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Safeguarding ideas

Features, Markets | April 1, 2015 | By:

Clients may wander to other companies, but your ideas don’t need to go with them.

By Pamela Mills-Senn

It’s an occupational hazard for event professionals. You spend no small amount of usually unbillable time developing a proposal for a prospective client, only to have that person wander away—your ideas in hand—to a different outfit that ends up producing an event suspiciously similar to the one you proposed. Not only has that company gotten the job, they’ve likely done so using your intellectual and creative property.

Such a transgression can be hard to prove, but those who have been violated this way aren’t without recourse. But first, what constitutes intellectual and creative property?

“Very generally, intellectual property is the ownership of something intangible that someone has created,” explains Betsy A. Butwin, attorney with Bernick Lifson, P.A. Based in Minneapolis, Minn., the firm works with the creative side of the event industry, as well as providing a range of services to other kinds of businesses. “[Intellectual property] becomes a commodity that the owner can trade, sell or rent, just like real or personal property.”

Butwin explains intellectual property is an umbrella term for five types of property:

  • Copyright. Protects ownership of original works of authorship. Generally for works of art, literature, music, choreography, A/V works, computer code and architecture. Copyrighted work must be independently created by the author, fixed in a tangible form, and have some degree of creativity.
  • Trademark and service marks. Both protect brand identifiers, such as a business name or logo, protecting businesses from competitors using “confusingly similar branding.” Trademark applies to goods; service marks to services.
  • Trade secret. Protects proprietary business information that could cause harm to the marketability of the business if leaked. “Trade secret is often the only means of intellectual property protection for things like recipes,” Butwin explains (think KFC® or Coca-Cola®).
  • Patents. These protect inventions of formulas and processes (machines, devices, medications, etc.).

Event professionals can safeguard their intellectual property using several of the above protections where appropriate, Butwin says. In general, brand identifiers such as business names, logos and lines of service can be protected with a trademark or service mark, she says. Because event plans and proposals “may or may not be trade secret,” it’s a good idea to have the potential client sign a nondisclosure agreement prior to presenting the ideas. This can work well in a business context, but may make a preliminary meeting with a potential wedding client a bit awkward, Butwin allows.

“There may also be copyrightable assets,” she continues. “If an event planner has designed an original tangible work, like an invitation or a program, any unauthorized reproduction of that work would be a copyright infringement. It’s also very important to understand that ideas themselves cannot be locked up, but the expression of those ideas can.”

Circling the Wagons

These legal protections have offered some companies a tool for protecting their intellectual property. For example, Joyce Scardina Becker, president and designer-in-chief of San Francisco, Calif.-based Events of Distinction, trademarked her business name and logo. She’s occasionally hired an attorney to write “cease and desist” letters to other planners who started up businesses with that same name. This effort has generally been successful when the companies are based in the U.S., she says. However, for planners outside of the country using this name, there’s not much she can do.

Proving that someone has infringed on a copyright can be more trouble than it’s worth and ultimately impractical, says Scardina Becker, since you have to demonstrate in court that the design was unique, that you came up with it first and that your business was harmed by the violation.

Andrea Michaels, president of Extraordinary Events, Sherman Oaks, Calif., agrees proof can be hard to come by, even when there’s a trademark or copyright. Agreements between companies to not participate in intellectual property theft may provide better protection.

“It’s a relatively small community and many of us know each other well,” Michaels says. “If the most recognized companies can agree they won’t accept anyone else’s ideas and produce them, then we’re fine. Many of us have those agreements in place, to the point where we’ll reject business offered by a client who does that.”

Michaels says if a potential client comes to her with another company’s proposal, she’ll call that company to let them know. At the same time, she’ll refuse to review the proposal. She hopes other companies respond in kind.

“You can also have clients sign a document before you send them any proposals that they [won’t shop them to other companies],” she says. “But unless you want to spend a lot of money on attorneys, it’s not worth the financial effort.”

Proposal fees

Charging clients a fee to develop a proposal may discourage intellectual property theft, although this isn’t appropriate for every situation. Stephen Frost, president of Stamford Tent & Event Services Inc., Stamford, Conn., says his company receives many proposal requests from architects, property managers and venues interested in covering outdoor spaces, endeavors often requiring custom solutions.

“We put a lot of time and effort into these and if the end user decides not to move forward, or puts our design out to bid, we’ve wasted tremendous resources,” Frost says. “Consequently, we created a consulting agreement requiring an advance retainer payment, which varies with the project, and we charge our time off to that advance. If the hours spent exceed the advance, we get another one before moving forward.”

The agreements are sent after an initial phone call and site visit. The company typically implements this strategy only for projects requiring custom solutions or projects that seem unlikely to come to fruition. This way, Frost says, if the client decides to jettison the project or to use the design as the basis for a request for proposal (RFP), the company has been paid for its time and creativity. If a standard rental tent will get the job done, there’s no need for a consulting agreement.

“Most clients don’t have any issues with the agreement,” Frost says. “The ones who do are typically the clients that are just fishing for ideas and the lowest prices, so we really haven’t lost anything.”

Michaels says her clients are rarely willing to pay for development. Instead, she sends clients several one-paragraph ideas for their review. “When they define which of these ideas they want developed, we can proceed,” she explains. “This saves the time and effort involved in putting together a proposal they may not be interested in.”

Michaels thinks of proposals as an investment that, if initially rejected, may pay off in the long-term, recalling one submitted for a program in Hawaii. “This was in the days of the fax machine,” she says. “I faxed the creative to my client and the person who took it off the fax machine loved it. Even though the original client didn’t hire us, the second one did, and for a much larger program.”
Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.

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