By Dennis Crouch
In re Spansion (3rd Cir. 2012)
A recent Third Circuit decision focuses on the impact that a bankruptcy has on a patent license. In 2009, Spansion and Apple settled a patent dispute with Spansion agreeing to end its case at the ITC and to refrain from suing in district court. The agreement stated:
Provided that neither Spansion nor any successor in interest to any of the patents being asserted in the referenced ITC action do not bring an action of any nature asserting any such patent before any legal, judicial, arbitral, administrative, executive or other type of body or tribunal that has, or claims to have, authority to adjudicate such action in whole or in part against Apple or any Apple product, Apple agrees Spansion will not be disbarred as an Apple supplier as a result of the referenced ITC action.
The agreement also particularly stated that Spansion will remain a primary supplier "for the life-time of the product" and will be considered for future platforms.
Later that year, Spansion filed for bankruptcy and the trustee moved to reject the settlement as an executory contract. The normal rule in bankruptcy (under 11 U.S.C. § 365(a)) is that the debtor (here Spansion) can unilaterally reject executory contracts if it so chooses. Any resulting contract damages will be unsecured debts that are unlikely to receive any payout. IP law has a special exception codified in 11 U.S.C. § 365(n). Under that rule, a licensee can elect to retain its license rights despite a debtor's rejection. The statute states:
If the trustee rejects an executory contract under which the debtor is a licensor of a right to intellectual property, the licensee under such contract may elect . . . (B) to retain its rights . . . under such contract . . . to such intellectual property . . . as such rights existed immediately before the case commenced."
On appeal, the question is whether the contract between Spansion and Apple is a license or instead merely a promise not to sue. The bankruptcy court initially held that Apple's § 365(n) election did not apply because the agreement was not a license. Reviewing that decision, the Delaware District Court found that the agreement was a license "because it was a promise not to sue." Now, the Third Circuit has affirmed the District Court with quotation from the Supreme Court's 1927 decision in De Forest Radio.
"[A] license … [is] a mere waiver of the right to sue by the patentee." De Forest Radio Tel. & Tel. Co. v. United States, 273 U.S. 236, 242 (1927). A license need not be a formal grant, but is instead a "consent[ ] to [the] use of the patent in making or using it, or selling it … and a defense to an action for a tort." Id. The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit explained that the inquiry focuses on what the agreement authorizes, not whether the language is couched in terms of a license or a covenant not to sue; effectively the two are equivalent. TransCore, LP v. Elec. Transaction Consultants Corp., 563 F.3d 1271 (Fed. Cir. 2009).
Here, the promise to "dismiss the ITC action" and "not re-file the ITC action or another action related to one or more of the same patents against Apple" was a promise not to sue on a patent and therefore is a license of patent rights.
Thus, Apple retains its license regardless of who buys the patent rights.
One question not resolved by the appeal are Apple's ongoing duties vis-à-vis the agreement. The statute calls for ongoing payment of royalties. However, it appears that there is no further monetary payment due in the agreement, although Apple has promised to keep Spansion as a supplier and consider Spansion for future contracts. If Apple is released from those commitments then it will actually be better off because of its business partner's bankruptcy – a result that is not often the case.