London information technology & internet law firm Crefovi is delighted to bring you this new technology & data privacy blog, to provide you with forward-thinking and insightful information on hot business and legal issues in the digital & high technology sectors.
This new technology & data privacy blog provides regular news and updates, and features summaries of recent news reports, on legal issues facing the global information technology, media and internet community, in particular in the United Kingdom and France. This new technology & data privacy blog also provides timely updates and commentary on legal issues in the hardware, software and e-commerce sectors. It is curated by the IT lawyers of our law firm, who specialise in advising our information technology & internet clients in London, Paris and internationally on all their legal issues.
Crefovi practices in information technology, hardware & software since 2003, in Paris, London and internationally. Crefovi advises a wide range of clients, from start-ups in the tech world requiring legal advice on contractual, tax and intellectual property issues, to large corporations – renowned in the information technology and ‟Consumer discretionary” sectors – which require advice to negotiate and finalise their licencing or distribution deals, or to enforce their intellectual property rights. Crefovi’s ‟Internet & digital media” team participates in high-profile transactions. It assists leading established and emerging companies in mergers and acquisitions; litigation, including intellectual property litigation; financing transactions; securities offerings; structuring cross-border international operations; technology and intellectual property transactions; joint ventures and in matters involving online speech, privacy rights, advertising, e-commerce and consumer protection, and regulatory issues. Crefovi writes and curates this new technology & data privacy blog to guide its clients through the complexities of information technology, and internet & digital media, law.
The founding and managing partner of Crefovi, Annabelle Gauberti, regularly attends, and is a speaker on panels organised during, important events from the calendar of the world of information technology and internet, such as the tradeshows CES, Slush, SXSW, Viva Technology, Wired and Web Summit.
Moreover, Crefovi has industry teams, built by experienced lawyers with a wide range of practice and geographic backgrounds. These industry teams apply their extensive industry expertise to best serve clients’ business needs. Some of these industry teams are the ‟Information technology, hardware & software”, as well as the ‟Internet & digital media” departments, which curate this new technology & data privacy blog below, for you.
Annabelle Gauberti, founding and managing partner of London information technology & internet law firm Crefovi, is also the president of the International association of lawyers for creative industries (ialci). This association is instrumental in providing very high quality seminars, webinars & brainstorming sessions on legal & business issues to which the creative industries are confronted.
In the creative industries, many intellectual property rights, such as copyright, trademarks, registered designs and patents, are subjected to licenses, in order for right owners and creators to monetize such rights. However, things do not always go smoothly during and after the term of the licensing agreement, between the licensor and the licensee. Therefore, what are the remedies that the licensor may put in place, in order to ensure that his or her intellectual property rights are fairly monetised? How to remedy a breach of license which term is overran?
1. What is a license agreement?
A license is the contract which authorises the use of a certain intellectual property right (‟IPRs”), be it copyright, a trademark, a design or a patent, for commercial purposes, by a licensee, in exchange for the payment of royalties to the licensor, i.e. the right owner. These royalties are usually computed as a percentage of the turnover generated by the sale of products manufactured, or services provided, by the licensee under this license agreement.
A license is different from an assignment agreement, in that the former has a limited term, whereby the authorisation to use the IPRs granted to the licensee by the licensor will expire, after a period of time explicitly set out in the license agreement. On the contrary, an assignment is a perpetual and irreversible transfer of ownership of some designated IPRs, from the assignor to the assignee, in exchange for the payment of a consideration (usually, a one-off sum of money).
To resume, a license is temporary and reversible upon expiry of a term, while an assignment is irrevocable and irreversible if made for consideration.
2. How are licenses used in the creative industries?
Licenses are often used in the creative industries, in order for creatives to monetise the IPRs that they created.
For example, in the music industry, many copyright licenses are entered into, in order for music distributors to distribute the masters of sound recordings to new territories, which are difficult to reach for the music label which owns such masters because this label is located in a totally different geographical area. Therefore, the licensor, the music label, relies on the expertise of the local licensee, the national distributor, to put in place the best local strategy to broadcast the masters of its sound recordings, via radio plays, local streaming websites, TV broadcasting, and then to generate revenues through these various income streams and local neighbouring rights collecting societies.
Another example of a copyright license, in the fashion and luxury sectors, is when a brand commissions an artist or designer to make some drawings and designs, which the brand will then display on its website(s), as well as in its various stores. These drawings and designs being protected by copyright, the brand, as licensee, will enter into a license agreement with the artist, as licensor, to obtain the right to use these drawings and designs in set locations and premises of this brand.
