Should You Trademark Your Website?

It is extremely important for companies to protect their intellectual property. Developing a comprehensive intellectual property plan is essential to protecting your investment and protecting your consumers from confusion.  Trademarking your brand names, slogans and company name as well as copyrighting blog content, original imagery, and other original works of authorship are commonly know areas of focus for companies and entrepreneurs.  You want to be in control of your brand, your content and your creations.

Now, according to one federal court, companies can use trademark law to protect the unique look and feel of their websites from imitators. As a result of this ruling, companies should consider registering their websites as trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (the “USPTO”).

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California recently ruled in Ingrid & Isabel, Inc. v. Baby Be Mine, LLC, No. 13-01806 (N.D. Cal. Oct. 1, 2014) that the look and feel of a website used to market and sell products and services can constitute protectable trade dress under Section 43 of the Lanham Act. See 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a) (2012). Trade dress, a derivative of trademark law, protects the total image of a business or product, including the arrangement of identifying features such as graphics, packaging, designs, shapes, colors, textures, and décor.

This is an important development for companies seeking to protect their brand online. Your website is an important part of your brand as a company. It is often a customer’s first impression and point of sale.  Previous case-law suggested that a website could constitute protectable trade dress only if the website itself was the product. See Conference Archives, Inc. v. Sound Images, Inc., No. 06-00076, 2010 WL 1626072 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 31, 2010) The Ingrid & Isabel case provides an opportunity to expand those protections. This decision is reminiscent of the USPTO allowing Apple, Inc. to register a trademark for the design and layout of its unique retail stores. Your website is in effect your online store. This is a great example of the law starting to catch up with the times. Companies seeking to take advantage of this protection must make sure their website is 1)distinctive or has acquired secondary meaning and is 2) nonfunctional.RegisteredTM

  1. The court noted that the “Supreme Court has held that ‘design, like color is not inherently distinctive’ [citing a case involving Wal-Mart.]  Given the conceptual similarity between ‘look and feel’ and ‘design,’ Wal-Mart suggests that Plaintiff must show that its website‘s ‘look and feel’ is distinctive through its secondary meaning.” This eludes to the fact that the design of a website is not “inherently” distinct. You want to secure these protections before someone seeks to copy your website. However, per previous case-law  “secondary meaning may be inferred from evidence of deliberate copying of the trade dress…” Therefore, if you can show that your competitor deliberately copied your website, that will help to support your claim for acquired distinctiveness.
  2. Functional elements cannot be protected as trade dress. However, according to the court in Ingrid & Isabel “the placement and arrangement of functional elements can produce a non-functional aesthetic whole.”

This is also an important decision from a cybersecurity perspective. Most consumers are lured into phishing and other fraud scams when malicious actors mimic the look and feel of a brand’s website. Armed with a similar site they can lure unsuspecting consumers to insert personally identifiable information and financial data into their fake site. This can result in identity theft and financial loss. This is another tool in a trademark owner or company’s arsenal to combat fraud and protect their customers.

If your website is distinct, talk to an attorney about protecting it. This is an important consideration and should be part of developing a comprehensive intellectual property plan.

Trade dress protection has existed for decades, but its usefulness for websites and other Internet-based applications has been limited. It will be interesting to see how courts continue to apply the law to websites, mobile apps, and other non-traditional mediums.

Note that the court didn’t determine the ultimate outcome of this case; that’s still in dispute. This ruling merely allowed Ingrid & Isabel’s claim on this point to proceed to trial.

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Quick Tip: Sign A Pre-Nup With Your Business Partner

Co-founder disputes are common in the business world, whether in television production, restaurants, real estate,or tech start-ups. With the staggering amount of money that can be at stake in today’s tech companies, founders should exercise caution. The best of friends and the most cohesive of partnerships can end in a bitter legal battle unexpectedly. A recent Los Angeles Times article, titled “Co-founder feuds at L.A .tech start-ups show how handshake deals can blow up,” recounts several telling tales of business start-up angst. The article analyzes recent tech-based businesses that began with a handshake and ended with relationship-ending conflict.

Entrepreneurs should consider entering into a prenuptial (“prenup”) agreement to avoid such a dispute. A prenup establishes the property and financial rights of each spouse in the event of a divorce. Figuring out how to divide property and assets should a company or partnership dissolve may be a smart way to start a business. Consult counsel and think through all the potential issues.

Cartier Offers Amazing Opportunity to Women Entrepreneurs!

I had the pleasure of attending Cartier’s Women Entrepreneurs: The Changing Face of Innovation at the French Embassy.  We had the pleasure of hearing past participants speak about their experience in The Cartier Women’s Initiative and their successful businesses. The connections, financing, and networking were invaluable for these budding entrepreneurs and if you have a for-profit business that is 1-3 years old I encourage you to learn more and apply.

The Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards are an international business plan competition created in 2006 by Cartier, the Women’s Forum, McKinsey & Company and INSEAD business school to identify, support and encourage projects by women entrepreneurs.

The mission of the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards is threefold:
  • To identify and support initial-phase women entrepreneurs through funding
    and coaching
  • To foster the spirit of enterprise by celebrating role models in entrepreneurship
  • To create an international network of women entrepreneurs and encourage
    peer networking

The Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards aim to encourage the most vulnerable category of entrepreneurs in their most vulnerable phase: women entrepreneurs starting up. Since their inception in 2006, they have accompanied over 140 promising female business-owners and recognized 44 Laureates.

Cartier is currently accepting applications!!!

The annual competition involves two rounds:

Round 1 (in June): The Jury selects 18 Finalists*, the top three projects of each region (Latin America, North America, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East & North Africa, Asia-Pacific), on the basis of their short business plans. They receive coaching from experienced businesspeople to move to the next round.

Round 2 (in October): The Finalists are invited to France for the final round of competition which includes submitting a detailed business plan and presenting their projects in front of the Jury. They are also invited to the Annual Global Meeting of the Women’s Forum.

Based on the quality of the plan and the persuasiveness of the verbal presentation, one Laureate for each of the six regions is selected and receives a unique and comprehensive support package: US $ 20 000 of funding, one year of coaching, networking opportunities and media exposure.

Click here for information on how to apply: http://www.cartierwomensinitiative.com/how-to-apply

Great Opportunity for Women Entrepreneurs in DC!

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Dear Entrepreneurs,

DC Women’s Business Center has announced FastTrac New Venture is now open for enrollment!

This 12 week course assists early stage entrepreneurs in successful completion of their business plan. Through weekly classes and 1-on-1 business counseling, entrepreneurs will access the small business resources needed to grow a successful enterprise.

Topics for this course include:

  • Identifying and Meeting Market Needs
  • Setting Financial Goals
  • Reaching the Market
  • Planning for a profitable Business

Courses begin February 17, 2015 and will meet every week through May 19, 2015. All sessions are 2:00pm – 5:00pm unless otherwise noted. This is a competitive application process so they request you submit a thoughtful and complete application.

Click here to submit an application!