Cancel culture: how the creative industries should ride the storm

Cancel culture is upon us. This is what we are currently being told by British and French mass media, who have finally caught up with the content of the latest, and first non-fictional, book ever published by acclaimed, yet heavily criticised, American author Bret Easton Ellis, ‟White”. The polemic rages on both sides of the pond, ignited by more than 150 public figures signing a controversial letter denouncing cancel culture. So, what’s going on? What is ‟cancel culture”? Why should you pay attention to, and be cautious about it, as a creative professional? Is this even a thing in Europe and, in particular, in France and the United Kingdom? If so, how should you position yourself, as a creative, on, and about, cancel culture?

Cancel culture1. What is it? Where does it come from?

Following the 1990s’ culture wars, which sprung up in the United States of America as a way of denouncing and forbidding contemporary art exhibitions and other medium of creative expression judged by those instigating such culture wars as indecent and obscene, ‟cancel culture” has taken off in the early 2000s on social media, and has since become a cultural phenomenon in the USA and Canada – especially in the last five years or so – pervading every aspect of Northern America’s mass media.

‟Cancel culture” refers to the popular desire, and practice, of withdrawing support for (i.e. cancelling) public figures, communities or corporations, after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. ‟Cancel culture” is generally performed on social media, in the form of group online shaming.

Therefore, as a result of something said or done, which triggered negative reactions and emotions such as anger, disgust, annoyance and hate from some members of the public, a natural person or legal entity or group of natural persons ends up being publicly shamed and humiliated, on internet, via social media platforms (such as Twitter, Facebook and instagram) and/or more localised media (such as email groups). Online shaming takes many forms, including call-outs, cancellation or cancel culture, doxing, negative reviews, and revenge porn.

While the culture wars of the 1990s were driven by right-wing religious and conservative individuals in the US (triggered by ‟hot-button” defining issues such as abortion, gun politics, separation of church and state, privacy, recreational drug use, homosexuality), the cancel culture of our 21st century is actually a left-leaning supposedly ‟progressive” identity movement which has taken hold in recent years due to the conversations prompted by #MeToo and other movements that demand greater accountability from public figures. According to the website Merriam-Webster, ‟the term has been credited to black users of Twitter, where it has been used as a hashtag. As troubling information comes to light regarding celebrities who were once popular, such as Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Roseanne Barr and Louis C.K. – so come calls to cancel such figures”.

Yep. Check out your Twitter feed by typing in the search bar the hashtags #cancelled, #cancel or #cancel[then name of the individual, company, organisation you think might be cancelled], and you will be able to review the top current cancellation campaigns and movements launched against Netflix, British actress Millie Bobby Brown, twitter user @GoatPancakes_, etc.

So under the guise of defending laudable causes such as the recognition of the LGBTQ community and fighting against racism, sexism, sexual assault, homophobia, transphobia, etc., some communities of online righteous vigilante use violent methods, such as cancellation, in order to administer a virtual punishment to those who are on their radar.

This call-out and cancel culture is becoming so pervasive and effective that people lose their jobs over a tweet, some upsetting jokes or inappropriate remarks.

The Roseanne Barr’s story is the ultimate cancellation example, since her ABC show, ‟Roseanne”, was terminated with immediate effect, after Ms Barr posted a tweet about Valerie Jarrett, an African-American woman who was a senior advisor to Barack Obama throughout his presidency and considered one of his most influential aides. R. Barr wrote, in her litigious tweet, if the ‟muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby = vj”. Whilst Ms Barr’s remark was undoubtedly in extreme bad taste, it is fair to ask whether her tweet – which could have easily been deleted from Twitter to remove such kick well below the belt dealt to Ms Jarrett – justified wrecking Ms Barr’s long-lasting entertainment and broadcasting career in one instant, permanently and for eternity.

To conclude, social media channels have become the platforms of virtual trials, where justice (i.e. cancellation) is administered in an expeditious manner, with no possibility of dialogue, forgiveness and/or statute of limitation. This arbitrary mass justice movement is not only cruel, but tends to put everything under the same umbrella, indiscriminately: so a person who cracked a sexist joke on Twitter would become vilified and even ‟cancelled”, in the same manner than an individual effectively sentenced for sexual assault by an actual court of justice.

How did we get to this point? Why does a growing number of Northern Americans feel the uncontrollable need to call-out, cancel and violently pillory some of their public figures, corporations and communities?

A pertinent analysis, although skewed by a European perspective, is that made by French sociologist Nathalie Heinich in French newspaper Le Monde and explained on the podcast ‟Histoire d’Amériques”, dedicated to Bret Easton Ellis’ ‟White”.

According to Ms Heinich, there is no legal limitation to freedom of speech – a personal liberty which is enshrined in the first amendment to the US constitution, in the USA. As a consequence, the US congress cannot adopt laws which may limit or curb freedom of expression, as is set out in this first amendment. Therefore, according to N. Heinich, since the US authorities cannot forbid speech and freedom of expression, it is down to US citizens to take on the role of vigilante and organise spectacular information and public campaigns, in order to request the prohibition of such expression and such speech.

This analysis made by this French sociologist needs to be nuanced: whilst it is true that no US statute or law may curtail freedom of speech in the USA, there is consistent and ample body of case law and common law, which rule on the categories of speech that are given lesser or no protection by the first amendment of the Bill of rights. Those exceptions include:

  • incitement (i.e. the advocacy of the use of force when it is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action, Brandenburg v Ohio (1969));
  • incitement to suicide (in 2017, a juvenile court in Massachusetts, USA, ruled that repeatedly encouraging someone to complete suicide was not protected by the first amendment);
  • false statement of fact and defamation (Gertz v Robert Welch, Inc. (1974));
  • obscenity (Miller v California (1973) established the Miller test whereby speech is unprotected if ‟the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the subject or work in question, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest”, and ‟the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law”, and ‟the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value”), and
  • child pornography (New York v. Ferber (1982) which ruled that if speech or expression is classified under the child pornography exception at all, it becomes unprotected).

Therefore, there are some common law exceptions to the first amendment consecrating freedom of speech in the USA, but they are few and far between, and they need to be hotly, and expensively, debated in court, probably months or years after the triggering content was made available in the public space in the first instance, before being found, by a court, unprotected by freedom of speech, in favour of higher public policy interests.

As a result, many American and Canadian citizens resort to violent tactics, in order to request the immediate, swiftly-enforced and free of legal fees and court fees, prohibition of controversial art exhibitions, entertainment shows, movies, jokes, remarks, etc. first through the 1990s culture wars, and now through the 21st century’s cancel culture.

This is paradoxical since cancel culture and call-out culture are some of the tools used to advocate for worthy causes such as fighting against racism, sexism, sexual predation and aggression, promoting LGBTQ rights. However, the methods used, through cancel culture and online shaming, to achieve those laudable goals, are very violent and totalitarian, all taking place in the virtual realm of social media, but with very serious and long-lasting ‟real-life” consequences such as loss of employment, loss of reputation, self-harm and sometimes, suicide.

2. Can cancel culture enter through our European borders, in particular in France and the United Kingdom?

I hate to break it to you, but cancel culture is already upon us in France and the United Kingdom. We are in a globalised world, all of us are online and check the media and social media from all over the world, thanks to the internet. So this Northern American trend has, of course, reached our European shores.

It is worth noting that the recognition of ‟cancel culture”, and the realisation that is has become a sizable part of online culture, took place in the United Kingdom (‟UK”) at the beginning of the year 2020, when British television presenter and socialite Caroline Flack committed suicide allegedly because she was vilified on social media and by British tabloids, further to being sacked from British reality show ‟Love Island”. This UK epiphany about ‟cancel culture” arrived earlier than elsewhere in Europe, probably due to the shared language, and culture, that the British have with Americans and Canadians.

France is only now getting familiar with this new concept of ‟cancel culture”, further to hearing about the ‟letter on justice and open debate”, drafted, and signed, in July 2020, by more than 150 global intellectuals and authors (among whom Margaret Atwood, Wynton Marsalis, Noam Chomsky, J.K. Rowling and Salman Rushdie), and denouncing the excesses of online shaming and cancel culture. France is currently going through a phase of introspection, asking itself whether ‟la culture de l’annulation” could take off on its Gallic shores. And it is.

Proof is, I was interviewed for the 8.00pm TV News of France TV on Sunday 20 September 2020, to discuss the attempts made by no less than the new very controversial French minister of the interior, Gerald Darmanin – who was himself under criminal investigation for sexual coercion, harassment and misconduct in 2009, and then again between 2014 and 2017 – to eradicate from all SVoD services platforms such as YouTube, Spotify, Deezer, Dailymotion, the release of the first music album created by Franco-Senegalese 28 years’ old rapper, Freeze Corleone, ‟La Menace Fantôme” (‟LMF”). On which grounds is such cancellation requested? Provoking racial hatred and racial slander, no less.

Artist Freeze Corleone is an uncompromising rapper, abundantly peppering his raps with the French translations of ‟nigger” (‟négro”) and ‟bitches” (‟pétasses”) in the purest Northern American rap tradition (F. Corleone lived in Montreal, Canada, before settling down in Dakar, Senegal). He also obscurely refers to ‟Adolf”, ‟Goebbels”, ‟Ben Laden” and ‟Sion” in his rather enigmatic LMF lyrics. However, qualifying his body of work in LMF as racial slander and/or provoking racial hatred is a stretch. If you do not like it, because this content triggers you, just move on and don’t listen to it.

Freedom of speech is enshrined in the French declaration of rights of the human being and citizen, dated 1789. Article 11 of such declaration provides that the ‟free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights of the human being: any Citizen may therefore speak, write, print freely, except where he or she has to answer for the abuse of such freedom in specific cases provided by law”.

And such specific cases where freedom of speech may be curtailed, under French statutory law, include:

  • Law dated 1881 on the freedom of the press which, while recognising freedom of speech in all publication formats, provides for four criminally-reprehensible exceptions, which are insults, defamation and slander, incentivising the perpetration of criminal offences, if it is followed by acts, as well as gross indecency;
  • Law dated 1972 against opinions provoking racial hatred, which – like the four above-mentioned exceptions, is a criminal offense provided for in the French criminal code;
  • Law dated 1990 against revisionist opinions, which is also a criminal offense in order to penalise those who contest the materiality and factuality of the atrocities committed by the Nazis on minorities, such as Jews, homosexuals and gypsies before and during world war two, and
  • Law dated July 2019 against hateful content on internet, which provisions (requiring to remove all terrorist, pedopornographic, hateful and pornographic content from any website within 24 hours) were almost completely censored by the French constitutional council as a disproportionate infringement to freedom of speech, before entering into force in its expunged finalised version later on in 2019.