Licenses are also extremely widely used in the context of trademarks, especially with respect to distribution of luxury and fashion products on new geographical territories by local distributors (who need to have the right to use the trademark to advertise, market and open retail locations), and also with respect to deals where the licensee manufactures products in which it has a lot of expertise (such as perfumes, cosmetics, children’s garments), which the licensee then sells under the trademark of a famous fashion or luxury brand, i.e. the licensor.
In the technology sector, patent and/or copyright licenses are the norm. Indeed, softwares and sources codes are protected by copyright, so many tech companies make a living licensing their copyright into such inventions, to their retail or business customers, in exchange for some royalties and/or licensing fees. As far as technological products are concerned, those can be protected by patents, provided that they are novel, that an inventive step was present in creating such products, and that the invention is capable of industrial application. Therefore, most technological hardware products, such as mobile phones, computers, tablets, are protected by patents. And whenever there is a dichotomy between the creator of these products, and the manufacturers and distributors of such products, then some patent license agreements are entered into.
Technology licenses are, indeed, so critical, that fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms (‟FRAND”) have been set up in order to level the playing field: FRAND terms denote a voluntary licensing commitment that standards organisations often request from the owner of an IPR (usually a patent) which is, or may become, essential to practice a technical standard. One of the most common policies, is for the standard- setting organisation to require from a patent holder that it voluntarily agrees to include its patented technology in the standard, by licensing that technology on FRAND terms. Failing or refusing to license IPRs on FRAND terms could even be deemed to infringe antitrust rules, in particular those of the European Union (‟EU”). For example, the EU commission sent a statement of objections to Motorola Mobility, for breach of EU antitrust rules, over its attempt to enforce a patent infringement injunction against Apple in Germany. The patents in question relate to GPRS, a part of the GSM standard, which is used to make mobile phone calls. Motorola accepted that these patents were standard essential patents and had, therefore, agreed that they would be licensed to Apple on FRAND terms. However, in 2011, Motorola tried to take out, and enforce, a patent infringement injunction against Apple in Germany, based on those patents, even although Apple had said that it was willing to pay royalties, to use the patented technology. Samsung was also the recipient of a statement of objections from the EU commission, after it sought patent infringement injunctions to ‟prevent Apple from infringing patents”, despite Apple apparently being willing to pay a license fee and negotiate a license on FRAND terms.
3. How to remedy a breach of license which term is overran: what to do if the license has expired but your licensee keeps on using your IPRs?
Due to poor management and in-house record-keeping, as well as human resources disorganisation and high turnover rate of staff, the licensee may breach the licensing agreement by keeping on using the licensed IPR, although the license agreement has reached its term.
For example, in the above-mentioned case of the copyright license on some masters of sound recordings, the French local distributors and licensees of such masters overran the term of the license and kept on collecting royalties and revenues on those masters, in particular from French neighbouring rights collecting societies, well after the date of termination of this license. How, on earth, could have this happened? Well, as I experienced first hand at the music trade show Midem, many music distributors, labels and catalogues’ owners, such as music publishers, often mingle together in order to buy and sell to each other music catalogues, be it of copyrighted musical compositions and lyrics, or of copyrighted masters of sound recordings. Therefore, the terms of the first license agreement, between the licensor and the initial first licensee, become more and more blurry and forgotten, with basic provisions, such as the duration of the initial license, being conveniently lost into oblivion by the generation of successive licensees. Yes, I guarantee you, it happens very often.
Another example, relating to the above-mentioned case of a copyright license granted by an artist, on his drawings and designs commissioned by a luxury brand, which used these drawings on its website(s) and stores, in order to promote its luxury products … even after the termination date of the license!
So what can a licensor do, when he or she notices that the licensee has, or is, breaching the terms of the license agreement by overrunning its duration? How to remedy a breach of license which term is overran?
First and foremost, the licensor must gather as much pieces of evidence as possible of such breach of the term of the license agreement, by the licensee. For example, the music label, licensor, may reach out to French neighbouring rights collecting societies and ask for the royalties statements for the French distributor, ex-licensee, up-to-date, in order to have some indisputable evidence that this ex-licensee kept on collecting the neighbouring rights royalties on the sound recordings which were the subject of the license, even after the termination date of this license. The French artist, whose designs and drawings kept on being used by the luxury brand after the term of his license with this brand expired, instructed our law firm to liaise with a French bailiff, in order to have this bailiff execute a detailed report of copyright infringement on internet, by taking snapshots of the webpages of this brand’s website displaying his drawings and designs.
