Intellectual property licenses continue to be significant to companies across a wide range of industries. This fact makes their treatment in business bankruptcy cases a topic of keen interest.
Can A Debtor Licensee Retain IP License Rights? When the debtor in possession is a licensee under a patent, copyright, or trademark license, a key question arises: Can the license be assumed (bankruptcy-speak for kept) or will the bankruptcy filing put the licensor in a position to force rejection of the license — resulting in the ultimate termination of the debtor’s right to use the licensed IP? A new case, discussed below, recently sided with the debtor in possession.
One Statute, Three Tests. This issue has led to a significant split of authority among bankruptcy courts and courts of appeal around the country, stemming from different interpretations of the language in Section 365(c)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code. That section provides as follows:
(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.
Some courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, have sided with the licensor and interpret Section 365(c)(1) to prohibit both assignment and assumption. Other courts, including the First Circuit, have permitted such licenses to be assumed.
- Despite the split, most courts agree that Section 365(c)(1) prohibits assignment of executory contracts without the non-debtor contracting party’s consent if "applicable law" requires such consent because that would require the non-debtor party to accept performance from a new party.
- A number of courts have held that when the "applicable law" is federal patent, copyright, or trademark law, such consent is required.
- Courts diverge, however, on whether the statute’s language should be read to prohibit a debtor in possession from assuming such executory contracts or only from assigning them.
Rather than cover that ground here, if this topic is new to you I suggest reading an earlier post entitled "Assumption Of Intellectual Property Licenses In Bankruptcy: Are Recent Cases Tilting Toward Debtors?" It discusses in detail how different courts have interpreted Section 365(c)(1), leading to the licensor-favorable "hypothetical test," the debtor-favorable "actual test," and the newer, debtor-favorable Footstar analysis.
A Word On Footstar. Before moving on to the new decision, a brief word about the Footstar case may be helpful. In In re Footstar, Inc,, 323 B.R. 566 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2005), Judge Adlai Hardin of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York took a somewhat different approach in analyzing the statute. He concluded that 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 when assumption is sought because assumption does not require the non-debtor party to accept performance from a new party other than the debtor or debtor in possession. A trustee is a new party and the statute logically provides that a trustee may not "assume or assign" such an executory contract.
A Common Scenario. How does this issue come up in Chapter 11 cases? Well, here’s a typical situation. The debtor is the licensee under a prepetition patent license. The patent licensor files a motion to compel the debtor in possession to reject the patent license agreement or alternatively to have the automatic stay lifted to permit the licensor to cancel the agreement. The licensor argues that under the "hypothetical test" interpretation of Section 365(c)(1), the debtor in possession cannot assign the license and, as a result, cannot assume the license either. With neither option open, the licensor argues, the debtor in possession should be compelled to reject the license.
The Aerobox Decision. This was the situation that recently played out in the In re Aerobox Composite Structures, LLC Chapter 11 bankruptcy case. Ruling on just such a motion by a patent licensor, on July 27, 2007, Judge Mark B. McFeeley of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Mexico issued an 11-page decision holding that the actual test, and Judge Hardin’s analysis in Footstar, was the correct interpretation of Section 365(c)(1). As such, he denied the licensor’s motion and held that the debtor in possession was not barred by Section 365(c)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code from assuming the prepetition patent license at issue in that case. The Bankruptcy Court summed up its holding as follows:
Similarly, the bankruptcy court in Footstar reasons that it makes perfect sense for the statute, which uses the term, “trustee,” to prohibit the trustee from assuming or assigning a contract, because the trustee is an “entity other than the debtor in possession” but it makes no sense to read “trustee” to mean “debtor in possession.” Footstar, 323 B.R. at 573. Doing so
would render the provision a virtual oxymoron, since mere assumption [by the debtor in possession] (without assignment) would not compel the counterparty to accept performance from or render it to “an entity other than” the debtor.
This Court agrees.
Thus, where the debtor-in-possession seeks to assume, or, as is the situation in the instant case, where the debtor-in-possession has neither sought to assume nor reject the executory contract but simply continues to operate post-petition under its terms, 11 U.S.C. § 365(c)(1) does not prohibit assumption of the contract by the debtor-in-possession and cannot operate to allow the non-debtor party to the executory contract to compel the Debtor to reject the contract. In reaching this conclusion, the Court finds that the “actual test” articulated in Cambridge Biotech, and the reasoning of the court in Footstar, is the better approach to § 365(c)(1) when determining whether a debtor-in-possession is precluded from assuming an executory contract.
Venue Still Matters. The decision is interesting because it represents another bankruptcy court, this time outside of the Southern District of New York, endorsing the analysis in the Footstar decision. That said, Judge McFeeley wrote on something of a clean slate because the Tenth Circuit has not yet taken a view on whether the hypothetical test, the actual test, or the Footstar analysis controls. As this circuit-by-circuit chart of Section 365(c)(1) decisions shows (last updated in March 2007), many other circuits have staked out a position on the issue. Absent a Supreme Court decision or new legislation resolving the circuit split, where a debtor files bankruptcy will continue to make a big difference in the relative rights of licensors and debtors over intellectual property licenses in Chapter 11 cases.