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TPP: Trump Backs Out of the Trans-Pacific-Partnership

Trump is no stranger to making controversial headlines and his recent decision to withdraw the United States from the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement is no different.  Obama spent the last 7 years negotiating the deal, so the decision comes as a blow to those loyal to the Obama administration.

The agreement was designed with the hope of eventually creating a single market, which would be similar to that of the European Union.  Since Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the agreement, the TPP will be nearly impossible to ratify as is; the agreement required all 12 countries to ratify within a 2-year period.  For those nations wanting to renegotiate a trade deal without the U.S., other key players, such as Japan, say U.S. participation was the carrot on the stick.

What is the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement?

The TPP was a trade agreement between nations consisting of 40% of the world’s trade market: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and the United States.

If you’re not familiar with trade agreements, they’re treaties between two or more nations agreeing on terms of trade between them.  These agreements are typically aimed at reducing or eliminating tariffs, quotas, and other trade restrictions.  The intention is to grow economies by increasing the trade of goods and services between the nations party to the agreement.

TPPOf course the TPP agreement focused on reducing tariffs, but it went beyond the standards of the World Trade Organization and focused on negotiating labor, environmental and intellectual property protections as well.  Here’s a few highlights of what the TPP would have done:

  • Trade barriers. The TPP agreement would have cut over 18,000 tariffs on all U.S. manufactured goods and farm products.  The agreement also would have mandated expedited customs procedures.
  • Environmental protection. The TPP is argued by some to be the most environmentally friendly trade deal ever negotiated, as the agreement requires signatories to commit to take appropriate measures to protect and conserve wildlife.
  • Good governance. The TPP agreement required all signatories to join the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, which is focused on criminalizing bribery of public officials and the general governance enforcing anti-corruption laws.
  • Intellectual property. The TPP would have required signatories to establish uniform standards for patentability and copyright
  • Labor standards. The agreement would have enforced obligations to protect the freedom to form unions, as well as enforce fair labor practices.
  • Investor-state arbitration. The TPP would have granted investors the right to sue foreign governments for violating the treaty.

The Good and the Bad

Of course there’s two sides to every story.  Critics of the TPP applauded Trump for withdrawing from the agreement, arguing withdrawing will bring jobs back to America.  Proponents of the TPP feel the withdrawal will give China more control over the Asian market.

Since tariffs would have been reduced on industrial goods, Japanese car companies such as Toyota and Honda would have had cheaper access to the U.S., while vehicles exported from the U.S. could have increased because of new access to markets such as Vietnam.  Cuts on poultry, beef, dairy, sugar, wine, rice and seafood would have benefited several agricultural companies.

International labor laws were negotiated as part of the agreement, which is a major benefit for less developed countries, however, many argue this would have resulted in job losses from developed countries like the U.S.  The agreement is said to not be favored by pharmaceutical companies because the intellectual property rights were too lenient.  Additionally, those against the agreement urge it would have driven up prescription costs and, thus, left many without the means to afford life-saving drugs.  Decreased global roaming charges seems like a great idea, however, this could lead to increased competition between telecommunication companies and end up resulting in higher prices for consumers.

What’s Next for the U.S. and Trade?

As part of his “America First” stance, Trump promised throughout his campaign to be more aggressive against foreign competitors and backing out of the TPP agreement draws a stark line.  This global cooperation attitude risks doing more harm than good.  There’s been threats of increasing tariffs up to 10% on all foreign imports, not to mention Trump’s most recent plan to tax Mexican imports 20% in order to pay for construction of the border wall, which risks starting a trade war with other countries that could ultimately result in a financial spike in consumer goods.

Trademark Name: Can Anyone Be a Kardashian?

In ridiculous but entertaining trademark news, last month the Kardashians filed documents in court trying to block Blac Chyna (real name Angela Renee) from filing a trademark on “Angela Renee Kardashian” as a brand name for her makeup line Lashed.  Ms. Renee is the significant other of Rob Kardashian–the brother of the trio of sisters–and first child.  The two have been discussing getting married, so she may well simply be trying to protect her future name but jumped the gun.

