Ideas for Businesses and Business Owners Unexpectedly Working From Home Part I

Working from home woman business owner typing and texting.

Well, here we are, at the start of Week 2 of social distancing for Iowa and Minnesota. We are facing restrictions on travel, groups congregating, and operations of businesses. We are advised to stay at least 6 feet away from other people and (say it with me) wash our hands frequently for at least 20 seconds. We are at home with our families and our pets. We have a lot of downtime on our hands—as do our employees.

There is no sugar coating it: this is going to be a very tough time for small and mid-size businesses. Unemployment is up, and sales are down. We recently posted a list of resources for small businesses, including links to a variety of governmental agencies. We will be adding new links and those linked pages will all be updated regularly, so we encourage you to check back regularly. Please also feel free to reach out to us to suggest updates to that list. At the time of this writing, the new Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Public Law No. 116-127, is not yet in effect, and the Department of Labor has not yet provided the details about how it will address the exceptions for businesses with fewer than 50 employees. We will provide information as it becomes available.

While you and your employees are working remotely is a good time to work on some of those long-term projects you’ve been putting off—both personal and business. It may help your business emerge from this crisis in fighting shape. And if you, like so many business owners, have gone online unexpectedly, there are a number of things you may not have had to consider in a brick-and-mortar state that you should start thinking about now. We’ve put together some things to consider working on over the next weeks.

For Businesses Newly Online

If you have never run your business online before, it seems pretty straightforward: build an ecommerce website or move your yoga classes to a Zoom meeting and run with it. But there are a lot of other things to consider when you move online. Here are a few:

  • Sales taxes. If you had only one location and all of your customers came to you before, you needed to pay sales tax only for that location. The calculation changes when your customers are not coming to you. If your business is based in Iowa, look for more information from the Iowa Department of Revenue. If your business is based in Minnesota, look for more information from the Minnesota Department of Revenue. Both states may have special exceptions and updated information as the crisis unfolds, so check regularly for updates. Both states also participate in the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement, which aims to simplify the sales tax process for online retailers.
  • Website Privacy Policy, Terms of Use, and Terms of Sale. A website’s Privacy Policy explains how the website owner collects and uses data, including personal data, about people who use the website. A website’s Terms of Use are an agreement between the owner of the site and the site’s users. A website’s Terms of Sale are a contract between users who order from the site and the website owner. A Privacy Policy is required by the laws of some states, most notably California, if your website is accessible to users in those states. Terms of Use and Terms of Sale exist to protect the business owner and ensure that both parties know what happens under various circumstances—especially if an item doesn’t arrive, or needs to be returned, a prospect which you may not be relishing at the moment.
  • Liability Waivers. If you are suddenly giving fitness classes online, you have no way of knowing whether the spaces your customers are using are safe. To protect your business, you will want to ensure that your customers understand that they are responsible for ensuring they are using a safe space. If you already have a liability waiver, you may need to update it to reflect the new situation.

If you need assistance with these or any other concerns relating to your unexpected foray into e-commerce, please feel free to contact us.

For Businesses Looking for Things To Do

While it is not for the best of reasons, you and your employees may suddenly have a lot of down time from your regular business work. Especially if you are and/or you have employees scrounging for things to do in the midst of the disruption, this is the perfect time to pursue some of those long-term projects. If you don’t have your own list (or you’ve already worked through it), here are some ideas:

