Trademark Ownership: The Risk of Owning a Trademark Personally

When a founder starts a business, he or she has many decisions to make. One of those is whether he or she should own assets of the business personally or whether he or she should form a corporation or LLC to own the assets of the business and bear the liabilities of a business. Founders are often quick to form a corporation or LLC to operate the business to shield themselves from personal liability arising from claims against the business.

But occasionally founders and business owners operating under a corporation or LLC seek to register and own trademarks personally rather than have them owned by the corporation or LLC. This is probably a mistake that increases their risk of being personally liable for products or services sold under the trademarks as explained below.

Quality Control

Trademark owners are required to control the quality of the goods or services sold under the mark. If a trademark owner fails to control the quality of the goods or services, trademark rights can be lost. The requirement that a trademark owner control the quality ensures that customers expectations are met with respect to goods or services sold under the mark.

If a trademark is owned/registered in the founder’s name but used by his/her wholly owned corporation or LLC, the founder is likely (implicitly or expressly) licensing the use of the trademark to the corporation or LLC. The founder is a licensor of the trademark to the corporation or LLC, who is a licensee/user of the trademark.

An injured plaintiff might assert that the founder (e.g. the trademark licensor) is personally liable because, as the trademark owner, he/she controlled the quality of the goods/services that resulted in the injury. Therefore, owning a trademark in your own name rather than having your corporation or LLC own it may, at least partially, destroy the purpose of forming a corporation or LLC in the first place, which was to limit personal liability.

Kennedy v. Guess

In the case of Kennedy v. Guess, Inc., 806 NE.2d 776 (Ind. 2004), the Indiana Supreme Court found that Guess, Inc. could be liable for alleged defective products sold bearing its licensed GUESS trademark. While this case does not involve the founder being held liable for a defective product of its company, it does illustrate that a trademark owner/ licensor–which is what a founder-trademark-owner is–could be liable for defective products sold by a licensee using its mark.

In the Guess case, Kaye Kennedy purchased a GUESS watch and received a free umbrella bearing the GUESS logo. Kaye’s husband, Richard, took the umbrella to work where a co-worker swung it from the handle. The umbrella’s shaft separated from the handle and struck Richard in the nose and sinus, causing injury.

The Kennedys sued Guess Inc., as well as Callanen, a corporation, licensed by Guess to market Products bearing the GUESS logo, including the watch and umbrella. The court concluded that “Indiana common law should treat trademark licensors as having responsibility for defective products placed in the stream of commerce bearing their marks…” The court also said that “Consumers rightly expect that products bearing logos like ‘Guess’ have been subject to some oversight by those who put their name on the product, but those same consumers can well imagine that in modern commerce the products they buy may have actually been manufactured by someone else.” The process of sorting out comparative fault between Guess and the other defendants was ultimately left to the jury.

The Guess case shows that a trademark licensor might be liable for defective products or services provided by a trademark licensee. Other cases in California have reached the opposite conclusion. See Emery v. Visa Internat. Services Ass’n, 95 Cal.App.4th 952 (3d. Dist. 2002). Nevertheless, the leading trademark treatise provides “In many cases, legal responsibility under one of the relevant legal theories seems impossible for a trademark owner to avoid.” McCarthy on Trademarks 18:75 (2017).

Solutions to Mitigate Risk: Legal Entity Ownership of Trademarks

To avoid the possibility of personal liability as a founder-trademark owner, simply start with the corporation or LLC using, owning, and registering the mark from the founding of the business. This can be done if the corporation or LLC was formed from the beginning of the business.

If trademark ownership is currently owned in the name of the founder, the trademark, and associated goodwill, can be transferred through an assignment to the corporation or LLC. By doing this, use of the mark and ownership of the mark will then reside in one entity. Liability on the basis of trademark law should be reduced or avoided at least going forward after the transfer as the founder is no longer the trademark owner.

There are cases where a person starts out in business without forming a corporation or LLC and operates as a sole proprietor. In that case the person will own the trademark. However, if and when that person forms a corporation or LLC for the business, the trademark can be transferred to the legal entity to avoid potential personal liability arising from trademark ownership.

Trademark Application Problems: Wrong Owner Named

While the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) provides online forms that appear to make it easy to file a trademark application, there are several portions of the application that can trip up an inexperienced applicant. One of those areas is the owner portion. The USPTO requires that the correct owner of the trademark be specified in the application to register the trademark. This sounds easy but in many cases it is not, as will be shown below.

Individual and Partnership Owner Problems
Take the case of American Forests v. Barbara Sanders, 1999 TTAB LEXIS 529 (TTAB 1999). In this case, Barbara Sanders filed a trademark application to register LEAF RELEAF to be used with the goods of leaf bag equipment. The application named herself individually as the owner/applicant.

Later another company, American Forests, filed an opposition seeking to prevent Barbara Sanders from receiving a registration over LEAF RELEAF. American Forest alleged (1) that LEAF RELEAF was confusingly similar to its trademarks GLOBAL RELEAF and RELEAF and (2) that the application named Barbara Sanders as the applicant/owner but that Sanders did not have a bona fide intent to use the mark. The second issue is the focus of this article. During a deposition Barbara Sanders admitted that she intended to use the LEAF RELEAF, not by herself individually, but together with her husband. In other words she intended to sell products under the LEAF RELEAF together with her husband in a partnership and not on her own.

It is a general principle of law that when two or more people join together for the purpose of making a profit, they have formed a partnership. This can be true even if there is no written agreement between the two or more people. Further, Barbara Sanders used the word partnership to describe her and her husband’s affiliation regarding the products to be sold. Therefore, the proper applicant for the trademark application was the partnership comprised of Barbara Sanders and her husband.

Section 1 of the Trademark act requires that the application be filed in the name of the trademark owner. When the owner named on the application is not the person or entity that intends to use the mark or actually is using the mark, then the application is void and the registration will be refused. See also Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure § 803.06.

In the American Forests case, Barbara Sanders’ application was found to be void and Sanders lost the opposition and her application. The rule is rather strict. You see here even though Barbara Sanders was going to be using the mark (together with her husband), she was not the proper owner because it was actually a partnership between her and her husband that was legally recognized as intending to use the mark.

Start-up Owner Problems
Another situation where this issue arises is in start-ups. Often an entrepreneur will come up with a name for their company or product before the company (LLC or Corporation) is legally formed. Once a name is chosen early filing of an intent-to-use trademark application is encouraged so that someone else doesn’t file an application on the same or similar name and block you from using your name. However, if an entity is not yet formed, filing an application in the name of a non-existent entity is not a good idea. And, if the individual does not intend to sell products/services himself or herself before the legal entity is formed then, like in the American Forests case, the individual or individuals would not be proper applicants.

A good question to ask to determine the owner is who will receive revenue from the first sales? If it is a company, then the company should be the applicant. If the company is not formed, then it may be necessary to first have the company legally formed. Then a trademark application can be filed in the name of the company that will own, control, and realize revenue from the sale of products/services under the mark.

Exceptions for Minor Errors
Some exceptions exist that allow minor errors in the owner’s name to be corrected. However it is best to ensure the owner is properly named. You should contact a trademark attorney to determine whether errors in your case are correctable.

Conclusion
Circumstances of your company or start-up enterprise need to be considered in order to determine who should be named as the owner on a trademark application and whether other steps (e.g. forming the legal entity) are needed before a trademark application is filed.