The impact of intellectual property litigation can devastate a small business, as it is an extremely expensive and there are many steps involved in preparing a defense.
“The most important thing is to not ignore the complaint,” says Jude A. Fry, a partner with Fay Sharpe LLP. “When a complaint is delivered, you typically have 21 days to answer or to file a motion to dismiss. Don’t just sit on it for two weeks and then decide you have to act because there is a lot you need to do immediately,” she says.
Smart Business spoke with Fry about how to defend yourself against intellectual property infringement lawsuits both before and after a complaint has been filed.
When a suit is filed, how much time can pass before a company needs to take action and should you assert potential defenses?
Act immediately. Contact and retain legal counsel as soon as possible. Preferably, hire an attorney who specializes in patent, trademark or copyright law who can help you figure out the strength of the complaint and your potential defenses.
However, chances are that the attorney you hire will want a retainer. Ask him or her for an estimate of the attorney’s fees you may expend over the course of the litigation so that you’re aware of the potential costs of the suit. Talk with your general counsel to get a recommendation for someone who could handle the case.
It’s possible to assert a counterclaim against the other side to try to leverage a settlement. For example, the products of the entity filing the suit could be examined to determine if any infringe on your patents. You can also assert counterclaims that the other side's intellectual property is invalid or unenforceable, assuming you have a basis for making these claims. Once the other party is under the gun, it may not want to pursue the lawsuit.
The counterclaims that you assert are going to be related to the facts that are alleged against you in the complaint. There are times when the other side may try to file a motion to strike your counterclaims or remove them to a new litigation, but typically they are going to be part of your answer to the complaint.
Can claims contained in the complaint be covered by insurance?
Yes. Particularly if the claims include an advertising component, they could be covered under an ‘advertising injury’ provision of a comprehensive general liability insurance policy. While this type of provision is often part of a policy, it usually has exclusions.
Immediately contact your insurance agent and send him or her a copy of the complaint. The insurance company could agree to defend you in the suit and cover your attorney’s fees. However, it may retain counsel of its own choosing to defend you, and you might want to dispute their choice.
The insurance company may also pay the other side to settle the matter or pay any judgment against you, although this is often only the case when you’ve included previously such a clause in your policy. Either way, it’s worth the time to determine whether your insurance will cover any part of this.
Should documents and emails related to the complaint be destroyed?
Definitely not, because the court is likely going to discover you did so and will sanction you. As a result, you will either have to pay damages or the court could presume that you have done something wrong. Destroying evidence could be devastating to your case.
Contact your IT department and place a preservation hold on documents, including emails that may pertain to the litigation. Take affirmative steps to make sure all evidence is maintained and put steps in place to ensure that you identify and protect documents that, without intervention, could be destroyed.
Have an attorney speak with key people who may have knowledge or documents that pertain to the litigation and advise them of the necessity to preserve evidence.
How can a company assess its potential exposure in a lawsuit?
Work with your lawyer to see what types of damages could be available to the other side, such as monetary damages that could include an award of your profits, a reasonable royalty on sales of infringing products and actual damages to the other side. Also, estimate your sales of the product that has been accused and the profit that you made from those sales.
Statutory damages could also be available in copyright infringement cases. Statutory damages can be applied if fault is established without proof that the claimant has been damaged or that it lost sales to you. Damages claimed can range from $750 to a maximum of $150,000 if willful infringement can be proved.
Also, consider the business implications of an injunction enjoining the sale of the accused product. This could result in an injunction that prevents you from selling the product associated with the violation, which could mean the end of your business.
What steps can a company taketo avoid this type of litigation?
Do your research and determine whether competitive products are protected. Examine packaging, advertising and websites for trademark and copyright symbols and references to patent numbers. If a party is holding a similar product out as covered by intellectual property, talk to an Intellectual Property lawyer prior to selling or manufacturing your product. While there is always the chance that regardless of the precautions you take, you could still get sued, consulting with counsel in the early stages can better position you to disprove a claim that you intentionally infringed a copyright, trademark or patent.
Also, apply for your own intellectual property protection. In addition, if you are working with independent contractors, make sure you have agreements in place to ensure you own all the rights in the work and that your employees execute agreements assigning all rights in IP to you.
Jude A. Fry is a partner with Fay Sharpe LLP. Reach her at (216) 363-9000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by Fay Sharpe LLP.