However, the Kardashian sisters’ filings vehemently opposed Ms. Renee receiving this trademark, alleging that they would suffer irreparable injury to their reputation and goodwill should the mark be allowed to move forward.  They further stated that they own and control the rights to the Kardashian brand and its associated marks–having invested a substantial amount of time and money into the name Kardashian.  What’s more, they argued that the public associates the name Kardashian strongly with the three sisters.  This makes sense, because a trademark is designed to distinguish a brand and is damaged where a similar mark may confuse the public as to the source or sponsorship of goods–a concept usually known as trademark infringement.

Understanding the Kardashian’s Claim

Kardashian Family TrademarkThe Kardashians are also not wrong about their assertions, they own trademarks on their name, are extremely famous and have all made businesses around their names–Khloemoney Inc., 2Die4Kourt, and Kimsaprincess Inc.  However, the initial opposition turned out to be a mistake and the sisters have since said that they will try to privately work out the details of using the Kardashian name with Ms. Renee.  Apparently, the lawyers for their businesses are in the practice of moving quickly to block any marks that may infringe on the Kardashian brand.

This is no surprise, protecting your trademark often necessitates vigilance and swift action.  Filing for a trademark is fairly easy–you simply file with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, pay a fee, and you’ll generally have a ruling on your mark in about half a year.  The majority of applications are approved, especially when the applicant is assisted by a trademark attorney.  Once somebody in the trademark office gives a mark the stamp of approval,  it is published that the mark has been approved there is a short 30-day period to file a notice of opposition to the mark before it takes effect.  An opposition notice is much less formal, and much cheaper, than bringing a suit to cancel a mark once it is already in effect–which you can do within five years of a trademark being granted.  Thus, it is often preferable to hire an attorney to keep an eye on trademarks being filed which might infringe your own mark and quickly respond. Generally, an opposition or cancellation action is brought where the mark is either invalid on its face (something that can happen for quite a number of reasons such as being so generic as to not serve to identify the brand) or where the mark damages the person bringing the action–usually by confusing the public.

Thus, it seems quite reasonable for the Kardashians’ lawyers to act as they did.  The Kardashian name is very well known and almost exclusively associated with the sisters’ family.  They have built up the name as a mark and most of the public think of them and their brands when they hear the word “Kardashian.”  However, the situation becomes a bit more complicated because the trademarks sought are a surname–a situation where special rules apply.  So how can you apply for a trademark on your own name or the names of others?

Name Calling: Trademarking First and Last Names

In order for a person’s name to receive a trademark, it has to have already become so distinctive in the eyes of the public.  So much so that hearing the name makes the average person think of the products or services offered by the person who’s name they’ve heard.  This is often too high of a bar for the average Jane or Joe off the street.  However, it’s simple enough to achieve for celebrities.  Thus, it’s fairly common for celebrities and star athletes to trademark their own names along with their personal brands–just like the Kardashian’s did.  Lebron James, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the King himself–Elvis Presley–have all done so in the past. This means that you may not be able to file a trademark on your own name if you share it with another particularly famous person–a situation most would consider fairly odd–and in fact it may be unlikely that you could receive trademark protection on your own name even if you wanted to.  However, many a businessman has made their name so famous as to receive protection from a trademark.  Some surnames have become such famous trademarks that you barely even consider that they were once the names of an individual–McDonalds probably being the most famous example.

The restriction also makes sense when you think about it.  Trademark law is designed to protect the public from confusion as to the source of a good by providing a protected indicator of the source of a good.  If nobody knows who you are, then your name doesn’t serve as a particularly good indicator for the average member of the public.

Applying for such a mark also carries its own special set of requirements, apart from those described above and those required by any other trademark applications.  When attempting to trademark somebody else’s name–whether first name, last name, or even a well-known nickname–it is required that you receive their written consent so long as they are living.  Even if they are dead, there are a number of issues with using a person’s name if they were famous in life–an issue of state by state right of publicity law which is its own can of worms too complicated to address in this article.  When filing a trademark on your own name, your consent is simply presumed for obvious reasons.