Therefore, according to French sociologist Nathalie Heinich, France does not need ‟cancel culture” because freedom of speech is already strictly corseted by French statutory laws. By this, she means that French individuals won’t have to take to social media platforms, in order to ‟cancel” whoever is misbehaving, since the all-pervading French nanny state will strike the first blow to the ‟offender”, in the same manner than French minister of justice G. Darmanin unilaterally requested all cultural streaming and video platforms, from YouTube to Spotify and Deezer, as well as all French radio and TV channels, to immediately and permanently remove the songs of Freeze Corleone’s LMF, further to opening a criminal inquiry against the latter, for allegedly committing racial slander and/or provoking racial hatred through his lyrics.

Is this above-mentioned French regal method a better tool than having the populace publicly decrying and shaming an individual who ‟steps out of line”, by using ‟cancel culture”? By no means, because, at the end of the day, it’s our collective freedom of speech which is being breached and infringed, on a whim. And that is unacceptable, in a democracy.

On the other side of the channel, the legal framework around freedom of speech is no panacea either. Freedom of expression is usually ruled through common law, in the UK. However, in 1998, the UK transposed the provisions of the European Convention on human rights, which article 10 provides for the guarantee of freedom of expression, into domestic law, by way of its Human rights act 1998.

Not only is freedom of expression tightly delineated, in article 12 (Freedom of expression) of the Human rights act 1998, but there is a broad sweep of exceptions to it, under UK common and statutory law. In particular, the following common law and statutory offences, narrowly limit freedom of speech in the UK:

  • threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour intending or likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress, or cause a breach of the peace (which has been used to prohibit racist speech targeted at individuals);
  • sending any letter or article which is indecent or grossly offensive with an intent to cause distress or anxiety (which has been used to prohibit speech of a racist or anti-religious nature, as well as some posts on social networks), governed by the Malicious communications act 1988 and the Communications act 2003;
  • incitement (i.e. the encouragement to another person to commit a crime);
  • incitement to racial hatred;
  • incitement to religious hatred;
  • incitement to terrorism, including encouragement of terrorism and dissemination of terrorist publications;
  • glorifying terrorism;
  • collection or possession of a document or record containing information likely to be of use to a terrorist;
  • treason including advocating for the abolition of the monarchy or compassing or imagining the death of the monarch;
  • obscenity;
  • indecency including corruption of public morals and outraging public decency;
  • defamation and loss of reputation, which legal framework is set out in the Defamation act 2013;
  • restrictions on court reporting including names of victims and evidence and prejudicing or interfering with court proceedings;
  • prohibition of post-trial interviews with jurors, and
  • harassment.

In Europe, and in particular in France and the UK, there is already a tight leash on freedom of speech, whether at common law or statutory law. However, ‟cancel culture” is nonetheless permeating our European online shores, following the trend started in Northern America. As a result, it is a tough time to be a free and creative European citizen, let alone a public figure or corporation, in this 21st century Europe. Indeed, not only could you have trouble with the law, if you were to make triggering or contentious comments or jokes or lyrics in the public domain, but you could also be shot down in flames by the online community, on social media, for your speech and expression.

3. How to ride the storm of ‟cancel culture”, while remaining consistently creative and productive?

In the above-mentioned cultural and legal context, it is crucial for creative professionals to think long and hard before posting, broadcasting, speaking, and even behaving.

As a result, book publishers use the services of ‟sensitivity readers”, before releasing a new work, whereby such consultants read books to be published, in order to look for, and find out, any clichés, stereotypes, scenes, formulations that may offend a part of the readership. This use of sensitivity readers is becoming more and more systematic, especially when the author speaks about themes which he, or she, does not personally master.

For example, an heterosexual author who describes a gay character, or a white author who describes Mexicans, in his or her new book, will most definitely have a sensitivity consultant review his or her output before publication. Almost inevitably, such sensitivity reader will request that some changes be made to the written content, so as to avoid a boycott of the published book, or cancellation of the author and book, altogether.

Whilst some of the classics of global literature were perceived as very shocking when they were first released (think ‟Lolita” from Vladimir Nabokov about the obsession of a middle-aged literature professor with a 12 year’s old girl, which today would probably be described as a glorification of pedophilia), they would probably never see the light of day, if they were to be published in our era.

Therefore, today’s cultural sensitivities push towards the publication and broadcasting, of written, audio and visual creative content which is bland, right-thinking, watered-down, in which the author only refers to what he or she knows, in the most neutral way possible.

This need to use ‟auto-censorship” in any content a creator wishes to publish is compounded by the fact that today, consumers of creative content do not differentiate between the author of the work, and his or her creative output. There is no separation between the author and content creator, and his or her body of work and/or fictional characters. With Millenials and US universities becoming obsessed with identity questions (i.e. the identity or feeling of belonging to a group, such as the gay community, the black community, etc.), it is the person who writes the book, or song, or writes or directs a film, who is now also important, maybe even more important than the work itself.

As a result, any content creator who writes or sings or produces an audiovisual work about a community other than his or her own, may be accused of cultural appropriation (i.e. the adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity) and even become the object of victimhood culture (i.e. a term coined by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, in their 2018 book ‟The rise of victimhood culture: microaggressions, safe spaces and the new culture wars”, to describe the attitude whereby the victims publicize microaggressions to call attention to what they see as the deviant behaviour of the offenders, thereby calling attention to their own victimization, lowering the offender’s moral status and raising their own moral status).

In this climate, it is therefore easier to publish or broadcast creative content if you belong to a minority (by being, for example, homosexual, black, brown, or a female), while white heterosexual male creators have definitely become disadvantaged, and more susceptible to being targets of ‟cancel culture”.

To conclude, a lot of prior thoughts and research and preparation and planning need to be put into the creation, and then broadcasting and publication, of any creative content today, not only with respect to such output, but also in relation to the identity, and positioning, of his or her author. If this conscious effort of adhering to right-thinking and bland ideologies is appropriately and astutely done, you and your creative output may successfully ride the storm of, not only French and UK legal limitations to your freedom of expression, but also the nasty impact of cancel culture and online shaming, hence maximising your chances that your creative work generates a commercial success.

 

Crefovi regularly updates its social media channels, such as Linkedin, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook. Check our latest news there!

 

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How to fight abuses of dominant position done by way of IP claims & denigration?

When a competitor which used to reign as a warlord in a particular market becomes challenged by a new player, this competitor may use tactics such as systematic and heavy-handed enforcement of alleged intellectual property rights, as well as aggressive smearing and denigration campaigns, to deter this new entrant. The situation may soon become untenable for the new kid on the block, as potential customers are scared away and dissuaded by the blows forcefully and repeatedly inflicted upon by the dominant player. What to do if you and your business are targeted by such hyper-aggressive competitor? How can you defend yourself against these abuses of dominant position?

abuses of dominant positionThe right balance between intellectual property rights (“IPRs“) and free competition is very difficult to strike, especially in markets and jurisdictions which are hyper protective of IPRs of right owners, like in Europe. When the right owner is manipulative, hyper-aggressive and unprepared to share his or her turf, they may use the so-called enforcement of IPRs to drive any new entrants in their specific market away; thus creating many abuses of dominant position.

1. What’s going on?

Nowhere as seriously have I witnessed such anti-competitive behaviour from a competitor occur, than in the automotive sector.

I was instructed to attend a trade show in the South of France, last year in September 2019, in order to assist a Chinese automotive company and its Spanish distributor on their stand, as they were systematically and repetitively subjected to court-ordered police raids and interim seizures, on any European trade fair that they had attended, and were attending, since the launch of their new automotive business two years’ prior.

As you might have guessed, it is their competitor, a German company in a monopolistic situation on that particular segment of the automotive sector, which was behind this constant derailing of each one of my clients’ trade exhibitions in Europe.

None of my clients’ trade shows in the USA were perturbed by these court-ordered seizures and police raids and court orders to immediately close down their stand on the tradeshows, based on the allegations of IPR counterfeiting made by such German competitor: no US court was accepting to grant the German competitor such overarching measures to stop free competition on a pretence of infringement of IPRs.

However, each one of the European courts to which such over-the-top interim and immediate measures were requested by such German competitor, in the context of European trade fairs held in Germany, Spain, France and Monaco, happily obliged and granted such court orders. As a result, these interim measures had forced my clients to close down their stand on each of these European trade shows prematurely, because my clients were deprived of their products and prototypes taken away during those police-led raids and seizures on their stands, as well as forced sales and seizures of their prototypes and products, ordered by some of these European courts.

Not only was the German competitor using its monopolistic status to manipulate European courts into driving its Spanish and Chinese competitors (my clients) away, alleging some IPRs infringements right and left, but it also conducted a vast, well-oiled and well-orchestrated denigration and smearing campaign against my clients, through the use of private eyes in various European locations, as well as through listening and taping the phone calls and text messages exchanged by my clients on their mobile phones. As a result, the German monopolist was able to always contact, before my clients, all the trade fair organisers, potential distributors and other third parties and business partners interested in my clients’ products, in order to denigrate my clients as “Chinese counterfeiters” who manufactured “dangerous and unfit automotive sea products” (sic). Consequently, European trade show organisers, potential European distributors and potential European end-consumers of my Chinese and Spanish clients were spooked, and took an enormous amount of convincing and cajoling, in order to establish, or re-establish, a rapport with my two clients.

Thanks to my intervention, during two of my clients’ trade fairs in Cannes, France, and Monaco, in September 2019, the humiliating option of having to close down their stand before the end of these trade shows was spared, since I efficiently liaised with the bailiff instructed by the French lawyers of the German competitor, in order to salvage some of my clients’ prototypes from a forced sale imposed by the Paris “tribunal de grande instance” on some quaint and unfounded allegations of patent and design infringement made by this German competitor.

I had seen some prior abuses of dominant position, in particular in the fashion sector and the fashion textile trade shows’ segment, perpetrated by luxury conglomerates and the largest fashion textile trade fair in the world, in the past. However, this first-hand experience of abuse of IPRs, abuse of dominant position and smearing and denigration campaigns against my automotive clients was on another level.

2. What can you do to protect yourself against some abuses of IPRs and of dominant position perpetrated by a competitor?

The enforcement of IPRs across the European Union (“EU“) has been harmonised, to some extent, by the Directive 2004/48/EC of 29 April 2004 on the enforcement of intellectual property rights (the “Enforcement directive”). However, nothing is set out, in the 21 articles of the Enforcement directive about any restrictions on the enforcement of IPRs due to a breach of competition law by the IPRs owner.

Consequently, and since France is extremely protective of IPRs owners, there are no restrictions on how IPRs may be enforced by right owners against third parties, in the French Intellectual property code; provided that any mandatory prior depositing and registration procedures (which are applicable to industrial IPRs such as design rights, trademarks and patents) have been complied with.

