Episode 2: Protect your IP in Amazon stores

Lisa Desjardins, LD: You're listening to Canadian IP Voices, a podcast where we talk intellectual property with a range of professionals and stakeholders across Canada. Whether you are an entrepreneur, artist, inventor or just curious, you will learn about some of the real problems -and get real solutions- for how trademarks, patents, copyrights, industrial designs, and trade secrets work in real life. I'm Lisa Desjardins and I'm your host.

The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the individual podcasters and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Canadian Intellectual Property Office. 

Today we're talking about intellectual property and selling products online on Amazon.ca. More than 30,000 Canada-based third-party sellers have grown their business with Amazon. This comes with its own set of rules and challenges related to intellectual property such as using someone else's photo and brand. Amazon provides sellers with information about IP rights and common concerns that might arise when selling on Amazon. Today I'm joined by Mary Beth Westmoreland, Amazon's VP of Brand protection who will help us understand some of these rules and common concerns and share with us what help is available to sellers to make sure they can get off to a good start with online selling. Welcome to the podcast Mary Beth! What a pleasure to have you here all from South Carolina!

Mary Beth Westmoreland, MBW: Thank you so much Lisa for having me. Good morning it's an honor to be here.

LD: Oh thank you! Mary Beth, you're the VP of brand protection at Amazon… before you started that role, what attracted you to intellectual property - and in particular then: trademarks? And, what kind of work do you do at Amazon?

MBW: Yeah great question, thanks Lisa. Well first, helping businesses, especially small businesses secure trademark and other forms of IP protection is so important… and it's something I'm passionate about and I know that the rest of the team at Amazon is also passionate about. We see firsthand how important it is for brands to protect their IP. As you mentioned, we have 30 000 selling partners here in Canada.  Amazon has 1.9 million selling partners and so many of them are entrepreneurs and inventors and small business owners who have unique and innovative products and we want to help them protect their brands. Not just on Amazon, but everywhere… and so yes, I'm really passionate about that… and then the other thing is that I'm a former software engineer and I love tech! And using it to help protect customers, buyers, sellers, and brands; it's a really rewarding mission. You know, we protect all kinds of brands on Amazon using advanced technology like machine learning models and algorithms, that sellers and products and continuously scan our catalog at scale and in fact, we've prevented over 6 million attempts to create new selling accounts just in 2020: stopping bad actors before they ever publish a listing on an Amazon store -and we blocked more than 10 billion suspected bad listings before they were published- so back to the question: I think it was a combination of tech and brand protection that attracted me most and I just absolutely love working with such an Amazingly talented team of engineers and scientists and product leaders and designers and IP experts to bring these tools to life and protect our brands!

LD: That is an Amazing work that you do to protect your sellers and I can imagine, it's a big world out there…  if you go to Amazon and you have many, many, other sellers on that platform. So, when it comes to intellectual property and I'm new to selling things and I want to go to Amazon to sell products: what is the first thing a company would have to do in terms of getting their IP in order so to speak, to sell their products on Amazon?

MBW: Well, we have a lot of resources, Lisa, that can help businesses especially small and medium-sized businesses be successful. The first place that I would tell a seller to go is to sellercentral.Amazon.ca, which provides a detailed step-by-step guide for how to set up an account and start selling, and it's a great place to learn about programs that brands have to protect their IP, they can leverage fulfillment by Amazon, sellers can take advantage of things like brand building through things like advertising and promotion… and we also have a team of small business associates that can help and guide sellers through the process. But in terms of what a seller might need to register, and I think that that's kind of the crux of the issue is to protect their IP is, that they need to have a government-issued photo ID, they need to be able to verify their identity, their location, their taxpayer information, bank account information, credit card and more. And, you know, we use that to make sure that we allow only, you know, verified sellers into our stores. But then the seller, when they offer a branded product that might be protected by copyright or trademark or patent, they must be either the legal owner as the brand or they must be an authorized reseller… Which I mentioned before: we use to help to protect our catalog.

LD: What do you mean by authorized seller then, what is that?

MBW: Yeah they have to be an authorized reseller by the brand. They have to be authorized to be able to sell that brand's product on the store.

LD: Okay, so that's typically managed by licensing between the IP rights holder then and the reseller:  something that would be arranged then before they contact Amazon?