On the flip side of this, just because somebody else is trying to trademark your name you will not necessarily be able to stop them just because it is your name.  Unless your name is well-known enough, as discussed above, and famous enough in the same field as the mark you are challenging you are unlikely to get much traction. 

Even Though It’s Over, This Could Be an Ongoing Problem

So, if Blac Chyna’s trademark were not being resolved in private by the Kardashian sisters and Ms. Renee, would she succeed against the might of the Kardashian mark?  It’s hard to say with so little information before us.  However, while she may have the Kardashian name eventually, she certainly did not have it at the time she applied for her mark.  What’s more, even if she obtained written consent from her fiancé Robert Kardashian, it is unlikely that the public at large associates her products with the Kardashian brand.  Thus, if the sisters don’t want Ms. Renee to use their name on her products, they likely could dash her hopes–barring her from using the family name in business. 

Bieber and Usher “Usher” Out Copyright Claims

Many of the most famous musicians have faced high-profile copyright cases accusing them of stealing their music from another artist. From Led Zeppelin to the Beatles to Skrillex to the guy who wrote the Ghostbusters theme song, the list of musicians who’ve stared down a copyright infringement claim is a long on indeed,  In the last few years, Usher and Justin Bieber have been dealing with their own copyright infringement lawsuit.  The two were accused of stealing parts of their collaborative song “Somebody to Love” from an identically titled song written by two Virginia artists–Devin Copeland and Mareio Overton.

Understanding the Claim

Mr. Copeland and Mr. Overton wrote their own “Somebody to Love” back in 2008, two years before Usher and Bieber came out with their song in 2010 which then went on to peak at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Copeland and Overton argued that Bieber’s song’s chorus
was incredibly similar to their own work and demanded $10M from the two artists.  However, the courts disagreed.  The case was dismissed, sent back down for reconsideration after appeal and Bieber and Usher finally succeeded in having the copyright lawsuit against them dismissed once and for all just a few weeks ago. 

The court’s decision revolved around the inability of the plaintiffs to show that Justin Bieber had access to their song before he wrote his own version–a fundamental element of proving copying in a copyright infringement case.  However, in order to truly understand the ruling it is necessary to understand exactly how copying is shown when somebody is accused of infringement.

Justin Bieber Copyright Claims

How to Put the “Copy” in Copyright Infringement

In order to succeed in a copyright infringement case you have to establish that the person you’ve accused of infringement, lo and behold, copied your protected work.  This makes sense, if you can’t show that a defendant copied from you, then why are you in court?  However, the evidence required to show copying has two parts.  First, you need to show that the accused work is similar to yours.  If it isn’t, that’s not exactly a copy is it?  Second, you need to show that your defendant had access to your work.  Once again, if they never saw your work how could they have ripped you off?

So we have our two elements but, like most things in law, it’s more complicated than that.  The two elements, similarity and access, are analyzed on a sliding scale.  The more proof of similarity, the less evidence you need of access and vice versa.  To add one more wrinkle, it was established in a case against the late Michael Jackson (and reaffirmed when the Isley Boys later sued Michael Bolton) that if the two works are similar enough you don’t actually need any evidence of access because the court is willing to presume that a defendant copied your work if it’s similar enough to what you made originally.  This is a concept known in law as striking similarity, courts look to a number of things to decide if two works are this similar but common examples would be where your work had particularly unique qualities that were copied nearly verbatim or that you messed something up in your work and they were dumb enough to copy your error.

In Bieber’s case, Mr. Copeland and Mr. Overton tried to establish striking similarity–arguing that the chorus of their version of “Somebody to Love” had a near identical chorus to the one put out by Bieber and Usher.  Unfortunately for them, their judge didn’t agree.  Thus, while they could show some level of similarity, they were required to produce evidence that Bieber or Usher had actually listened to or been exposed to their 2008 song before they wrote their own version in 2010.

