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Suffolk legal clinic offers a lifeline for start-ups

Li-Wei Chih owns a website, MonsterFishKeepers.com, where enthusiasts of exotic fish gather to trade information about their aquatic hobbies and passions. All was going swimmingly until the energy drink maker Monster Beverage Corp. accused Chih of trademark infringement for using the word “monster” on apparel items.

Suddenly, Chih’s one-man operation was facing legal bills that could approach $100,000 and the possibility of going out of business. Then Chih found the Suffolk University School of Law, where students and supervising faculty offer entrepreneurs free legal help in intellectual property cases, from fending off trademark complaints to helping file for patent rights.

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“It’s been a blessing,” said Chih, 36, of Maryland.

Chih is among 25 clients now represented through Suffolk Law’s nine-month-old Intellectual Property, or IP, Clinic. Suffolk’s clients include start-ups developing apps for mobile devices, film companies seeking copyright permission for photos used in documentaries, a dance company looking to trademark choreography, and other small business owners and entrepreneurs who can’t afford the often large legal bills associated with intellectual-property issues.

The intent of the clinic — certified under a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rule that allows students to practice law under the supervision of law school faculty — is to provide Suffolk students with real-life cases and clients grappling with intellectual property matters. The seven students in Suffolk’s IP Clinic help draft trademark filings, technology licensing contracts, employment agreements, and other legal documents, in addition to providing legal research and other services for clients.

The clinic also aims to meet a growing demand by companies for assistance in increasingly thorny and contentious intellectual property disputes.

“We’re like a mini law firm,” said Eve Brown, a Suffolk law professor who helped establish the school’s IP Clinic last June.

Driven by increasing global competition and the growing economic value of intellectual property assets, companies have become particularly aggressive in acquiring, protecting, and asserting their rights. The competition for intellectual property assets has become so fierce that last year Google Inc. purchased Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion, in part to obtain Motorola’s trove of patents for mobile devices.

One result of this competition has been an explosion in patent filings and grants: The number of patents issued each year by the Patent and Trademark Office has more than doubled since 1992, according to the latest statistics available. Another result: an explosion of litigation.

The epic patent battle now underway between Apple Inc. and its Korean rival Samsung Electronics Corp. is just one example. In Massachusetts, American Superconductor Corp. of Devens, which does business as AMSC, is fighting in Chinese courts over the alleged theft of its wind turbine control technology.

Start-ups and small companies, such as Chih’s MonsterFishKeepers.com, must often fight off intellectual property actions brought by much larger competitors. In 2004, for example, a Lexington firm, Geek Housecalls Inc., was sued by retailing giant Best Buy Co., which charged the local home computer support firm infringed on its trademarked Geek Squad unit. The case was settled out of court.

While several local law schools offer student clinics covering a wide range of legal fields, Suffolk has the only one specifically aimed at the general intellectual property field, offering its services to any type of business enterprise, not just technology and life-sciences firms, said Brown, the Suffolk law professor.

“It’s definitely been a learning experience, dealing with actual clients on a daily basis,” said Dan Duval, 28, a student member of the IP Clinic who plans to graduate this May.

One of the IP Clinic’s clients is Remy Carpinito, 21, a Suffolk University senior who recently launched Smart Campus LLC, a developer of a social media platform for students and faculty members to communicate and collaborate on their studies and research.

The IP Clinic helped Carpinito trademark his company’s name and a product brand name, and draft an employment contract with a Silicon Valley software developer who’s getting equity in the company. The clinic also referred Carpinito’s company to a local lawyer to assist in ongoing negotiations with potential investors.

“It’s been such a huge help,” said Carpinito. “I didn’t know how to handle a lot of these things. You get to just call them up at the clinic, and they respond quickly with answers to your questions.”

If Carpinito’s Smart Campus LLC is an example of how the IP Clinic helps firms avert showdowns, Li-Wei Chih’s trademark dispute with Monster Beverage is an example of how it can jump into the middle of legal fight.

Founded in 2005, Chih’s company, Monster Aquaria LLC, had trademarked the MonsterFishKeepers brand name and a logo for his Internet forum. But in late 2011, Chih’s online business started selling T-shirts and other items — a move that prompted him to file for separate trademark under a different legal classification for apparel products.

Last year, Monster Beverage, a California company considered aggressive in challenging potential trademark infringements, sent Chih a cease-and-desist letter, arguing Chih’s company logo (an “M” with devil horns and tail) and MonsterFishKeepers brand name infringed on its own trademark, according to filings.

Monster Beverage’s lawyer declined to comment. Its executives didn’t return phone calls.

Chih said he initially tried to fight Monster Beverage on his own but soon realized he needed help. Hearing about Suffolk’s IP Clinic through friends, he contacted Suffolk last summer — and the clinic has been representing him ever since, for free.

Unless there’s a settlement, the case could be decided by the Patent and Trademark Office, perhaps later this year.

Chih, who says the word “monster” is commonly used to describe exotic predatory fish, insists he’s going to battle until the end – with the help of the Suffolk Law School IP Clinic.

“I feel so strongly, I’m willing to fight as long as it takes,” he said.

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