Preserving brand integrity: Heather Foster, Fossil
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Preserving brand integrity: Heather Foster, Fossil

Heather Foster, assistant general counsel for Richardson, Texas-based Fossil, spoke to Alli Pyrah about handling a global portfolio, dealing with trademark protection in China, and tackling the misuse of brand names in social media

How long have you been with the company and what is your background?I have been with FOSSIL for seven years. Before that I was an associate at Thompson & Knight, a law firm here in Dallas. I handled trademark and licensing work, with emphasis on prosecution and transactional matters. I started here as the IP counsel, then three or four years ago I became the assistant general counsel.

What does your role entail on a daily basis?We do a lot of work on anticounterfeiting everyday, working with Customs, law enforcement and investigation companies to combat counterfeit product. I also work on clearing product names for marketing and reviewing marketing materials. For our trademarks, there’s a lot of work on managing the portfolio. We have to make sure we are covering all the brands for all our various products in all of the countries where our products are sold or are soon to be sold. We also handle enforcement matters such as oppositions and cease and desist notices.

Do you have any sound or other nontraditional marks?We do not have any sound or single color trademarks. The most nontraditional we have gotten so far are some trade dress registrations for our watch tins.

What is the one piece of advice you have for outside IP counsel and the most important quality you look for in outside counsel?When we work with outside IP counsel, the people I have found to be the most helpful and easiest to work with are the ones who understand our business. They know a little bit about retailers and consumer product manufacturing.

We are generally looking for people who have some experience with companies like ours. They may have worked with fashion companies or retailers.

What are you looking forward to most at the INTA Annual Meeting this year? Are there specific sessions you’re interested in? I am very much looking forward to meeting face to face with people I have only spoken to over the phone or via email. I am going to try to go to the Wednesday session on Doing Business in China, as we a great deal of business there and encounter many IP issues.

I am also looking forward to the session on Tuesday called Retweet, Repost and Repin: How Do Brands Get Their Message Out and whose Content Is It Anyway? I would love to hear what other companies are doing in this space. Our experience so far in this area relates to people using one of our trademarks in a username or using our logo without permission on their pages.

How do you deal with trademark infringements in social media? Does your strategy differ when dealing with members of the public, who may be unaware they are infringing, as opposed to more sophisticated commercial operations?We generally try to be a little bit less aggressive when dealing with noncommercial uses by the general public. We understand that some of these people don’t realize what they are doing isn’t proper, so it’s usually more of an “FYI letter” asking them to change. But some of the people are using Facebook or Twitter to sell products online and are aware of what they are doing and should know better, so we would be more aggressive in those situations.

How has the company’s brand strategy changed through the years?I would say one of the biggest changes that has happened over the last few years is how many more global brands we now have. When I started here, FOSSIL was really our only truly global brand. Since then, we have acquired additional brands such as WATCH STATION and SKAGEN. It’s been a challenge and definitely very interesting, especially because the marks are so different.

What changes to the trademark system would you most welcome?I would like to see additional protections in China for trademarks, especially protections for dealing with trademark pirates—people who file for famous marks that aren’t used in China yet. The Chinese system is not very helpful to brand owners in such situations.What is the single biggest challenge you face in protecting your particular brand?

I think the biggest challenge is pirates in countries where the rules are not necessarily favorable to brand owners. It’s not just China—there are other countries which have these issues. We have experienced issues in South Korea and Latin America.

In which countries do you protect your marks?We generally try to protect our marks in every country where they are in use. And then we also try to protect in countries where we plan to have use in the near future and in countries that are known to have trademark pirates, counterfeiting problems or other IP issues.

What impact do you expect the launch of new gTLDs to have on your business and how are you preparing?We are not currently planning on applying for gTLDs. I am hoping that the new gTLDs won’t negatively impact our business. It will be interesting to see if these new gTLDs are widely used or not. We are taking a wait-and-see approach on these, while trying to protect ourselves as well as we can.

Do you view the lack of harmonization in IP systems around the world as a barrier to protecting your company’s IP?Sometimes. I think anyone who does trademark work understands the challenges in trying to protect your brand under the various levels of protection.

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