Access Hollywood: A Star-Studded History of How to Prove Access

Unlike similarity, no matter how evidence of access you have you always need to show at least a little bit of similarity.  Otherwise if enough people see your work, anything they made would be copyright infringement.  However, just like in the Bieber case, it is frequently a crucial sticking point in copyright cases as it can be hard to prove at times.  Over time, exactly what is acceptable as evidence of access has been refined–often in cases featuring some particularly famous names.

First and foremost, the evidence required is a sliding scale.  The more similar the works, the weaker the evidence of access that is required.  For instance, there have been cases where evidence as weak as the fact that a work was published to the internet–and the defendant had internet access–was enough.  Where a work is particularly famous and widely distributed, that can also be evidence enough to show access.  However, just a few years ago a case dealing with the script to the Matt Damon’s Sci-Fi movie Elysium established that, just because something is posted to the internet once, that doesn’t by itself show that a work was widely distributed and won’t always be enough evidence to establish access.  This served as a counter point to a lawsuit brought by the developers of Angry Birds, where being posted online and subsequently downloaded approximately a billion times was enough to show widespread distribution.

In the internet age, availability online is often central to establishing access.  However, the cases above leave you with the helpful understanding that a single post is generally not enough to show access but content posted and then downloaded a billion times is.  Just to fill in the small gaps in the middle there, a couple factors to think about are how often something is viewed or shared, how publicly available the internet content is, how popular the site the content was posted on is, and how high the content appears in search results.

Also important in understanding access is the fact that copying does not need to be done consciously.  This was established in a case brought against George Harrison of Beatles fame.  His song “My Sweet Lord” led to a lawsuit as it was nearly identical to another song called “He’s So Fine.”  Harrison admitted that he knew of the song and had heard of it, but said he just wasn’t thinking about it when he wrote his own song.  The court, in a nearly apologetic ruling against the rock star, said that just because you weren’t intentionally copying or thinking about the work at the time, the subconscious knowledge of the work through previous access is sufficient to show copying.  This was highlighted more recently when Marvin Gaye’s children sued Robin Thicke.  Thicke testified that he was so high while the song was written that he could not have possibly recalled Gaye’s work–although he did admit Gaye was an inspiration to him.  This was irrelevant to access. however, as the actual access itself was all the evidence needed. 

Finally, a particularly common type of confusion in access cases dealing with music deals with cases where an artist gave their song to music industry executive who works with an artist who later makes a similar song.  Unless there is actual evidence that the executive showed that song to the artist accused of infringement, a devilishly tricky thing to find, there’s generally not enough there to establish access.

Ultimately, Why the Case Failed

Mr. Overton and Mr. Copeland were trying to argue just that, saying that they had given their songs to music executives working alongside Bieber and Usher.  However, they couldn’t produce any evidence of those executives passing on anything to Usher or Bieber.  What’s more, their song wasn’t particularly widely distributed–either over radio, the internet, or other methods.  They were left in a situation where they couldn’t show that either singer had ever even heard of their work–and that killed their case.  Bieber and Usher claimed that their song was based on a November 2009 song by a woman named Heather Bright with which they had previously reached an agreement to use her work.  Overton and Copeland simply couldn’t prove otherwise.

Uber Puts the Brakes on Their Self-Driving Cars

A few months back, Uber announced it was going to test something potentially groundbreaking–they announced tests of self-driving rideshare services in San Francisco.  Unfortunately for Uber, the tests turned out to be more premature than groundbreaking.  The California DMV condemned the tests as illegal and demanded that Uber not roll out their self-driving cars.  In the face of the disapproval of the California DMV, Uber decided to totally ignore the DMV and move forward with the tests anyway–for a week.  After moving forward, the California DMV revoked the registrations on every single one of Uber’s self-driving cars and Uber was forced to abandon their tests.

What’s the Problem with Uber’s Self-Driving Cars?