These pieces of evidence are indispensable, in order to prove the IPR infringement (since the license expired), to show it to the ex-licensee, if necessary, and to use it in any future lawsuit for IPR infringement lodged with a local court, if and when the ex-licensee refuses to settle further to receiving the ex-licensor’s letter before court action.
You will have guessed by now that, indeed, once the ex-licensor has gathered as much conclusive evidence as possible that his or her IPR is being infringed by the ex-licensee because the latter keeps on using such IPR outside the contractual framework of the now-expired license agreement, the second stage is to instruct counsel, in the country where such IPR infringement is taking place, and have such counsel send a robust, cordial yet frank letter before court action to the ex-licensor, asking:
- for the immediate cessation of any IPR infringement act, by stopping using the IPR at once;
- for the evidence of, and information about, turnover and sales, relating to the sale of products and/or services, generated thanks to the use of the IPR beyond the term of the expired license, and
- for the restitution of all those revenues generated by the sale of those products and/or services, generated thanks to the use of the IPR beyond the term of the expired license, as well as accrued late payment interests at the statutory interest rate,
within a short deadline (usually, no longer than 14 days).
Here, the ex-licensee has an option: either it decides to cave in and avoid a tarnished reputation by immediately complying with the terms of the ex-licensor’s letter before court action, or it may decide to act as a blowhard and ignore the requests set out in this letter. The first approach is favoured by anglo-saxon companies, while the second option is usual among French, and all other Mediterranean, ex-licensees.
If the dispute may be resolved out-of-court, a settlement agreement will be drafted, negotiated and finalised, by the lawyers advising the ex-licensor and the ex-licensee, which will provide for the restitution of a very clearly defined sum of money, representing the sales generated by the ex-licensee during the period in which it overran the use of the litigious IPR.
If the dispute cannot be resolved out-of-court, then the ex-licensor will have no other option left than to lodge a lawsuit for IPR infringement against the ex-licensee, which – provided the former has strong evidence of such breach of licensing agreement – it will won.
Once the slate is clean again, i.e. after the ex-licensee has paid damages or restituted sums to the ex-licensor with respect to its use of the IPR after the termination date of the first license agreement, then ex-licensor and the ex-licensee may decide to resume doing business together. Here, I strongly advise that the parties draft a transparent, clear and straightforward new license agreement, which clearly sets out the termination date of this new future license, and foreseeable consequences in case the future licensee keeps on using the IPR beyond the end of such termination date. Using the services of either in-house lawyer or external counsel is very much advisable, in this instance, in order to avoid a repeat of the messy and damaging business situation which occured in the first place, between the licensor and the licensee.
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?
1. 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 expurgated 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;
- 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
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.
Do you need to put in place an escrow agreement with respect to the software and/or source code that you license?Crefovi : 22/06/2020 4:01 pm : Antitrust & competition, Articles, Copyright litigation, Emerging companies, Gaming, Information technology - hardware, software & services, Insolvency & workouts, Intellectual property & IP litigation, Internet & digital media, Litigation & dispute resolution, Outsourcing, Product liability, Technology transactions
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?
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.
Why the valuation of intangible assets matters: the unstoppable rise of intangibles’ reporting in the 21st century’s corporate environmentCrefovi : 15/04/2020 8:00 am : Antitrust & competition, Art law, Articles, Banking & finance, Capital markets, Consumer goods & retail, Copyright litigation, Emerging companies, Entertainment & media, Fashion law, Gaming, Hospitality, Hostile takeovers, Information technology - hardware, software & services, Insolvency & workouts, Intellectual property & IP litigation, Internet & digital media, Law of luxury goods, Life sciences, Litigation & dispute resolution, Mergers & acquisitions, Music law, Outsourcing, Private equity & private equity finance, Restructuring, Tax, Technology transactions, Trademark litigation, Unsolicited bids
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.
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 percent of private sector business, 59 percent of private sector employment and 48 percent 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. 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.
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 SMEs 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 approach ‟uses 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 approach ‟reflects 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 the ‟Conceptual 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 co founder, 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 cooperation 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.
 ‟Lingard’s bank security documents”, Timothy N. Parsons, 4th edition, LexisNexis, page 450 and seq.
