Once again, a district court has faced the issue of whether a non-exclusive trademark license can be assumed by a debtor in possession. Before the November 2005 decision in In re: N.C.P. Marketing Group, Inc., 337 B.R. 230 (D.Nev. 2005), no court had directly addressed that question. The decision in the N.C.P. Marketing case, now on appeal to the Ninth Circuit, held that trademark licenses are personal and nonassignable, absent a provision in the trademark license to the contrary, and in a hypothetical test jurisdiction such as the Ninth Circuit, they cannot be assumed by the debtor in possession. For a more detailed discussion on the N.C.P. Marketing case, you may find this post of interest. For an analysis of some recent trends on the broader topic of assumption of IP licenses, try this post.

The Wellington Vision Case. Earlier this year, a second district court, this time the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, faced the same question in an appeal in the In re Wellington Vision, Inc. Chapter 11 bankruptcy case.

  • Pearle Vision sought relief from the automatic stay to terminate a franchise agreement with Wellington Vision, arguing that Wellington could not assume the agreement because it Included a non-exclusive license of Pearle Vision trademarks.
  • The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Florida granted the motion for stay relief by this two-page order, holding that the inclusion in the franchise agreement of a trademark license made the agreement, under federal trademark law, non-assignable absent consent by Pearle Vision.

Appeal To The District Court. Wellington Vision filed an appeal from the Bankruptcy Court’s decision.

  • In its opening brief, Wellington argued that (1) Pearle Vision had failed to establish that the franchise agreement included a trademark license, (2) a provision in the franchise agreement allowing for assignments on consent that cannot be unreasonably withheld meant that the parties had opted out of applicable law, and (3) Section 365(c)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code only prohibits assumption or assignment by a trustee, not by a debtor in possession, citing the Footstar case.
  • Pearle Vision argued in its answer brief that "applicable law" is the federal Lanham Act, which makes trademark licenses personal and non-assignable, and that Section 365(c)(1) creates a hypothetical test and precludes assignment or assumption of the license.
  • Wellington’s reply brief asserted that the District Court should not apply Section 365(c)(1) to debtors in possession and further that it should hold that this license was assignable by its terms.

The District Court’s Decision On Appeal. On February 20, 2007, Judge Alan S. Gold of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida affirmed the Bankruptcy Court’s decision in this 14-page decision. The District Court first held that the franchise agreement expressly included a non-exclusive license to certain Pearle Vision trademarks, making the Lanham Act the "applicable law" to be considered under Section 365(c)(1). It then held that the agreement’s provisions contemplating assignment under certain conditions did not constitute consent to any specific assignment or an "opt out" of the Lanham Act’s general restrictions on assignment, distinguishing In re Quantegy, 326 B.R. 467 (Bankr. M.D. Ala. 2005), relied on by Wellington. Finally, the District Court held that Section 365(c)(1) did apply to debtors in possession and not just to trustees, citing the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in City of Jamestown v. James Cable Partners, L.P., 27 F.3d 534 (11th Cir. 1994).

No Further Appeal Has Been Filed. Unlike the N.C.P. Marketing case, the District Court’s decision in this case will not be appealed. While the appeal was pending, the Wellington case was converted to a Chapter 7 case. Also, within the past two months litigation between Pearle, Wellington, and a guarantor of certain debt owed to Pearle was settled, resolving the issues decided by the District Court.

Trademark Owners Win Another One. Although it did not cite the N.C.P. Marketing decision, the Wellington Vision court becomes only the second district court to address the assumability of trademark licenses — and the second to hold that they are not assumable when the hypothetical test applies. This is more good news for trademark owners, who typically want as much control as possible over licenses to their marks, but bad news for debtors, who face the prospect of losing valuable trademark licenses (and franchise agreements including them) if they file bankruptcy. Stay tuned for more developments on this issue, including the Ninth Circuit’s decision in N.C.P. Marketing, which is likely still months away.

Special thanks to Warren Agin of the Tech Bankruptcy blog, whose post entitled The Descent Into Darkness Continues, first discussed the Wellington Vision case. The title of that post also gives you a sense of how many bankruptcy lawyers feel about the hypothetical test, its application to IP licenses, and its impact on debtors.