Beverly A. Berneman
Investing in tech companies with issues can be hazardous to your retirement funds. VirnetX, a publicly traded company, supposedly sells Internet connectivity and security software. By all reports, sales of its products don’t actually generate much revenue. Instead, VirnetX makes a lot of money suing other companies who allegedly infringe on its patents. Although it was successful in suits against Microsoft and Apple, VirnetX saw its heyday dwindle after the Supreme Court’s Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank International that invalidated a lot of software patents. For Dr. Poppell, an eye doctor in Florida, VirnetX’s woes proved to be the downfall in Dr. Poppell’s investment strategy. Despite warnings from financial managers, Dr. Poppell, who had no financial training or background, personally administrated the 401(k) plan for his employees. Using Internet research, Dr. Poppell invested over half of his employees’ 401(k) money in VirnetX. VirnetX stock fell precipitously. As a result, the plan participants lost about 53% of their 401(k) investments. When the good doctor’s employees complained about the large losses, he terminated the 401(k) plan. When they complained about that, he fired them. The plan participants sued Dr. Poppell and he settled for less than a third of the losses. Then the Department of Labor got involved and required Dr. Poppell to make the plan participants whole.
WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. Dr. Poppell is surely an example of what not to do when as the administrator of a 401(k) plan. But it all started with a high risk and heavy investment in a company that, by all reports, is a patent troll. A patent troll usually has no real inventions (or real inventions that don’t result in much revenue, are driven by lawyers rather than scientists, don’t develop, sell or license any real products, and assert weak patents to get settlements in cash or through licensing. These types of companies usually fly under the publically held stock radar. But for any publicly traded stock in the tech industry, be sure to check the company out thoroughly before making any type of investment.
Beverly A. Berneman
Every photo doesn’t automatically have the veneer of copyrightability. Dr. Mitchell A. Pohl is a cosmetic dentist who is very proud of his work. He posted before and after pictures of one of his patients on his website. The photos showed the patient’s unfortunate ‘before’ smile (teeth, lips and small area around the mouth) and her ‘after’ beautiful healthy smile. Dr. Pohl registered the photos with the US Copyright Office. Then Dr. Pohl found seven websites that used his photos. He sued the alleged infringer, MH SubI, LLC d/b/a Offcite, for copyright infringement. While Dr. Pohl obviously does fantastic work, his photos didn’t bridge the gap into copyrightable subject matter. The District Court for the Northern District of Florida performed the judicial version of a root canal and granted Offcite’s motion for summary judgment. The court held that Dr. Phol’s self-serving affidavit was as convincing as “plaque on a molar” and no reasonable jury could find that the photos were creative enough for copyright protection. The court later performed another extraction by denying Dr. Pohl’s motion to reconsider.
WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. A work has to meet a minimum standard of creativity to be copyrighted. As the court noted in this case, “Meeting the standard for creativity is not like pulling teeth”. Dr. Pohl’s photos didn’t meet that minimum standard. The court noted that Dr. Pohl couldn’t identify any creative elements in the photos such as the type of camera used, decisions regarding the pose of the patient, lighting decisions, etc. Perhaps if Dr. Pohl could have described some creative decisions in taking the photos, the outcome would have been different.
A shout out to my friend, Matthew Scott Nelles, one of the fine attorneys at Berger Singerman LLP in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, who represented Offcite in this case.
Property Tax Insights
James W. Chipman
By James W. Chipman
No matter where you live or what type of property you own, you may qualify for any number of special tax incentives that could save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Illinois may be second in the nation when it comes to the highest property tax burden, but the Prairie State offers its fair share of tax breaks too. Here are a few of the laws designed to help homeowners and businesses cut their taxes.
Exemptions that reduce the assessed value of your home:
- General Homestead: Taxpayers can receive a maximum exemption of $6,000 for an owner-occupied residence ($10,000 in Cook County).
- Senior Citizen: Homeowners age 65+ can receive a $5,000 exemption for an owner-occupied property ($8,000 in Cook County). An annual application is required.
