This is a tale about a company that sold the same IP twice, according to some contracts that it signed. But don’t worry, children, because the parties didn’t really believe that the second contract was meant to sell the IP, even though it said that it did. Oh, and it’s also about a confidentiality clause in a licence agreement that meant what it said. Even though the defendant argued that it shouldn’t be taken literally.
The case is called Process Components Ltd v Kason Kek-Gardner Ltd  EWHC 2198 (Ch) (05 September 2016). Don’t bother reading it. It’s not going to change the course of English law. It describes some typical legal argy-bargy that happens when a commercial dispute gets to court. IP Draughts has read it, so that you don’t have to. But it does raise some practice-related issues that should be of interest to transactional IP lawyers. These are summarised below.
Selling the same IP twice
First, the sale of the IP. The two contracts in question were for the sale of different parts of a business, to different purchasers. The assets sold in the first contract (Contract 1) included “£1,350,000 for the Goodwill, the IT system and the Intellectual Property Rights”. The Intellectual Property Rights were defined as:
the full benefit (subject to the obligations) of all patents, registered designs, the Trade Marks, service marks, copyrights, know-how, technical and/or research and development information, drawings, specifications, domain names, computer programs and all licences, rights to protection and applications for registration and rights to apply for registration relating to such matters used by the Seller in the Business…
Let’s leave aside the excruciatingly bad drafting of this definition – for example, what is the word “licences” doing in the fourth line, lumped together with pre-registration rights to IP? In court, the parties’ counsel managed to find ways of arguing about the construction of this definition, eg by breaking it up into 3 parts and arguing that the final phrase only qualified one of those parts. All too tedious to discuss further.
Instead, let’s compare this definition with its equivalent in Contract 2. The same solicitor, who is named in the judgment, apparently drafted both contracts and, according to the judge, “plainly used [Contract 1] as a template for [Contract 2]”. Contract 2 provided for the sale of certain assets, including “the Business Name, the Commercial Information, the Contracts, the Equipment, the Goodwill, the Intellectual Property Rights, and the Work-In-Progress”. In Contract 2, Intellectual Property Rights are defined as:
the full benefit (subject to the obligations) of all patents, registered designs, trade and service marks, copyrights, know-how, technical and/or research and development information, drawings, specifications, domain names, computer programs and all licences, rights to protection and applications for registration and rights to apply for registration relating to such matters used by [the seller] in the Business…
Now, there are ways of trying to distinguish the two definitions, eg that the definitions of Business are different in each case, or that the dates of use by the seller are different. But the judge found that these definitions mostly covered the same IP. And at least one of the commercial representatives of the parties to Contract 2 was surprised to see this definition in the draft contract, but preferred not to rock the boat by querying it.
So, the first lesson of this sermon is: take care in drafting IP definitions. Don’t just cut and paste from an earlier contract. Obvious, really. Or it should be.
Given the apparent conflict between the two contracts, what was the judge supposed to do about it? For example, should she:
- Decide that Contract 2 couldn’t ‘bite’ on any of the seller’s IP, as it had already been sold under Contract 1? Or
- Treat the buyer under Contract 2 as a bona fide purchaser without notice (sometimes quaintly known as ‘equity’s darling’) of Contract 1?
- Treat both buyers as purchasers, so that they became co-owners in different fields?
The parties’ respective counsel slugged away at one another, trying every legal principle in the book to persuade the judge to see it their client’s way. Among the principles mentioned in the judgment are:
- The admissibility of pre-contract negotiations to show a matrix of fact
- Common assumption
- Estoppel by convention
- Estoppel by misrepresentation
- Coming to equity with clean hands
On the facts before her, the judge found that the buyer under Contract 2 was estopped from denying that the buyer under Contract 1 owned the relevant IP.
A practice-related lesson here is that focussing just on the wording of the two contracts doesn’t tell us how a court is going to decide on a complex set of facts. Who said (or didn’t say) what to whom may affect the outcome more than the contractual wording.
Licence agreement – estoppel issue
At around the same time as Contract 2 was made, the buyer under that contract entered into a licence agreement with the buyer under Contract 1, under which the Buyer 1 licensed to Buyer 2 a package of IP that seems to have overlapped with the IP that was the subject of the dispute above.
Buyer 2 argued that it didn’t know the content of Contract 1 when it entered into the licence agreement, and did so to protect its position in case it turned out that the IP had been transferred under Contract 1 and not under Contract 2.
It seems that Buyer 2’s acceptance of the licence, and failure to query the ownership of the IP with Buyer 1, led to the estoppel mentioned earlier.
A possible practice point here is that Buyer 2 should have at least sent Buyer 1 a letter in which it flagged up this issue and stated that it “reserved all its rights”.
Licence agreement – confidentiality and termination
It might not have mattered whether Buyer 2 was the owner of the IP, as long as it continued to have a licence from Buyer 1. But Buyer 1 had terminated the licence agreement for breach of a confidentiality obligation.
The relevant clauses of the licence agreement were:
- By clause 10.1 of the licence agreement, “each party agrees to keep the terms of this Agreement confidential…”
- By clause 11.2, a party could terminate the licence agreement “immediately by written notice to the other” for certain types of breach.
- By clause 11.2(a), those breaches included any material breach of the Agreement that was not capable of remedy. The final sentence of 11.2(a) stated that “breach of the confidentiality obligations under clause 10 constitutes a non-remediable material breach”.
- By clause 12.3, on termination of the agreement for any reason, the licensee was required to “cease to make any use of the Intellectual Property Rights”.
The facts relied on for termination are not entirely clear from the judgment, but it seems that Buyer 2 disclosed the terms of the licence agreement to a proposed investor.
Buyer 2 argued in court and in correspondence that:
- it was absurd to allow the licensor to terminate the licence agreement for any disclosure of the terms, as this would include trivial breaches, ie those that were not material
- the court would interpret these obligations as allowing appropriate disclosure of the terms of the licence agreement “on a confidential basis to a proposed investor”
The judge disagreed, and held that the licence agreement had been validly terminated.
This raises a very interesting practice issue, which has been mentioned on this blog before. IP Draughts understands that it is common for companies to provide details of its contracts to proposed investors or purchasers, even if those contracts include strict confidentiality provisions. Ever since IP Draughts first encountered this issue as a junior lawyer, he has been troubled by the apparent mismatch between commercial practice and contract terms. Sometimes, a pragmatic response to this concern is to point out that the disclosures are typically made in confidence, eg in a data room, or that the party whose confidentiality has been breached won’t suffer any loss from the breach.
The judge in this case dispelled both of these lazy assumptions. She couldn’t see why a term should be implied allowing a party to disclose in confidence to a prospective investor. She pointed out that the CDA between Buyer 2 and the investor didn’t say anything about not using the information in a way that was detrimental to Buyer 1, who was not a party. IP Draughts suspects that the absence of such a clause is likely to be the case in most CDAs in this situation. And finally, the judge pointed out that the obligations under the CDA had expired at the time the licence agreement was terminated, so that the investor was no longer under a confidentiality obligation. This no doubt reflected the typically short duration of CDAs with investors.
The practice lesson here, in IP Draughts’ view, is that contracts mean what they say and a party should not expect the law to intervene to protect it if it is in breach, just because of dodgy commercial practice or bad habits in the market sector in which that party operates.