Under English law, there are some key restrictions on the ability to enforce IPRs, which include:

  • the risk of incurring liability for groundless threats of IPRs infringements, the law of which has been significantly reformed in the United Kingdom (UK) by the Intellectual Property (Unjustified Threats) Act 2017, and
  • specific defences to infringement and restrictions on available remedies for each IPR.

Therefore, if your dominant competitor raises some alleged IPRs infringement claims against you and your business in the UK, then you may make the most of these legal tools offered to you, from the “actionable threats” defense, to the “unjustified threats” defense, via UK civil court proceedings.

When an IPRs owner abuses its dominant position, it starts with obtaining some interim IPRs measures, such as the seizures and force sales on my clients’ stands in their trade show, against its competitors. Then, the dominant abuser lodges some IPRs infringement proceedings in front of the competent civil – and sometimes criminal – courts, against its smaller competitors, to obtain some damages for the alleged acts of IPRs infringements.

In France, the Tribunaux judiciaires (district courts) have exclusive jurisdiction in hearing cases concerning copyright, national trademarks and national design rights; while the Paris Tribunal judiciaire has exclusive jurisdiction in hearing cases concerning patents and EU rights (i.e. EU trademark and design rights). For example, after the Cannes yachting trade show in September 2019, the German monopolist lodged a fully-fledged patent infringement lawsuit against the Spanish distributor of the Chinese manufacturer, with the Paris Tribunal judiciaire, within 30 days from the day of the seizure and forced sale which took place during the Cannes trade fair. Copyright holders can also take action in the French criminal courts for counterfeiting.

In the UK, IPRs are primarily enforced via civil court proceedings, and the English High Court is the most common venue. IPRs proceedings in the English High Court are heard in the Chancery division, and different specialist lists are available:

  • the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (“IPEC“) can hear any IPRs claim of relatively low complexity and value: the IPEC is suitable for claims which can be tried in two days or less, damages are capped at GBP500,000 and recoverable legal costs are subject to a cap of GBP50,000;
  • the Patent Court can hear claims relating to patents, registered designs, semiconductor rights and plant varieties. There is no cap on damages or recoverable legal costs; and
  • all other IPRs claims can be heard in the Intellectual Property List of the Chancery Division, of which the Patent Court and IPEC are sub-lists.

The problem, though, is that aside from the above-mentioned “actionable threats” and “unjustified threats” defenses, which can only be invoked in front of UK courts, neither the French Tribunaux judiciaires, nor the English High Court and its specialist lists, can review and decide on any anti-competitive behaviour and abuse of dominant position claims raised, as a counter-offensive, by the new entrant in a particular industrial sector, which is being subjected to IPRs infringement claims in front of these IP courts by the dominant player in that particular industry.

So, to continue with the example of my Spanish and Chinese clients, the Spanish distributor which is now the defendant in the patent infringement lawsuit lodged by the German monopolist in the automotive sector (the claimant), with the Paris Tribunal judiciaire, cannot make some counterclaims of abuse of dominant position and anti-competitive behaviour, as a counter-offensive, within the scope of that lawsuit with the Paris Tribunal judiciaire. Why? Because the Paris Tribunal judiciaire is not competent to review such claims relating to breaches of competition law: like the other French tribunaux judiciaires, it is only competent to review claims in relation to breaches of IPRs and laws on intellectual property.

So what is a quashed new entrant in this industrial sector to do then, under these circumstances? Well, the first priority is to find and retain expert and very aggressive legal counsel who will defend it against the wrongful allegations of IPRs infringement made by the monopolistic competitor. Such lawyer specialised in intellectual property matters shall also file some counterclaims against such abusive competitor, on behalf of its client, for like-for-like breaches of its client’s IPRs, invoking free riding and unfair competition (if in front of French courts) or passing off (if in front of UK courts).

The second priority, for the new entrant being wrongfully sued for alleged IPRs infringement by its dominant competitor, is to simultaneously file a claim against that abusive competitor with the national authorities responsible for reviewing and investigating the competitive effects of conduct related to the exercise of IPRs.

In France, the French Competition Authority (“FCA“) is the independent administrative body that specialises in analysing and regulating the operation of competition on markets to protect the economic public order. Its goal is to supervise the free play of competition in France. It can issue an opinion on the investigations it carries out, which can be subject to appeal only to the Paris Court of appeal. The rulings of the Court of appeal can also be the subject of recourse to the French Supreme court (“cour de cassation”). However, any judicial action relating to an infringement concerning the application of competition law can be taken before the Marseilles, Bordeaux, Lille, Fort-de-France, Lyon, Nancy, Paris and Rennes Commercial tribunals on the first instance jurisdictions.

Therefore, our Spanish and Chinese clients should not only fight the patent infringement allegations lodged by their German dominant competitor in front of the Paris Tribunal judiciaire, but also file some claims against that German competitor with either the FCA, or the Paris Commercial tribunal, for abuse of dominant position and anti-competitive behaviour. The claimants will try to obtain a judgment against these anti-competitive practices, as well as some paid damages for the prejudice suffered.

In the UK, the competition authority is the Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA“), which reviews and investigates compliance with competition law. The CMA’s remit includes the review and control of the exercise of IPRs insofar as they affect competition. The Competition Appeal Tribunal (“CAT“) is a specialist competition tribunal and hears appeals against the decisions of the CMA. An appeal from the CAT can be made to the Court of Appeal. Follow-on and standalone claims for competition law damages can be raised in the High court and in the CAT.

As you might have inferred from the above, the new entrant who is subjected to these various IPRs infringement claims by the abusive and dominant competitor, better have very deep pockets and unlimited wells of patience and resilience, in order to not only fight off an IPRs infringement lawsuit against its monopolistic competitor, but also drive through to completion some well-evidenced abuse of dominant position and anti-competitive behaviour claims in front of the competent competition authorities or courts, in either France or the UK.

It may all be worth it in the long term, though, as the recent high-profile cases dealing with the intersection of competition law and IPRs detailed below attest.

In 2014, the FCA ruled against Nespresso, the market leader for machines and capsules. Nespresso linked the purchase of its capsules with that of its coffee machines, thereby excluding manufacturers of competing capsules. Such exclusionary practices were reported by its competitors DEMB and Ethical Coffee to the FCA, as abuse of dominant position. In the decision issued by the FCA dated 4 September 2014, Nespresso was required to make several commitments intended to remove the obstacles to the entry and development of other manufacturers of capsules that would work with the brands’ coffee machines.

In 2016, the CMA fined GSK and two other pharmaceutical companies (the generic companies) in relation to anticompetitive patent settlement agreements. The CMA also found that GSK abused its dominant position in the UK market, by seeking to delay the generic companies’ entry into the market.

3. What can you do to protect yourself against some the acts of denigration and smearing perpetrated by a competitor?

A new form of abusive conduct has been identified, namely the practice of dominant companies excluding or reducing competition from competitors, by identifying exactly what non-price parameters are important for competition, and setting up some strategic campaigns to influence the purchasing behaviour of customers, typically by portraying competing products or services as unsafe and/or inefficient or of significantly lower quality.

These practices are usually referred to as “denigration” and “smearing campaigns”. Denigration means to criticize a competitor’s products or services in a derogatory manner, ultimately with a view to influencing customers purchasing patterns.

While such practices are usually dealt with under the unfair marketing rules in national legislations, some very serious cases found their way into the competition law arena.

Indeed, in several cases, the denigrating conduct has been part of dominant companies’ communication strategies with the clear object of disseminating information to customers about a competitor in order to create an air of uncertainty and/or doubt regarding either the competitor’s ability to carry out certain activities or putting a question mark on the quality, safety or efficacy of their products and services.

Denigrating conduct is most often seen in the form of dissemination of negative information based on false or misleading assertions in regard to competing products with the intention of having an impact on customers’ purchasing decisions.

Denigration of competitors’ products have long-lasting effects in the market because the unjustified doubts or fears can only be overcome with a significant effort by the target company to (re)educate and (dis)prove the denigrating statements in front of end-customers, distributors, etc.

Whilst at the European level, the European Commission has not yet had the opportunity to take a decision on a dominant company denigrating competitor products, there is considerable body of law at national level under article 102 TFEU, in particular in France.

The French cases have covered not only the pharmaceutical sector, but also the telecoms, electricity and pay-TV industries. Common to all these cases is that the dominant player has attempted to hinder market entry and product switch through denigrating competitor products in a number of different ways. Typically, the dominant company conducted a consistent, widespread strategy of misinformation to people who took or influenced purchasing decisions.

For example, in the matter with my Chinese and Spanish clients, their German dominant competitor would spread the word, before each trade show, that they had been sentenced to paying some counterfeiting damages to such German competitor, by a German court, and that their China-made sea scooters were of inferior quality and breaking all the time. This false information was diffused to the trade fair organisers, by the German competitor, in order to push the trade fairs to refuse access to their show to my clients, who were branded “counterfeiters” by their German competitor. But this denigration was also done with each one of the European potential distributors my clients, with threats made by the German competitor that it would stop trading with the distributor if the latter started any business with the Chinese manufacturer and its Spanish representative.

In France, the FCA has thus in its more than 10 denigration cases consistently held that denigration of competitors or their products, does not constitute competition on the merits and as as result, denigration can constitute an abuse of dominant position in certain circumstances. In French case law, for denigration to infringe article 102 TFEU, four clear elements have to be proven:

  • there is denigration of a competitor’s product with a view to obtaining a commercial advantage;
  • a link between the dominance and the practice of denigration has to be established;
  • it has to be verified whether the statements put forward in the market by the dominant company are based on objective findings or assertions that are not verified, and
  • whether the commercial statements are liable to influence the structure of the market.

The denigration cases assessed by the FCA and other European competition authorities have so far turned on the dominant company identifying the most important non-price parameters to be able to compete in a market and concluding that the relevant customer decision process could be influenced by instilling fears or concerns that are then conveyed to decision makers and stakeholders in a systematic and consistent smearing campaign.

Therefore, it seems that abuse of a dominant position as a consequence of denigrating conduct is more likely to be sanctioned in sectors where non-price competition parameters are more relevant than price. The more important a given parameter is, the more critical it is when a dominant company tries to exclude competitors through either false or misleading information, or tries to make information credible in a covert manner.

To conclude, a new entrant in a market, which is subjected to an abuse of IPRs and/or a smearing campaign to systematically denigrate its products, by the dominant player in that particular industry, has more than one string to its bow in order to fight back. However, such new kid on the block must brace himself or herself for lengthy, draining and expensive legal battles, both as a defendant against the wrongful alleged claims of counterfeiting of its IPRs, raised by the dominant and abusive competitor, and as a claimant in front of the competent European competition authority, through which it will have raised some claims against such competitor for abuse of dominant position, in particular by way of denigration and smearing campaign.

