SCOTUS to Decide if Trademark Licensees Lose Their Rights When the Licensor Becomes Insolvent

The Supreme Court has granted review in the matter known as Mission Product Holdings Inc. v. Tempnology LLC, No. 17-1657, where it will decide whether a licensee loses its right to use a licensed trademark if the licensor files bankruptcy and the bankruptcy trustee chooses to reject the licensor’s license agreement. This decision could significantly impact numerous licensees throughout the world if the Court affirms the First Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision below, holding that a licensee loses its right to use a licensor’s trademarks once the licensor has filed a petition for bankruptcy and the trustee has elected to reject the agreement pursuant to Section 365(a) of the Bankruptcy Code.

Under Section 365(a) of the Bankruptcy Code, a bankruptcy trustee can assume or reject a debtor’s pre-bankruptcy executory contracts, depending on whether the benefits of continued performance outweigh the burdens to the bankruptcy estate. Under that provision, a rejection is treated as a breach by the debtor if certain conditions are met. If those conditions are met, the other party to the agreement is entitled to file a claim for damages in the bankruptcy action, however valueless that may be.

The Bankruptcy Code, however, does not address the matter at issue before the Supreme Court, which is whether rejection of a trademark license agreement strips the licensee of the right to use the mark. Although Section 365(n) protects the rights of “intellectual property” licensees, the Bankruptcy Code’s definition of “intellectual property” does not expressly include trademarks. While most trademark practitioners would be dumbfounded if a court were to interpret “intellectual property” in a manner that doesn’t include trademarks, the First Circuit did exactly that.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court has granted review to resolve a circuit split between the First Circuit, whose holding is discussed above, and the Seventh Circuit, which held that a licensee’s trademark rights survive rejection of the agreement in bankruptcy. See Sunbeam Prods. v. Chi. Am. Mfg., 686 F.3d 372 (7th Cir. 2012). This case has caused numerous IP groups, as well as the United States Government, to file amicus briefs. Interestingly, the U.S. Government has stated that a trademark owner cannot revoke a licensee’s right to use the trademark by rejecting its license agreement under the Bankruptcy Code’s contract rejection mechanism.

Similarly, Mission Product Holdings, the petitioner in this case, has urged the Court to reject the First Circuit’s holding in favor of the Seventh’s, arguing that, “[a]s the great majority of courts and scholars have recognized, rejection is not a special bankruptcy power to terminate or rescind a contract.” It also does not “allow the trustee to revoke interests in property that the debtor granted to a counterparty under the contract before bankruptcy.”
In contrast, Tempnology, the opposing party, contends the First Circuit made the correct decision. Specifically, Tempnology argues, “The Bankruptcy Code’s strong policy of permitting a debtor to free itself of ongoing obligations under a contract … and the right to reject such obligations applies to the burden of policing trademarks.” As such, Tempnology argues, the First Circuit was correct that a licensee’s right terminate upon rejection.

But this issue was addressed by the American Intellectual Property Law Association’s (“AIPLA”) amicus brief, wherein the AIPLA urged the Court to hold that a licensee’s rights outside of the bankruptcy context govern whether the licensee’s rights survive the licensor’s rejection under the Bankruptcy Code. The AIPLA argues that in the “absence of the Bankruptcy Code specifically addressing trademark licenses, the effect of the breach must be decided under applicable non-bankruptcy law and the language of the contract.” The AIPLA rejected the First Circuit’s rationale that a licensee’s right must terminate in order to avoid restricting a licensor-debtor’s right “to free itself from performing executory obligation” by forcing it to police its marks. The AIPLA contends the First Circuit’s approach was flawed because the duty to monitor a trademark’s use does not arise under the terms of a license agreement, but is instead an independent obligation imposed by federal trademark law.

The United States Government may have said it best: “If a landlord has rented a family an apartment and has agreed to pay the utilities, the landlord cannot later terminate the family’s lease simply by refusing to pay the cable bill[.]” The same principles apply, or at least they should, to trademark licensing agreements. For that reason, among others, I suspect the Supreme Court will overturn the First Circuit’s decision and protect the rights of the licensees.