Addressing personal jurisdiction and forum non conveniens in a software licensing dispute, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a district court’s exercise of personal jurisdiction over a Dutch entity and the court’s decision to not dismiss the case for forum non conveniens. dmarcian, Inc. v. dmarcian Europe BV, Case Nos. 21-1721; -2005 (4th Cir. Feb. 14, 2023) (Wilkinson, Heytens, Hudson, JJ.)
dmarcian is a North Carolina-based software company that developed software to help email users authenticate incoming emails. A Dutch businessman who owned Mailmerk contacted dmarcian to offer to market the software in Europe. While dmarcian was initially unreceptive to the offer, the two parties eventually reached an oral agreement for Mailmerk to rebrand as dmarcian Europe BV (dmarcian BV) and sell the dmarcian software in Europe and Africa.
A dispute arose when dmarcian BV claimed ownership of portions of the dmarcian source code. dmarcian BV filed suit in the Netherlands, eventually filing for and winning injunctive relief in the Netherlands when dmarcian terminated dmarcian BV’s license. dmarcian then filed suit in the Western District of North Carolina asking for a preliminary injunction against dmarcian BV, which dmarcian BV opposed with a motion to dismiss for forum non conveniens. The district court denied the motion to dismiss and entered a preliminary injunction that precluded dmarcian BV from operating outside of Europe and Africa and required dmarcian BV to stop using the registered “dmarcian” trademark without a disclaimer. The district court later found dmarcian BV in contempt for violating the preliminary injunction and ordered dmarcian BV to pay $335,000 in sanctions. dmarcian BV appealed the injunction and the sanctions.
dmarcian BV argued that the district court did not have personal jurisdiction. The Fourth Circuit rejected that argument, finding that the North Carolina long-arm statute authorized jurisdiction over dmarcian BV. The Court found that the application of the long-arm statute to dmarcian BV complied with due process because dmarcian BV worked closely with the dmarcian team in North Carolina (e.g., receiving sales leads, attending virtual meetings, coordinating software development), dmarcian BV sought out dmarcian to initiate business, and there was a strong interest in protecting intellectual property rights in North Carolina.
The Fourth Circuit also upheld the denial of the dismissal for forum non conveniens because the Dutch court was not an adequate alternative forum since Dutch courts cannot effectively adjudicate US trademark claims. The Fourth Circuit found that any judgment by the Dutch court would have little effect in the United States and would deny relief to dmarcian for the infringement of its rights.
The Fourth Circuit upheld the preliminary injunction grant, finding that the district court properly applied US and North Carolina law extraterritorially and that dmarcian was likely to succeed on all claims. The Court found that US laws properly applied and that dmarcian was likely to succeed on the following claims:
- Copyright infringement, because there was a registered copyright, dmarcian BV reproduced elements of the source code outside of the licensing agreement, and dmarcian BV committed a domestic act by servicing US customers
- Trademark infringement, because dmarcian owned a registered trademark, the two parties had virtually identical website designs and business services, and multiple customers confused the two entities
- Trade secret misappropriation, because dmarcian’s source code, customer database and business accounts were likely trade secrets; dmarcian BV took the trade secrets to compete with dmarcian; and dmarcian BV used the trade secrets in foreign commerce
- Tortious interference, because dmarcian BV poached a US dmarcian customer and because the licensing agreement would have continued if dmarcian BV did not intervene.
Lastly, the Fourth Circuit addressed the contempt order and resulting sanctions. The Court found that the district court correctly found dmarcian BV in contempt for its failure to comply with the disclaimer requirement and remanded the sanctions order for recalculation.