These various legal battles will eventually neutralise the dominant competitor, while having a rigorous and well-organised IPR registration and maintenance strategy in place, for the new entrant in the market, is essential. All new models, products, brands, services should have their respective IPR registered, and then listed in a catalogue of IPRs maintained by the legal counsel of the new entrant. All evidence, and certificates, of registration should be kept and archived meticulously, to anticipate any IPRs infringement claim that the dominant competitor may bring. Non-disclosure and confidentiality clauses should be set out in all the contracts entered into with new employees, distributors, service providers who will assist the new entrant before and during the trade shows (PR agencies, hostesses’ agencies, logistics companies, etc).

Our law firm Crefovi specialises in dealing with these types of IPRs claims and IP antitrust claims, so don’t hesitate to give us a buzz.


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Do you need to put in place an escrow agreement with respect to the software and/or source code that you license?

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In this digital and technological corporate world, having a plan B in case your software or computer program license goes wrong is a must. Can a customer successfully leverage its position, by entering into an escrow agreement with the licensor? How does the source code escrow work, anyway? When can the source escrow be released to the licensee? [hr]

1. What is software escrow and source code escrow?

1.1. What is source code?

Source code is the version of software as it is originally written (i.e. typed into a computer) by a human in plain text (i.e. human readable alphanumeric characters), according to the Linux Information Project.

The notion of source code may also be taken more broadly, to include machine code and notations in graphical languages, neither of which are textual in nature.

For example, during a presentation to peers or potential clients, the software creator may ascertain from the outset that, “for the purpose of clarity, ‘source code’ is taken to mean any fully executable description of a software system. It is therefore construed to include machine code, very high level languages and executable graphical representations of systems”.

Often, there are several steps of program translation or minification (i.e. the process of removing all unnecessary characters from the source code of interpreted programming languages or markup languages, without changing its functionality) between the original source code typed by a human and an executable program.

Source code is primarily used as input to the process that produces an executable computer programme (i.e. it is compiled or interpreted). Hence, computer programmers often find it useful to review existing source code to learn about programming techniques. So much so, that sharing of source code between developers is frequently cited as a contributing factor to the maturation of their programming skills.

Moreover, porting software to other computer platforms is usually prohibitively difficult – if not impossible – without source code.

1.2. Legal status of software, computer programs and source code

In the United Kingdom, section 3 (Literary, dramatic and musical works) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (“CDPA 1988“) provides that among works which are protected by copyright, are ‘computer programs’, ‘preparatory design material for a computer program’ and ‘databases’ (i.e. collections of independent works, data or other materials which are arranged in a systematic or methodical way and are individually accessible by electronic or other means).

Section 3A of the CDPA 1988 provides that the standard for copyright protection is higher, for databases, than for other ‘literary works’, since they must be original (i.e. by reason of the selection or arrangement of the contents of the database, the database constitutes the author’s own intellectual creation). Since the CDPA 1988 has no equivalent provision for computer programs, it is common knowledge that the provisions of section 3A of the CDPA 1988, relating to originality, apply to both databases and computer programs.

Moreover, the European Directive on the legal protection of databases (Directive 96/9/EC) and the Computer Directive (Directive 91/250/EEC) confirm these higher standards of originality for computer programs and databases, in the sense that they are the author’s own intellectual creation. This is a higher standard of originality than “skill, labour and judgment”.

Article L112-2 of the French intellectual property code (“IPC“) provides that softwares, including preliminary conception work, are deemed to be ‘works from the mind’ protected by copyright. That copyright protection includes source code.

Both in France and the UK, the duration of copyright for software and computer programs is 70 years after the death of the author or, if the author is a legal entity, from the date on which the software was made public.

Copyright is acquired automatically in France and the UK, upon creation of the software or computer program, without any need for registration of such intellectual property right.

Both under English and French law, computer programs are regarded as not protectable via other registered intellectual property rights, such as patents. Indeed, section 1(2) (c) of the Patents Act 1977 (“PA 1977“) lists computer programs among the things that are not regarded as being inventions “as such”. Article L611-10 of the IPC does the same in France.

1.3. Software escrow / source code escrow

Since authors of software and computer programs – which include source code – own the copyright to their work, they can licence these works. Indeed, the author has the right to grant customers and users of his software some of his exclusive rights in form of software licensing.

While some softwares are ‘open source’, i.e. free to use, distribute, modify and study, most softwares are ‘proprietary’, i.e. privately owned, restricted and, sometimes, kept secret.

For proprietary software, the only way for a user to have lawful access to it is by obtaining a license to use from its author.

When some very large sums of money are exchanged, between the licensor (i.e. the author of the software and source code) and its licensees (i.e. the users of such software and source code), a precautionary measure may be required by the latter: software escrow.

It is the deposit of software source code with a third-party escrow agent, such as Iron Mountain or SES. The source code is securely administered by a trusted, neutral third party to protect the developer’s intellectual property, while at the same time keeping a copy safe for the licensees in case anything happens, such as the licensor no longer being able to support the software or going into bankruptcy. If that situation materialises, the licensees request a release of the source code from the escrow account and are able to keep their businesses up and running. This escrow solution effectively gives the licensee control of the source code and options to move forward.

2. How do you put source code escrow in place?

Many organisations have a standing policy to require software developers to escrow source code of products the organisations are licensing.

Therefore, alongside the licensing agreement to use the computer program, in-house or external lawyers of the licensees also negotiate the terms of an escrow agreement pursuant to which the source code of that computer program will be put in escrow with a trusted third party.

3. Is it worth requesting source code escrow alongside a software license?

Only a small percentage of escrows are ever released: Iron Mountain, the dominant escrow agent in the USA, has thousands of escrow accounts and more than 45,000 customers worldwide that have stored their software and source code with them. Over the 10-year period from 1990 to 1999, Iron Mountain released 96 escrow accounts, less than 10 per year.

Just as well, because escrow agreements are entered into as a kind of insurance policy, only to be used in case something goes very wrong at the licensor’s company, which triggers one of the release events (insolvency, case of force majeure, death of the computer developer, etc.).

However, one valid cons is that most escrowed source code is defective: often, upon release, source code fails to provide adequate protection because it is outdated, defective or fails to meet the licensee’s needs. According to Iron Mountain again, 97.4 percent of all analysed escrow material deposits have been found incomplete and 74 percent have required additional input from developers to be compiled. This is a valid point and licensees of the software, who insist on getting an escrow agreement as well, must insert some clauses in the escrow agreement whereby the escrowed source code is tested on a very regular basis by both the licensee and the licensor, in order to ensure that such escrowed source code will be usable as soon as one “release event”, set out in the escrow agreement, materialises. The licensor should have an obligation of result to maintain the escrowed source code up-to-date and fully operational, throughout the duration of the escrow agreement.

Another point of caution is that licensees may lack the expertise to use the released source code. Even if the licensor has been diligent and the released source code is properly updated, well-documented and fully operational, most licensees lack the technical resources or capability to utilise the source code upon release. The licensees may work around this problem by either hiring an engineer who has the technical knowledge to make the most of that released source code (bearing in mind that most software licensing agreements bar licensees from poaching licensor’s employees during the term of the license) or instructing a third-party software company. The best and most economical approach is to be as autonomous as possible, as a licensee, by developing in-house expertise on the workings of the software, and its source code, even before one of the release events materialises.

Another identified problem is that software licensors may prevent the timely release of the escrowed source code by imposing some unilateral conditions to the release, such as the vendor having to provide its written prior approval before the source code is released by the escrow agent, upon the materialisation of a release event. Additionally, many escrow agreements require parties to participate in lengthy alternative dispute resolution proceedings, such as arbitration or mediation, in the event of a dispute relating to the release of the source code. A commonly disputed issue is whether a release event actually occurred, even when the software licensor has gone into bankruptcy! The long delay and expensive legal battle needed to obtain the source code release, may become very heavy burdens for a licensee, compounded by the difficulty to keep the licensee’s computer program and software working – as the licensor, and its technical support, have faded away. In order to avoid such delays and complications in the release of the escrowed source code, the terms of the escrow agreement must initially be reviewed, and negotiated, by an IT lawyer experienced in this area, so that all clauses are watertight and can be executed immediately and in a smooth manner, upon the occurrence of a release event.

Another cost consideration is that the expenses related to the opening and maintenance of an escrow agreement are high, and typically borne by the licensee. In addition to the fees paid to the escrow agent, the customer will often incur significant legal expenses related to the drafting and negotiation of the escrow agreement, as explained above. Software licensors being really resistant to providing their proprietary source code to anyone, escrow agreements are often subjects of long negotiations, before they are signed. However, while doing a costs/benefits analysis of getting the source code escrow, the licensee must assess how much it would cost, in case a release event occurred (bankruptcy of the licensor, case of force majeure, etc) but no prior software escrow had been put in place. If the licensee has made a considerable investment in the software, the cost to protect this asset via an escrow agreement may be trivial.

Some companies say that, since they now rely on Software-as-a-Service solutions (“SaaS“) for some of their IT needs and functionalities, there is no need for software escrow because the SaaS relies on a cloud-based system. However, SaaS implies that you need to think about both the software and your company’s data, which is indeed stored on the cloud – which adds a level of complexity. Since most SaaS provider’s business continuity/disaster recovery plans do not extend to a company’s application and data, some new insurance products have entered the market, combining both the source code escrow and disaster recovery and risk management solution. For example, Iron Mountain markets its SaaSProtect Solutions for business continuity.

To conclude, licensees need to conduct a costs/benefits analysis of having an escrow agreement in place, alongside the licensing agreement of their major software applications, in respect of each computer program which is perceived as absolutely paramount to the economic survival, and business continuity, of the licensees. Once they have balanced out the pros and cons of putting in place escrow agreements, they need to draft a list of their essential “wants” to be set out in each escrow agreement (for example, a detailed list of the release events which would trigger the release of source code to the licensee, the quarterly obligation borne by the licensor to maintain the source code in up-to-date form and working order, the secondment of a highly qualified computer programmer employee of the licensor to the offices of the licensee, on a full-time or part-time basis, in order to train in-house IT staff about the intricacies of the software and its source code) and then pass on such list to their instructed lawyer – who should be an IT expert lawyer, seasoned in reviewing and negotiating escrow agreements – for his or her review and constructive criticism and feedback. Once the licensees have agreed an “escrow insurance plan” strategy internally, and then with their counsel, they need to contact the licensor, its management and legal team, and circulate to them a term sheet of the future escrow agreement, in order to kick off the negotiation of the escrow agreement.

An escrow agreement is, and should remain, an insurance policy for the licensee, as long as it – in coordination with its legal counsel – has paved the way to a successful and well thought-out escrow rescue plan. This way, the user of the software will avoid all the pitfalls of poorly understood and drafted escrow agreements and source codes, for the present and future.

