Many technology companies are based in Israel and license intellectual property to companies in the United States and around the world. This raises an interesting question: what happens if the Israeli company, as licensor, goes into bankruptcy or liquidation in Israel? The latest edition of Cross Border Commentary, a publication by the International Business Practice of my firm, Cooley Godward Kronish LLP, has just addressed that very question.
The U.S. Law Answer. Before turning to Israeli law, let’s look at how this issue plays out under the United States Bankruptcy Code. A licensor in bankruptcy or its bankruptcy trustee has the option of assuming (keeping) or rejecting (breaching) 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 United States 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.
For more on these subjects, you may find these earlier posts, "Intellectual Property Licenses: What Happens In Bankruptcy?" and "Trademark Licensor In Bankruptcy: Special Risk For Licensees" of interest.
The Israeli Perspective. An article in Cooley’s Cross Border Commentary, prepared by Einat Meisel of the Israeli law firm of Gross, Kleinhendler, Hodak, Berkman and Co., discusses a Tel-Aviv District Court decision involving these issues. When an Israeli company known as Commodio Ltd. entered liquidation, two of its intellectual property licensees sought to retain rights under their license agreements with Commodio. In ruling on the effort, the Israeli court made several important holdings:
- The licensees could gain access to the underlying source code behind the object code covered by their licenses provided this did not impose substantial expense on the company in liquidation.
- No transfer of ownership in the IP could occur due to the liquidation, as this would be contrary to Israeli bankruptcy law.
- A right of first refusal covering certain of the intellectual property would be enforceable in the bankruptcy.
Comparison To A U.S. Bankruptcy. With a few key differences, the outcome in the Commodio case is similar to the treatment under U.S. law. Under Section 365(n)’s provisions, licensees would have the ability to retain their rights to the IP, with any royalty payments being made to the bankruptcy estate. If an agreement contained a source code license, the licensees could also access the source code under Section 365(n). However, absent a license grant to the source code, the outcome would likely be different in a U.S. bankruptcy. Provisions purporting to transfer ownership of the IP upon a bankruptcy or liquidation would not be enforceable in a U.S. bankruptcy. Finally, the right of first refusal enforced in the Israeli case might not be enforced in a U.S. bankruptcy if the agreement were rejected but could if the license were assumed.
Get Advice. Licensing intellectual property from a foreign corporation raises a number of issues, including what happens if the foreign licensor goes bankrupt or becomes insolvent. Potential licensees should be sure to get expert advice on the applicable foreign law, including the implications of bankruptcy, when licensing IP from a foreign company. Although licensees from Israeli companies can find some comfort in the Commodio decision, it remains important to get advice on Israeli law specific to your situation.