I’ve posted in the past about bankruptcy asset sales and how parties with executory contracts need to keep track of bankruptcy cases to protect their rights. Steve Jakubowski of The Bankruptcy Litigation Blog has an entertaining and informative post about a recent Court of Appeals decision involving rappers, recording companies, copyrights, and bankruptcy that raises some similar issues.

It’s a cautionary tale about the importance of monitoring bankruptcy cases and acting to protect rights when copyrights are involved. (So you don’t get complacent, the same message applies for patents, trademarks, and other intellectual property, and especially when licenses are involved.) After describing the case briefly, I discuss some points to keep in mind when IP crosses the bankruptcy court’s door.

Setting The Stage. Some background on the facts of the case will help put things in perspective.

  • Act One: In 1989, Jeffrey Thompkins, a rap artist known as JT Money, entered into an exclusive recording agreement with the debtor (a recording company). In the agreement, Thompkins sold his sound recording copyrights in various songs in exchange for the debtor’s agreement to pay royalties on the records released. (A later agreement made the debtor a half owner in the musical composition copyrights as well.)
  • Act Two: Six years later, the debtor ended up in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The copyrights were sold "free and clear" to another recording company for $800,000 as part of the debtor’s plan of reorganization, which the bankruptcy court confirmed. The recording agreement was ultimately rejected as an executory contract. Apparently, Tompkins neither objected to the sale nor defended his claim for damages after the recording agreement was rejected.

The Curtain Falls. Almost six years after the bankruptcy sale, Tompkins sued the purchaser of the copyrights in federal court, alleging copyright infringement and other claims. The district court granted the purchaser’s motion for summary judgment and the decision was affirmed on appeal. The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that even though the debtor had rejected the original recording agreement, under bankruptcy law that rejection acted only as a breach and not as a rescission of the contract. Quoting from earlier decisions, the Court of Appeals commented that rejection does not "vaporize" a debtor’s rights under a rejected contract. Here the debtor retained ownership of the copyrights transferred under the recording agreement even though it breached the obligation to pay royalties. Because the purchaser was the actual owner of the copyrights, the infringement claim failed.

Encore: Lessons For The Audience. What can intellectual property owners and debtors learn from this decision?

  • A transfer of IP under an executory contract will not be rescinded if the buyer later files bankruptcy and rejects the agreement.
  • An IP owner looking for more control over its IP should consider granting a license instead of making an outright sale subject only to a royalty obligation. In some industries this may not be a realistic alternative, but when possible it can give IP owners more control. 
  • In many jurisdictions, IP owners who have granted only non-exclusive licenses prohibiting assignment will have the equivalent of a veto right in bankruptcy over proposed assignments of the license. This is generally true for copyrights, patents, and possibly trademarks, and can have a big impact on a debtor’s ability to transfer license rights.
  • When a licensee or other debtor with rights related to IP files bankruptcy, it’s critical for IP owners to monitor the bankruptcy case and be prepared to take action to defend their rights. Among the issues that can come up: asset sales involving a sale of the IP or an assignment of license rights, breaches of license terms, and infringement issues.
  • Likewise, debtors and creditors committees need to understand what IP rights the debtor has, what consents may be required to assign or transfer those rights, and how the rights of third party licensors and other IP owners may impact asset sales and reorganization prospects.

Conclusion. The intersection between intellectual property and bankruptcy law can be complex. Whether you are an IP owner, a debtor, or a committee, getting good legal advice before and after a bankruptcy is filed can be critical in protecting your rights.