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Why the valuation of intangible assets matters: the unstoppable rise of intangibles’ reporting in the 21st century’s corporate environment

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It is high time France and the UK up their game in terms of accounting for, reporting and leveraging the intangible assets owned by their national businesses and companies, while Asia and the US currently lead the race, here. European lenders need to do their bit, too, to empower creative and innovative SMEs, and provide them with adequate financing to sustain their growth and ambitions, by way of intangible assets backed-lending. [hr]

Back in May 2004, I published an in-depth study on the financing of luxury brands, and how the business model developed by large luxury conglomerates was coming out on top. 16 years down the line, I can testify that everything I said in that 2004 study was in the money: the LVMH, Kering, Richemont and L’Oreal of this word dominate the luxury and fashion sectors today, with their multibrands’ business model which allows them to both make vast economies of scale and diversify their economic as well as financial risks.

However, in the midst of the COVID 19 pandemic which constrains us all to work from home through virtual tools such as videoconferencing, emails, chats and sms, I came to realise that I omitted a very important topic from that 2004 study, which is however acutely relevant in the context of developing, and growing, creative businesses in the 21st century. It is that intangible assets are becoming the most important and valuable assets of creative companies (including, of course, luxury and fashion houses).

Indeed, traditionally, tangible and fixed assets, such as land, plants, stock, inventory and receivables were used to assess the intrinsic value of a company, and, in particular, were used as security in loan transactions. Today, most successful businesses out there, in particular in the technology sector (Airbnb, Uber, Facebook) but not only, derive the largest portion of their worth from their intangible assets, such as intellectual property rights (trademarks, patents, designs, copyright), brands, knowhow, reputation, customer loyalty, a trained workforce, contracts, licensing rights, franchises.

Our economy has changed in fundamental ways, as business is now mainly “knowledge based”, rather than industrial, and “intangibles” are the new drivers of economic activity, the Financial Reporting Council (“FRC“) set out in its paper “Business reporting of intangibles: realistic proposals”, back in February 2019.

However, while such intangibles are becoming the driving force of our businesses and economies worldwide, they are consistently ignored by chartered accountants, bankers and financiers alike. As a result, most companies – in particular, Small and Medium Enterprises (“SMEs“)- cannot secure any financing with money men because their intangibles are still deemed to … well, in a nutshell … lack physical substance! This limits the scope of growth of many creative businesses; to their detriment of course, but also to the detriment of the UK and French economies in which SMEs account for an astounding 99% of private sector business, 59% of private sector employment and 48% of private sector turnover.

How could this oversight happen and materialise, in the last 20 years? Where did it all go wrong? Why do we need to very swiftly address this lack of visionary thinking, in terms of pragmatically adapting double-entry book keeping and accounting rules to the realities of companies operating in the 21st century?

How could such adjustments in, and updates to, our old ways of thinking about the worth of our businesses, be best implemented, in order to balance the need for realistic valuations of companies operating in the “knowledge economy” and the concern expressed by some stakeholders that intangible assets might peter out at the first reputation blow dealt to any business?

 

1. What is the valuation and reporting of intangible assets?

1.1. Recognition and measurement of intangible assets within accounting and reporting

In the European Union (“EU“), there are two levels of accounting regulation:

  • the international level, which corresponds to the International Accounting Standards (“IAS“), and International Financial Reporting Standards (“IFRS“) issued by the International Accounting Standards Board (“IASB“), which apply compulsorily to the consolidated financial statements of listed companies and voluntarily to other accounts and entities according to the choices of each country legislator, and
  • a national level, where the local regulations are driven by the EU accounting directives, which have been issued from 1978 onwards, and which apply to the remaining accounts and companies in each EU member-state.

The first international standard on recognition and measurement of intangible assets was International Accounting Standard 38 (“IAS 38“), which was first issued in 1998. Even though it has been amended several times since, there has not been any significant change in its conservative approach to recognition and measurement of intangible assets.

An asset is a resource that is controlled by a company as a result of past events (for example a purchase or self-creation) and from which future economic benefits (such as inflows of cash or other assets) are expected to flow to this company. An intangible asset is defined by IAS 38 as an identifiable non-monetary asset without physical substance.

There is a specific reference to intellectual property rights (“IPRs“), in the definition of “intangible assets” set out in paragraph 9 of IAS 38, as follows: “entities frequently expend resources, or incur liabilities, on the acquisition, development, maintenance or enhancement of intangible resources such as scientific or technical knowledge, design and implementation of new processes or systems, licenses, intellectual property, market knowledge and trademarks (including brand names and publishing titles). Common examples of items encompassed by these broad headings are computer software, patents, copyrights, motion picture films, customer lists, mortgage servicing rights, fishing licences, import quotas, franchises, customer or supplier relationships, customer loyalty, market share and marketing rights“.

However, it is later clarified in IAS 38, that in order to recognise an intangible asset on the face of balance sheet, it must be identifiable and controlled, as well as generate future economic benefits flowing to the company that owns it.

The recognition criterion of “identifiability” is described in paragraph 12 of IAS 38 as follows.

An asset is identifiable if it either:

a. is separable, i.e. capable of being separated or divided from the entity and sold, transferred, licensed, rented or exchanged, either individually or together with a related contract, identifiable asset or liability, regardless of whether the entity intends to do so; or

b. arises from contractual or other legal rights, regardless of whether those rights are transferable or separable from the entity or from other rights and obligations“.

“Control” is an essential feature in accounting and is described in paragraph 13 of IAS 38.

An entity controls an asset if the entity has the power to obtain the future economic benefits flowing from the underlying resource and to restrict the access of others to those benefits. The capacity of an entity to control the future economic benefits from an intangible asset would normally stem from legal rights that are enforceable in a court of law. In the absence of legal rights, it is more difficult to demonstrate control. However, legal enforceability of a right is not a necessary condition for control because an entity may be able to control the future economic benefits in some other way“.

In order to have an intangible asset recognised as an asset on company balance sheet, such intangible has to satisfy also some specific accounting recognition criteria, which are set out in paragraph 21 of IAS 38.

An intangible asset shall be recognised if, and only if:

a. it is probable that the expected future economic benefits that are attributable to the asset will flow to the entity; and 

b. the cost of the asset can be measured reliably“.

The recognition criteria illustrated above are deemed to be always satisfied when an intangible asset is acquired by a company from an external party at a price. Therefore, there are no particular problems to record an acquired intangible asset on the balance sheet of the acquiring company, at the consideration paid (i.e. historical cost).

1.2. Goodwill v. other intangible assets

Here, before we develop any further, we must draw a distinction between goodwill and other intangible assets, for clarification purposes.

Goodwill is an intangible asset that is associated with the purchase of one company by another. Specifically, goodwill is the portion of the purchase price that is higher than the sum of the net fair value of all of the assets purchased in the acquisition and the liabilities assumed in the process (= purchase price of the acquired company – (net fair market value of identifiable assets – net fair value of identifiable liabilities)).

The value of a company’s brand name, solid customer base, good customer relations, good employee relations, as well as proprietary technology, represent some examples of goodwill, in this context.

The value of goodwill arises in an acquisition, i.e. when an acquirer purchases a target company. Goodwill is then recorded as an intangible asset on the acquiring company’s balance sheet under the long-term assets’ account.

Under Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (“GAAP“) and IFRS, these companies which acquired targets in the past and therefore recorded those targets’ goodwill on their balance sheet, are then required to evaluate the value of goodwill on their financial statements at least once a year, and record any impairments.

Impairment of an asset occurs when its market value drops below historical cost, due to adverse events such as declining cash flows, a reputation backlash, increased competitive environment, etc. Companies assess whether an impairment is needed by performing an impairment test on the intangible asset. If the company’s acquired net assets fall below the book value, or if the company overstated the amount of goodwill, then it must impair or do a write-down on the value of the asset on the balance sheet, after it has assessed that the goodwill is impaired. The impairment expense is calculated as the difference between the current market value and the purchase price of the intangible asset. The impairment results in a decrease in the goodwill account on the balance sheet.

This expense is also recognised as a loss on the income statement, which directly reduces net income for the year. In turn, earnings per share (‟EPS”) and the company’s stock price are also negatively affected.

The Financial Accounting Standards Board (“FASB“), which sets standards for GAAP rules, and the IASB, which sets standards for IFRS rules, are considering a change to how goodwill impairment is calculated. Because of the subjectivity of goodwill impairment, and the cost of testing impairment, FASB and IASB are considering reverting to an older method called “goodwill amortisation” in which the value of goodwill is slowly reduced annually over a number of years.

As set out above, goodwill is not the same as other intangible assets because it is a premium paid over fair value during a transaction, and cannot be bought or sold independently. Meanwhile, other intangible assets can be bought and sold independently.

Also, goodwill has an indefinite life, while other intangibles have a definite useful life (i.e. an accounting estimate of the number of years an asset is likely to remain in service for the purpose of cost-effective revenue generation).

1.3. Amortisation, impairment and subsequent measure of intangible assets other than goodwill

That distinction between goodwill and other intangible assets being clearly drawn, let’s get back to the issues revolving around recording intangible assets (other than goodwill) on the balance sheet of a company.

As set out above, if some intangible assets are acquired as a consequence of a business purchase or combination, the acquiring company recognises all these intangible assets, provided that they meet the definition of an intangible asset. This results in the recognition of intangibles – including brand names, IPRs, customer relationships – that would not have been recognised by the acquired company that developed them in the first place. Indeed, paragraph 34 of IAS 38 provides that “in accordance with this Standard and IFRS 3 (as revised in 2008), an acquirer recognises at the acquisition date, separately from goodwill, an intangible asset of the acquiree, irrespective of whether the asset had been recognised by the acquiree before the business combination. This means that the acquirer recognises as an asset separately from goodwill an in-process research and development project of the acquiree, if the project meets the definition of an intangible asset. An acquiree’s in-process research and development project meets the definition of an intangible asset when it:

a. meets the definition of an asset, and 

b. is identifiable, i.e. separable or arises from contractual or other legal rights.

Therefore, in a business acquisition or combination, the intangible assets that are “identifiable” (either separable or arising from legal rights) can be recognised and capitalised in the balance sheet of the acquiring company.

After initial recognition, the accounting value in the balance sheet of intangible assets with definite useful lives (e.g. IPRs, licenses) has to be amortised over the intangible asset’s expected useful life, and is subject to impairment tests when needed. As explained above, intangible assets with indefinite useful lives (such as goodwill or brands) will not be amortised, but only subject at least annually to an impairment test to verify whether the impairment indicators (“triggers”) are met. 

