Terre Haute, Indiana — Copyright lawyers for Riders Choice, LLC d/b/a Show and Tell Saddle Blankets (“Riders Choice”) and Loni Rhodes (“Rhodes”; collectively,”Plaintiffs”) of Center Point, Indiana sued for declaratory relief over allegations of copyright infringement made by Lori Heckaman (“Heckaman”) d/b/a Golden West Saddle Blankets (“Golden West” or “Defendant”) of Gainesville, Texas.
Riders Choice, sometimes operating as “Show and Tell Saddle Blankets,” makes and sells products related to horseback riding, including hand-woven saddle blankets with colorful geometric designs. Rhodes owns Riders Choice. Heckaman, doing business as Golden West Saddle Blankets, also makes and sells products related to horseback riding, including blankets with colorful geometric designs.
Intellectual property counsel for Heckaman sent two cease-and-desist letters to Rhodes and Riders Choice, the first on June 14, 2013 and the second on July 2, 2013. The first cease-and-desist letter asserted that the designs on Heckaman’s blankets were copyrighted and alleged against Rhodes and Riders Choice claims for copyright infringement based on Rhodes’s and/or Riders Choice’s manufacture, marketing and sale of its own blankets. The second cease-and-desist letter made similar allegations. Claims were also made against Rhodes and Riders Choice for business interference, unfair competition and misappropriation of trade secrets based on Rhodes’s and/or Riders Choice’s marketing of Riders Choice’s blankets and alleged copying of Golden West’s weaving and design methods.
Both cease-and-desist letters threatened Rhodes and/or Riders Choice with imminent litigation if Rhodes and/or Riders Choice did not comply with Defendant’s demands, the first by writing “we will have no choice but to advise our client to protect her interests by instituting a suit in a court of competent jurisdiction,” and the second by writing that although “Golden West prefers to resolve this matter without the necessity of court intervention, all necessary action will be taken if a voluntary agreement cannot be reached.” Both cease-and-desist letters demanded that Rhodes and/or Riders Choice stop marketing, selling and producing its blankets. Further, a July 3, 2013 e-mail threatened Rhodes and Riders Choice with imminent litigation by writing that if Rhodes and/or Riders Choice did not “refrain from promoting, marketing, producing, and selling saddle blankets,” Heckaman would have “no choice but to seek available remedies.”
In response, copyright lawyers for Riders Choice filed a complaint under the Declaratory Judgment Act. In the complaint, Plaintiffs assert that blankets with similar designs are widely produced and sold by third parties, that they did not believe that Heckaman had registered any of her designs with the U.S. copyright office, that the blankets Riders Choice sells are original works designed by Rhodes and that every blanket Riders Choice sells is unique in that no two blankets are sold with an identical pattern. They further asserted that Rhodes learned these methods from books and other publicly available materials unaffiliated with Heckaman and that Rhodes had never copied Defendant’s designs.
In the complaint, Plaintiffs ask for judgments of:
· Count I — No Copyright Infringement
· Count II — No Business Interference
· Count III — No Unfair Competition
· Count IV — No Misappropriation of Trade Secrets
Plaintiffs request that the court: (a) declare that Rhodes’s and Riders Choice’s blankets did not in the past and do not now infringe any of Defendant’s valid copyrights; (b) declare that Rhodes and Riders Choice did not commit in the past and are not now engaged in business interference against Defendant based on the sale, marketing or production of blankets; (c) declare that Rhodes and Riders Choice did not commit in the past and are not now engaged in unfair competition against Defendant based on the sale, marketing or production of blankets; (d) declare that Rhodes and Riders Choice did not commit in the past and are not now engaged in the misappropriation of trade secrets from Defendant based on the sale, marketing or production of blankets; (e) award to Plaintiffs their costs and attorneys’ fees.
As with a patentee who believes that his or her patent is being infringed, holders of copyrighted materials often will send a “cease-and-desist letter” — a letter demanding that the purported infringer cease infringing. To aid in convincing the accused infringer to meet its demands, the holder of the intellectual property may be tempted to use language such as plans of “instituting a suit” and seeking “court intervention,” as Defendant did here.
As this case demonstrates, this strategy may backfire. By using such language, the Defendant can create an “actual controversy” for purposes of the Declaratory Judgment Act. Thus, the party alleging infringement (the natural plaintiff in an infringement suit) may instead find itself being sued by the alleged infringer (the natural defendant), often in a jurisdiction that would not have been the first choice of the owner of the intellectual property.
One approach that may have yielded better results for Golden West might have been to approach the accused infringer with an offer to license the purportedly protected intellectual property. With carefully crafted language, such a proposal might have served to put Riders Choice on notice of Golden West’s belief that infringement was occurring without going so far as to create an “actual controversy” sufficient to support a lawsuit under the Declaratory Judgment Act.
This case has been assigned to Judge William T. Lawrence and Magistrate Judge Mark J. Dinsmore in the United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana, Terre Haute Division, and assigned Case No. 2:13-cv-00260-WTL-MJD.