MBW: Typically that's how it works, but we have guides online that can help the sellers understand if they're about to leverage someone's copyright protected images, or if they're leveraging a trademark product that they need to be able to connect and get authorization from the brand before they sell. So there's… as you know, Lisa, that's a pretty complicated space… and so we, you know, we try to provide as much online collateral to help our sellers and also in person, you know, associates that can also bring them along. But, it can be a little bit of a of a complicated process we realize, and so we really try to simplify that through the enrollment process.

LD: When we talk about brands and selling your stuff online.. it's all about authenticity so that we can know who we're dealing with, and know that the goods are real. How do you meet with sellers the first time?

MBW: Yeah you're right and that is a really, really, good question! So late last year, Amazon introduced a video verification service through which we have virtual face-to-face meetings with prospective sellers.  So, the process ensures that the person who is about to register with Amazon to become a seller, that we meet with, matches all of those documents that I mentioned before that they're required to do so their face matches their government issued photo id. And the cool thing, Lisa, about this high-touch engagement is that through this process where we meet with a lot of small and medium-sized businesses and sellers, that, through this interaction we're able to not just validate that the person is who they say they are with their documentation; is that we're able to help them we're able to support them and answer any questions that they might have. They're so eager to start selling their products on Amazon and there's a lot of questions that they might have, and so through this interaction we're able to support, you know, mostly small and medium-sized brands who don't have a lot of experience selling online as well so it's a win-win for us.

LD: So, when it comes to this online material I know that Amazon has an IP policy that I could find online where you can educate sellers on IP. Could you highlight some of the most important things that you state there in the policy?

MBW: Sure and Lisa you're right: that IP policy is exactly that: it's a resource to educate sellers about IP. And quite honestly, the most important thing sellers should know is that they must comply with all laws; federal, state, and local laws, and Amazon policies that are applicable to either their products and their product listings… and really, sellers just can't violate the IP rights of brands or other rights owners. And we see a lot of you know common IP concerns that arise when selling anywhere, including Amazon, like ensuring sellers understand copyright as we talked about earlier. You know, how do they know if they own the copyright to the images that they're using on the product listing? Or trademark protection, you know, including when you need the rights owner's permission to sell a product… and when you can use someone else's trademark in the creation of a product detail page. And patent protection… how to understand if you may be infringing on someone else's industrial patent. I mean, you're an IP expert Lisa: have you seen where brands and sellers get confused about their IP rights?

LD: Yeah… it's not an easy task… and so I think… I thank you for joining the IP community in terms of trying to get the word out there and having people understand how important that is. Because when obviously if something goes wrong, you could be held liable. Which brings me into another question: is there anything in particular that could hit someone who is wanting to sell their product on Amazon and they haven't thought about?

MBW: There can be some complex questions related to copyright, trademark, and industrial patent protection… I mean for example, sellers simply may not know if the goods are selling violate a copyright as an example. And that's why we've developed that IP policy that you asked about before… and it does include a detailed step-by-step guide to better understand those potential hurdles. But in Canada also we know, and I'm sure that you know more about this than I do, that there are some time and cost barriers related to securing IP protection which as we know is so important for brands.

LD: I'll get to that shortly because I know that you have some pretty good programs to help sellers get organized… but I have to ask you the million dollar question: when there are companies that are deliberately infringing someone else's IP rights… so; using something that belongs to someone else, and Amazon detects it.. what happens?

MBW: Well it really all depends on the specifics, Lisa. I mean it's difficult to give you a single answer and I couldn't give you a single answer that is going to hit every single use case. Because to your point: we have sellers who are new and are not sure if they are violating a copyright, or a patent, or a trademark… and, you know, we need to really be able to understand them, and coach them, and provide support to them and so, you know, that might come in the form of a warning where we warn them about the fact that they're using someone else's IP and that they need to, you know, either get permission or, you know, pull down that listing. And we help them with that of course: we suppress those listings proactively and so, that's the first thing… But then there's also bad actors: you know, sellers who are intentionally selling for example counterfeit on our sites and so, we need to understand that. And there are definite risk signals that can help us associate a bad actor with behavior on our catalogue. And so, in that case we're going to take direct immediate action: we're going to suppress the listing, we're going to suspend their account, we might suspend funds, right…. Those are the times where, you know, we are going to take immediate and direct action. And the effect on customers, right that's what we're really like "laser focused on"… is our goal is to ensure that customers never see an infringing listing, right? And that's why we build all of these tools… all these high-tech tools, so that we can help brand owners use these tools to protect their IP and work with us and hold bad actors accountable.