Alternatively, after initial recognition (at cost or at fair value in the case of business acquisitions or mergers), intangible assets with definite useful lives may be revalued at fair value less amortisation, provided there is an active market for the asset to be referred to, as can be inferred from paragraph 75 of IAS 38:

After initial recognition, an intangible asset shall be carried at a revalued amount, being its fair value at the date of the revaluation less any subsequent accumulated amortisation and any subsequent accumulated impairment losses. For the purpose of revaluations under this Standard, fair value shall be measured by reference to an active market. Revaluations shall be made with such regularity that at the end of the reporting period the carrying amount of the asset does not differ materially from its fair value.”

However, this standard indicates that the revaluation model can only be used in rare situations, where there is an active market for these intangible assets.

1.4. The elephant in the room: a lack of recognition and measurement of internally generated intangible assets

All the above about the treatment of intangible assets other than goodwill cannot be said for internally generated intangible assets. Indeed, IAS 38 sets out important differences in the treatment of those internally generated intangibles, which is currently – and rightfully – the subject of much debate among regulators and other stakeholders.

Internally generated intangible assets are prevented from being recognised, from an accounting standpoint, as they are being developed (while a business would normally account for internally generated tangible assets). Therefore, a significant proportion of internally generated intangible assets is not recognised in the balance sheet of a company. As a consequence, stakeholders such as investors, regulators, shareholders, financiers, are not receiving some very relevant information about this enterprise, and its accurate worth.

Why such a standoffish attitude towards internally generated intangible assets? In practice, when the expenditure to develop intangible asset is incurred, it is often very unclear whether that expenditure is going to generate future economic benefits. It is this uncertainty that prevents many intangible assets from being recognised as they are being developed. This perceived lack of reliability of the linkage between expenditures and future benefits pushes towards the treatment of such expenditures as “period cost”. It is not until much later, when the uncertainty is resolved (e.g. granting of a patent), that an intangible asset may be capable of recognition. As current accounting requirements primarily focus on transactions, an event such as the resolution of uncertainty surrounding an internally developed IPR is generally not captured in company financial statements.

Let’s take the example of research and development costs (“R&D“), which is one process of internally creating certain types of intangible assets, to illustrate the accounting treatment of intangible assets created in this way. 

Among accounting standard setters, such as IASB with its IAS 38, the most frequent practice is to require the immediate expensing of all R&D. However, France, Italy and Australia are examples of countries where national accounting rule makers allow the capitalisation of R&D, subject to conditions being satisfied. 

Therefore, in some circumstances, internally generated intangible assets can be recognised when the relevant set of recognition criteria is met, in particular the existence of a clear linkage of the expenditure to future benefits accruing to the company. This is called condition-based capitalisation. In these cases, the cost that a company has incurred in that financial year, can be capitalised as an asset; the previous costs having already been expensed in earlier income statements. For example, when a patent is finally granted by the relevant intellectual property office, only the expenses incurred during that financial year can be capitalised and disclosed on the face of balance sheet among intangible fixed assets.

To conclude, under the current IFRS and GAAP regimes, internally generated intangible assets, such as IPRs, can only be recognised on balance sheet in very rare instances.

 

2.Why value and report intangible assets?

As developed in depth by the European Commission (“EC“) in its 2013 final report from the expert group on intellectual property valuation, the UK intellectual property office (“UKIPO“) in its 2013 “Banking on IP?” report and the FRC in its 2019 discussion paper “Business reporting of intangibles: realistic proposals”, the time for radical change to the accounting of intangible assets has come upon us. 

2.1. Improving the accurateness and reliability of financial communication

Existing accounting standards should be advanced, updated and modernised to take greater account of intangible assets and consequently improve the relevance, objectivity and reliability of financial statements.

Not only that, but informing stakeholders (i.e. management, employees, shareholders, regulators, financiers, investors) appropriately and reliably is paramount today, in a corporate world where companies are expected to accurately, regularly and expertly manage and broadcast their financial communication to medias and regulators.

As highlighted by Janice Denoncourt in her blog post “intellectual property, finance and corporate governance“, no stakeholder wants an iteration of the Theranos’ fiasco, during which inventor and managing director Elizabeth Holmes was indicted for fraud in excess of USD700 million, by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC“), for having repeatedly, yet inaccurately, said that Theranos’ patented blood testing technology was both revolutionary and at the last stages of its development. Elizabeth Holmes made those assertions on the basis of the more than 270 patents that her and her team filed with the United States patent and trademark office (“USPTO“), while making some material omissions and misleading disclosures to the SEC, via Theranos’ financial statements, on the lame justification that “Theranos needed to protect its intellectual property” (sic).

Indeed, the stakes of financial communication are so high, in particular for the branding and reputation of any “knowledge economy” company, that, back in 2002, LVMH did not hesitate to sue Morgan Stanley, the investment bank advising its nemesis, Kering (at the time, named “PPR“), in order to obtain Euros100 million of damages resulting from Morgan Stanley’s alleged breach of conflicts of interests between its investment banking arm (which advised PPR’s top-selling brand, Gucci) and Morgan Stanley’s financial research division. According to LVMH, Clare Kent, Morgan Stanley’s luxury sector-focused analyst, systematically drafted and then published negative and biased research against LVMH share and financial results, in order to favor Gucci, the top-selling brand of the PPR luxury conglomerate and Morgan Stanley’s top client. While this lawsuit – the first of its kind in relation to alleged biased conduct in a bank’s financial analysis – looked far-fetched when it was lodged in 2002, LVMH actually won, both in first instance and on appeal.

Having more streamlined and accurate accounting, reporting and valuation of intangible assets – which are, today, the main and most valuable assets of any 21st century corporation – is therefore paramount for efficient and reliable financial communication.

2.2. Improving and diversifying access to finance

Not only that, but recognising the worth and inherent value of intangible assets, on balance sheet, would greatly improve the chances of any company – in particular, SMEs – to successfully apply for financing.

Debt finance is notoriously famous for shying away from using intangible assets as main collateral against lending because it is too risky.

For example, taking appropriate security controls over a company’s registered IPRs in a lending scenario would involve taking a fixed charge, and recording it properly on the Companies Registry at Companies House (in the UK) and on the appropriate IPRs’ registers. However, this hardly ever happens. Typically, at best, lenders are reliant on a floating charge over IPRs, which will crystallise in case of an event of default being triggered – by which time, important IPRs may have disappeared into thin air, or been disposed of; hence limiting the lender’s recovery prospects.

Alternatively, it is now possible for a lender to take an assignment of an IPR by way of security (generally with a licence back to the assignor to permit his or her continued use of the IPR) by an assignment in writing signed by the assignor (1). However, this is rarely done in practice. The reason is to avoid “maintenance”, i.e. to prevent the multiplicity of actions. Indeed, because intangibles are incapable of being possessed, and rights over them are therefore ultimately enforced by action, it has been considered that the ability to assign such rights would increase the number of actions (2).

Whilst there are improvements needed to the practicalities and easiness of registering a security interest over intangible assets, the basic step that is missing is a clear inventory of IPRs and other intangible assets, on balance sheet and/or on yearly financial statements, without which lenders can never be certain that these assets are in fact to hand.

Cases of intangible asset- backed lending (“IABL“) have occurred, whereby a bank provided a loan to a pension fund against tangible assets, and the pension fund then provided a sale and leaseback arrangement against intangible assets. Therefore, IABL from pension funds (on a sale and leaseback arrangement), rather than banks, provides a route for SMEs to obtain loans.

There have also been instances where specialist lenders have entered into sale and licence-back agreements, or sale and leaseback agreements, secured against intangible assets, including trademarks and software copyright. 

Some other types of funders than lenders, however, are already making the “intangible assets” link, such as equity investors (business angels, venture capital companies and private equity funds). They know that IPRs and other intangibles represent part of the “skin in the game” for SME owners and managers, who have often expended significant time and money in their creation, development and protection. Therefore, when equity investors assess the quality and attractiveness of investment opportunities, they invariably include consideration of the underlying intangible assets, and IPRs in particular. They want to understand the extent to which intangible assets owned by one of the companies they are potentially interested investing in, represent a barrier to entry, create freedom to operate and meet a real market need.

Accordingly, many private equity funds, in particular, have delved into investing in luxury companies, attracted by their high gross margins and net profit rates, as I explained in my 2013 article “Financing luxury companies: the quest of the Holy Grail (not!)“. Today, some of the most active venture capital firms investing in the European creative industries are Accel, Advent Venture Partners, Index Ventures, Experienced Capital, to name a few.

2.3. Adopting a systematic, consistent and streamlined approach to the valuation of intangible assets, which levels the playing field

If intangible assets are to be recognised in financial statements, in order to adopt a systematic and streamlined approach to their valuation, then fair value is the most obvious alternative to cost, as explained in paragraph 1.3. above.

How could we use fair value more widely, in order to capitalise intangible assets in financial statements?

IFRS 13 “Fair Value Measurements” identifies three widely-used valuation techniques: the market approach, the cost approach and the income approach.

The market approachuses prices and other relevant information generated by market transactions involving identical or comparable” assets. However, this approach is difficult in practice, since when transactions in intangibles occur, the prices are rarely made public. Publicly traded data usually represents a market capitalisation of the enterprise, not singular intangible assets. Market data from market participants is often used in income based models such as determining reasonable royalty rates and discount rates. Direct market evidence is usually available in the valuation of internet domain names, carbon emission rights and national licences (for radio stations, for example). Other relevant market data include sale/licence transactional data, price multiples and royalty rates.

The cost approachreflects the amount that would be required currently to replace the service capacity of an asset“. Deriving fair value under this approach therefore requires estimating the costs of developing an equivalent intangible asset. In practice, it is often difficult to estimate in advance the costs of developing an intangible. In most cases, replacement cost new is the most direct and meaningful cost based means of estimating the value of an intangible asset. Once replacement cost new is estimated, various forms of obsolescence must be considered, such as functional, technological and economic. Cost based models are best used for valuing an assembled workforce, engineering drawings or designs and internally developed software where no direct cash flow is generated.

The income approach essentially converts future cash flows (or income and expenses) to a single, discounted present value, usually as a result of increased turnover of cost savings. Income based models are best used when the intangible asset is income producing or when it allows an asset to generate cash flow. The calculation may be similar to that of value in use. However, to arrive at fair value, the future income must be estimated from the perspective of market participants rather than that of the entity. Therefore, applying the income approach requires an insight into how market participants would assess the benefits (cash flows) that will be obtained uniquely from an intangible asset (where such cash flows are different from the cash flows related to the whole company). Income based methods are usually employed to value customer related intangibles, trade names, patents, technology, copyrights, and covenants not to compete.

An example of IPRs’ valuation by way of fair value, using the cost and income approaches in particular, is given in the excellent presentation by Austin Jacobs, made during ialci’s latest law of luxury goods and fashion seminar on intellectual property rights in the fashion and luxury sectors.

