Disclaimers: What They Do and Don’t Protect You From

Disclaimers: What They Do and Don’t Protect You From

Disclaimers: What They Do and Don’t Protect You From

Disclaimers: What they do and don’t protect you from 

As a business owner, it is likely that you run a website, blog or social media to help people find you, advertise and promote your products or services. It is the most effective way of attracting potential customers or clients in this digital age.

When someone visits your website, you are offering them information of some sort. Are you always 100% certain that all the information on there are accurate and up to date?

Even if your answer is yes, do you know how your customers or competitors are using or interpreting that information? The best you can do is hope they are using it the way you intended, but really it is out of your control.

This is why having a disclaimer is always a good idea. It can better protect you and your business.

What is a disclaimer?

Almost all websites have disclaimers. You must have seen one before. Sometimes disclaimers are hidden in terms of use, and sometimes they have their own individual link in the footer, and sometimes they appear in every footer, whether that is on a website or email.

A disclaimer is a notice that you display to protect you from potential legal issues; it is a statement that you are not responsible for something. To give you an example, here is Wikipedia’s no guarantee disclaimer:

Wikipedia cannot guarantee the validity of the information found here. The content of any given article may recently have been changed, vandalized or altered by someone whose opinion does not correspond with the state of knowledge in the relevant fields.”

 

So, why is it important to have a disclaimer?

Well, consider the case where someone claims that they have relied on your information and suffered loss as a result. Let’s look at an example.

A marketer promotes pre-sales of a real estate development through a website. (A common cause of claims in court.)

The website has some images that are ‘artist’s impressions’ of what the development will look like when it’s finished and might contain other information like a copy of a survey diagram. It might also contain a list of finishes to be included in the final development.

Survey diagrams are really things you should check with a surveyor, engineer or other professional, rather than take from a marketing brochure, but that might also depend on who is providing the brochure and what expertise they say they have.

The website should clearly caution the buyer that the artist’s impressions might not be true to the end result and that a buyer should make their own enquiries to verify information before they decide to buy; like checking the inclusions in the contract with the builder. If there are no clear statements, it is possible that a buyer could claim they were misled by the information on the website and would not have bought otherwise. Then if the property turns out being something they don’t want or doesn’t have the value they expected it to have, they sue the marketer to try and recover their losses.

You do not want to put yourself in a situation like this, where your business reputation could be damaged, and you could be found liable to pay legal costs to defend yourself and possibly someone else’s losses.

Some other common examples we see are:

  • people who have a lived experience with a physical condition or disease, but no formal medical training
  • people who have successfully built a business without any formal qualifications
  • people who have successfully overcome an adversity and again, don’t have any formal qualifications

Out of a genuine desire to help others and share the benefit of their experience, a person like this might establish a business around coaching or educating others on how they achieved what they did.

The thing is, not everything works for everybody consistently, and there is a risk if you put yourself in this kind of position that you will encounter a person your services don’t work for, and they say the relied completely on what you said. In that situation, a disclaimer might just help you avoid costly court proceedings.

And for something completely different…

Now consider a completely different situation where your website makes it possible for other people to post comments, reviews or advertisements. Forum sites and advice sites like Quora are like this.  All the information posted by third parties could mislead your customers, clients, or visitors of your website, and you could be the one exposed to liabilities because of their actions.

By having a clear and comprehensive disclaimer for your websites, and building behaviour and processes consistent with the terms of your disclaimer, you put yourself in the best possible position to:

  • protect your rights;
  • limit your liability; and
  • disclaim third party liability.

 

Do you need a disclaimer?

Yes, and no.

Being in business involves a certain level of risk and some types of business are riskier than others, and some types of business people are happy with more risk than others.

We need to look at your business, your background, your products and your customers to form an opinion on how important it is for you to use disclaimers.

Generally speaking, we will suggest you do use a disclaimer on your website.

This is because any member of the public that has internet access can see the content on your website, and you are responsible for all the content you put on there. Even if you are not making money from these websites (for example, you might be posting a blog simply for informational purposes), you must still take reasonable steps to ensure that visitors of your website will not be misled by any information you share.

However, if your business is fairly straight-forward and well understood, like a barber or hairdresser for example, you probably don’t need a disclaimer. Everyone knows what barbers and hairdressers do. The worst that can happen is probably a bad haircut, or a bad colour, or a clumsy shave. The risk to the business is the cost of the service, and maybe the cost of fixing the problem, or the customer having someone else fix the problem. The problem probably won’t cost the business more than $300. So, will a disclaimer make any difference? Probably not.

On the other hand, coaching can be a really interesting area where you as a coach should be careful about what you say you can do for someone, particularly when results are going to be dependent on how much effort and application your client invests in doing what you have advised them to do.  If you are offering a high-end coaching package with a purchase price over $10,000, we would recommend a disclaimer.

