Trademark Licenses In Bankruptcy May Be Changing

When a trademark owner licenses its rights to another then subsequently files for bankruptcy, the bankruptcy trustee has the option to reject the trademark license. To reject, rather than assume, the trademark license means to terminate the license agreement. In this situation, the trademark licensee has no option to continue using the trademark. The trademark license is simply terminated. Generally, trademark licenses are rejected by a bankruptcy trustee when the agreement stands in the way of a restructuring.

This treatment of trademarks in the Bankruptcy Code is different from the other forms of intellectual property. When copyrights, patents, and trade secrets are involved, while the bankruptcy trustee can reject the license agreement, the licensee can elect to continue to use the intellectual property provide the royalty payments and other obligations under the license are followed.

For some Courts, this different treatment of intellectual property rights was wrong, so they treated trademarks like the other forms of intellectual property under the Bankruptcy Code. For other Courts, the language in the Bankruptcy Code was clear and Congress by its words decided to treat trademarks differently from the other forms of intellectual property. Mission Product Holdings, Inc. recently filed a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari in the Supreme Court of the United States to resolve the split among the Courts.

The International Trademark Association filed an Amicus Curiae (i.e., Friend of the Court) brief in favor of the U.S. Supreme Court taking the case. According to INTA, allowing trademark licenses to survive bankruptcy will result in a stronger trademark system that will increase the royalties trademark licensees are willing to pay.

There is no question that it is the trademark licensor’s obligation to ensure a certain level of quality in the licensed goods or services is maintained. In some cases, a trademark licensor can satisfy this obligation by relying on its relationship with the licensee. But the types of relationships that allows for this quality control delegation are few in number. If a trademark licensor fails to engage in actual quality control, the result can be an abandonment of all trademark rights.

The difficult question is whether a debtor trademark licensor should be obligated to incur the expense of engaging in quality control if the trademark licensee wants to continue using the trademark. If the Supreme Court takes the case and decides that trademarks should be treated like other intellectual property, then it may make sense to negotiate in any trademark licenses that the licensee must pay the costs for the debtor trademark licensor to exercise it quality control obligations in addition to any royalties owed.

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