In order to make these three above-mentioned valuation techniques more effective, with regards to intangible assets, and because many intangibles will not be recognised in financial statements as they fail to meet the definition of an asset or the recognition criteria, a reconsideration to theConceptual Framework to Financial Reporting” needs being implemented by the IASB.

These amendments to the Conceptual Framework would permit more intangibles to be recognised within financial statements, in a systematic, consistent, uniform and streamlined manner, therefore levelling the playing field among companies from the knowledge economy.

Let’s not forget that one of the reasons WeWork cofounder, Adam Neumann, was violently criticised, during WeWork’s failed IPO attempt, and then finally ousted, in 2019, was the fact that he was paid nearly USD6 million for granting the right to use his registered word trademark “We”, to his own company WeWork. In its IPO filing prospectus, which provided the first in-depth look at WeWork’s financial results, WeWork characterised the nearly USD6 million payment as “fair market value”. Many analysts, among which Scott Galloway, begged to differ, outraged by the lack of rigour and realism in the valuation of the WeWork brand, and the clearly opportunistic attitude adopted by Adam Neumann to get even richer, faster.

2.4. Creating a liquid, established and free secondary market of intangible assets

IAS 38 currently permits intangible assets to be recognised at fair value, as discussed above in paragraphs 1.3. and 2.3., measured by reference to an active market.

While acknowledging that such markets may exist for assets such as “freely transferable taxi licences, fishing licences or production quotas“, IAS 38 states that “it is uncommon for an active market to exist for an intangible asset“. It is even set out, in paragraph 78 of IAS 38 that “an active market cannot exist for brands, newspaper mastheads, music and film publishing rights, patents or trademarks, because each such asset is unique“.

Markets for resale of intangible assets and IPRs do exist, but are presently less formalised and offer less certainty on realisable values. There is no firmly established secondary transaction market for intangible assets (even though some assets are being sold out of insolvency) where value can be realised. In addition, in the case of forced liquidation, intangible assets’ value can be eroded, as highlighted in paragraph 2.2. above.

Therefore, markets for intangible assets are currently imperfect, in particular because there is an absence of mature marketplaces in which intangible assets may be sold in the event of default, insolvency or liquidation. There is not yet the same tradition of disposal, or the same volume of transaction data, as that which has historically existed with tangible fixed assets.

Be that as it may, the rise of liquid secondary markets of intangible assets is unstoppable. In the last 15 years, the USA have been at the forefront of IPRs auctions, mainly with patent auctions managed by specialist auctioneers such as ICAP Ocean Tomo and Racebrook. For example, in 2006, ICAP Ocean Tomo sold 78 patent lots at auction for USD8.5 million, while 6,000 patents were sold at auction by Canadian company Nortel Networks for USD4.5 billion in 2011.

However, auctions are not limited to patents, as demonstrated by the New York auction, successfully organised by ICAP Ocean Tomo in 2006, on lots composed of patents, trademarks, copyrights, musical rights and domain names, where the sellers were IBM, Motorola, Siemens AG, Kimberly Clark, etc. In 2010, Racebrook auctioned 150 American famous brands from the retail and consumer goods’ sectors.

In Europe, in 2012, Vogica successfully sold its trademarks and domain names at auction to competitor Parisot Group, upon its liquidation.

In addition, global licensing activity leaves not doubt that intangible assets, in particular IPRs, are, in fact, very valuable, highly tradable and a very portable asset class.

It is high time to remove all market’s imperfections, make trading more transparent and offer options to the demand side, to get properly tested.

 

3. Next steps to improve the valuation and reporting of intangible assets

3.1. Adjust IAS 38 and the Conceptual Framework to Financial Reporting to the realities of intangible assets’ reporting

Mainstream lenders, as well as other stakeholders, need cost-effective, standardised approaches in order to capture and process information on intangibles and IPRs (which is not currently being presented by SMEs).

This can be achieved by reforming IAS 38 and the “Conceptual Framework to Financial Reporting”, at the earliest convenience, in order to make most intangible assets capitalised on financial statements at realistic and consistent valuations.

In particular, the reintroduction of amortisation of goodwill may be a pragmatic way to reduce the impact of different accounting treatment for acquired and internally generated intangibles.

In addition, narrative reporting (i.e. reports with titles such as “Management Commentary” or “Strategic Report”, which generally form part of the annual report, and other financial communication documents such as “Preliminary Earnings Announcements” that a company provides primarily for the information of investors) must set out detailed information on unrecognised intangibles, as well as amplify what is reported within the financial statements. 

3.2. Use standardised and consistent metrics within financial statements and other financial communication documents

The usefulness and credibility of narrative information would be greatly enhanced by the inclusion of metrics (i.e. numerical measures that are relevant to an assessment of the company’s intangibles) standardised by industry. The following are examples of objective and verifiable metrics that may be disclosed through narrative reporting:

  • a company that identifies customer loyalty as critical to the success of its business model might disclose measures of customer satisfaction, such as the percentage of customers that make repeat purchases;
  • if the ability to innovate is a key competitive advantage, the proportion of sales from new products may be a relevant metric;
  • where the skill of employees is a key driver of value, employee turnover may be disclosed, together with information about their training.

3.3. Make companies’ boards accountable for intangibles’ reporting

Within a company, at least one appropriately qualified person should be appointed and publicly reported as having oversight and responsibility for intangibles’ auditing, valuation, due diligence and reporting (for example a director, specialist advisory board or an external professional adviser).

This would enhance the importance of corporate governance and board oversight, in addition to reporting, with respect to intangible assets.

In particular, some impairment tests could be introduced, to ensure that businesses are well informed and motivated to adopt appropriate intangibles’ management practices, which should be overseen by the above-mentioned appointed board member.

3.4. Create a body that trains about, and regulates, the field of intangible assets’ valuation and reporting

The creation of a professional organisation for the intangible assets’ valuation profession would increase transparency of intangibles’ valuations and trust towards valuation professionals (i.e. lawyers, IP attorneys, accountants, economists, etc).

This valuation professional organisation would set some key objectives that will protect the public interest in all matters that pertain to the profession, establish professional standards (especially standards of professional conduct) and represent professional valuers.

This organisation would, in addition, offer training and education on intangibles’ valuations. Therefore, the creation of informative material and the development of intangible assets’ training programmes would be a priority, and would guarantee the high quality valuation of IPRs and other intangibles as a way of boosting confidence for the field.

Company board members who are going to be appointed as having accountability and responsibility for intangibles’ valuation within the business, as mentioned above in paragraph 3.3., could greatly benefit from regular training sessions offered by this future valuation professional organisation, in particular for continuing professional development purposes.

3.5. Create a powerful register of expert intangible assets’ valuers

In order to build trust, the creation of a register of expert intangibles’ valuers, whose ability must first be certified by passing relevant knowledge tests, is key. 

Inclusion on this list would involve having to pass certain aptitudes tests and, to remain on it, valuers would have to maintain a standard of quality in the valuations carried out, whereby the body that manages this registry would be authorised to expel members whose reports are not up to standard. This is essential in order to maintain confidence in the quality and skill of the valuers included on the register.

The entity that manages this body of valuers would have the power to review the valuations conducted by the valuers certified by this institution as a “second instance”. The body would need to have the power to re-examine the assessments made by these valuers (inspection programme), and even eliminate them if it is considered that the assessment is overtly incorrect (fair disciplinary mechanism).

3.6. Establish an intangible assets’ marketplace and data-source

The development most likely to transform IPRs and intangibles as an asset class is the emergence of more transparent and accessible marketplaces where they can be traded. 

In particular, as IPRs and intangible assets become clearly identified and are more freely licensed, bought and sold (together with or separate to the business), the systems available to register and track financial interests will need to be improved. This will require the co-operation of official registries and the establishment of administrative protocols. 

Indeed, the credibility of intangibles’ valuations would be greatly enhanced by improving valuation information, especially by collecting information and data on actual and real intangibles’ transactions in a suitable form, so that it can be used, for example, to support IPRs asset-based lending decisions. If this information is made available, lenders and expert valuers will be able to base their estimates on more widely accepted and verified assumptions, and consequently, their valuation results – and valuation reports – would gain greater acceptance and reliability from the market at large.

The wide accessibility of complete, quality information which is based on real negotiations and transactions, via this open data-source, would help to boost confidence in the validity and accuracy of valuations, which will have a very positive effect on transactions involving IPRs and other intangibles.

3.7. Introduce a risk sharing loan guarantee scheme for banks to facilitate intangibles’ secured lending

A dedicated loan guarantee scheme needs being introduced, to facilitate intangible assets’ secured lending to innovative and creative SMEs.

Asia is currently setting the pace in intangibles-backed lending. In 2014, the intellectual property office of Singapore (“IPOS“) launched a USD100 million “IP financing scheme” designed to support local SMEs to use their granted IPRs as collateral for bank loans. A panel of IPOS-appointed valuers assess the applicant’s IPR portfolio using standard guidelines to provide lenders with a basis on which to determine the amount of funds to be advanced. The development of a national valuation model is a noteworthy aspect of the scheme and could lead to an accepted valuation methodology in the future.

The Chinese intellectual property office (“CIPO“) has developed some patent-backed debt finance initiatives. Only 6 years after the “IP pledge financing” programme was launched by CIPO in 2008, CIPO reported that Chinese companies had secured over GBP6 billion in IPRs-backed loans since the programme launched. The Chinese government having way more direct control and input into commercial bank lending policy and capital adequacy requirements, it can vigorously and potently implement its strategic goal of increasing IPRs-backed lending. 

It is high time Europe follows suit, at least by putting in place some loan guarantees that would increase lender’s confidence in making investments by sharing the risks related to the investment. A guarantor assumes a debt obligation if the borrower defaults. Most loan guarantee schemes are established to correct perceived market failures by which small borrowers, regardless of creditworthiness, lack access to the credit resources available to large borrowers. Loan guarantee schemes level the playing field.

The proposed risk sharing loan guarantee scheme set up by the European Commission or by a national government fund (in particular in the UK, who is brexiting) would be specifically targeted at commercial banks in order to stimulate intangibles-secured lending to innovative SMEs. The guarantor would fully guarantee the intangibles-secured loan and share the risk of lending to SMEs (which have suitable IPRs and intangibles) with the commercial bank. 

The professional valuer serves an important purpose, in this future loan guarantee scheme, since he or she will fill the knowledge gap relating to the IPRs and intangibles, as well as their value, in the bank’s loan procedure. If required, the expert intangibles’ valuer provides intangibles’ valuation expertise and technology transfer to the bank, until such bank has built the relevant capacity to perform intangible assets’ valuations. Such valuations would be performed, either by valuers and/or banks, according to agreed, consistent, homogenised and accepted methods/standards and a standardised intangible asset’s valuation methodology.

