Executory contracts present a host of interesting issues in bankruptcy cases. This is especially true when the executory contract involves a license of intellectual property (or "IP"). In the past I’ve devoted several posts to the topic, including how IP licenses are treated in bankruptcy and the unique issues presented when a trademark licensee or trademark licensor files bankruptcy. 

In this post, I’ll drill down a bit deeper into the question of how courts have analyzed whether a Chapter 11 debtor can assume or assign an IP license to a third party over the IP licensor’s objection. If you’re new to the topic, be forewarned: the courts are all over the map on the issue. For those who’d like a scorecard, you’ll find a link to a circuit-by-circuit chart in the "Where Does Your Court Stand?" section toward the end of this post.

Assumption And Assignment. In bankruptcy parlance, assumption means that the debtor gets to keep the license. Usually, debtors are allowed to exercise their business judgment when deciding whether to assume or reject (read: breach and stop performing) an executory contract, as well as to assume and assign one to a third party. However, Section 365(c)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code puts a limit on a debtor’s ability to assign executory contracts, and perhaps even to assume them, when "applicable law" gives the non-debtor party to the contract the right to refuse to deal with someone else.

The Key Bankruptcy Code Section. Since Section 365(c)(1) is so important to this debate, it bears careful review. Here’s what it says:

(c) The trustee may not assume or assign any executory contract or unexpired lease of the debtor, whether or not such contract or lease prohibits or restricts assignment of rights or delegation of duties, if—

(1)(A) applicable law excuses a party, other than the debtor, to such contract or lease from accepting performance from or rendering performance to an entity other than the debtor or the debtor in possession, whether or not such contract or lease prohibits or restricts assignment of rights or delegation of duties; and

(B) such party does not consent to such assumption or assignment.

What’s "Applicable Law?" Collectively, a number of courts have interpreted the phrase "applicable law" to mean patent, copyright, and trademark law, holding that these federal intellectual property laws excuse a non-debtor party to an IP license from accepting performance from or rendering performance to an entity other than the debtor in bankruptcy. As a result, these courts have held that an IP licensor who does not consent can successfully block a debtor from assigning a patent, copyright, or trademark license to a third party during a bankruptcy case. This rule applies with greatest force to non-exclusive IP licenses but may also apply to certain exclusive licenses too. For more on this subject, read Professor Menell’s article on the bankruptcy treatment of IP assets, which I discussed last month.

What Constitutes Consent? Consent to assumption or assignment of an IP license can come in three ways. First, the licensor can affirmatively consent in writing after a bankruptcy case has been filed. Second, a licensor that fails to object after a motion has been filed seeking to assume, or to assume and assign, a license agreement will likely be deemed to have consented. Third, a number of license agreements expressly permit assignment under certain circumstances and many, but not all, courts will treat such provisions as providing the consent required under Section 365(c)(1)(B). A provision sometimes found in license agreements allows assignment in conjunction with a sale of all or substantially all of the assets of the licensee. Warren Agin of the Tech Bankruptcy blog wrote about a recent Massachusetts case (in which I represented the buyer) enforcing a similar provision.

Hypothetical Versus Actual Test. If a debtor cannot assign an IP license without consent of the licensor, can it at least assume the license? That question has led courts to examine ever so closely the first seven words of Section 365(c): "The trustee may not assume or assign…" 

  • When the statute says that the trustee may not assume or assign an IP license, does the word "or" really mean "and" too?
  • Put differently, what happens when a debtor is only trying to assume (keep) an IP license and is not actually trying to assign it? Does the Bankruptcy Code language mean that it can neither assume nor assign the license or does it only mean that the debtor cannot assign the license?
  • That, in a nutshell, is the difference between the so-called "hypothetical test" (which reads Section 365(c)(1)’s language as asking whether the debtor hypothetically could assign the license even if it’s only proposing to assume it) and the "actual test" (which interprets the statute’s language as asking only what the debtor is actually proposing to do).
  • The U.S. Courts of Appeals for three circuits have adopted the hypothetical test. The Ninth Circuit (covering California, Arizona, and a number of other Western states), the Third Circuit (which includes Delaware, the venue of many Chapter 11 cases), and the Fourth Circuit (covering Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and North and South Carolina), have held that Section 365(c)(1) gives most IP licensors a veto right over proposals by a Chapter 11 debtor to assign — and even to assume — IP licenses.
  • The leading hypothetical test decision is from the Ninth Circuit in In re Catapult Entertainment, Inc.,165 F.3d 747 (9th Cir. 1999). In Catapult, the court built on an earlier decision holding that a non-exclusive patent license could not be assigned without the patent holder’s consent and, adopting the hypothetical test, held that such a patent license also could not be assumed over the patent holder’s objection.
  • Leading the charge for the actual test is the First Circuit’s decision in Institut Pasteur, et al. v. Cambridge Biotech Corporation, 104 F.3d 489 (1st Cir. 1997). That circuit includes Massachusetts, among other states.

A Third Test From New York. Despite this predominantly licensor-favorable backdrop, in several recent decisions courts have sided with Chapter 11 debtors. This emerging trend is noteworthy because two of those decisions come from the Southern District of New York. That’s where many of the largest Chapter 11 bankruptcy cases tend to be filed, such as Enron, WorldCom, Delphi Corporation, Dana Corporation, Northwest Airlines, and Delta Airlines, to name a few, making it perhaps the most important bankruptcy court in the country.

