A little more than a year ago, Taco Bell was ordered to pay $30.1 million to two men who convinced a court they conceived the talking Chihuahua. Lest you think this is an aberration or that these men were opportunists trying to make a quick buck, you would be wrong on both counts. Outside suggestions are a source of potential ideas and potential liability. Companies would be well-served to learn a lesson from these cases.
Smart marketing companies have policies—even outside suggestion “units”—to handle those suggestions company strategists, executives and marketing professionals all say they welcome to better understand what customers want. This is not the place to belabor legal distinctions between market research, focus groups, customer satisfaction surveys and unsolicited outside suggestions, but these distinctions highlight the need to pay attention to potentially dangerous legal landmines at the intersection of intellectual property law and product development.
Imagine that a customer of a bank suggests to the branch manager that the bank issue travelers checks with dual signatures (they exist, so don’t you get any bright ideas) so vacationing couples can use them interchangeably. Now fast forward six months—the bank proudly launches its latest new product, the dual-signature travelers check. Guess the rest. Lawyers, letters, demands, assertions of ownership, misappropriated proprietary information—the suggestion was not an “idea” but a specific product development concept with specific implementation details. Talking Chihuahuas anyone?
Of course, if the company can prove its product was independently developed or in development before the suggestion came in, or that the branch manager threw the suggestion in the trash without telling anyone, showing it to anyone or keeping a copy—yes, the company may win the lawsuit. But do you really want to risk all those lawsuits and the cost of litigation to prove you are right? Settle or fight: each can be costly.
Dealing with outside suggestions should be a part of a company’s product development, brand management and marketing risk management strategy—optimizing the company’s ability to gather meaningful information while minimizing potential exposure to litigation liability and damages. Rimon has lawyers who have developed and managed these functions, counseled clients, conducted seminars, and drafted policies and procedures to do just that. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are happy to help.