What Is a Cease and Desist Letter?

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DEFINITION

A cease and desist letter is a warning to its recipient that they must stop taking a certain action or actions. Legal consequences could result if they don't "cease and desist." It’s not a lawsuit in and of itself, but rather a notice that a lawsuit could result if the recipient doesn’t comply with its demands.

Key Takeaways

  • A cease and desist letter is a warning to the recipient that they're taking an action or actions that violate the legal rights of the sender.
  • A cease and desist letter isn't a lawsuit, but rather a notice that a lawsuit may be filed if the behavior or actions aren't stopped.
  • The recipient of a cease and desist letter can simply stop their behavior; can continue taking the actions that gave rise to the letter and risk a legal action; or they can file their own lawsuit contending that they haven't committed any violations.

How Does a Cease and Desist Letter Work?

A cease and desist letter makes alleged accusations. The term "alleged" means that they’re not yet proved, but the sender of the letter has reasonable cause to believe that the recipient has taken some action or actions that violate the sender’s rights. The letter instructs the recipient that they must immediately stop taking such actions or a lawsuit might be filed against them.

A successful lawsuit would legally require that the defendant stop and that they potentially pay damages. But the letter doesn't necessarily guarantee the recipient can be sued. It’s a heads-up warning that they might be.

This type of letter is commonly associated with copyright violations. An artist might have rights to a certain song they created, prohibiting anyone else from recording it without compensating the original artist/creator of the work. But a cease and desist letter can come into play with many other types of actions as well.

Examples of Cease and Desist Letters

Cease and desist letters commonly protect trademarks, copyrights, and patents, but they can also issue warnings against slander, libel, or other types of actions.

Here’s an example. Say you just rented the penthouse of your dreams. You’re a night owl, and you like your music. You might receive a cease and desist letter from your landlord if they receive complaints about your loud behavior in the wee hours. Stop with the music other than during reasonable hours or your landlord will file an eviction action against you in court.

Most trademarks—such as McDonald’s golden arches—typically are registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). This establishes a clear legal right to ownership. You might receive a cease and desist letter from McDonald’s if you install an identical version of those arches over your corner hamburger joint.

USPTO registration or an established legal copyright aren’t legally required for a trademark or other work to be legally protected.

The Federal Trade Commission issued cease and desist demand letters to 21 advertisers in late 2021, warning them to stop claiming that their products could prevent or cure COVID-19 when there was no evidence or research to support their assertions.

Cease and Desist Letter vs. Cease and Desist Order

A cease and desist letter might or might not result in a cease and desist order.

Cease and Desist Letter Cease and Desist Order 
Is issued by the wronged individual or their attorney Is issued by a court after a successful hearing or trial
Acts as a warning to stop certain actions Orders the recipient to cease the cited behavior

Requirements for a Cease and Desist Letter

The odds that a cease and desist letter will bring about the desired result and/or substantiate the case in court can depend on getting it just right. There’s no specific, legal format you must follow, but a fair bit of information should be included.

  • Information regarding the trademark, copyright, or other existing legal protection: This might include a lease that prohibits loud noises, such as in the example regarding late-night music. It would include the copyright or trademark number in other cases, as well as identifying information about the owner and what the recipient of the latter has done to violate that protection.
  • Evidence of the infringement: This might include drawings, diagrams, or other substantiation of the similarities between a protected material and the infringer’s product or actions.
  • Demand: The letter should include a clearcut demand that the behavior or action should stop, and cite a specific deadline. It should demand a written response to the allegations indicating that the behavior has or will be stopped.
  • Warning: The letter should clearly state that its issuer can and will take legal action if the behavior or violation doesn’t stop. It might also include any monetary fines or penalties that could result from a lawsuit.
  • Associated parties: Send copies to any associated individuals or companies that might potentially be brought into a subsequent lawsuit, such as a newspaper that ran an advertisement that included an image of your hamburger joint’s golden arches.

There’s typically no deadline by which the offended party must send a cease and desist letter, but an inordinate delay could weaken your case.

There’s no rule stating that the offended party must first send a cease and desist letter before filing a legal action in court. They can proceed directly to filing a complaint against the perpetrator to begin the court process of getting a cease and desist order.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can anyone write a cease and desist letter?

Cease and desist letters are usually written by attorneys who have a firm grasp of the legalities involved in a particular case. It’s not a requirement that you must hire a lawyer, however. You can write your own letter, but you might want to take the precaution of getting legal advice if the odds seem likely that the matter will end up in court and your letter will be submitted as evidence.

How much does it cost to send a cease and desist letter?

The cost of a cease and desist letter will depend on whether you want to attempt to write the letter yourself, or if you want the assistance of a legal professional. The cost of an attorney can vary depending on the typical rates in your location, as well as on the individual’s specialty and years of experience. The cost will most likely increase significantly if the issue escalates beyond just a cease and desist letter and requires that the attorney file and manage a lawsuit and appear on your behalf in court.

What happens when you get a cease and desist letter?

A cease and desist letter isn't a legally-filed lawsuit unless and until you receive and are served with a summons and complaint as well. You can respond in writing stating that you won’t stop the alleged actions and explaining why, but this will almost certainly result in a lawsuit and a judgment against you if you don't defend yourself. You might also file a lawsuit yourself seeking a declaratory judgment, asking the court to state on the record that you haven’t infringed on anyone’s rights.

Article Sources

  1. Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. “Cease and Desist Letter.”

  2.  Patent and Trademark Office. “I Received a Letter/Email...

  3. American Bar Association. “Debunking Copyright Myths.”

  4. Federal Trade Commission. “Cease and Desist Demands Show the Role Social Media Platforms Play in the Spread of Dubious COVID Claims.”

  5. American Intellectual Property Law Association. “Cease and Desist Letters: Standing Against Trademark Infringers.”

  6. National Press Photographer’s Association. “Sample Cease & Desist Letter.”