It looks like the U.S. Supreme Court, or at least two of the Justices, is interested in deciding whether the "hypothetical test" or the "actual test" should be used in determining whether an intellectual property license can be assumed by a debtor in possession under Section 365(c)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code. That was the clear message from the somewhat unusual statement by Justice Kennedy, with whom Justice Breyer joined, issued on March 23, 2009, in connection with the Supreme Court’s denial of a writ of certiorari in the N.C.P. Marketing Group, Inc. case. You can read a copy of the entire statement by following the link in the prior sentence.

The N.C.P. Marketing Case. As a refresher, in 2005, the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada issued its first of a kind decision, In re: N.C.P. Marketing Group, Inc., 337 B.R. 230 (D.Nev. 2005), holding that trademark licenses are personal and nonassignable in bankruptcy absent a provision in the trademark license to the contrary. Click here for a copy of the N.C.P Marketing Group decision and here, here, and here to read earlier posts on the case. Last May, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s judgment "for the reasons provided by that court" in an order designed as "not for publication."

Assumption And Assignment. A key basis for the District Court’s decision in the N.C.P. Marketing Group case was the way the Ninth Circuit has interpreted Section 365(c)(1), specifically on the question of whether a debtor in possession can assume an intellectual property license. 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. In the N.C.P. Marketing Group decision, the District Court held that federal trademark law under the Lanham Act was such "applicable law" and rendered non-exclusive trademark licenses nonassignable.

The Key Bankruptcy Code Section. Section 365(c)(1) is so important to this debate that 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.

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 at least three circuits have adopted the hypothetical test. The Ninth Circuit (covering California, Nevada, 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.
  • For a more complete discussion of these issues, take a look at this earlier post, entitled "Assumption of Intellectual Property Licenses in Bankruptcy: Are Recent Cases Tilting Toward Debtors?"

Justice Kennedy’s Statement. N.C.P. Marketing Group petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, seeking review of the decision denying it the ability to assume the trademark license. Although also voting to deny review, Justice Kennedy issued a three-page statement on that decision to express his view, joined in by Justice Breyer, that the Supreme Court should considering granting certiorari in a future case on the "significant question" of whether the hypothetical test or the actual test should be applied in interpreting Section 365(c)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code. Justice Kennedy summed up his analysis this way:

The division in the courts over the meaning of §365(c)(1) is an important one to resolve for Bankruptcy Courts and for businesses that seek reorganization. This petition for certiorari, however, is not the most suitable case for our resolution of the conflict. Addressing the issue here might first require us to resolve issues that may turn on the correct interpretation of antecedent questions under state law and trademark-protection principles. For those and other reasons, I reluctantly agree with the Court’s decision to deny certiorari. In a different case the Court should consider granting certiorari on this significant question.

Justice Kennedy’s discussion of the two tests suggests that he (and perhaps Justice Breyer) may be leaning toward the actual test. Although noting that the actual test "may present problems of its own," including that it aligns Section 365 "with sound bankruptcy policy only at the cost of departing from at least one interpretation of the plain text of the law," Justice Kennedy aimed most of his criticism in the statement at the hypothetical test.

  • Specifically, Justice Kennedy commented that one "arguable criticism of the hypothetical approach is that it purchases fidelity to the Bankruptcy Code’s text by sacrificing sound bankruptcy policy." He stated that the hypothetical test "may prevent debtors-in-possession from continuing to exercise their rights under nonassignable contracts, such as patent and copyright licenses." Continuing, he noted that without these licenses, "some debtors-in-possession may be unable to effect the successful reorganization that Chapter 11 was designed to promote."
  • He also remarked on what he perceived as a "windfall" to nondebtor parties to valuable executory contracts. While outside of bankruptcy the nondebtor cannot renege on its agreement, if the debtor files bankruptcy "then the nondebtor obtains the power to reclaim–and resell at the prevailing, potentially higher market rate–the rights it sold to the debtor." Although most non-exclusive licenses are not treated as a sale of intellectual property, Justice Kennedy appears to view the potential loss of IP license rights due to a bankruptcy filing as an unfair result.

Conclusion. In denying review in the N.C.P. Marketing Group case, the Supreme Court has let stand the decision of the courts below that, where the hypothetical test applies as it does in the Ninth Circuit, a non-exclusive trademark license cannot be assumed by a debtor in possession. However, given the detailed statement issued by Justice Kennedy, and joined in by Justice Breyer, it appears that the chances of the Supreme Court granting certiorari in a future IP license assumption case have increased. If such a case reaches the Supreme Court, the current split in the circuits on this important intersection between bankruptcy and intellectual property law may finally be resolved.