How Your Intellectual Property Can Make or Break a Merger

By: Ashley Earle, Attorney, Dinsmore & Shohl

Like a good recipe, a good brand name for a beer, wine, or other beverage can drive sales. That recipe, distilling process, bottle design, or logo is all a form of intellectual property that helps define who you are in the industry. It can also be a defining and important part of any transaction.

  In today’s COVID world, breweries, wineries and distilleries of all types are doing what they have to in order to survive and one day thrive. Some are turning to mergers and acquisitions as potential strategies for survival and success. It’s important to know how your intellectual property (IP) can make a difference, good and bad, to a potential deal. Below are the five things you need to know about IP in a merger or acquisition. 

What Is IP?

  Before we get there, it’s important to quickly define the different types of IP that exist:

•    Trademarks: A trademark is the most common form of IP protection in the alcoholic beverage industry. It protects anything that functions as a source identifier, (product names, company names, logos like the NBC peacock, bottle or can designs like the Coca-Cola bottle, or even sounds like the ESPN tones). Trademarks can be registered and unregistered, though unregistered marks are limited in geographic scope.

•    Patents: This protects a unique invention (a brewing process, a novel distillation column), a unique design (bottle designs), or a unique plant (strains of yeast or grapes). Patents must be registered and issued to be enforceable, though pending applications will be relevant in an M&A deal.

•    Copyrights: Copyright protection arises automatically as soon as an original work of authorship is “fixed” into something tangible. Basically, once you draw the artwork for your bottle or can, write the code for your website, or draft up a piece of marketing material, it is protected by copyright. Registration affords several key benefits but is not required to claim ownership in a work.

•    Trade secrets: A trade secret is something that gives you value because it is secret. Examples include customer or vendor lists and recipes.

  Additionally, when you go through a merger or acquisition, you will often be asked to list out all of your domain names, social media, and in some cases, any software that is material to your business. It is important to make sure you keep a list of these assets in case an opportunity arises.

  Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s dive into the top five things you need to know in a merger and acquisition when it comes to your IP.

What IP Do I (and They) Have?

  Start by taking an inventory of everything you have that is protectable – beer names, wine names, logos, artwork, packaging, unique brewing processes or recipes, social media accounts, and domain names – to name a few. This should include anything you registered, anything you are trying to register (like pending applications), and anything unregistered but material to your business. Disclosure schedules are used to list all of the IP and what is to be transferred in the transaction (if not everything). Be clear to fully disclose what you have without overstating.

  The same should be true of the other side. You should ask them to disclose all of their IP assets that will be a part of the deal, all the way down to their social media accounts and domain names.

  As you and the other side are pulling this together, you also want to collect all of your documentation to evidence the IP. This could include trademark applications and registrations, copyright registrations, patent applications, patents, email accounts, and social media accounts. You will also want to pull any licenses you have to use IP, independent contractor agreements regarding creation of IP, liens on IP (if applicable), and any documentation relating to disputes or claims of infringement involving your IP (if applicable). Make sure you have clear documentation of the chain of title (meaning who owned it at each point) from origination to present day.

Do Both Sides Actually Own Their IP?

  The next question you need to ask yourself in any deal is: Do we actually own that IP? The answer may not be as simple as you think. You need to be sure that all assets are owned by the company and not an employee, owner, or even a third party. A lot of companies don’t realize that if they hire an independent contractor to make something, whether a website, logo, or marketing materials, unless they have the contractor expressly assign the finished product to their organization, the contractor owns it. Employee-created works should automatically transfer to the employer, but it is still good practice to include an assignment in your employment agreements. 

  Ownership issues can derail or even terminate what would otherwise be a great deal. Make sure that the ownership of IP on both sides is clearly documented and validated as you move forward.

What Are We Agreeing to In the Deal Terms?

  Within the deal documentation, there will be a number of representations and warranties and indemnity provisions that relate solely to IP and the disclosures and transfers being made in the deal. This is why it’s so important to make sure you have your ducks in a row with your IP as you move forward.

  These reps and warranties will range from confirming ownership of the IP to promising your IP does not infringe the rights of others. You can also see reps and warranties that ask you to declare that your employees have not created any IP that is not owned by the company. Your legal counsel can help to finesse the reps and warranties to match your circumstances and protect you as best they can, but it’s important you ensure everything stated is accurate. A broken rep and warranty in a transaction can be expensive and arise after the deal is done.

  You may also be asked to indemnify the other side for any claims of infringement of the IP, even if you are selling your business to them and walking away. Typically, indemnity provisions should only last for a particular time period following the sale and have a few caveats of what does and does not trigger indemnity. It’s important to make sure you understand them and how they may impact you in the future.

  It’s also important that you understand what will happen to your IP or the other side’s IP after the deal is done. Who will end up as the owner? Who has control? Will any IP be left behind with either party? Are there any pitfalls with the IP that need to be addressed (like prior enforcement matters that resulted in Coexistence Agreements or liens)? Given the importance of IP to any business, it’s doubly important to understand what happens to the IP in the deal as you look to the future.

Were Things Done Right with the IP by Both Sides?

  While you want to believe all assurances a party makes in fostering the deal, both sides must do their due diligence. Did an employee copy and paste images from Google that are infringing someone’s copyright? Did you use unauthorized background music in a promotional video or advertisement? Did you see a great idea at a trade show and implement something similar, not realizing it was patented or trademarked? As the brewery, distillery, or winery grows and expands, so do the footprint and the risk for claims against you.

  Similarly, data privacy can be another pitfall. If any customer information is kept, such as names, birthdays, addresses, or credit card information, (or more abstract information such as IP address or use of cookies, beacons, and pixels), you have to be sure that this information is kept safe and confidential. Ensure there are no data breaches and never have been any breaches.

Likewise, if you are keeping any data, a clear privacy policy must be in place. Do not be tempted to copy and paste a privacy policy found online. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) often comes down hard on businesses for having a policy that does not match what they are actually doing. Copying and pasting can lead to a policy that misleads consumers as to how you handle their data – and that’s a big problem.

A privacy policy can be fairly simple and straight forward: Explain what information you collect, where you keep it, how long you keep it, and how it is stored, and provide an option for customers to opt out (such as an email address to contact). The more information (and the clearer the information) the better – and when in doubt, ask for affirmative consent.

  With these five things in mind, you can approach a deal with confidence and find the perfect fit to expand and secure your brewery, distillery, or winery. When in doubt, consult your attorney – we’re here to help!

  Ashley Earle is an attorney at Dinsmore & Shohl who focuses on branding protection through trademark and copyright law. Dinsmore represents breweries, distilleries, wineries, cider companies and other alcoholic beverage producers in business, regulatory, intellectual property and litigation matters. Dinsmore attorney represent these entities in every stage of their business, from formation to operation to final sale or closure.  Ashley can be contacted at…513-977-8522 or ashley.earle@dinsmore.com

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