If you run a website or email list that provides information which is likely to be relied on by visitors  to your website, or subscribers on your email list, you are strongly encouraged to have a disclaimer in place. Particularly if you provide specialised information, in areas such as health, managing money or an industry that is regulated.

If your website provides specific steps in a process or a guide for people to follow, you could also increase your legal risk.

An example might be if you are an online fitness trainer and you post videos that step your clients through a workout. If someone who watches and follows your video injures themself, then you run the risk that they sue you for their injury. But if you have a disclaimer in place which covers your legal obligations and placing some responsibility for your clients behaviour back on to them, you give yourself a much higher chance of avoiding liability.

 

What kind of disclaimer do you need?

You may run different types of websites, and the type of disclaimers you need will vary.

  • Websites

What disclaimer you need depends on whether you use your website to sell products or services, or merely to publish information. If you use your website to sell a product, someone could get hurt when using your product. Whereas if you post information on your website, someone could misconstrue that information and suffer loss as a result.

You might need a ‘no responsibility’ disclaimer which states that you are not responsible for any damages people suffer as a result of using your products or services. Or you might need a ‘views expressed’ disclaimer to inform readers that the information is only your view or opinion and is not intended to be relied upon without advice specific to their circumstances. 

  • Blog

If you intend on giving information on your blog which you are not qualified to give, you need to have a disclaimer to explain the limits of your qualifications and to recommend that people seek professional advice relevant to their circumstances.

If you are not a health professional but provide information about a health conditions, you need to make it very clear that readers should not rely on your information without seeking their own independent medical advice. The same applies for other types of expert advice including financial or legal advice.

If you are merely passing on information, you should indicate that it is work of another and that you are not endorsing it by making it available on your website. 

  • Emails

You may need a disclaimer in your emails, depending on the type of business you run and how you use your email. 

For instance, if you email contains advice that you are not qualified to give, you should include a disclaimer to the effect that you are not an expert in that field, that you are only offering a suggestion and that readers who act on the information do so at their own risk.

A confidentiality disclaimer can also be beneficial if you are sending confidential information. The disclaimer should state that the recipient must not use, reproduce, copy or disclose this information other than for the purposes for which it was supplied. 

  • Social media (eg. Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram)

Again, this will depend on your business and how you use social media.

One of the biggest risks with social media is that third parties can comment, post, or advertise on your page. A disclaimer to limit your liability for any actions or errors of third parties will be of assistance if you are also monitoring your social media pages and removing posts or qualifying posts and comments that could be misleading.

 

How do you write a disclaimer for your website?

It is not possible to have a disclaimer that could work for all types of businesses or websites. Each disclaimer is different depending on what you do and how you do it. Like we said earlier, we need to look at your business, your background, your products and your customers to form an opinion on how important it is for you to use disclaimers.

To help you decide what you should include in your disclaimer:

Step 1 – Think about what rights you want to protect

Step 2 – Think about what liabilities you might be exposed to

You need to identify the possible risks and scenarios that could expose you to legal liability.

Consider:

  • Warning your readers that your content is merely an opinion and not a fact
  • Alerting your readers to the potential mistakes and inaccuracies in the information
  • Informing your readers that you are not offering professional advice and your content is only informational, and that they should consult a professional before making any decisions
  • Disclaiming liability for any errors in the information that third parties post on your websites (together with a process for reviewing the accuracy of information shared, or making it clear that older posts might not be accurate.

 

When are you not protected by a disclaimer?

If your disclaimer contains terms that attempt to exclude a legal liability that cannot be excluded, your disclaimer will not shield you from liability. If it is contrary to law, it might be void, but if it is legally compliant, it might still limit your potential liability.

Most people get in trouble when they say or do things that are inconsistent with their disclaimer.

Always keep in mind that your disclaimer must be consistent with your behaviour and business processes and any representations that you make, whether on your website or through your conduct. If anything on your website or your conduct creates a different impression for your customer or client, your disclaimer will not protect you.

Your disclaimer also needs to be placed somewhere where it can easily be seen either by customers using your website or receiving your emails or communications in any other way. If your disclaimer is too hard to find or too small that is can be easily missed, it will not protect you.

Conventional website design will usually have a link to your disclaimer in the footer of your website.

 

 

do you still need insurance when you have a disclaimer?

Yes.

Even if you have a disclaimer in place, you should still hold adequate liability insurance to protect business activities. Having a disclaimer does not mean you are guaranteed to be protected from all liabilities. If a claim is brought against you, it is up to the courts to determine the effect of your disclaimer and to what extent your liability is limited. The more vague or confusing your disclaimer is, the more unlikely that it will protect you.