  • Adjust to the times. If your business’s organizing documents require any kind of in-person meeting without exceptions, it’s time to amend those. If you haven’t figured out what video chat software is most compatible with your business model (either free or paid), it’s time to find it. If you haven’t figured out how to work from home with the kids present, or if you have policies in place that make it unreasonably difficult for your employees to do so, it’s time to adjust those.
  • Get organized. Complete the filing. Make sure your electronic records are all in order. If you don’t have a system for managing customers, develop one or find a vendor who supplies one. If you’ve been thinking you’re outgrowing the capabilities of a software program or a vendor you rely on, take some time to do the research and determine what vendor offers the best solution for your business and implement it. If you aren’t there yet but might get there relatively soon, familiarize yourself with the marketplace so you’ll be ready for the transition later.
  • Get ahead. If you have a blog, create some evergreen content (content that will be timely no matter what is going on in the world). If you are a website designer, create some new templates to have ready to go for customers when they are ready to buy. Now is a good time to do any kind of preparatory work that you normally try to get ahead on in the slow times.
  • Take stock of your template agreements. I’ll soon write a post on the neglected Force Majeure clause that everyone is talking about now, but for the moment, this is a great time to evaluate the form contracts you have been using. How have they been working for your business? Do they cover everything that they should? Is there a situation that comes up frequently that isn’t included? Do they match the way your business actually operates? That last one can be a big problem if you just grabbed a form from the internet or if you simply haven’t updated your contracts in several years.
  • Work on legal compliance issues. Sometimes, compliance matters can fall by the wayside, or a new law with a lot of requirements can be too overwhelming to address before it goes into effect. Sometimes, smaller businesses rely on their small size to hope that no regulators will notice their non-compliance. Now is a good time to address the General Data Protection Regulation in the European Economic Area or the California Consumer Privacy Protection Act if you haven’t already.
  • Develop or revisit your trade secret protection regime. A trade secret is a type of intellectual property that creates value for its owner because it is secret. Trade secret protection is used to protect information and/or ideas that: 1) have actual or potential economic value if they are kept secret; 2) cannot be easily ascertained by others who are using proper means; 3) are minimally novel; and 4) are the subject of reasonable efforts to maintain them as secret. A trade secret must be protected in a way that is reasonable under the circumstances—it has to be secret enough to stay hidden, but revealed enough to be useful. Trade secrets should be protected with physical, procedural, and technological means. If you have never created a systematic method of protecting your trade secrets, or if you have but haven’t re-evaluated your method recently, now is a good time to do so.
  • Consider protecting other intellectual property. Registering copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office is not difficult, but is time-consuming. If you aren’t sure how to go about it, we offer copyright registration training remotely, and we’ll get you set up to register your own copyrights going forward. If you already know how to do it, and you suddenly have a lot of free time, now is a pretty good time to get things moving. Registering trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office generally takes a little more work and benefits from assistance from an attorney. You can learn more about the benefits of trademark registration from this blog post.

This post is plenty long, so we will stop here; Part II will include suggestions for businesses facing changes, for people contemplating starting a new business, and for helping you to help your business.

If you would like help with any of the legal issues we’ve mentioned above, or any other legal issues, remember, we’re open and able to help with legal issues businesses are facing in this public health crisis. We offer telephone and video chat consultations, including free initial 30-minute consultations. We are also able to work with businesses facing financial hardships at this time. Please feel free to contact us to discuss your business’s options.

Congress Gets Serious About Defending Trade Secrets

The Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) has been slowly wending its way through Congress, and it is looking as though it has a good chance of becoming a law at this point. It has bipartisan support and has now passed the Senate 87-0. It is now being considered by the House of Representatives.

Currently, there are two levels of laws governing trade secrets, and they have very different benefits for trade secret owners. The federal law is a criminal law that focuses on preventing international espionage. At the state level, the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (PDF), which has been adopted by most of the states, is a civil law. It focuses on providing monetary and injunctive remedies for trade secret owners who have experienced or may soon experience trade secret theft, regardless of the source. Some states also provide for criminal penalties. The end result is that most companies that are not operating in either agriculture or high technology (two areas particularly susceptible to international espionage) rely on a patchwork of state laws to help them protect their trade secrets.

What does the DTSA do, exactly? It creates, for the first time, a private cause of action for misappropriation of trade secrets at the federal level. This means that trade secret owners will be able to sue for trade secret violations in federal court rather than in state court, which will in turn create a more uniform treatment of trade secrets nationwide.