The New York Cases: Footstar And Adelphia. In a 2005 decision in In re Footstar, Inc., 323 B.R. 566 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2005), the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York broke new ground. Although it did not involve intellectual property licenses, the case put Section 365(c)(1)’s language front and center and came up with a third way of analyzing this critical section. Judge Adlai Hardin adopted a new "literal" reading of section 365(c)(1), one that he found was "entirely harmonious with both the objective sought to be obtained in Section 365(c)(1) and the overall objectives of the Bankruptcy Code, without construing ‘or’ to mean ‘and.’" His approach? Section 365(c)(1)’s use of the word "trustee" does not (as other courts had taken for granted) include the debtor or debtor in possession. As such, the right of the non-debtor party to object to assignment does not by itself affect the right of the debtor in possession (as opposed to a trustee) to assume an executory contract.

In January 2007, Judge Robert Gerber, also of the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, faced the same issue in the Adelphia Communications Chapter 11 case. In his decision on the Section 365(c)(1) issue, Judge Gerber expressly rejected the cases following the "hypothetical" test as "incorrectly decided," and instead embraced Judge Hardin’s Footstar decision, describing it as "consistent in outcome with the decisions of" those courts following the "actual" theory. In a footnote, Judge Gerber stated: "[W]here there is no Second Circuit authority, [the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York] follows the decisions of other bankruptcy judges in this district in the absence of clear error. But to say that the Footstar decisions should be followed under that standard would be faint praise here. In this Court’s view, Judge Hardin’s analysis in those decisions was plainly correct." This suggests that other judges in the Southern District of New York may follow suit, at least unless the Second Circuit were to rule otherwise.

For a detailed analysis of the Footstar decision, be sure to read the article by Cooley Godward Kronish partners Jay Indyke and Richard Kanowitz, and associate Brent Weisenberg, who were directly involved in the case, which appears in the April 2007 issue of the Journal of Bankruptcy Law and Practice. It’s called “Ending the Hypothetical’ vs.‘Actual’ Test Debate: A New Way to Read Section 365(c)(1),” 16 J. BANKR. L. & PRAC. 2 Art. 2 (2007).

Another Circuit Follows The Actual Test. The Fifth Circuit (covering Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi) also jumped into the fray, albeit interpreting a different but related section, Section 365(e), with its February 2006 decision in Bonneville Power Administration v. Mirant Corp., 440 F.3d 238 (5th Cir. 2006). Upon the Chapter 11 bankruptcy of Mirant Corporation, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) attempted to terminate its executory contract with Mirant based on an ipso facto clause, a provision that makes a bankruptcy filing a breach of contract. While these provisions generally are not enforced, the BPA relied on Section 365(e)(2)(A), which closely mirrors the language of Section 365(c)(1)(A), and argued that it could terminate the contract because applicable law — the federal Anti-Assignment Act, 41 U.S.C. Section 15 — excused it from accepting performance from or rendering performance to an entity other than the debtor or debtor in possession. After a lengthy analysis, the Fifth Circuit joined the First Circuit (rejecting the position of the Third, Fourth and Ninth Circuits) and expressly adopted the "actual" test. The Fifth Circuit held that the ipso facto clause was null and void under Section 365(e)(1) because Mirant, the debtor in possession, was not actually planning to assign the contract. For a more detailed discussion of the case, be sure to check out Steve Jakubowski’s excellent post over at the Bankruptcy Litigation Blog.

Where Does Your Court Stand? With courts coming out on different sides of the hypothetical versus actual test issue, and with the Footstar and Adelphia courts advancing yet another view of Section 365(c)(1), you might be looking for a chart to keep up with all the decisions. Well, as part of a presentation I made last month to the Commercial Law and Bankruptcy Section of the Bar Association of San Francisco (and with a big assist from Brian Byun, an associate in the Bankruptcy & Restructuring Group at my firm who also contributed to this blog post), we put together just such a circuit-by-circuit chart of the various decisions. You may find this circuit map useful when reviewing the chart. 

How Often Does This Come Up? The answer is frequently. Most corporate debtors have critical in-licenses of intellectual property and either need to assume them or, as part of a Section 363 asset sale, assume and assign them to the buyer. IP licensors are understandably protective of their intellectual property. Still, even when they have the right to object to assumption or assignments, in my experience many IP licensors will agree to allow debtors to assume, and sometimes even to assign to a buyer, important licenses. There may be an added cost, either in the form of a fee or the imposition of conditions to protect the licensor’s rights. That said, not all licensors will consent to assumption or assignment. In hypothetical test jurisdictions, debtor licensees may end up losing their license rights.

Location, Location, Location. This phrase is most often associated with real estate, but it could just as well apply to the venue of a bankruptcy case when assumption of an IP license is at issue. A debtor’s ability to assume an IP license over the objection of the licensor can be radically different depending upon where the bankruptcy case is pending. Perhaps the developing circuit split over Section 365(c)(1) will lead the U.S. Supreme Court to agree to take up the issue. Until that happens, or Congress amends the law, what a debtor can do with its IP licenses will continue to depend, in no small part, on where it files bankruptcy.