The problem California had with Uber’s self-driving test cars was a simple one, Uber simply didn’t bother to get the permits necessary to use an autonomous car in California.  Uber objected to the requirement of permits in the first place, arguing that because their self-driving cars needed human supervision they were not actually autonomous under California’s definition as California currently defines an autonomous car as one that drives “without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person.”  The vice-president of Uber’s advanced technologies division made an announcement stating that “this rule just doesn’t apply to us, you don’t need to wear a belt and suspenders and whatever else if you’re wearing a dress.”
Uber Puts Brakes on Self-Driving Cars

The California DMV, as you can tell from how they responded, didn’t agree.  They’ve already issued hundreds permits to test autonomous cars on the roads of California.  They consider this permitting necessary for public safety when it comes to such new technology, and they demanded that Uber follow their rules.  Perhaps this was a wise precaution, in the one week Uber’s cars were running one was caught on tape running a red light.

This isn’t the first time Uber has chosen to ignore state laws in testing automation or had trouble with the law.  In fact, their very business model has occasionally been challenged as illegal.  Earlier this year, Uber went forward with testing self-driving trucks in Nevada despite explicit warnings from the state’s DMV that doing so would violate Nevada law.  Luckily for Uber, while Nevada has similar permitting requirements to California, the laws were so new as to not yet have any penalties set up for failure to comply.

Despite these setbacks, Uber’s self-driving plans have been making strides around the nation.  In Pittsburgh they have been given essentially free reign with a similar program testing autonomous ridesharing.  They have announced they will be moving the San Francisco test cars to Arizona and moving forward there.

Part of Uber’s problem, and how they caught a break in Nevada, is that self-driving cars are so new that very little law has actually sprung up to regulate how and when they can be used.  However, this has been slowly changing as states recognize that autonomous cars are here to stay.

Self-Driving Car Laws Around the Nation

Self-driving cars are coming and it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.  Just recently, Ohio announced it was investing $15M in self driving trucks going forward.  In the same week, Michigan became the first state to pass comprehensive laws on using, testing, developing and selling self-driving cars.

However, luckily for companies like Uber, Michigan’s laws have not focused on restricting the use and testing of self-driving cars–quite the opposite.  Michigans bills, 995 through 998, provide clear rules for how an autonomous car may be used on public roads and freeways.  The laws are set up to make clear rules for testing.  Once testing is complete, the new laws even allow for properly tested automated vehicles to be sold to the public.  The laws also require the Michigan Department of Transportation to recommend standards that will ultimately regulate the connected networks of autonomous cars and how the data collected from such a network–collisions, traffic data, etc.–will be allowed to shared with others.

What is less fortunate for Uber is that the laws also serve to outright lock them out of any self-driving rideshare services.  The new laws only allow specific most eligible automakers from creating a network of self-driving taxis.  While the law is very new, it certainly seems like this would keep Uber from spreading their new programs into Michigan.

Uber seems to think so, they’ve heartily condemned this part of the law in the media–calling the rules anti-tech and protectionist.  They have a point to a degree, creating a state made monopoly on a service or product does not seem like the best idea.   However, for the most part, Michigan’s rules will serve to open doors and ease the way as self-driving vehicles make their way into the marketplace.

While Michigan’s laws are the most sweeping, and likely the most lenient, laws passed on the subject they are far from the only laws regulating self-driving cars.  California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, North Dakota, Louisiana, Tennessee, Florida, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., and Virginia all have laws in place regulating the use of autonomous vehicles.  In September of 2016, even the federal government–through the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration–released an updated set of suggestions providing guidance for states in making laws.

It hasn’t all been forward progress, 16 states had self-driving car legislation that either stalled out or failed to pass in 2016.  However, Michigan–perhaps because it is a state so embroiled in car manufacturing–has taken the next steps in a trend towards fully preparing for self-driving vehicles to hit the market in earnest.  It’s only a matter of time until autonomous cars become as common as hybrids have become.  Uber may be flouting laws right now, but what they’re doing is going to become so common as to need clear regulation nationwide.

Can You Get Sued for Your Critical Yelp Review?