This bill will benefit most, but not all, trade secret owners by opening up a federal forum for litigation. This is because the federal law applies only to trade secrets that are currently used, or intended to be used, in interstate or foreign commerce. (Congress has the authority to regulate interstate, but not intrastate, commerce under the Constitution.) If your business is small enough that it operates only within one state, and you cannot make a showing that you have some effect on interstate commerce, you are stuck with whatever body of law your state has in place about trade secrets. The states generally have broadly diverging case law despite the near-uniformity of the statutes. And if you are in one of the states that hasn’t adopted the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, you might not like the outcome; older laws tended to be very skeptical of trade secrets as a form of intellectual property. All that said, at least you know what you have to do to protect your trade secret because the laws of only one state apply; the federal bill, if it becomes law, offers that kind of reassurance to businesses that operate in more than one state.

If the bill becomes law, it will create a more stable atmosphere in which to do business, as it will be clearer what constitutes a “reasonable” level of protection for a particular type of business or type of trade secret. If your business relies heavily on trade secrets and you like the idea of uniformity, this is a good time to contact your House of Representatives delegation and let them know that you support the Defend Trade Secrets Act.

What do you think? Would you rather be able to sue in federal court for trade secret violations, or are you happy with the current “50 ways of doing things” setup?

How Do I Protect My Idea? Part IV: Trade Secrets

Internet Law - Trade Secret - Protect My Idea

You have a brilliant idea. With all your might, you are making it grow. You nurture it with your time, your energy, your hopes, your sweat, your dollars and your dreams.

This idea? Its time has arrived.

When you have put so much creativity, time and energy into something, you want to know that it is as well-protected as possible. My job as your attorney is to help you with the “how.” Sometimes, you know what kind of protection will work best for your idea. Sometimes, you don’t, or you aren’t sure which of your options is the best. This four-part series is a brief introduction to the various types of intellectual property. Today’s topic: trade secrets.

Trade secrets are often ignored in the excitement surrounding the federally registrable types of intellectual property, but this is a mistake. Trade secrets can be among the more versatile types of protection, and are the only way to protect ideas, as opposed to the expression or physical embodiment of those ideas. Trade secrets protect:

Information and/or ideas that: 1) have actual or potential economic value if they are kept secret; 2) cannot be easily ascertained by others who are using proper means; 3) are minimally novel; and 4) are the subject of reasonable efforts to maintain them as secret.

Trade secrets are an excellent choice for protecting an invention or discovery that does not meet the rigorous novelty standards of patent law, so long as it is not easy to reverse-engineer. They are also ideal for certain types of software, tests, recipes, and other intellectual property that is possible to keep secret.

How does one obtain trademark protection? It is simple enough in theory: all you need to do is keep the material secret using reasonable efforts. However, what constitutes reasonable efforts varies depending on the nature of the secret and the size of the company. In general, protection involves legal safeguards such as nondisclosure agreements and physical safeguards such as locks. Maintenance is also facially straightforward: continue to keep the material secret, and take action against anyone who threatens to reveal it (e.g., get an injunction). You should consult with an attorney about how best to protect and maintain your trade secrets and what to include in your nondisclosure agreement.

The greatest benefit of trade secret protection is that it is the only way to protect certain types of intellectual property, such as ideas or inventions that are not sufficiently novel to obtain patent protection. Trade secret protection can be combined with copyright or patent protection (at least until the point of patent registration). Trade secrets can also last indefinitely; the recipe for Coca-Cola, for example, has been maintained as a trade secret for over one hundred years.

The greatest drawback of trade secrets is that they are destroyed by being revealed. There are some remedies for this, but an unhappy former employee has the potential to do a great deal of damage to a company whose most important intellectual property is protected by trade secrets.

Well-known intellectual property protected as a trade secret includes the formula for Coca-Cola and the recipe for Thomas English Muffins’ “nooks and crannies.”