Archive for November, 2010

Licensor Recovery of Attorneys’ Fees in Bankruptcy

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Photo Courtesy tristam sparks under the cc 2.0 license

The only thing worse for a licensor than losing money when its licensee files for bankruptcy is paying attorneys’ fees on top of that to stop the bleeding.

Two of the most common bankruptcy proceedings that licensor creditors get involved in are: 1) hearings related to the licensee’s attempt to assume an executory license agreement; and 2) lawsuits against the licensor to recover so-called preferential transfer payments from the licensee.

But can a clever licensor recover attorneys’ fees incurred in post-petition bankruptcy proceedings, if it had the foresight to include a well-drafted attorneys’ fee provision in its boilerplate license agreement?

Since a 2007 Supreme Court decision, the answer has been “maybe,” which was a big improvement over the previous answer of “almost never.”

Until 2007, there were two hurdles against a licensor creditor recovering its attorneys’ fees in a bankruptcy proceeding. The first was that many courts invalidated attorneys’ fee provisions to the extent that they applied to bankruptcy proceedings, arguing that the Bankruptcy Code had a general policy to invalidate contractual clauses that were triggered by bankruptcy. The second was that some courts interpreted the Bankruptcy Code to prohibit recovery of attorneys’ fees by unsecured creditors under any circumstances.

In 2007, the US Supreme Court removed the first hurdle in Travelers Casualty & Surety Co. v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which held that the Bankruptcy Code did not contain a blanket prohibition on recovery of attorneys’ fees for bankruptcy related proceedings, as long as the attorneys’ fees provision is valid under state law.

But the Travelers case did not address the second hurdle, and there is currently a split among various courts whether unsecured creditors can recover attorneys’ fees even pursuant to a contractual provision valid under state law. So far, the Second Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Sixth Circuit federal appeals courts have permitted such recovery, while the First Circuit and Eighth Circuit (in pre-Travelers opinions) have not.

Sigh, so confusing. What is a licensor to do? Well of course, put attorneys’ fee recovery language in your boilerplate license agreement. The worst that can happen is the court says no.

A starter attorneys’ fee provision might read as follows:

“If any legal action, arbitration, or other proceeding is brought under or in relation to this Agreement, including but not limited to any legal action, arbitration, or proceeding under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, then in addition to any other relief to which the Licensor is entitled, if the Licensor is the successful or prevailing party, then the Licensor is also entitled to recover, and the Licensee shall pay, all: (a) reasonable attorneys’ fees of the Licensor; (b) court costs; and (c) expenses, even if not recoverable by law as court costs (including, without limitation, all fees, taxes, costs and expenses incident to arbitration, appellate, bankruptcy and post-judgment proceedings); incurred in that action, arbitration, or proceeding and all appellate proceedings. For purposes of this Section, the term ‘attorneys’ fees’ includes, without limitation, paralegal fees, investigative fees, expert witness fees, administrative costs, disbursements, and all other charges billed by the attorney to the Licensor.”

Adjust the above to be valid under the state law that governs the license agreement. Check whether that state law makes the provision reciprocal, by deeming that if an agreement grants one party the right to recover attorneys’ fees, then the other party is automatically entitled to recover its attorneys’ fees under like circumstances. Then cross your fingers.

Oh Man: Dora the Explorer Discovers She’s Been Swiped

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

David vs. Goliath, Dora the Explorer vs. Swiper the Fox, Caitlin Sanchez vs. Nickelodeon.

Since our passion is the drafting and negotiation of intellectual property-related contracts, when 14-year-old Caitlin Sanchez, the voice of the popular Dora the Explorer cartoon character, filed a lawsuit against the Nickelodeon cable network claiming that Nickelodeon and its affiliates have duped her out of millions of dollars in royalties and residuals by pressuring her to sign a “bizarre, impenetrable, unconscionable contract,” it tweaked our curiosity.

But was it really a bad contract, or rather bad negotiation that resulted in Caitlin getting a lot less money than she and her family expected?

To answer that question, we tracked down a copy of the agreement (“Agreement”) between Caitlin and Uptown Productions, Inc. (“Uptown”), the production company for the Dora program, and compared it to the allegations in the lawsuit complaint, filed by the law firm of Balestriere Fariello. (Agreement is here, complaint is here.)

And the comparison showed that the contract IS bad, but not confusingly bad, just transparently bad— extremely but obviously one-sided in Uptown’s favor. Despite that, Caitlin and her family signed the Agreement and several subsequent documents literally within minutes of receiving them, without negotiating or asking an attorney to assist them. That was akin to Dora the Explorer not chanting, “Swiper, no swiping!” when the larcenous fox was in plain sight.

In doing so, they made the same mistake that many artists, actors, musicians, designers, and other creative people make when they are approached by television, music, or theatrical producers—they silence their questions and sign, for fear of being ditched and missing their big break.

The framework for the Agreement between Uptown and Caitlin is that Uptown would pay for Caitlin’s exclusive services for seven episodes of the Fifth Cycle of the Dora series and would retain options for 10 episodes for each of the Sixth through Tenth Cycles of the show. Caitlin was to receive: a salary of $5,115 per episode (increasing 5% per cycle); plus residuals based on the number of re-broadcasts of the original episodes; plus merchandise license fees. She was also required to do a “reasonable” amount of promotional appearances and interviews.

(1) The complaint alleges: Nickelodeon “fail[ed] to fully compensate Caitlin for products she voiced, for which she is due a percentage of the products [sic].” Uptown has only paid Caitlin $9,636.39 in merchandising royalties to date, according to the complaint. Caitlin’s attorney claims that that is an absurdly low and definitely incorrect figure in light of the fact that Nickelodeon claims gross retail sales of $11 billion in Dora merchandise since 2002.

The contract states: Uptown “shall pay you 5% of 100% of the ‘net receipts’ actually received by [Uptown] from merchandising, should your name, voice or likeness be used alone in connection therewith, reducible to 2-1/2% of 100% if other artists are used…; ‘Net receipts’ shall mean the amount remaining after deduction of a distribution fee of 50% of the gross receipts actually received from agents and distributors; and all costs related to such merchandising use.”

Our take: Caitlin would get royalties based on only the subset of Dora merchandise that featured Caitlin’s voice or her actual (not Dora’s) image, and that the revenue stream on which the royalties would be calculated could be easily manipulated by Uptown’s “creative accounting.”


How do you say, “Swiper, no swiping!” in Swedish?

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