 ‟Taking security – law and practice”, Richard Calnan, Jordans, page 74 and seq.
Almost any medium-sized and large creative business has overseas operations, in order to maximise distribution opportunities and take advantage of economies of scale. This is especially true for fashion & luxury businesses, which need strategically-located brick & mortar retail outlets to thrive. However, such overseas boutiques may need to be restructured, from time to time, in view of their annual turnover results, compared to their fixed costs. What to do, then, when you want to either reduce, or even close down, your operations set up in France? How to proceed, in the most time and cost efficient manner, to restructure your creative business in France?
One thing that needs to be clear from the outset is that you must follow French rules, when you proceed onto scaling back or even winding up your operations set up in France.
Indeed, in case you have incorporated a French limited liability company for your business operations in France, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of your foreign parent-company, there is a risk that the financial liability of the French subsidiary be passed onto the foreign parent-company. This is because the corporate veil is very thin in France. Unlike in the UK or the US for example, it is very common, for French judges who are assessing each matter on its merits, to decide that a director and/or shareholder of a French limited liability company should become jointly liable for the loss suffered by a third party. The judge only has to declare that all the following conditions are cumulatively met, in order to pierce the corporate veil and hold its directors and/or shareholders liable for the wrongful acts they have committed:
- the loss has been caused by the wrongful act of a director or a shareholder;
- the wrongful act is intentional;
- the wrongful act is gross misconduct, and
- the wrongful act is not intrinsically linked to the performance of the duties of a director or is incompatible with the normal exercise of the prerogatives attached to the status of the shareholder.
The specific action of liability for shortfall of assets is generally the route that is chosen, to pierce the corporate veil and trigger the director and/or shareholder liability of a French limited liability company. However, there is numerous French case law, showing that French courts do not hesitate to hold French and foreign parent companies liable for the debts of French subsidiaries, especially in case of abuse of corporate veil, by way of intermingling of estates, either by intermingling of accounts or abnormal financial relations. This usually leads to the extension of insolvency proceedings, in case of intermingling of estates, but could also trigger the director and/or shareholder liability in tort for gross misconduct.
Indeed, if a shareholder has committed a fault or gross negligence that contributed to the insolvency of, and subsequent redundancies in, the French subsidiary, that shareholder may be liable to the employees directly. Pursuant to recent French case law, the shareholder could be held liable in the event its decisions:
- hurt the subsidiary;
- aggravate the already difficult financial situation of the subsidiary;
- have no usefulness for the subsidiary, or
- benefit exclusively to the shareholder.
Of course, any French court decisions are relatively easily enforceable in any other European Union (‟EU”) member-state, such as the UK, thanks to the EU regulation 1215/2012 on jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters. This regulation allows the enforcement of any court decision published in a EU member-state without any prior exequatur process. Therefore, the foreign parent-company will not be protected by the mere fact that it is located in the UK, for example, as opposed to France: it will be liable anyway, and the French courts’ judgments will be enforceable in the UK against it. Moreover, a new international convention, the Hague convention on the recognition and enforcement of foreign judgments in civil or commercial matters was concluded, on 2 July 2019, which will become a ‟game changer” once it becomes ratified by many countries around the world, included the EU. It will therefore become even easier to enforce French court decisions in third-party states, even those located outside the EU.
So what is the best route to restructure or wind up the French operations of your creative business, if so much is at stake?
1. How to lawfully terminate your French lease
Most French commercial operations are conducted from commercial premises, be it a retail outlet or some offices. Therefore, leases of such commercial spaces were entered into with French landlords, at the inception of the French operations.
How do you lawfully terminate such French leases?
Well, it is not easy, since the practice of ‟locking commercial tenants in” has become increasingly common in France, through the use of pre-formulated standard lease agreements which impose some onerous obligations on commercial tenants, that were not subject to any negotiation or discussion between the parties.
This evolution is rather surprising since France has a default regime for commercial leases, set out in articles L. 145-1 and seq. of the French commercial code, which is rather protective of commercial tenants (the ‟Default regime”). It defines the framework, as well as boundaries between, the landlord and its commercial tenant, as well as their contractual relationship.
For example, article L. 145-4 of the French commercial code sets out that, in the Default regime, the term of the lease cannot be lower than nine years. Meanwhile, articles L. 145-8 and seq. of the French commercial code describe with minutia the Default regime to renew the lease after its termination, declaring null and void any clause, set out in the lease agreement, which withdraws the renewal right of the tenant, to the lease agreement.
