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Stephen Lee
Stephen Lee

In-House Counsel 2020: Stephen Lee

Last December, Stephen Lee, assistant general counsel for intellectual property at Target Corp., went to Washington, D.C., and testified in front of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee for Intellectual Property about the flood of fraudulent foreign trademarks into the U.S. trademark application system.

Lee was invited to testify because of the work that he and his team did to uncover the extent of the problem. In the last 18 months, Target introduced 30 plus new owned brands. Typically, brand development takes 12 to 18 months, but they were completing the brand development process in one-third of the time.

The ability to secure trademarks quickly was critical. But Lee’s team discovered that fraudulent trademarks were effectively blocking their efforts. In 2018, Target was the leading filer of trademarks, but the fraud is so pervasive that in 2019, Target was supplanted by a foreign company that filed 635 bogus brands in one month alone.

Lee said that the fraudulent marks make an IP attorney’s work like walking through a minefield. “We’re running up against these things in every trademark search we do,” he said. “Where it is a problem for Target, it could be devastating for a smaller business. We took up this issue in part for Target, but in part for the whole industry.”

For Lee, who joined Target 17 years ago as a copyright and design attorney and grew to lead a 20-person IP team that he built, appearing before the Senate was a career-capping moment. “To think I’m not just complying with the law, I have the opportunity to help shape the law and advocate and remedy a massive fraud that is going on in the system,” said Lee.

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