LD: You mentioned bad actors… how can you hold them accountable to their actions?

MBW: That is so important and in terms of being able to stop repeat infringers and, you know, our goal is not just to take chase a counterfeiter off of an Amazon store; it's to chase them off of everything stop them completely… and so, in fact in 2020 we launched our counterfeit crimes unit to build and refer cases to law enforcement. This is a group of former federal prosecutors, IP attorneys, investigators… it's global and our goal is to work very closely with law enforcement to support them and encourage them to go after these criminals, these counterfeiters and then also, where we need to, be able to bring civil litigation suits against them as well. We want to stop them and it's a really great program. We undertake independent investigations or joint investigations with brands, and we pursue civil litigation against counterfeiters.. I mean, we've filed lawsuits with small businesses like Dutch Blitz: they're a card game manufacturer from Pennsylvania here in the U.S. They wouldn't have the wherewithal potentially or the resources to go after bad actors by themselves, but together we do that. We've also worked with global luxury brands like Ferragamo to co-litigate and to bring these bad actors to justice.

LD: Wow… I think it's very, very, important policies and tools that you have over at Amazon to actually in the long term help increase the value of IP in general in any marketplace…. So, that's just spectacular to hear how Amazon is working with these kinds of things. And I know that you recently launched the IP Accelerator program: when we were talking about delays… this is a program to help small businesses with IP. What does this program do?

MBW: Yeah Lisa, thanks for asking because we are so excited about this program and we just recently brought IP Accelerator to Canada just a couple of weeks ago. And so, you know, many of the small businesses that sell on our store they told us… we mentioned before that the process of filing for IP protection like registering a trademark it can be daunting and overwhelming and time-consuming and so in a lot of cases then especially small and medium-sized businesses they might actually not do it! Which is, you know, leaving them very vulnerable -not just on Amazon, but everywhere. And so we designed IP Accelerator specifically with the Small and Medium size Businesses in mind, making it easier for them to protect their IP. And so, we connect Canadian entrepreneurs that sell in our stores with a list, a curated network, of eight law firms that specialize in IP protection. And we vetted these firms for their experience, their expertise in IP protection, customer service and they've agreed to a reduced rate for this service. And we provide SMBs with early access to Amazon's brand protection tools as well when they start working through IP Accelerator. And to give you some background: IP Accelerator was launched in the U.S. in 2019 and we've expanded it to Europe, Japan, India and now Canada and since the launch, we've helped protect over 6 000 brands: 6 000 trademark applications have been have been submitted through this process. And so, we're really excited about them being able to protect their IP -not just on Amazon, but everywhere.

LD: That's Amazing. I can see why Amazon is rolling out this program across many different countries.  Mary Beth, where would you go if you are interested in selling your goods on Amazon; where is the first place to start?

MBW: Yeah I would go right to sellercentral.Amazon.ca. We've designed that site Lisa to really help especially the small and medium-sized businesses that are eager to sell their products for the first time on Amazon, but might not have a lot of experience with online retail and so there, they could find great resources about IP protection, about how to enlist, what information they'll need, and there'll also be a network of support folks who can also provide assistance to them, should they need it.

LD: That's great! Thank you so much Mary Beth for contributing to the IP community and to Canadian IP voices today, thank you!

MBW: Thank you, Lisa. Thanks for having me.

LD: Thank you

You've listened to Canadian IP voices where we explore intellectual property. In this episode you met with Mary Beth Westmoreland who works at Amazon as their VP of Brand Protection. Mary Beth explained some of the common IP issues that new sellers might face when selling on Amazon as well as what programs and systems are in place to help sellers on Amazon use IP more effectively. To become an Amazon seller visit sellercentral.Amazon.ca to learn how that works,  and visit brandservices.Amazon.ca/ipaccelerator to learn how to protect your intellectual property on Amazon.