- Senior Freeze: Senior citizens who live in an owner-occupied home and meet certain income levels may have their assessments frozen. An annual application is required.
- Home Improvement: Owners can make up to $75,000 worth of property improvements without an increase in taxes for at least four years from the date of completion and occupancy, or until the next reassessment, whichever is later.
- Returning Veterans: Veterans returning from active duty who own and occupy a property as their principal residence are entitled to a $5,000 exemption for two consecutive years.
Special valuation incentives for homes and businesses:
- Open Space: Land containing 10+ acres that is used exclusively for maintaining natural or scenic resources or promoting conservation of natural resources for the last three years is eligible for an assessment based on “use value,” which is significantly less than market value. Public and private golf courses qualify. This law can help residential owners with large undeveloped tracts and businesses holding excess land for future expansion.
- Farmland: Land is eligible for a farmland assessment provided it meets the definition of “farm” and has been in that use for the two preceding years. This can include any property used solely for a variety of agricultural purposes with no acreage requirement. Farming must be the primary use of the land, and like open space, this assessment is based on use value.
- Solar Heating and Cooling: When a solar energy system is installed on a property, the owner may apply for an alternate assessment. The improvement is then assessed as if heated or cooled by conventional means and with the solar energy system—the alternate valuation is the lesser of these two values.
Special valuation incentives for businesses only:
- Model Home: A dwelling, condominium or townhome used as a display or demonstration model for prospective buyers is to be assessed at its value prior to construction or a zoning classification change. The home can be furnished and even used as an office. The lower assessed value remains in effect until the home is sold or leased for use other than a model home.
- Developer’s Exemption (excludes Cook County): This exemption encourages real estate development by protecting developers from paying higher taxes until a return on investment can be realized. It applies to acreage in transition from vacant land to a residential, commercial or industrial use. The tax break ends when a lot is sold or used for a business or residential purpose, or a habitable structure is built on a lot.
For more information and to determine whether your property is eligible for an exemption or incentive, contact a property tax attorney today. They’ll take you through each step required to qualify your property for these tax reducing benefits.
Beverly A. Berneman
With smoldering eyes, the beautiful and brave romance writers defended their realm. Faleena Hopkins is a self-published romance author of steamy romances with titles like, “Cocky Soldier: A Military Romance” and “Cocky Roomie”. Faleena’s company, Hop Hop Productions, Inc., registered two trademarks for the word “cocky” in relation to a series of romance novels. Faleena sent out cease and desist letters to other romance writers advising them that “cocky” has found its one true love and no one else can use the word in their book titles. In response to this attempt to keep the word “cocky” from its other true loves, a group of romance writers published a collection of short stories titled “Cocktales: The Cocky Collective”. Faleena filed suit to stop the publication. The Author’s Guild and the Romance Writers of America, rescued one of the defendants, author Tara Crescent, by paying the past due taxes on the plantation, I mean, paying her legal bills. The court denied Faleena’s motions for a preliminary and temporary restraining order against the protest work. The court held that the “cocky” marks were weak and customers would not be likely to be confused between Faleena’s books and other books using the word in their titles. On another note, a proceeding to cancel Faleena’s trademarks is now pending before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. So there may be a sequel to this romantic tale of the word “cocky”.
WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. A weak mark may be meaningful but is common in usage. It usually describes the product or service. Faleena’s experience shows how hard it is to enforce a weak trademark. When choosing a trademark, try to stay away from descriptive, weak marks. Choose fanciful, arbitrary or suggestive words instead.
Beverly A. Berneman
Great Minds don’t always think alike when it comes to copyright infringement. Great Minds is a company that publishes school books, including a math book. Great Minds licenses use of the book to schools for free as long as it is for strictly non-commercial use. Great Minds uses the Creative Commons non-commercial license for these deals. A school district in New York had FedEx make copies of the book instead of using the school’s copiers and staff. Great Minds sued FedEx for copyright infringement arguing that it licensed the work to the school district and not FedEx. Great Minds tried to distinguish between the school staff making copies and the school ‘jobbing’ out the project to FedEx. In affirming a ruling against Great Minds, the Second Circuit held that there really was no difference between school employees making copies and having FedEx’s copy service making copies. The Court identified FedEx as an agent of the school district. Under pure agency principals, the school district’s license to copy would extend to FedEx.
WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that acts as a clearing house for copyright licenses. The licenses are standard forms that parties can use. However, there is no requirement that the parties accept the standard language. Parties can always add or delete anything that would better define their licensor/licensee relationship. In this case, the Creative Commons license was silent on whether the license extended to agents of the licensee. To avoid a problem like this, on the licensor side, it’s best to define authorized uses under the license. On the licensee side, it’s best to make sure that the license extends to employees and agents.
Property Tax Insights
James W. Chipman
By James W. Chipman
As an owner, you’re entitled to your privacy. However, denying a request for an interior inspection could work against you without a property tax attorney to assist.
Township assessors will begin giving all properties in their jurisdiction a look when the 2019 reassessment period begins on January 1. State law requires property in Illinois to be reassessed once every four years, while it’s every three years in Cook County. But just how close of a look are assessors entitled to take?
Assessors often gather data from a variety of sources in order to calculate your property’s market value. If there is not enough information, or in the case of new construction, assessors may ask to inspect the interior of your property.
LET THEM IN? IT’S YOUR CALL
Deciding whether or not to allow access depends on your situation. Letting them in could seem reasonable in order for the assessor to carry out his or her duties. On the other hand, you are entitled to your privacy and might see an interior inspection as unnecessary and intrusive.
There is no law in Illinois that specifically gives assessors a right of entry into your property without permission. The courts made it clear in 1986 that interior inspections are not required for assessment purposes, stating “[t]here is a distinct and palpable difference between inspections necessary for the public’s safety and well-being and an inspection to determine real estate assessments on private property.”*
In other words, your ability to exclude others is a fundamental part of your right to the enjoyment of private property. It can only be infringed upon in very limited circumstances when the government has a legitimate concern for public safety.
DETERMINE WHAT’S BEST FOR YOU
While refusing the assessor access is within your rights, that decision requires them to make certain assumptions about your property that may not work in your favor. For example, without an inspection, the assessor may overestimate your property’s size or miss deferred maintenance issues that affect its condition. If you believe your taxes are too high, it could be because the assessor made prior incorrect assumptions about your property. You can file an appeal based on the erroneous information, but the burden of proof will be on you to show that the assessment is wrong.
Property assessments are intended to reflect market values so equity and uniformity can be maintained. While market values can change dramatically between reassessment periods, once properties are reassessed, assessments typically stay the same until the next cycle, unless there is substantial cause to change them.
If an assessor wants access to your home or business, contact a property tax attorney immediately to determine what approach is in your best interests. It could very well be a situation where your attorney can answer and address any questions or concerns about your property without an interior inspection.
*Source: County of Fulton v. Property Tax Appeal Board of the State of Illinois, #3-86-0125 (1986)
Beverly A. Berneman
The Patent Office can invalidate a patent even if a court did not. Oils States Energy LLC won a patent infringement judgment against Green Energy Group LLC. But then, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (“PTAB”) invalidated the patent leaving Oil States emptyhanded. Oil States appealed arguing that the PTAB, an Article III (of the US Constitution) administrative tribunal, couldn’t come out differently from an Article I court. The US Supreme Court decided against Oil States. SCOTUS held that patents are a “public right”. They are a public franchise granted by the government to the owner of the patent for a period of 20 years. So, the administrative body can determine patent validity without paying homage to a different decision by a federal court.
WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. This decision addresses the fundamental nature of a patent. Patents are different from other types of Intellectual Property. You own a copyright the minute you fix your work in a tangible means of expression. You own your trade secret as long as it’s not generally known and you take reasonable measures to keep it secret. You own a trademark as long as you use it as a source or product identifier. But a patent isn’t a patent until the US Patent Office issues the patent. So, you can win a patent infringement judgment in court and still have your patent invalidated by the PTAB.