From October 2016 to March 2017 the team is joined by Guest Kats Rosie Burbidge and Eibhlin Vardy, and by InternKats Verónica Rodríguez Arguijo, Tian Lu and Hayleigh Bosher.

Monday, 4 May 2015

A Kat visits #INTA15: Prelude

#INTA15: an artist's impression ...
The International Trademark Association (INTA) is holding its 137th Meeting in San Diego this year, deep in the sunny south of California. This event, which the organisers have dubbed #INTA15 for Twitter purposes, is the largest annual gathering of intellectual property folk on the planet and, while ostensibly the Meeting is all about trade marks, there are many people present who practise in the fields of patent, design and copyright law and who may be attending in order to meet clients whose IP portfolios span many different types of IP right, as well as legal practices in other jurisdictions with which they may exchange work or, failing that, Christmas cards. Then there are the legions of service providers for the trade mark professions and brand-based industries: IP offices at global, regional and national levels, providers of data and search services, creatives, publishers, intelligence gatherers and academics.

All in all, the annual INTA Meeting is an impressive gathering.  From the official INTA Meeting home page we learned that more than 9,820 trade mark folk have registered, from over 150 countries (the figure was later fine-tuned to 9,855).  Admittedly there are more countries now when there were in 1986 -- when the organisation that was still known as the United States Trade Mark Association, before it rebranded and went global, attracted only around 1,500 registrants to the same city and some critics objected that the event had grown too big and had lost its distinctive character.

For many people the INTA week starts as early as the Friday before it, when exhibitors arrive and early registrants case the Convention Center and measure travel times (if you arrange meetings with clients and colleagues, it's imperative to know how much time it gets from address to address -- or even from one end of a crowded Convention Center to the other). Saturday now offers numerous meetings, as well as attractions which include the annual Gala Dinner. However, the official opening ceremony [really an Opening Ceremony: INTA does like initial capitals] doesn't take place till the Sunday afternoon.

The basic message
While each year's opening ceremony is different, they have something of a formulaic flavour to them. In general terms, everyone is warmly welcomed to enjoy themselves at this year's Meeting and the co-chairs enumerate the many opportunities available for anyone who wants to work hard, play hard, do a spot of networking and enjoy the local cuisine.  Then INTA's annual "end of term report" is read out. While the details change from year to year, the overall message remains relatively constant: it's usually along the lines of "INTA did really brilliantly last year, indeed more brilliantly than we promised it would do -- and next year it will be even more brilliant".  The reasons for INTA's brilliance are then usually recited: great members, great management, great administration and great commitment from the legions of INTAers who give so generously of their time, brainpower and unstinting commitment.  The summary of these factors never ceases to please the assembled audience and no dissent is ever expressed -- possibly because everyone likes to be praised but also, more significantly, because it happens to be true.  We are then treated to rousing speeches from the President and the keynote speaker.

This year's "end of term report" was delivered by INTA's Chief Executive Officer Etienne Sanz de Acedo. Etienne reviewed INTA's various interactions with government officials, judges and other organisations over the past year as well as its recent resolutions on repeat filings of trade marks, plain packaging and parallel imports.  He also mentioned "two great conferences" that INTA had run, in New York and Toyko [this Kat may have been inattentive at this point, but neither he nor the person sitting next to him recollected there being any mention of INTA's hugely successful conference, When Trademarks Overlap With Other Rights, in Munich last December.  That event was co-chaired by INTA Board Member and fellow Kat Neil Wilkof  -- and this Kat was the keynote speaker.  It generated ten real-time Katposts, which you can check out here].

Will the President be getting
a new neighbour?
Etienne then mentioned the activities of the Presidential Task Forces set up last year on Brands and Innovation, Building Bridges and Committee Structure and Participation, all of which have made progress in achieving their respective objectives, before looking to a future in which INTA's priority had to be internationalisation: INTA, he said, must be international in substance and not just in name. It was also necessary for the organisation to interact more with officials in the United States and to achieve this by enhancing its presence in Washington DC for better communication with the White House and other federal agencies. Further priorities included addressing the needs of members with regard the internet, which now accounted for at least 50% of trade, and this would require more interaction with ICANN.  In terms of its role in this regard, INTA had to ask itself if it was speaking just for brand owners or for a wider constituency of commercial interests. Moving from the internet to a more tangible concern, Etienne pointed out that the expansion of the Panama Canal was also a factor for trade mark owners to take into account, bearing in mind that it would nearly triple the volume of goods in transit from Asia, where much of the world's capacity for the manufacture is presently located.