 

 

Want more information?


 A well-drafted, quality disclaimer can help you to effectively manage your customer or clients’ expectations and set the boundaries for your responsibility and liability.

Contact Onyx Legal so that we can work with you to identify the most appropriate form of disclaimer for your business and your customer base. 

Privacy Policy: Collecting and Managing Personal Information

Privacy Policy: Collecting and Managing Personal Information

Privacy Policy: Collecting and Managing Personal Information

Privacy Policy: Collecting and managing personal information

As a business owner, how many times a day do people give you their personal information? Do you think about protecting it, or do you just assume that the systems you have in place will do that? 

Or maybe you don’t think about it at all. 

Does a small business need a privacy policy?

You must comply with Australian privacy laws unless you run a small business with $3 million or less annual turnover. However, you will still be bound by privacy law if your small business does any one of the following:

  • are a credit reporting body (e.g. Equifax, Illion) or
  • are a contracted service provider under a contract with the federal government; or
  • provide a health service or otherwise hold health information (e.g. health practitioners, life coaches, personal trainers, childcare centres); or
  • collect or disclose personal information for a benefit, service or advantage (e.g. operating a lead generation website where you sell the leads).

If you have any customers or suppliers overseas and you collect their personal information, you may now also have to comply with what are called ‘extra-territorial’ provisions of laws from overseas. For example, if you have customers in the European Union, you are required to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), regardless of the size of business. If you have a medium enterprise with customers in California, you now must consider the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).

Some other countries with privacy laws that have an extraterritorial scope include New Zealand, Brazil, Thailand, the Philippines, and Canada.

 

From a practical perspective, can not having a privacy policy really make a difference?

Apart from the legal obligations, there are practical consequences of not having a privacy policy too.

If you want to advertise on social media, or through Google Ads or other platforms, you are required to provide a link to a privacy policy before your advertising can go live.

A lot of international service providers include in their terms and conditions that you must comply with privacy laws to use their services, and they have the right to end your ability to use their services if you don’t.

For example, if you use PayPal you agree with the following terms of the PayPal User Agreement:

You must comply with all your obligations under applicable Australian consumer law, including as a seller by publishing a refunds and returns policy as well as a privacy policy, where required by law.

… you must not: Infringe PayPal’s or any third party’s copyright, patent, trademark, trade secret or other intellectual property rights, or rights of publicity or privacy.

…To the extent that you (as a seller) process any personal data about a PayPal customer pursuant to this agreement, you agree to comply with the requirements of any applicable data protection laws. You have your own, independently determined privacy policy, notices and procedures for any such personal data that you hold as a data controller, including a record of your activities related to processing of personal data under this agreement.”

What difference would it make to your business if you couldn’t process payments through PayPal?

 

So, what is the point of a privacy policy?

One of your many obligations under Australian privacy laws is that every time you collect personal information from an individual, that person must be able to find out why you are collecting it, and what you are going to do with it.

Posting a privacy policy that you understand and know you can apply, on your website where it is easy to access, is by far the easiest way to share with people what you are doing with their personal information.

 

So, what is personal information?

Under the Privacy Act 1988, personal information means any information or opinion about an identified individual, or an individual who is reasonably identifiable:

  • whether the information or opinion is true or not; and
  • whether the information or opinion is recorded in a material form or not.

And what does that really mean?

Well, for a start, it doesn’t cover information about people who have died, which is interesting considering the legacy profiles some social media platforms are now making available for the families of the deceased, but that is not the topic for today.

It does cover information you collect about your employees and contractors. Many businesses only think about customer information and forget that you also have to protect the privacy of employees, contractors and suppliers.

But what about a practical example:

Imagine a gym where someone is leaving and their trainer turns to another trainer and says something like “She’s never going to lose weight, you should see her mum, she just has fat genes”.

The comment is verbal, it’s an opinion, it refers to a person who can be identified visually, and whose name and other details could be found by looking at the trainer’s schedule. That makes it personal information.

Is there a risk of violating privacy law – Yes. Is it likely to be a big risk to your business? – No. Why not? – Because it probably wasn’t recorded and is therefore difficult to prove, but if another patron overheard it, or the trainer repeated it to someone else, it does start a chain of infringement.

Imagine the same gym has list of all their trainers with their phone numbers on a clip board, and that clipboard gets left on the front reception desk, where anyone coming in could take a quick photo with their phone.

Is there a risk of violating privacy law – Yes. Is it likely to be a big risk to your business? – Possibly. Why? – Because once that information is recorded in a different form, like a photo, your business has disclosed personal information without permission.

Can you see why it is important to understand what you are doing in the process of collecting personal information?

 

When are you ‘collecting’ personal information?

You collect personal information in your business all of the time.

