be leaked. Containing the scope of the partnership and minimizing any sharing of corporate secrets can reduce risks, while still allowing a company to tap the many riches of knowledge and innovation in China’s academic community, where many companies are finding success in advancing innovation.

 

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Sep
04

Trade Secrets: Tips Given at the Global IP and Innovation Summit, Shanghai, Sept. 4-5, 2013

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I had the privilege of speaking at the Global IP and Innovation Summit, Sept. 4-5, Shanghai, organized by Managing IP, an outstanding IP magazine. This was a terrific conference with about 300 participants, opened with a keynote from the Acting Director of the US Patent and Trademark Office, Teresa Stanek Rea. I got to chat with her and a friend of mine from the State Department before the conference began, and was deeply impressed with her vision and understanding. She gets IP and will be a great boon to the USPTO and to the US economy, if she stays on long enough. Fingers crossed that she will continue there for many years!

Overall, the conference exceeded my expectations. Almost every speaker on day one had me taking notes and feeling grateful for the information being shared. Well done, Managing IP!

In the session on trade secrets, I shared some experiences regarding trade secret theft and gave some tips on creating strong trade secret policies and practices. One important tidbit I offered is that multifunction copy machines can be an easy route for unintentional loss of trade secrets since they typically have hard drives that may record imaged of copied or printed documents, and that data may go out your door when the copier is sold, junked, or turned over to someone else. That’s a tip you can act on today to better protect your company. For more information see the story at iHealthBeat and the helpful guide from Xerox on how to prevent data loss from photocopiers.

Here are my slides in English and Chinese from my brief presentation, part of a panel discussion led by Esther Lim of Finnegan in Shanghai with attorney Will Rao from McAndrews, Held and Malloy in Chicago. The slides do not contain the stories I told and other information shared.

cover-slide--jeff-lindsay-shanghai-presentation-9-2013-trade-secrets
Trade Secrets Presentation from Jeff Lindsay (PDF file, 1 MB)

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