Recent U.S. Case Highlights Important Role Licensees Have in Cross-Border Trademark Enforcement

The New York Times and other news outlets reported last week that The Hershey Company, the global confectionary behemoth, settled its U.S. federal trademark lawsuit against leading U.S. importer of British confectionery products, LBB Imports, LLC (Case 1:14-cv-01655-JEJ), who had allegedly infringed Hershey’s own trademark-protected brands, as well as those it has exclusively licensed, through LBB’s unauthorized importation of popular UK brands and UK versions of existing U.S. brands including CADBURY DAIRY MILK, CARAMELLOTOFFEE CRISPYORKIE, MALTESERS, ROLO and KIT KAT.

Although these news reports have largely focused on U.S. consumer dissatisfaction over inaccessibility of these UK chocolate varieties as a result of the settlement, this case also underscores the important role trademark licensees have in the cross-border enforcement of their licensed trademarks. Hershey attested in their complaint that it has produced and promoted Cadbury’s brands in the U.S. for over 25 years, and that it is Cadbury’s exclusive U.S. licensee of several of its U.S. registered trademarks including Cadbury’s logo (U.S. Reg. No. 1,107,458) and its DAIRY MILK brand (U.S. Reg. Nos. 1,403,327, 4,224,494 and 1,460,259) (collectively, the Cadbury Marks).

While it is unclear what contractual obligations Hershey had with Cadbury concerning enforcement of the Cadbury Marks in the U.S., in regards to infringing imports or otherwise, Hershey likely had substantial legal and business incentives to enforce the Cadbury Marks against LBB. Often, foreign distributors, manufacturers, and promoters have licensed rights, and in many cases, contractual obligations, to enforce rights in their licensed trademarks including preventing the importation of infringing goods and parallel importation shipments (aka grey goods). Beyond legal obligations, licensees like Hershey have financial incentives to enforce their licensed trademarks rights as it is often necessary to protect business opportunities, as well as relationships, that accompany cross-border licensing arrangements.

As these licensed rights and obligations have substantial legal and business implications, it is important for licensing businesses to know and understand such rights and obligations, and develop enforcement strategies based on the same. So how do licensees do this? Well, here are a few things licensees should consider:

Evaluate and Understand Contractual Rights and Obligations. The first and most important thing a licensee should do when entering a cross-border licensing arrangement and considering enforcement measures based on that arrangement is to evaluate and understand their rights and obligations of enforcement. This requires that a licensee read and evaluate whatever agreement(s) acknowledge their licensing arrangement to identify such rights and obligations. Such rights and obligations may be detailed in a stand-alone trademark licensing agreement, they may be included in a more comprehensive distribution or service agreement, or they may be covered multiple agreements.

Regardless of what type of agreement(s) such rights and obligations are acknowledged, licensees need to identify three things:

(1) their rights to enforce rights in licensed mark(s);
(2) their obligations to enforce rights in licensed mark(s); and
(3) the extent and territoriality of such rights and obligations.

Licensed rights include a licensee’s optional ability to enforce rights in licensed mark(s), while obligations are a licensee’s contractual duty to enforce rights such mark(s). The extent and territoriality of such rights and obligations is particular important in cross-border IP protection as it is needed for a licensee to establish both the subject and geographic scope of their rights and obligations. In Hershey’s case, being Cadbury’s exclusive U.S. licensee of the Cadbury Marks likely gave Hershey rights and obligations of enforcement for such Marks in the U.S. However, Hershey was likely not given rights of enforcement for all Cadbury brands, nor rights of enforcement for the Cadbury Marks outside the U.S. as Hershey is identified as having only licensed certain Cadbury brand lines, and only in the U.S.

In any instance, a licensee needs to know their licensed rights and obligations, as well as its scope and territoriality.

Develop Tailored Strategies to Fulfill Licensing Obligations. Once particular licensed enforcement rights and obligations are identified, a licensee must evaluate what such obligations mean for their business. If a licensee is obligated to enforce rights in licensed mark(s) under their particular licensing arrangement, they may be required to monitor use of the marks in commerce, register (aka prosecute) the marks with national trademark authorities, record trademark registration(s) with national customs agencies to monitor and detain infringing imports, and/or conduct litigation enforcement.

In Hershey’s case, Cadbury had already registered the Cadbury Marks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and it remains unclear what Hershey’s obligations were under their licensing agreement(s) with Cadbury to record such registrations, monitor commercial use of the Marks, or even litigate their rights against potential infringers such as LBB. However, if Hershey’s did have monitoring and enforcement obligations in their licensing agreement(s) with Cadbury, their lawsuit against LBB would likely have been fulfilling these obligations as Hershey went after an allegedly unauthorized importer of Cadbury’s brands in the U.S., which it would have not otherwise known without attaining monitoring services and potentially other enforcement measures.

In short, licensees, like Hershey, have to find ways to fulfill their licensing obligations that are tailored to their particular obligations and business. As such, licensees should establish a budget to conduct such enforcement services, and consider retaining qualified counsel to ensure effective execution of obligated enforcement activities.

Consider Business Implications of Optional Licensed Rights. A licensee’s fulfilling of their licensed legal obligations is relatively straightforward, yet determining when and how to enforce licensed optional rights of enforcement is more complex, and often has more business than legal implications. Although a licensee may have optional rights of enforcement, the nature of the licensing arrangement and business relationships may obligate a licensee to adopt trademark enforcement measures. This is because the success of a licensing arrangement often depends on a licensee’s exclusive use of their licensed mark(s) in a particular country, requiring enforcement measures if such exclusivity is jeopardized. Further, licensors often urge their foreign licensees to enforce their licensed trademark rights regardless of contractual obligations, making such acts the basis for continuing their licensing arrangements. As such, a licensee may wish to adopt enforcement measures for their licensed marks despite having no obligations to do so to ensure profitability and continuation of their licensing arrangement, and to protect their existing business relationship with their licensor.

In Hershey’s case, they have been Cadbury’s exclusive U.S. licensee of the Cadbury Marks for over 25 years. Even if their rights of enforcement were optional, Hershey likely had substantial incentive to enforce rights in the Cadbury Marks as LBB’s imports jeopardized their exclusive use of such brands, and Hershey’s failure to enforce such rights may have harmed their long existing relationship with Cadbury.

Like Hershey, any licensee with optional rights of enforcement needs to consider the impact of non-enforcement on the business opportunities available in their licensing arrangement, as well as its impact on their relationship with their licensor.

What’s The Takeaway? As more and more businesses seek local foreign businesses to assist them with promoting their brands abroad, licensee businesses will be increasingly required to understand what rights and obligations they have in their trademark arrangements, and what measures they should take to fulfill those obligations, especially in deterring infringing imports. As these enforcement rights and obligations have substantial legal and business implications, licensees should work with their licensors and qualified counsel to determine how to best fulfill their enforcement obligations.

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