Any time you confirm someone’s name over the phone, whether or not you write it down.  Every time someone fills in a contact form on your website. Every time you add someone’s details to a database. Every time you prepare a proposal for someone or take payment details. Every testimonial. These are all examples of collecting personal information.

This is a broad concept.

It includes getting personal information from any source and by any means, such as the people themselves, social media profiles, other businesses, or even surveillance cameras. In practice, all personal information that you hold will generally be considered information that was collected by you.

Bear in mind that if you generate personal information from some other data you hold, collection may also take place. For example, if you generate a sub-set of information from your database for promotional purposes, you’re effectively collecting that information again. And the practical consequence? – Your privacy policy and procedures should be broad enough to include that kind of activity in what you do with personal information.

How should you manage personal information?

This is where a lot of people get lost and think that having a privacy policy by itself is a cure for all ills. It isn’t.

You are required to manage the personal information you collect in an open and transparent way. What this means is that you must take reasonable steps to establish and maintain internal practices, procedures and systems for your business to ensure its compliance with privacy laws.

Do you have any sort of privacy checklist for small business to help your team navigate what they can and can’t do with personal information? If not, that is a good place to start. What is considered as reasonable would depend on your business.

Think about what type of personal information your business holds, how much information you collect, how your customers might be affected if their personal information was not handled properly, the size of your business, and the time and cost involved in implementing appropriate procedures.

What you are required to do in Australia is comply with privacy law to a degree that is commercially proportionate to your business. So, if you run an online marketing agency with a team of four people, your procedures are not likely to be as complex as a business supplying services to the defence force.

Here are some examples what you could consider implementing:

  • understand what privacy obligations you have as a business;
  • work out when you collect personal information, and why (avoid collecting more than you need for your business);
  • work out what you will do if someone wants to be anonymous, and if you can still deliver products or services if you allow that;
  • work out where you store personal information, and how you use it (do you use a commercial database, or excel, or your phone contacts list?);
  • work out if you share personal information (eg. with a distributor or courier service);
  • decide whether the systems and procedures you use in your business protect, or put personal information at risk of being disclosed, lost or stolen (eg. leaving a mobile phone in an Uber);
  • check that you have faith in the online systems you use and there is limited risk of unintentional access by someone outside your business (eg. information on a white board visible when you are on Zoom, unintentional disclosure of a Google form);
  • work out what you will do if you get a complaint from a customer about the use of their personal information;
  • work out what you will do if someone asks you for a copy of their personal information, or a change to that personal information (eg. change of name or address);
  • include privacy training as part of your induction process for new staff; and
  • annually review and audit your business’s privacy practices, procedures and systems.

 

How do you write an effective privacy policy?

Your next step then is to write a clear and up-to-date Privacy Policy about how your business manages personal information, or get us to prepare it for you. At a minimum, it must contain the following:

  • the type of personal information that you collect and store (eg. contact details, educational qualifications);
  • how you collect and securely store personal information (eg. collect directly from your customer and their public social media accounts, then add to a CRM);
  • the purpose for collecting, keeping, using and disclosing personal information;
  • how your customers can access and correct any their personal information and who to contact in your business;
  • how your customers make a complaint about a breach of privacy laws, and what happens when they do; and
  • whether you are likely to disclose personal information to overseas recipients, and if yes, the likely countries.

Your Privacy Policy will be more comprehensive depending on the complexity of your business and should be tailored to match your internal systems and procedures. A well-written, easy-to-understand Privacy Policy can add to your credibility and help build rapport with your customers.

If your Privacy Policy is made available online, you can provide a condensed version to outline key information, but a direct link to the full policy must be provided.

 

What if you get it wrong?

Privacy law is regulated by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC). The Commissioner can require your business to put in place systems, procedures or training, pay compensation, or apply to the court for fines to be made against your business.

Compensation is usually ordered where information has been disclosed, or where a person has requested access to their information, and it hasn’t been provided in a timely manner.

 

Protect your customers and your business

Having the right systems and procedures in place with a clear and comprehensive Privacy Policy is your opportunity to reassure your customers that you can be trusted, that you are aware of and care about their privacy and information security. In doing so, you are not only complying with your legal obligations but are also working towards building a reputable business. 

10 Ways to Avoid a Joint Venture Fail

10 Ways to Avoid a Joint Venture Fail

10 Ways to Avoid a Joint Venture Fail

Joint Ventures are great for collaboration

Working together with another like minded entrepreneur is a clever way to accelerate business growth, which is why joint ventures remain a popular way for individuals or organisations to collaborate. But before you ‘Give it Away’ (as there’s always room for a Red Hot Chilli Peppers reference in a legal consideration blog), it’s critical to shore up your joint venture’s credentials to ensure a smooth, surprise-free partnership from beginning to end. In this Onyx Legal blog , we highlight 10 ways to avoid joint venture fails. [Ok, so we ended up with 11 – Ed.]

