Trademark licensees have long faced the serious risk of losing all license rights to a trademark if the licensor files bankruptcy and rejects the trademark license as an executory contract. However, a recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in the In re: Exide Technologies case may give some trademark licensees new hope of retaining their license rights even in bankruptcy.

Limited protection of Section 365(n). It can be devastating for a licensee to lose access to licensed intellectual property. Often a licensee will build in licensed technology into its products or develop an entire business line or brand around a licensed trademark.  Recognizing how important in-licensed IP can be, in 1988 Congress added Section 365(n) of the Bankruptcy Code, giving licensees of certain types of intellectual property special protections in bankruptcy. These protections allow licensees to retain their rights to the licensed intellectual property – but there’s a catch. The Bankruptcy Code’s definition of “intellectual property” includes, among other things, patents, patent applications, copyrights, and trade secrets, but unfortunately for trademark licensees, it does not include trademarks. Follow the link in this sentence for more on Section 365(n)’s licensee protections other than in the trademark area.

Trademark licensee’s special risk. With no special protection, the trademark licensee faces the risk of having its license, usually considered to be an executory contract, rejected by the trademark owner in bankruptcy. If the trademark owner decides that the license is now unfavorable and a better deal can be had under a new license agreement with someone else, the trademark owner likely will reject the existing trademark license agreement and, generally, terminate the licensee’s rights to use the mark. The enforceability of phase-out provisions, which allow a licensee to continue to use a mark for a limited time period after a license is terminated, is unclear. Regardless, most courts hold that the trademark licensee eventually will lose its rights to the trademark following rejection. In some cases the ability to re-license can be of great value to a trademark owner in bankruptcy, and thus to its creditors, but it puts the licensee at substantial risk. For more on this topic, you may find this earlier blog post on the trademark licensee’s predicament of interest.

The Third Circuit’s Exide Decision. In a June 1, 2010 decision in In re: Exide Technologies (a copy of the decision is available by clicking on the preceding link), the Third Circuit examined a series of agreements, determined to constitute one integrated agreement, pursuant to which Exide Technologies sold an industrial battery business, and licensed certain trademark rights, to EnerSys. When Exide filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2002, it sought to reject the agreement as an executory contract. The bankruptcy court granted Exide’s motion to reject the agreement, and that decision was affirmed by the district court. On appeal to the Third Circuit, that court held that under New York law, which governed the agreement, once a party has substantially performed, a later breach by that party does not excuse performance. The Third Circuit further held that EnerSys had substantially performed the agreement in the more than ten years since it was signed, rendering the agreement no longer an executory contract. 

  • The Third Circuit held that EnerSys had substantially performed by paying the full purchase price and operating under the agreement for ten years, as well as assuming certain liabilities related to the business EnerSys purchased when it obtained the trademark license.
  • The Court of Appeals also held that EnerSys’s obligation not to use the trademark outside of the licensed business was not a material obligation because it was a condition subsequent and, in any event, did not relate to the agreement’s purpose — the transfer of the industrial battery business in return for a $135 million payment.
  • Likewise, the Third Circuit concluded that a quality standards provision was minor because it related only to the standards of the mark for each battery produced and not to the transfer of industrial battery business that was the agreement’s purpose.
  • In addition, an indemnity obligation that had subsequently expired, and a further assurances obligation where no remaining required cooperation was identified, were held not to outweigh the factors supporting a finding of substantial performance.

A Concurring Opinion On The Effect Of Rejection. Judge Ambro wrote a concurring opinion to address the bankruptcy court’s conclusion that rejection of a trademark license left EnerSys without the right to use the Exide mark. In his concurrence, Judge Ambro analyzed the history of Section 365(n), disagreed that the exclusion of trademarks from its reach created a negative inference that rejection of a trademark license should be tantamount to termination, and stated that courts should be able to prevent the extinguishment of all rights upon rejection. As Judge Ambro wrote in his conclusion:

Courts may use § 365 to free a bankrupt trademark licensor from burdensome duties that hinder its reorganization. They should not—as occurred in this case—use it to let a licensor take back trademark rights it bargained away. This makes bankruptcy more a sword than a shield, putting debtor-licensors in a catbird seat they often do not deserve.

It will be interesting to see whether other courts follow Judge Ambro’s views or continue to hold that trademark licensees whose licenses have been rejected no longer retain any rights to use the trademarks at issue.

A New Argument For Trademark Licensees? For trademark licensees looking to preserve their rights in the face of a motion to reject a trademark license, the Exide Technologies decision may provide some additional support.

  • However, before breathing a sigh of relief, trademark licensees should remember that the decision involved a series of agreements that had been largely performed over the decade since they were signed. In many ways, the trademark licensee was just a part of what the Third Circuit found was, chiefly, an agreement to sell a business division. In essence, although the trademark itself was not sold, the trademark license rights went along with the business. 
  • Typically, trademark licenses more often arise not in connection with a sale of a business but as a separate, often stand-alone, license of certain trademarks for commercial exploitation by the licensee. In that context, it may be far more difficult to establish that the agreement has been substantially performed such that it is no longer an executory contract.

Still, for those situations in which the argument is available, the Third Circuit’s decision in Exide Technologies underscores that all trademark licenses are not executory contracts and, at least in some cases, the trademark licensee might just get to keep the license rights after all, even in the face of a rejection motion in bankruptcy.