 

To conclude, in this era of ultra-competitiveness and hyper-globalisation, France and the UK, and Europe in general, must immediately jump on the saddle of progress, by reforming outdated and obsolete accounting and reporting standards, as well as by implementing all the above-mentioned new measures and strategies, to realistically and consistently value, report and leverage intangible assets in the 21st century economy.

 

Annabelle Gauberti

Founding and managing partner of Crefovi

(1) “Lingard’s bank security documents”, Timothy N. Parsons, 4th edition, LexisNexis, page 450 and seq.

(2) “Taking security – law and practice”, Richard Calnan, Jordans, page 74 and seq.

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How could the failed enforcement of the SGAE arbitration award have been avoided?

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When SGAE concluded an arbitration, in July 2017, to decide a dispute between it and major and indie music publishers, everybody thought that the Spanish collecting society would walk the line and comply with the arbitration award. Not quite. Here is why, and how such outcome could have been avoided.[hr]

sgae arbitrationSGAE is the Spanish collective rights management society which has the authority to licence works protected by music copyright, and collect royalties as part of compulsory licensing or individual licences negotiated on behalf of its respective members. Like other copyright collective agencies, SGAE collects royalty payments from users of copyrighted works and distributes royalties back to its copyright owners.

Music users (those that pay the licence fees) include TV networks, radio stations, public places such as bars and restaurants. Copyright owners (those that receive the royalties) include music writers and composers, lyricists, as well as their respective publishers.[1]

On 19 July 2017, an arbitration panel from the Mediation and Arbitration Centre of WIPO decided a matter in dispute between major and independent music publishers BMG, Peermusic, Sony/ATV/EMI Music Publishing, Universal Music Publishing and Warner/Chappell Music, as well as AEDEM (i.e. a collective of over 200 small and medium sized Spanish music publishers), on one side, and SGAE, on the other side.[2]

While the award drafted by the three WIPO arbitrators, published on 19 July 2017, was binding, CISAC, the international confederation representing collective copyright management societies in over 120 countries, decided to temporarily exclude SGAE from its roster on 30 May 2019 because SGAE was not in compliance with the terms of such award.[3] This bold move highlighted that, despite the binding WIPO award, SGAE had failed to comply with its obligations and promised reforms, as these were set out in the arbitration award.

How could the failed enforcement of the SGAE arbitration award have been avoided?

1. Why was an arbitration done, and why was an award published as a result of it?

In June 2017, Spanish police raided SGAE’s Madrid offices, an operation that heralded another chapter in the continuing corruption saga of the troubled, yet powerful, copyright collection organisation[4].

The police searched the SGAE headquarters as part of an investigation aimed at various members of SGAE and employees of several Spanish television stations. The agents were looking for documentation related to “the creation of low quality music and registration of false arrangements of musical works which are in the public domain”.

After the music was going through that laundering process, it was registered in the name of “front men” and publishing companies owned by the Spanish TV stations themselves, such as Mediaset, Atresmedia and TV3.

The purpose was to broadcast it on late night programs, on various television stations in the early hours of the morning, at a barely audible level, generating copyright royalties. This scheme is known as “la rueda” (the wheel) and it sparked other schemes, at SGAE.

In addition to these criminal proceedings, on 19 July 2017, a WIPO arbitration panel decided a related matter in dispute between major and indie publishers, on one side, and SGAE, on the other side.

Indeed, while SGAE tried to remedy the problems caused by this endemic corruption within its ranks, and the subsequent “creative” schemes put in place by some of its members, by entering into a gentlemen’s agreement with some TV broadcasters in Madrid more than a decade ago, and then by entering a Good Practices Agreement with Mediaset (Telecinco) and Atresmedia (Antena 3) in 2013, these agreements were deemed anti-competitive and an abuse of SGAE’s dominant position, by the Spanish competition authorities. Very much to the liking of a number of TV operators and songwriters involved with night time music, who had raised such challenges before Spanish competition authorities, the latter found that SGAE was interfering with the freedom of the broadcasters to use the music of their choice, and subsequently that these agreements violated competition law[5].

While, inside SGAE, publishers board members tried to change the distribution rules by board vote a number of times, their efforts were blocked by a number of SGAE board members who write music used for “la Rueda”.

Exasperated, music publishers not owned by TV broadcasters sued SGAE in court over the Wheel and SGAE distribution rules. As the case was proceeding slowly, the publishers and SGAE instead agreed to submit the matter to a binding arbitration before a WIPO arbitration board of three arbitrators.

The parties were the group OPEM (made up of BMG, Peermusic, Sony/ATV/EMI Music Publishing, Universal Music Publishing and Warner/Chappell Music); the group AEDEM (made up of Spanish independent music publishers); and SGAE.

Please note that no TV broadcasters were parties to the arbitration because they declined to participate in it, after being contacted by the arbitrators to take part.

The WIPO award was published on 19 July 2017.

2. What was the outcome of the arbitration? What did the WIPO arbitration award have in store, for SGAE?

The SGAE arbitration focused primarily on two claims:

  • the inequitable sharing of money received by SGAE from a music user and distributed by SGAE back to the user of that music, as a copyright holder and
  • the improper distribution of royalties for the use of inaudible, or barely audible, music.[6]

After considering the evidence, the three WIPO arbitrators decided:

  • to have an equitable distribution, so as not to prejudice other authors, by implementing some changes in SGAE’s distribution rules: the rules must change so that the TV broadcasters receive, via their publishing companies for music uses in the early morning hours, a variance of 15% of the total collected from them, respectively;
  • that distribution must stop for inaudible music, as identified by the technology used by Spanish tech company BMAT or a company using similar software and
  • that SGAE should disperse its “scarcely audible fund” as described in the arbitration award.

The WIPO arbitrators also made the award fully binding, setting out that neither broadcasters, nor other individuals or companies, could cancel their decision.

Also, the WIPO arbitrators set out in their award that the competition authorities could not be able to cancel it because this award does not impact a broadcaster’s ability to decide what music to play or who owns the music it plays. The arbitration award merely relates to the rights to a distribution from SGAE and, therefore, only impacts its members.

3. Why was the SGAE arbitration award not enforced properly? What could have been done to ensure such timely enforcement?

Yet, the arbitration award, as well as the ongoing criminal investigation relating to the fraudulent registration of works, do not seem to be enough so trigger the necessary changes needed to clean up the act of Spain’s sole collective music copyrights management society.

Indeed, despite the WIPO award expressly requesting that SGAE should cap distributions to broadcasters-publishers at 15% of the broadcasters’ licence fees paid, the SGAE board of directors decided to increase such cap to 20% in May 2018. Altogether, in June 2018, the SGAE board decided to go back to the way it was operating before the publication of the international award, with TV broadcasters-publishers able to receive their share of distributions, which could amount to 70% of the licence fee paid by the TV broadcaster[7].

Consequently, in an unprecedented move, CISAC, the international confederation representing authors’ societies in over 120 countries, decided to temporarily exclude SGAE from its board, during its general assembly held on 30 May 2019[8].

This is because the requested reforms, set out in the arbitration award, were still not implemented by SGAE, two years further to the award’s publication date, with “la Rueda” still being a thing.

While the SGAE saga is definitely a festering and endemic issued, several action steps could have been taken, by the three WIPO arbitrators as well as the co-claimants to the arbitration, to avoid the arbitration award being ultimately ignored by SGAE’s board of directors and management.

Firstly, it was a mistake to not have any of the Spanish TV broadcasters act as parties to the arbitration and its resulting award. Indeed, since these TV channels and their publishing companies are the main culprits of setting up these fraudulent schemes at SGAE, the arbitration decision had to involve them, and be binding on them too, to become fully enforceable and efficient.

Secondly, the arbitration award did not set out anything about changing the makeup of the SGAE board of directors. However, many Spanish TV broadcasters hold, directly or indirectly, significant positions on SGAE board of directors, having massive influence on the board members’ votes and appointments to decision-making execute positions. Therefore, the arbitration award should have been bolder and also provide for a complete restructuring of SGAE board of directors and election rules. This way, the votes from SGAE’s newly appointed board of directors, needed to implement the reforms requested in the 2019 arbitration award, would have been successful and supporting change.

Thirdly, some fining mechanisms, and other strong incentives for SGAE to comply, should have been set out in the arbitration award, with clear deadlines and metrics by which the various requested reforms must have been implemented. Failing this, SGAE and its dishonest employees would keep on doing business as usual, bolstered by some of its directors and members sympathetic to the arguments made by Spanish TV broadcasters and their publishing companies. In other words, the penalty mechanisms should have been far more stringent, and expensive, for SGAE, in case it did not implement the requested reforms set out in the arbitration award, in a timely manner.

Finally, when some rumours started erupting in 2018, that SGAE was not complying with its obligations under the 2017 arbitration award, the group OPEM (made up of major and independent music publishers), as well as the group AEDEM (made up of Spanish independent music publishers), parties to such WIPO arbitration as co-claimants, should have immediately used the provisions of the New York Convention on the recognition and enforcement of foreign arbitral awards 1958 – to which Spain is a signatory since May 1977 –, as well as the enforcement mechanisms set out in such award, to obtain the swift recognition and enforcement of the WIPO award in Spain, by SGAE.  It’s all very well to spend time and energy coining a forward-thinking arbitration award, but if it fails to be enforced, then its value and impact are severely limited, at best.

 

[1] Copyright in the digital era: how the creative industries can cash in, https://crefovi.com/articles/copyright-digital-era/, 14/06/2017

[2] SGAE statement on the WIPO arbitration award ending the conflict of night time slots on television, http://www.sgae.es/en-EN/SitePages/EstaPasandoDetalleActualidad.aspx?i=2190&s=5, 25/07/2017

[3] The expulsion of SGAE from CISAC: a regrettable but essential step towards reform, https://www.cisac.org/Cisac-Home/Newsroom/Articles/The-expulsion-of-SGAE-from-CISAC-a-regrettable-but-essential-step-towards-reform, 12/06/2019

[4] Spanish Authors’ Rights Society Raided in Latest Corruption Probe, https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/7840889/spain-authors-rights-society-sgae-raid-corruption-probe, 20/06/2017

[5] Music Confidential – Outrage in Spain – Part one of Two – 20/07/2017

[6] SGAE statement on the WIPO arbitration award ending the conflict of night time slots on television, http://www.sgae.es/en-EN/SitePages/EstaPasandoDetalleActualidad.aspx?i=2190&s=5, 25/07/2017

[7] Music Confidential, A defining moment: when enough is enough already (Part One), 07/06/2019

[8] MUSIC PUBLISHERS WARN SPANISH SOCIETY THEY’LL DUMP IT IF IT KEEPS UP TV ‘SCAM’, https://www.musicbusinessworldwide.com/music-publishers-warn-spanish-society-theyll-dump-it-if-it-keeps-up-tv-scam/, 11/06/2018

 

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