Joint Ventures are usually for a specific and limited project, goal or purpose and may also be limited by time.

1. Who is party to the joint venture?

Establishing a joint venture is no time to be carefree with the details.

Before entering into a joint venture, establish the legal identity of all parties. This means performing ABN and other similar regulatory checks. It might also mean checking driver’s licence details of individuals. 

A client recently came to us with a proposed joint venture, and we could not establish who would pay him the $400k that he expected to receive as his share of profits. The deal fell over when the other party also failed to establish who would pay that sum.

2. How Should You Structure a Joint Venture?

It is important to understand that joint ventures and partnerships are different structures.

A partnership is a long-term working proposition with full legal liability – a commitment to working together into the future.

A joint venture is project or purpose-focused, and facilitates separate parties to continue working on other businesses simultaneously. Joint ventures can be done by contract with each party paying their own tax, but one of the parties must hold the assets relating to that venture (paperwork, accounts, assets) unless it is established in its own identity.

3. What do you want to achieve with your joint venture? 

It’s easy to get caught up in the potential of success and innovation at the beginning of a joint venture, which is why understanding what you want to achieve from the collaboration is so valuable.

We’ve observed web designers, marketers and programmers enter joint ventures expecting to receive a share in profits at the end of the build, only to have ‘goal posts’ moved so regularly they exit the venture – leaving thousands of hours of unpaid labour in their wake.

Failing to understand – or formalise – expectations in a joint venture regularly leads to disappointment.

Put together a clear written agreement covering all the moving parts of your proposed joint venture, and allowing some flexibility for change as your venture grows. 

have a written Joint Venture agreement

Failing to understand – or formalise – expectations in a joint venture regularly leads to disappointment

4. How long should your joint venture last?

How long is a piece of string?

There’s no single answer to this question; the duration of your joint venture is based on the purpose of the project.

Will you be building something – a house or a piece of technology?

Are you going to be running a developing a piece of software or an education program together?

If you are building or developing something together the period of the joint venture might be the development period, and once you have a completed MVP (minimum viable product) you might roll it over into a company and start building a team to run it. 

Where you’re entering a revenue share deal, it might be a two year focused time frame for growing the base income of the business. 

Whilst you do not need to define a hard ‘end date’ to your joint venture in documentation, it’s useful for all parties to understand the purpose of the relationship, and a general timeline to completion of the project, and what completion looks like.

We regularly write in rolling successive terms, such as a one year agreement that rolls over for another year unless someone terminates before the end of the year. 

5. How can disagreements be dealt with or avoided? 

A joint venture agreement should be robust, providing options should parties fail to perform their role, or decide to walk away from the project.

In collaboration with your lawyer and with your project’s specific risks and opportunities in mind, carefully identify pressure points that require clarification and consider an approach to realistic exit should your working relationship end unexpectedly before the project is completed.

Good joint venture agreements remove the element of surprise from projects, leading to higher rates of completion and reduced conflict.

For a two party joint venture, it is a great idea to have some way of independently breaking deadlocked decisions. You could use a trusted third party as a referee, such as a mentor or board adviser. You could also allocated areas of decision making to each party that give one person a try breaking vote on those issues.

6. What if someone wants out if the joint venture early?

Build the possibility of a party leaving the joint venture into the structure of the joint venture to avoid future problems.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and a party may need to exit the joint venture for any number of reasons. Family life may be under pressure, there could be financial considerations, or health issues to address.

Fairness is key when devising a graceful exit from a joint venture. 

7. What if you want someone else to join in the venture part way through? 

Joint ventures can be created to allow for the possibility of other experts parties joining the project. Sales professionals are typically invited to join in after an MVP is achieved. 

It’s important that you’re working with a lawyer to structure your joint venture for all possible contingencies … which could  include growing your collaborative group.

8. Who will do what in your joint venture?

Formalising a joint venture is no time for pussyfooting around responsibilities or making assumptions about role workloads.

Success in your project relies on clear delegation of work, as all parties will have other responsibilities that could take their attention, in addition to the joint venture.

It’s important to know exactly who will be paying the bills and who will be responsible for particular milestones.

Having difficult conversations early on about the work or outcomes due for completion by exact parties of the venture will save plenty of strife when life gets busy or timelines become blown-out. 

9. What happens if someone fails to live up to their responsibilities in the joint venture?

As with any project, it’s possible that the whole thing could become scrambled eggs.

Of course you don’t anticipate that will be the outcome, but it’s prudent to plan for unlikely circumstances. Think about COVID-19, a virus which has changed the trajectory of the global economy in the space of months. It was nigh on impossible to imagine the world shutting down a year before the corona virus; but there it is.

