You have entered into an IP agreement that applies worldwide. It might be a licence agreement in which the licensed territory is all countries of the world. Or it might be an assignment of all of your IP, in all countries of the world.
The parties have agreed the law and jurisdiction of the contract. For present purposes, let us say that English law is to govern it, and that the English courts have exclusive jurisdiction. But the issues mentioned below are likely to apply irrespective of which law and jurisdiction are chosen.
The contract addresses IP-related issues in each country of the world. Take the example of an exclusive licence agreement that includes a term stating that the licensee can sub-license its rights. To what extent will this term override provisions of national IP law that state whether a licensee is permittee to sub-license?
As far as IP Draughts is aware (but he hasn’t done any worldwide research), on this point national IP laws may provide a fall-back position if the contract is non-specific on the issue, but they tend not to be prescriptive in the sense of overriding what the parties have agreed. For example, section 30(4)(a) of the UK Patents Act 1977 provides:
to the extent that the licence so provides, a sub-licence may be granted under any such licence and any such licence or sub-licence may be assigned or mortgaged
This suggests that, in the absence of a provision in the head licence agreement that permits sub-licensing, sub-licensing is not allowed.
Some years ago, when we wrote our loose-leaf work on agreements in the pharmaceutical sector, our German-law contributor included the following comment as a footnote in the licence agreement template:
Under German law, the right to grant sub-licences in case of an exclusive licence follows by law. Thus the parties need to explicitly exclude such right if desired.
IP Draughts suspects that, in most cases, national IP laws on the interpretation of an IP agreement will not override terms that the parties have expressly agreed in their contract.
If we broaden the subject from IP laws affecting the interpretation of IP agreements, to IP laws more generally, can we still assume that the terms of the contract override national IP laws? Probably not. For example, an IP agreement made under English law might state that the licensee can sue infringers. National IP laws may not allow the licensee to bring an action in its own name. Should the agreement be interpreted as requiring the IP owner to sue an infringer on behalf of the licensee in those countries where a licensee lacks locus standi to sue in its own name? IP Draughts cannot offer any universal answer to this question. It may depend on how the court interprets the contract. And even if the English court (in the above example) says that the answer to this question is yes, how enforceable will this decision be in the jurisdiction where the action is to be brought?
This type of question has long troubled IP Draughts, and he regrets that he didn’t take a course in conflict of laws at university. When, occasionally, he scratches the surface of this subject, he sees the liberal use of Latin expressions such as lex situs and lex fori, realises how dry and complicated the subject is, and leaves detailed study for another day. Even apparently helpful documents that seem to be directly on point, such as this one, cause him mild panic.
It was with mixed feelings, therefore, that IP Draughts read last week’s judgment by Arnold J in the case of Gloucester Place Music Ltd v Le Bon & Ors  EWHC 3091 (Ch) (02 December 2016).
Readers may have seen reports in the national press about this case, and the dissatisfaction of the defendants with the outcome. Boiling it down to its essentials:
- The defendants are the members of the 1980s pop group, Duran Duran, and their service companies.
- In the 1980s they made an outright assignment of the worldwide IP in their songs to the claimant, a UK company, in return for payments including royalties. The agreements were all made under English law and were subject to the jurisdiction of the English courts.
- The assignment was very broad in scope (and used excruciating language, but that is a discussion for another day).
- US copyright law (section 203 of the US Copyright Act 1976) allows authors who have assigned their copyright to reclaim it after, typically, 35 years, by serving notice on the assignee. Section 203(5) provides: “Termination of the [assignment] may be effected notwithstanding any agreement to the contrary…”
- The defendants have served notices under section 203 on the claimant.
- The claimant sought and won a declaration in the English High Court that by serving such notices the defendants are in breach of their contracts with the claimant under which the IP was originally assigned.
The judge managed to use another Latin expression from the conflict-of-laws dictionary, namely lex loci protectionis. Applying English law principles of interpretation he concluded, “not without hesitation”, that he should give effect to the assignment as written, and should not make it subject to the rights given to authors by US copyright law to claim, in effect, a reversionary interest in the copyright.
This brief report omits mention of a number of other issues that the judge considered, including the fact that neither party provided expert evidence from a US lawyer.
IP Draughts hopes that this dispute will be appealed to the UK Supreme Court, so that we can get some guidance from Lord Neuberger and his colleagues on the interplay of national IP laws and IP contracts made under another law. Dare he say it aloud, but he would find this a far more interesting subject on which to get the Supreme Court’s ruling than whether the Prime Minister is required to introduce a Parliamentary Bill (which will almost certainly be approved by the House of Commons) before giving notice under Article 50 to leave the European Union.