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Protecting Intellectual Property: US Customs and Gray Market Goods

Preventing the importation of merchandise that infringes on the intellectual property rights of a United States trademark or copyright owner is one of US Customs’ mandates that it takes very seriously.

Determining who is authorized to import products that have on it the design, labeling, words, or other “work” that belongs to a non-importing party can be tricky. This is because, under most licensing agreements, a party (known as the “licensee”) is only given a limited right to use the “work” of another (known as the “licensor”) on its merchandise. Limitations may include use within a particular timeframe, or on certain types of products only.

Another limitation arises from distribution rights. These provide for the sale and/or distribution of a product within a certain geographical area.

Making a determination as to who has the authority to import articles upon which a protected “work” has been used can therefore become all the more complex when you add to these facts the following additional circumstances:

The lawful production of an article in one location which is then subsequently

(a) sold, and

(b) exported to another location outside of the limited licensed-for zone.

To give you an example, this means that if I have permission to sell a good that has party “AA’s” logo on it in the European Union (EU) only, then in theory, I am precluded from selling it in another territory.

Okay, easy enough. But what if that product is lawfully sold within the EU and then that buying party decides to sell it for export to the United States?

Now we’re entering the “gray market” zone…

While preventing the importation of an outright counterfeit article (see the definition below) is a relatively easy concept to grasp, a lesser known concept, known as “gray market goods,” are another type of import that US Customs is on the look out for to intercept and prevent its importation.

A counterfeit trademark is a spurious mark that is identical with, or substantially indistinguishable from, a federally registered trademark. Merchandise imported into the United States bearing marks that are “counterfeit” of a federally registered trademark recorded with CBP shall be seized pursuant to US Customs law.

An easy way to think about the definition of a “gray market good” is to think of it as a “parallel good,” that is, it is

1) A genuine product (i.e., not a fake or counterfeit)

2) Lawfully made (typically overseas)

3) With the permission of the owner of the “work”

4) Which bears a copyright, trademark, or trade name, and

5) Is imported into the United States

6) Without the authorization of the United States trademark or copyright owner.

US Customs will protect gray market goods of only those copyrights, trademarks, and trade names that are recorded with its agency. This protective status commences from the time of recordation with US Customs of the “work.”

Where US Customs has conferred gray market protection, imported merchandise bearing the protected “work” will be detained and is subject to potential seizure, forfeiture, and of course, penalties against the importer, so you want to be sure to have all of your paper work in order to prove that you have been given permission to import products of this kind into the U.S. so that your shipments do not get held up at the border.

Have questions about this? Feel free to send me a message via the Contact form at the top of the page.



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