In a world where fast-food chains get blamed for customers biting off too big of pieces of chicken and coffee chains get sued for for under filling their lattes, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when someone gets sued for leaving a bad yelp review.  Yet, somehow… it still does.

Lan Cai, a 20-year-old nursing student, was seriously injured in a car accident.  Driving home from her waitressing shift late one night, she was struck by a drunk driver, ultimately leaving her with two broken bones in her lower back.  With the high costs of medical bills, Cai understandably critical yelp reviewsought out legal help to prove her damages.

Cai hired the Texas law firm of Tuan A. Khuu, who she claims was extremely unprofessional.  After writing about her experience with the firm on her Facebook page and via a Yelp review, Cai received cease and desist letter from Keith Nguyen, a lawyer at the Khuu firm, threatening suit if she didn’t remove her posts.  Cai refused and Nguyen proceeded with his lawsuit demanding close to $200,000.

What Did the Firm Sue for?

Defamation, libel per se, defamation per se, and injunctive relief.  The judge wasn’t buying it, though, and dismissed the case, ordering the Khuu firm to pay $26,831.55 in attorney’s fees.  The firm’s actions backfired and they have, unsurprisingly, received even more negative attention than they had to begin with.

This isn’t the first time a case like this has been brought before a court.  Earlier this year, a pet sitting business sued a Texas couple for up to 1 million for leaving a one-star review on Yelp.  What did the couple complain about on the review that was so harrowing to the pet sitting company?  Their fish had been overfed.

What’s to Stop Companies from Suing?

Well, it depends on where you live because there aren’t any federal protections, unless you count the First Amendment (which you should).  Let’s rephrase that to there aren’t any federal protections that address these specific issues surrounding negative reviews of online.

These suits aren’t uncommon and they fall under a classic SLAPP type lawsuit.  SLAPP lawsuits (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) , which are illegal in many jurisdictions, are intended to censor or silence critics by burdening them with the cost of legal defense in the hopes they comply with whatever it is the plaintiff wants them to do (or not do).

Sometimes you’ll also see companies trying to sue their customers/clients for leaving negative reviews because the client has signed some sort of non-disparagement clause.  What’s that, you ask?  Basically, it’s a clause in a contract (usually in the fine print) that prohibits the signor from taking any action that might negatively impact the business.

California has a law that’s been notoriously nicknamed the “Yelp Bill” because it renders these types of clauses null and void.  Others, like Texas, have laws that allow SLAPP lawsuits to be thrown out at early stages of litigation.  Remember the Texas couple with the fish?  They signed a non-disparagement clause.  Luckily for the couple, the case was dismissed, but I doubt it will be the last of its kind unless some kind of federal legislation is passed.

Negative Reviews May Prevail Depending On California Supreme Court Decision

The California Supreme Court is set to hear an appeal brought by Yelp involving a similar case similar to Cai’s.  In that case, a lower court ordered Yelp to remove a negative review off their website because a former client of a law firm left statements on the popular website that were found to be legally defamatory.

Yelp argues a favorable outcome for the law firm would open up the flood gates for businesses to force the company to remove critical reviews and, thus, infringing on free speech rights.  The law firm, on the other hand, argues their case is unique in that they’re only asking the company to remove the review that contained defamatory statements.

In theory, yes, defamatory statements made on the review site pose a different set of problems, but even still, forcing Yelp to remove the review will open up a can of worms.

If not, Hopefully Congress to the Rescue

How many of you have ever left a Yelp review?  How many of you have ever relied on one of those Yelp reviews when choosing a company to give business to?  Even something as simple as deciding what restaurant to go for dinner?

With big companies like Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yelp advocating for better consumer protection, Congress has started to listen.  Currently, Congress is trying to pass legislation through the House that would ensure customers are protected from any legal repercussions when leaving negative reviews online.

Last year, a similar bill was passed through the Senate and, although the two bills need to be merged before they can be officially signed into law by the president, both bills accomplish the same thing.  Business contracts for goods or services will be restricted from using non-disparagement clauses, or anything like it, that would prohibit negative reviews.