People can fail to live up to the responsibilities in a joint venture for a variety of reasons, including circumstances beyond their control.

Build into your joint venture contingencies around ‘failure to perform’ and decide what the dissolution of the relationship should look like. Who gets what? What will trigger the dissolution? How will any debts be paid?

These are important matters to discuss with your collaborative partners and your lawyer.

10. Who retains any intellectual property created during the venture, once it ends?  

Often a complex matter to consider, the ownership of intellectual property is the cause of many disagreements.

If the joint venture does fail, there is likely to be an argument about intellectual property and who owns what. If you can work out IP ownership at the commencement of your joint venture, you’ll design a logical way of dealing with the matter if you fall out.

Maybe each party only walks away with what they contributed; maybe each party walks away with one complete copy of the created intellectual property.

Certainty around what will happen at the time of the exit gives everyone confidence and reduces the risk of legal action. 

11. How will the project be managed?

A joint venture teaches entrepreneurs a whole lot about project management and communication. There are many moving pieces you and your partners will need to consider:

  • planning
  • stakeholder relationships
  • reporting
  • regular meetings and agendas
  • cashflow 

While it is appropriate for different roles to be attributed, a single party needs to be appointed to ensure accountability across the whole of the joint venture. You will need someone with the energy and drive to ensure that things happen. 

Flexibility must be built into this role, and an allowance to break ‘deadlocks’ in decision making.

Many’s the time we have observed joint ventures fall apart when the directors of the governing entity failed to design a mechanism for change, independent of the warring parties. 

Joint ventures are a terrific way for business owners to collaborate, to stretch their skills, test ideas, and to innovate. A well-designed joint venture allows for the clear division of work and responsibility, provides safeguards for failure and disappointment, and deals with the sticky stuff of business relationships before they become complex.

At Onyx Legal we support business owners to come together with like-minded partners in joint ventures, creating structures that respond to your unique projects, packed with safeguards to keep you as confident and safe as possible.

Our key takeaway for joint ventures?

Think on it.

Clarity at the beginning of a project leads to better results in a joint venture, and the chance everyone will meet or exceed their expectations. 

How can Onyx Legal help you?

Joint ventures have a contractual foundation.
You can form a joint venture with a handshake, or you can put a little thought into your expectations and negotiate an agreement that clearly sets out each party’s rights and obligations, as well as exit opportunities. We also highly recommend incorporating sensible dispute resolution mechanisms that will support the joint venture moving forward. If you are already in a joint venture, we can review the contract and clarify any legal rights and obligations you don’t understand.
Pause Before You Threaten Legal Action for Stolen Intellectual Property

Pause Before You Threaten Legal Action for Stolen Intellectual Property

Pause Before You Threaten Legal Action for Stolen Intellectual Property

Stop and Pause: being too quick to assert your Intellectual Property rights could land you in hot water

Do you think that someone is using your work in an illegal way? Stop and pause before you threaten them with legal action, as accusing someone of infringing your intellectual property rights may leave you in the firing line.

Law exists in Australia to protect people from making dubious claims in relation to patents, designs, copyright and trademarks. This extends to sending cease-and-desist letters, sending circulars and advertisements.

The idea behind this legislation is to stop rights holders from misusing their position.

For example, it may be easy to scare off a competitors by having lawyers draft a cease-and-desist that the competitor cannot afford to investigate, even if your competitor has not technically infringed your intellectual property.

A 2016 case of CQMS Pty Limited v Bradken Resources Pty Limited shows that if you wrongly allege infringement, the person you complained about may bring a claim against you.

In that case, CQMS alleged that Bradken had infringed a number of their patents. Their lawyers sent out a letter of demand, setting out the basis for their claim. The letter of demand was “fairly standard” and of the kind often sent by patent attorneys. When Bradken did not comply with their request, CQMS then pursued the claim in court.

CQMS lost the case and was then counter-sued by Bradken, who asserted that they had been the victim of an “unjustified threat”. The fact that CQMS had lost the case was evidence of the “unjustified threat”. It did not matter that CQMS firmly believed that they had a good case against Bradken and were prepared to follow it through in court.

Likewise, the 2016 case of Stone & Wood Group Pty Ltd v Intellectual Property Development Corporation Pty Ltd should serve as a warning to be careful. What you may think infringes intellectual property rights may not in fact, do so.

In that case, craft beer brewers Stone & Wood had a beer called “Handcrafted Stone & Wood Pacific Ale” and they alleged that competitor craft brewers Elixir had infringed their intellectual property rights by calling their beer “Thunder Road Pacific” and “Pacific Ale”.

