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Read the Fine Print: Covenant Not to Sue “At Any Time” Terminated Upon License Expiration

Illustrating the importance of carefully drafting and reviewing language in a covenant not to sue, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that the plain language of a covenant permitted a licensor to sue a licensee for breach of contract only after termination of the contract. AlexSam, Inc. v. MasterCard Int’l., Inc., Case No. 22-2046 (Fed. Cir. Feb. 28, 2024) (Lourie, Chen, Stoll, JJ.) (non-precedential).

In 2005, AlexSam and MasterCard entered into a patent licensing agreement that guaranteed AlexSam ongoing royalties under two of its patents that involved pre-paid cards used with point-of-sale devices. The agreement included a covenant not to sue, in which AlexSam agreed to “not at any time initiate, assert, or bring any claim . . . against MasterCard . . . relating to Licensed Transactions arising or occurring before or during the term of this Agreement.” The agreement also included a Term and Termination provision, which recited that the agreement would remain in full force for the life of the licensed patents unless a party breached, at which time, if the party failed to cure, the non-breaching party would have the right to terminate the agreement. The patents expired on July 10, 2017.

In May 2015, two years before the licensed patents expired, AlexSam sued MasterCard for breach of contract in the district court, claiming that MasterCard had not properly paid the royalties per transaction under the agreement. Separately, in March 2017, MasterCard filed a petition for Covered Business Method (CBM) Review, asking the Patent Trial & Appeal Board to review the patentability of the licensed patents. AlexSam argued that MasterCard lacked standing under 37 C.F.R. § 42.302(a), which required that MasterCard first be sued or charged with infringement of the patent on which it sought review. The Board determined that MasterCard lacked standing to bring the review. The Board also noted that it “need not, and do[es] not, address the question of whether [AlexSam’s] breach of contract claim in the New York Action itself violates the covenant not to sue.”

MasterCard moved for and was granted summary judgment in the district court on the grounds that AlexSam’s arguments before the Board regarding the covenant not to sue judicially estopped it from asserting its breach of contract claims. AlexSam filed its first appeal, and the Federal Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling, finding that it had abused its discretion in crediting AlexSam with a position it never actually took before the Board. The Court remanded the case for the district court to determine whether the covenant not to sue prohibited a claim for royalties. MasterCard again moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion, finding that the covenant not to sue barred AlexSam’s claim for unpaid royalties. AlexSam again appealed.

In this second appeal, AlexSam argued that the covenant not to sue in the 2005 License Agreement did not bar suit for breach of nonpayment of royalties since AlexSam would then have no remedy against a failure by MasterCard to pay [...]

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Mootness Requires Covenant Not to Sue to Be Unconditional and Irrevocable

Addressing a district court decision finding no trade secret misappropriation, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed that the alleged trade secret holder had failed to moot the case because its covenant not to sue was both conditional and revocable. Synopsys, Inc. v. Risk Based Security, Inc., Case No. 22-1812 (4th Cir. June 15, 2023) (Agee, Rushing, Dawson, JJ.)

In early 2021, Risk Based Security (RBS) sent a cease-and-desist letter to Synopsys, its competitor in the software security industry, alleging intellectual property misappropriation, including use of RBS’s private database of source code vulnerabilities. Synopsys responded by filing a declaratory judgment action asserting that it had not engaged in trade secret misappropriation. RBS later issued a covenant not to sue in express reliance on certain pretrial representations made by Synopsys, including that Synopsys was not planning to use RBS’s database. RBS moved to dismiss the case as moot based on its covenant, but the district court denied the motion. The district court then ruled on summary judgment that RBS had failed to establish that its alleged trade secrets satisfied the requirements that they have an independent economic value derived from their secrecy and were subject to reasonable efforts to maintain their secrecy. RBS appealed.

The Fourth Circuit first affirmed the rejection of RBS’s covenant not to sue. The Court noted that the covenant was not unconditional and irrevocable because it was expressly premised on Synopsys’s planned future performance, which RBS could later claim was not being met. The Court also relied on the fact that the covenant was limited to the use of RBS’s private database and was thus narrower than the original cease-and-desist letter, which was explicitly not limited to that use. Finally, the Court concluded that there was a continuing live controversy, demonstrated by the fact that, after issuing the covenant, RBS added Synopsys to a pending trade secret case it had filed against Synopsys’s subsidiary. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of RBS’s motion to dismiss.

On the merits, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that RBS had failed to show that its alleged trade secrets met the independent value or reasonable secrecy elements required by statute. In particular, the Court agreed that RBS’s evidence regarding its value as a company and the revenue it derived from licensing its database could not show independent value for the specific alleged trade secrets contained in the database.

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Prior Covenant Insulates Party from Suit Despite Later Agreement

In a divided panel decision, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit concluded that a merger clause in the parties’ settlement agreement did not extinguish a prior covenant not to sue. Molon Motor & Coil Corp. v. Nidec Motor Corp., Case No. 19-1071 (Fed. Cir. Jan. 10, 2020) (Lourie, J) (Reyna, J, dissenting).

In 2004, Molon sued Nidec’s predecessor, Merkle-Korff, for infringement of Molon’s patent. In response, Merkle-Korff filed declaratory judgment counterclaims against two other Molon patents, seeking declarations of invalidity and non-infringement. Molon subsequently offered Merkle-Korff a covenant not to sue (2006 covenant) on the counterclaim patents. The covenant provided a unilateral non-exclusive license covering products existing at the time with no limits to specific markets.


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