The major role intellectual property, or "IP," plays in our economy makes intellectual property licenses an especially significant type of executory contract.  Whether you are a licensor or licensee, it’s important to know what can happen to IP licenses when a bankruptcy is filed.

Licensor in bankruptcy.  A licensor in bankruptcy (or its bankruptcy trustee) has the option of assuming or rejecting a license. Generally, a debtor licensor can assume a license if it meets the same tests (cures defaults and provides adequate assurance of future performance) required to assume other executory contracts.  Many licensees will not have a problem with assumption of their license as long as the debtor can actually continue to perform. Instead, the real concern for licensees is the fear of losing their rights to the licensed IP, which often can be mission critical technology, if the license is rejected.

  • Special protections. Recognizing this concern, the Bankruptcy Code, in Section 365(n), provides licensees with special protections.  If the debtor or trustee rejects a license, under Section 365(n) a licensee can elect to retain its rights to the licensed intellectual property, including even a right to enforce an exclusivity provision. In return, the licensee must continue to make any required royalty payments. The licensee also can retain rights under any agreement supplementary to the license, which includes source code or other forms of technology escrow agreements.  Taken together, these provisions protect a licensee from being stripped of its rights to continue to use the licensed intellectual property.
  • Watch out for trademarks. While many people would expect intellectual property to include trademarks, the Bankruptcy Code has its own limited definition of "intellectual property." The bankruptcy definition includes trade secrets, patents and patent applications, copyrights, and mask works.  Importantly, however, it does not include trademarks. This distinction means that trademark licensees enjoy none of Section 365(n)’s special protections and those licensees are at risk of losing their trademark rights in a bankruptcy.

Licensee in bankruptcy.  The law is different when an IP licensee files bankruptcy.  The Bankruptcy Code, in Section 365(c)(1), contains an exception to the general rule that executory contracts can be assumed and assigned to third parties if defaults are cured and adequate assurance of future performance is demonstrated. The exception kicks in when "applicable law" precludes such an assignment absent consent of the nondebtor party. 

  • Restrictions on assignment. Case law from several United States Courts of Appeals holds that "applicable law" — here patent and copyright law (and perhaps trademark law) — in fact precludes an assignment of rights under an intellectual property license unless the IP owner has consented.  These courts have ruled that non-exclusive patent and copyright licenses are personal and nonassignable. As a result, a patent or copyright holder can prevent a debtor licensee from assuming and assigning a non-exclusive license to a third party without the licensor’s consent. 
  • License at risk. In the Ninth Circuit, which includes California, a licensor not only can stop a debtor from assigning the license to a third party, it can even prevent a debtor from keeping the license for itself.  Although the reason is technical, stemming from how the Ninth Circuit has interpreted Section 365(c)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code, the impact can be very real. For those interested, the landmark Ninth Circuit decision on this point is In re Catapult Entertainment, Inc.,165 F.3d 747 (9th Cir. 1999). 

Get advice. The interplay between bankruptcy and intellectual property law is complex.  Whether you are a licensor or licensee, you should get legal advice about your specific license agreement and the ways you may be able to protect your rights if a bankruptcy is filed.  Likewise, companies that anticipate having to file bankruptcy should pay careful attention to their IP licenses before they file.