But what does the Default regime say about the right of a tenant to terminate the lease? Nothing, really, except from articles L. 145-41 and seq. of the French commercial code, which provide that any clause set out in the lease agreement in relation to the termination of the lease will only apply after one month from the date on which a party to the lease agreement informed the other party that the latter had to comply with all its obligations under the lease agreement and, should such request to comply with its contractual obligations be ignored, the former party will exercise its right to terminate the lease agreement within a month. However, in practice, it is very difficult for French commercial tenants to invoke such articles from the French commercial code, and subsequently prove that their landlords have not complied with their contractual obligations under the lease. This is because such French lease agreements often set out clauses that exonerate the landlords from any liability in case the premises are defective, obsolete, suffer from force majeure cases, etc.
To summarise, the Default regime does not provide for any automatic right for a commercial tenant to terminate the lease agreement, for any reason. It is therefore advisable, when you negotiate the clauses set out in such lease agreement, to ensure that your French entity (be it a branch or a French limited liability company) has an easy way out of the 9 years’ lease. However, since the balance of power is heavily skewed in favour of commercial landlords – especially for sought-after retail locations such as Paris, Cannes, Nice, and other touristic destinations – there is a very high probability that the landlord will dismiss any attempts made by the prospective commercial tenant to insert a clause allowing such tenant to terminate the lease on notice, for any reason (i.e. even in instances when the commercial landlord has complied with all its obligations under the lease).
Still included in the Default regime, on the topic of termination of leases, is article L. 145-45 of the French commercial code, which sets out that the institutionalised receivership or liquidation (i.e. ‟redressement ou liquidation judiciaires”) do not trigger, in their own right, the termination of the lease relating to the buildings/premises affected to the business of the debtor (i.e. the tenant). Any clause, set out in the lease agreement, which is contradictory to this principle, is null and void, under the Default regime. While this article sounds protective for commercial tenants, it also infers that there is no point in placing the tenant’s business in receivership or liquidation, to automatically trigger the termination of the lease. Such a situation of court-led receivership or liquidation of the French entity will not automatically terminate the lease of its premises.
Consequently, the most conservative way out may be to wait the end of the nine years’ term, for a commercial tenant.
In order to have more flexibility, many foreign clients that set up French commercial operations prefer to opt out of the Default regime, which imposes a nine years’ term, and instead enter into a dispensatory lease (‟bail dérogatoire”) which is not covered by the Default regime.
Indeed, article L. 145-5 of the French commercial code sets out that ‟the parties can (…) override” the Default regime, provided that the overall duration of the commercial lease is not longer than three years. Dispensatory leases, which have an overall duration no longer than 3 years, are therefore excluded from, and not governed by, the Default regime set out in articles L. 145-1 and seq. of the French commercial code, and are instead classified in the category of ‟contrats de louage de droit commun” i.e. civil law ordinary law contracts of lease, which are governed by the provisions set out in the French civil code, relating, in particular, to non-commercial leases (article 1709 and seq. of the French civil code).
Therefore, if a foreign parent negotiates a dispensatory lease for its French operations, it will be in a position to call it a day after three years, instead of nine years. However, it will not be able to benefit from the tenants’ protections set out in the Default regime and will therefore need to negotiate very astutely the terms of the commercial lease with the French landlord. It is therefore essential to seek appropriate legal advice, prior to signing any lease agreement with any French landlord, in order to ensure that such lease agreement offers options, in particular, for the tenant to terminate it, in case of contractual breaches made by the landlord, and, in any case, upon the end of the three years’ term.
The tenant should keep a paper trail and evidence of any contractual breaches made by the landlord during the execution of the lease, as potential ‟ammunition” in case it decides to later trigger the termination clause under the lease agreement, for unremedied breach of contract.
2. How to lawfully terminate your French staff
Once the termination of the lease agreement is agreed, it is time for the management of the French operations to focus their attention on termination the employment agreements of French staff members (the ‟Staff”), which can be a lengthy process.
An audit of all the employment agreements in place with the Staff should be conducted, confidentially, before making a move, in order to assess whether such agreements are ‟contrats à durée indéterminée”, or ‟CDI” (i.e. indeterminate duration employment agreements) or ‟contrats à durée déterminée”, or ‟CDD” (i.e. fixed term employment agreements).