The President for 2015, J. Scott Evans (Adobe Systems Inc), then took the floor. He reminded the audience that INTA was first and foremost a community, that we should always keep the consumer in mind and that we should think broadly in terms of "brands" rather than narrowly in terms of "trade marks".  Why? Because while the role of the brands in our lives remains constant, the role of the consumer has changed: consumers are online, connected and share their information -- and are more prepared to trust each other's judgement concerning products on the market than to accept the manufacturer's advertisements. Peer-to-peer information exchange now rivals product labelling as a means of communicating information, and this process is accelerated by the rise of Apps which enable consumers not merely to obtain product data but to compare competing products in terms of health, mode of manufacture, ethical corporate policies and the like,

Forward-thinking brands, said the President, take positive steps to engage with the social media in order to gain consumer trust and to involve consumers in the branding process.  He cited the example of Jones Soda of Vancouver, Canada, which has been able to attract and retain consumer loyalty to the brand by involving customers in the process of selecting the random artwork featured beneath the brand name on its goods.  This might cause problems for trade mark attorneys and lawyers, but it's good for the strength and credibility of the brand in the marketplace.  The President concluded by urging those present to think holistically about brands and the role of consumers: it was necessary for in-house attorneys to adopt the role of brand ambassador in order to do this.

The opening ceremony concluded with a powerful oration by this year's keynote speaker, Walter E. Robb, co-CEO of Fortune 500 company Whole Foods Market [Whole Foods Market might sound a bit descriptive for a company that markets whole foods, but surely only a cynic would take such a churlish view.  If you are selling whole foods, you don't want to run the risk of being associated with anything as contrived and non-wholesome as an artificially created and definitely non-organic brand name, would you? Incidentally, the company also appears to own a trade mark for the slogan "America's Healthiest Grocery Store", a slogan which, Merpel thinks, is plain descriptive if true and deceptive if false ...] Walter was an impassioned and persuasive advocate of his company's ethos, its concept of "conscious capitalism", the notion that companies can have purposes just as individuals can, and that the two key tenets of a brand that grows to embrace the needs of a growing company are those of authenticity and transparency. In this context,  "Values are things you believe; they're stakes in the ground ... they're living things".

"Conscious capitalism", Walter explained, is based on four elements:
  • the business must exist for a deeper purpose than merely that of making money: it should also exist for the purpose of reflecting its core values;
  • a business should have a multiplicity of stakeholders, and should achieve a level of stakeholder integration [which this Kat takes to mean that its activities should be able to integrate what the respective stakeholders -- presumably consumers, suppliers, employees, shareholders and so on -- view as being in their best interests];
  • conscious leadership to enable the business to grow and evolve;
  • conscious culture.
In some workplaces, hugging
is more or less compulsory ...
Walter then pulled a rabbit out of the hat by bringing on-stage a young female employee who spoke glowingly and enthusiastically about her work for the company, how much sheer fun it was, how the employees where she worked were always hugging each other and giving each other high fives, and so on.  It might be his European squeamishness, but this Kat was left with an uncomfortable feeling about this part of the presentation.  While there is no doubt that the Whole Foods Market brand is a popular and successful one, and he should not wish to question the sincerity of the young lady on stage, he would never wish to place a junior employee in a position where she was required to make such statements. Moreover, all that hugging at work is the sort of activity that can all too easily cross the line of innocent camaraderie and end up as a claim for sexual harassment.

This Kat is also aware that the Wikipedia entry for Whole Foods Market lists numerous criticisms and controversies that also make uncomfortable reading.  It is inevitable that companies that espouse ethical values will attract more attention when their conduct falls short of their stated ideals than would be the case for companies that have no scruples at all, and this is no doubt something that any company that espouses the principles of conscious capitalism will want to bear in mind when monitoring its activities.

The opening ceremony was followed by an eat-and-drink-all-you-can reception, where many souls with grand appetites recharge their gastronomic batteries by sampling the many delights on offer before trooping off for their dinners [there must be something about the sea air that gives trade mark enthusiasts an appetite, thinks Merpel].  Then, on the assumption that they must have burned up many of these recently-acquired calories in digesting their intake, those same souls speed on to one of the many available receptions at which they have the chance to top up again from the bulging buffets and brimming bars so thoughtfully provided by their hosts.

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