Unfortunately, when filing court proceedings Stone & Wood claimed for passing off and contraventions of Australian Consumer Law, but did not include a claim for trade mark infringement in their original claim. Stone & Wood only added a claim for trade mark infringement after Elixir counter-claimed for groundless threats of legal proceedings for trade mark infringement resulting from the letters between lawyers before the claim was filed.  

The court found for Elixir, and said that the reactive amendment to Stone & Wood’s claim adding trade mark infringement only after Elixir made a claim fro groundless threats, served to support Elixir’s case.

These examples should deter you from firing off “cease and desist” letters without a careful strategy.

As it has not always been clear what a groundless claim or unjustified threat could be, in 2017 the UK Parliament passed the Intellectual Property (Unjustified Threats) Act to clarify the meaning. If a reasonable person believes that a communication contains a threat of legal proceedings to protect a registered trade mark as the result of an act done, that will constitute a threat of infringement proceedings. 

That threat will not be actionable if an infringement has occurred. Letters asking a person to cease and desist infringing behaviour will not be actionable if they identify the owner’s rights and do not threaten legal proceedings. 

At this stage, reform is not proposed in Australia.

What if someone is infringing your IP?

In light of the pitfalls noted in this article, what should you do if you think that someone is infringing your intellectual property?

1. Stop and pause

Take a deep breath before firing off any emails or letters to the other party.

Do not presume that just because your competitor is using similar words, colours or phrases that they are automatically infringing your intellectual property.

Do not send any kind of “cease and desist” communication unless you are genuinely intending to proceed with, and substantiate, the claim in court. Be aware that in some cases, if you fail in court, that is enough to establish an “unjustified threat”.

2. Check it out

Check what intellectual property rights you do have. Do you have all your designs, patents and trademarks registered? Are your claims valid in the country that you are asserting them? Just because you have rights in one country, does not mean you have rights in another.

Engage a lawyer who works in the area of intellectual property you seek to protect, if you are unsure about what rights you have.

3. Play if safe

If you believe that someone is close to infringing your intellectual property, there are some things you can do. You are allowed to notify another party that intellectual property in a particular design, patent or trademark exists.

We recommend getting a lawyer to look over any correspondence you intend to send, as there are scales of what is considered a threat.

What if you receive a cease and desist letter?

1. Don’t panic

Being on the other end of a cease and desist letter can be frightening, especially if the other party is speaking about pursing a claim in court.

Remember, these letters are not a summons to court.

Take a deep breath and take time to properly assess what is being asked of you. Don’t rush to pull down all your advertising material or respond with a knee-jerk reaction.

Letters from lawyers in your country should be taken seriously, but there are a variety of options available.

2. Read the letter

Read their communication with care to find out exactly what the other party asking you to do.

Are they talking about trademarks? Copyright? Or other contractual matters? Are they asking you to remove certain material? Or are they just asking for information?

Do they want a response by a certain date? Do they want you to remove the whole part of something, or just make minor changes?

3. Speak to a lawyer about whether a valid claim exists

Intellectual property law can be complicated, with varying degrees of permitted use.

Using similar colours and phrases will not automatically infringe someone’s intellectual property rights.

4. Do nothing

Unfortunately, operating in the public arena opens you up to allowing anyone to contact you. Some people like to act aggressively with the intent to intimidate you or disrupt your business practices. In a case like that you might simply respond that you disagree with their position, or not respond at all. 

Be careful if you choose not to respond to a letter, particularly if it is from a lawyer within your country. If there is a chance you are infringing someone’s intellectual property rights then you could be at risk of further proceedings. 

If there is a chance the claim is valid – address it immediately and do not hide it at the bottom of you to-do-list in the hope that it will go away. In most cases, it usually does not!

5. Comply

After reading the letter and seeking advice, it may be that you decide to comply. This will probably be the easiest and most cost effective solution.

However, you should consider the consequences of doing so. Will you have to change your whole business strategy? Will it cost a lot to make the required changes?

How can Onyx Legal help you?

We can help you assess the risk of action you want to take in response to a threat of action claiming your infringement, or if you want to issue a letter notifying another party of their infringement. 

Once we have properly assessed your position, we can work with you to develop and appropriate strategy to move forward in the way that best suits your position.

How to Deal with Threatening Legal Letters

How to Deal with Threatening Legal Letters

How to Deal with Threatening Legal Letters

Want to know how to handle nasty legal demands?

I’m on the road in between meetings today and just thought I’d share a story with you. I was speaking to a friend earlier and they said, “Oh, that’s such a great story. More people should know it.” So I thought I’d share it with you today.

We had a client who received one of those nasty letters of demand in the mail saying, “You’re in breach of our trade mark. Hand over your domain name, hand over your website. If you don’t do it in 24 hours or seven days or something ridiculous, then we’re going to take you to court and see you for a whole bunch of money.

