Readers may be surprised to learn how often we are consulted by clients who face the following predicament: an individual or group of people get together to start a business. Working out of a home, or a garage, or a small workspace, they create a product or come up with a service that they think they can sell and proceed through sheer will and hard work to get the product or service to a point where the product really takes off.
Sounds like a success story, right? And it is. But then what too often happens is problems arise. Infighting starts about who created what, who owns what rights and who is entitled to what payments. And of course competitors notice the success of the product or service and before long knock-offs start appearing.
To do as much as is possible to protect against the foregoing problems and other intellectual property issues, we offer the following tips:
- Protect your intellectual property before you do anything else – consult with an experienced intellectual property attorney who can help identify what intellectual property rights exist and how best to protect them. Make sure you budget sufficient funds for legal advice and intellectual property protection – it will be money well spent in the long run.
- Put agreements in place to define specifically who created what intellectual property, who owns what and who gets what payments – such agreements can include corporate shareholder agreements, LLC operating agreements, license agreements, and assignment agreements. Also address at the front end what will happen if one or more of the founders wants out or if the success of the business fades – it is important to consider at the front end what will happen to the business assets and intellectual property down the road. The key is everything must be in writing – do not rely on trust, handshake agreements, oral agreements or any non-written agreement!
- A non-disclosure/confidentiality agreement is essential and must be in place before you discuss your product with anyone – and this includes not only potential vendors, business partners, etc. but also visitors to the place of business, friends, etc. if any protected details of products or services will be disclosed.
- Make sure to protect ownership through appropriate agreements – all employees and independent contractors should execute appropriate assignment agreements and work made for hire agreements. This is especially important with respect to website design and maintenance, marketing activities, outside sales people, and customer lists. It bears repeating: everything must be in writing!
- Put appropriate agreements in place if others will use your intellectual property to make sure there is no question who owns what and what uses can be made of the intellectual property.
Consider the following two situations:
- Two people form a California corporation as equal owners. One of the owners later decides he/she wants to dissolve the corporation but the other owner objects.
- Two people form a California limited liability company (LLC) as equal owners (members). One of the members later decides he/she wants to dissolve the LLC but the other member objects.
Under current California law, the owner who wants to dissolve the corporation in the first scenario can do so without having to resort to court action because a voluntary corporation dissolution can be initiated by 50% voting power. However, under current California law, the member who wants to dissolve the LLC in the second scenario must file a costly and potentially time consuming lawsuit to obtain a court order to dissolve the LLC since the vote a majority of the members of an LLC (not just 50%) must vote to initiate a voluntary dissolution of an LLC under Corporations Code sections 17707.01 and 17707.02. Such an anomaly clearly makes no sense.
Fortunately, Governor Brown recently signed legislation to end this anomaly. Effective January 1, 2017, the LLC dissolution law will be harmonized with the corporate dissolution law. Consequently, starting January 1, an LLC member with 50% voting power can initiate a voluntary dissolution of an LLC just as can be done with corporations. Of course, just as is true with most other aspects of LLC operation and management, the members of an LLC remain free to draft their articles of formation and operating agreements to require a higher voting percentage than 50% for a voluntary dissolution, to require judicial dissolution, or to have other terms and conditions for voluntary dissolution.