Many companies rely on in-bound licenses of intellectual property, especially those involving patents or trade secrets, and spend millions of dollars on research, development, and ultimately commercialization of drugs or products incorporating the licensed IP. With so much at stake, licensees frequently ask a critical question: Can our license rights be terminated if the licensor files bankruptcy?

Assumption Or Rejection. A license is typically held to be an executory contract. This means that a licensor in bankruptcy (or its bankruptcy trustee) has the option of assuming or rejecting the 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.  Most licensees will not object to the assumption of their license as long as the debtor can actually continue to perform. Instead, the real concern for licensees is whether they risk losing their rights to the licensed IP if the license is rejected.

Bankruptcy Code Section 365(n). To address this concern, in 1988 Congress added Section 365(n) to the Bankruptcy Code to give licensees 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 a right to enforce an exclusivity provision. In return, the licensee must continue to make any required royalty payment. The licensee also can retain rights under any agreement supplementary to the license, which should include 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.

Some Important Limitations. If the license is rejected, however, the licensor will no longer have to perform under the license. This means the licensor will not have to update or continue to develop the IP, and will not have to make available any updates later developed. In addition, Section 365(n) only applies in a U.S. bankruptcy case. It generally will not be of any help in a bankruptcy or insolvency of a non-U.S. licensor under applicable foreign law.

No Protection For Trademark Licensees. Many people expect intellectual property to include trademarks, but when Section 365(n) was enacted a special, limited definition of "intellectual property" was also added to the Bankruptcy Code. The bankruptcy definition includes trade secrets, U.S. patents and patent applications (less clear as to foreign patents), copyrights, and mask works, but it does not include trademarks. This distinction means that a trademark licensee enjoys none of Section 365(n)’s special protections and is at risk of losing its trademark license rights if the licensor files bankruptcy. For more on the special bankruptcy risk facing trademark licensees, follow the link in this sentence.

Getting The Most Out Of Section 365(n). Although Section 365(n) gives licensees significant comfort within limits, there are a number of approaches a licensee can take to maximize the statute’s benefits while avoiding its pitfalls. Here are a few to consider:

  • Make sure you actually have a granted license. Section 365(n) only applies to actual license rights as they existed at the time the bankruptcy case was commenced. This means that an agreement by the licensor to grant a license to IP at some later date, including a springing license grant on a bankruptcy filing, will likely be unenforceable if a bankruptcy is filed. Get a present grant of a license to any important IP or risk not having a license to it at all.
  • Consider a technology escrow. Licensees sometimes forget that Section 365(n) is not self-executing. This means that Section 365(n) doesn’t require the licensor to deliver the embodiment of the licensed intellectual property to the licensee unless the license or an agreement supplementary to the license expressly provides for such a right. One solution is to include this delivery provision in the license itself. Another common approach is to establish a technology (often a source code) escrow into which the embodiment and updated versions of the embodiment are in fact deposited, to be released to the licensee on specified conditions.
  • Refer to Section 365(n) in the license. Section 365(n) applies to licenses of bankruptcy-defined intellectual property whether it is mentioned in the license or not. That said, including an express reference that the license involves such IP, as the old saying goes, "wouldn’t hurt." A provision in the license that the agreement involves IP covered by Section 365(n), although not binding on the bankruptcy court, may be helpful in persuading a bankruptcy trustee — or the bankruptcy judge — that the IP involved is indeed subject to Section 365(n)’s protections.
  • Save the election until later. If you do include a Section 365(n) reference in the license, it’s usually better to state that no Section 365(n) election is then being made. Things change, and there is always a chance that the IP will turn out to be less important in future years, meaning you might elect to treat a rejected license as terminated.
  • Get bankruptcy advice before you sign the license. As the points above illustrate, even with Section 365(n), protecting your IP license can be tricky if a bankruptcy is later filed. Be sure to seek advice from bankruptcy counsel knowledgeable about IP licenses when the license is being drafted, not just after the licensor gets in financial trouble.

Conclusion. Section 365(n) of the Bankruptcy Code can provide valuable protections for licensees of intellectual property, but those protections have their limitations. Taking steps to maximize your rights when the license is being drafted can make a big difference if the licensor later files bankruptcy.