Now the client came to us and said, “Can you represent me in court proceedings?” I responded, “Hey, let’s stop and look at this in the moment and see if that is your only option.

Court is not the only option

When we looked at the value in the client’s business, it was not in the trade mark. This is a client who had been selling a product that they imported from the UK and the company in the UK had registered the trade mark in the UK. There was a competing company in the US and they had registered the trade mark in the US. The American company came to Australia. They registered the trade mark in Australia. They waited a couple of years and then they wrote this nasty letter to our client saying, “You’re in breach of our trademark.” Our client had been trading in Australia before they started trading in Australia.

There are a whole lot of legal, technical arguments involved. We could’ve gone to court. We could have argued prior use and all sorts of things, but court proceedings take time and cost money. So the prospect of our client going to court was just not attractive. We were looking at maybe three years, $150,000 and no guarantee of a favourable result. We would have a result one way or the other, but we couldn’t guarantee it would help our client.

Looking at the business and knowing that the revenue wasn’t in the trade mark, we spoke to the supplier in the UK. They were happy to re-brand or they were already in the process of re-branding some of their products. So they said, “Okay, what we’ll do is we will assist you in re-branding.” They registered a domain name with the new brand. They registered the new brand as a trade mark here in Australia. Our client put together a 90 day plan, or at least we helped our client put together a 90 day plan to re-brand their business and to shift everything across to the new brand.

Because it was a 90 day plan and we made some promises to the American company about the process we were going to go through, they gave us that time because 90 days is a hell of a lot better than going through court, and there are certain requirements and rules around proper negotiation and all that sort of thing and trying to reach a commercial resolution. So the American company just had to wait.

Is there a better strategy?

In that 90 days, our client shifted his entire business onto the new brand. Now the value was in his database, so through a series of communications with the database, the whole database was shifted across to the new brand.

Our client did have to spend money on re-branding and shifting that database across, but he didn’t lose any revenue and most importantly didn’t lose any business. So once that process was complete, our client had a new website up. He had the entire database marketing to them and was changing them over to the new brand. We’ve got an agreement with the American company to say that we could sell out the end of the branded supply and not stock any new supply with that trade mark.

In the end, the American company bought our client’s domain name. Now, the reason behind that was the domain name was .com which means it can be used internationally, so my client still had the right to use that domain name in jurisdictions other than where there was a registered trade mark, or where he had permission. So he could still use it in the UK where they had the mark registered or his supplier had the registered trade mark and was happy for him to use it. In order for the American company to get hold of that domain, they had to buy it.

Instead of three years and $150,000 in court with no certain result, what we did is introduced a strategy enabling our client to re-brand in 90 days, shift his business across, not lose any money, and because the domain name was bought, his legal fees were effectively halved. So great, great result for the client, and just a really good example of the fact that there are options. Our client walked away with a stronger business and a protected brand.

  • Don’t think just because you get a letter of demand that you have no choice but to go to court.
  • Don’t think that you might not have an argument because there’s a whole lot of technical issues involved in legal cases, and sometimes it’s not all against you and sometimes there’s not all in your favour.
  • There are options and it’s worth investigating what those options are before you go and get started. 

How can Onyx Legal help you?

We’re interested in strategies that support you and your business to grow and get stronger. If you receive a nasty letter of demand and want help in figuring out how to respond, contact us to help you map the way forward.

Legal letters ARE NOT your ultimate ‘weapon’! Let’s talk about dispute resolution

Legal letters ARE NOT your ultimate ‘weapon’! Let’s talk about dispute resolution

Legal letters ARE NOT your ultimate ‘weapon’! Let’s talk about dispute resolution

I’d like to talk to you about dispute resolution and why legal letters are not your ultimate weapon.

Often when you get people involved in a dispute, I’ll get phone calls from one party saying, “Can you please send a legal letter of demand to this other party, because I’m sick of this dispute and I want a result.”

Unfortunately, the most common reaction to a legal letter is to blow the whole dispute up and make it a lot worse. So what we like to do is look at the problem and what you actually want to achieve. “What is the solution that you’re after?” and let’s aim for that instead.

There are different ways of doing it, and there are all sorts of ways that you can communicate with the other party to firmly stick to the solution that you’re looking for, but to actually work toward a result.

We can help you with crafting emails, or practising conversations and strategies to achieve that result instead of making the dispute 10 times worse. Imagine what it would be like to have that nagging problem resolved and no longer consuming your energy? 

How can Onyx Legal help you?

We can certainly help you if you’d like a letter sent by us, but we’d rather help you with letters you can send with a view to bringing an end to a dispute rather than making it worse. Contact us if you’d like our help.