As part of this audit, the legal and management team should clarify the amount of the sums due to each member of the Staff, relating to:
- any paid leave period owed to her;
- in case of CDDs, if no express agreement is signed by the member of Staff and the employer upon termination, all outstanding remunerations due during the minimum duration of the CDD;
- in case of CDDs, an end of contract indemnity at a rate of 10 percent of the total gross remuneration;
- in case of CDIs, any notice period salary owed to her;
- in case of CDIs, any severance pay owed to her, and
- any outstanding social contributions on salary.
This audit will therefore enable the French business, and its foreign parent-company, to assess how much this Staff termination process may cost.
In France, you cannot terminate Staff at will: you must have a ‟lawful” reason to do so.
Justifying the termination of a CDD ahead of its term may be pretty complex and risky, in France, especially if the relevant members of Staff have behaved in a normal manner during the execution of such CDD, so far. It may therefore be worth for the employer to pay all outstanding remunerations due during the minimum duration of the CDD, in order to avoid any risk of being dragged to any employment tribunal, by such members of Staff.
As far as CDIs are concerned, there are three types of termination of CDIs, as follows:
- ‟licenciement pour motif économique” (i.e. layoff for economic reasons);
- ‟rupture conventionnelle du CDI” (i.e. mutually agreed termination of the employment agreement);
- ‟rupture conventionnelle collective” (i.e. collective mutually agreed termination of the employment agreement).
A ‟licenciement pour motif économique” must occur due to a real and serious economic cause, such as job cuts, economic difficulties of the employer or the end of the activity of the employer.
This option would therefore be a good fit for any French entity that wants to stop operating in France. It does come with strings attached, though, as follows:
- the employer must inform and consult the ‟représentant du personnel”, or the ‟Comité d’entreprise”;
- the employer asks the relevant Staff to attend a preliminary meeting and notifies them of the termination of their CDIs as well as the reasons for such termination;
- the employer sends a termination letter to the relevant Staff, at least 7 business days from the date of the preliminary meeting, or at least 15 business days from the date of the preliminary meeting if such member of Staff is a ‟cadre” (i.e. executive), which sets out the economic reason which caused the suppression of the job occupied by the employee, the efforts made by the employer to reclassify the employee internally, the option for the employee to benefit from reclassification leave and
- the employer informs the French administration, i.e. the relevant ‟Direction régionale des entreprises, de la concurrence, de la consommation, du travail et de l’emploi” (‟DIRECCTE”) of the redundancies.
Another route to lawfully terminate the Staff is via a ‟rupture conventionnelle du CDI”, i.e. mutually agreed termination of the employment agreement. This is only open to French operations where the Staff is ready to cooperate and mutually agree to the termination of its employment agreements. This situation is hard to come by, in reality, to be honest, by why not?
If the French entity manages to pull this off, with its Staff, then the ‟convention de rupture conventionnelle” must be signed, then homologated by the DIRECCTE, before any employment agreement is officially terminated.
If the DIRECCTE refuses to homologate the convention, the relevant Staff must keep on working under normal conditions, until the employer makes a new request for homologation of the convention and … obtains it!
Finally, in case an ‟accord collectif”, also called ‟accord d’entreprise”, was concluded in the French company, then a ‟rupture conventionnelle collective” can be organised. If so, only the Staff who has agreed in writing to the ‟accord collectif” can participate to this collective mutually agreed termination of its employment agreements.
It’s worth noting that French employees are rather belligerent and often file claims with employment tribunals, upon termination of their employment agreements. However, the Macron ordinances, which entered into force in September 2017, have set up a scale that limits the maximum allowances which could be potentially be paid to employees with minimal seniority, in such employment court cases. Thus, employees having less than one year’s seniority are allowed to collect a maximum of one month of salary as compensation. Afterwards, this threshold is grossed up by more or less one month per year of seniority up to eight years. However, such scale does not apply to unlawful dismissals (those related to discrimination or harassment) or to dismissals which occurred in violation of fundamental freedoms. While many French lower courts have published judgments rejecting such Macron scale, the ‟Cour de cassation” (i.e. the French supreme court) validated such Macron scale in July 2019, forcing French employment tribunals to comply with such scale.
While this should come as a relief to foreign parent companies, it is worth noting that the more orderly and negotiated the departure of the Staff, the better. Having to fight employment lawsuits in France is no fun, and can be cost and time intensive. They therefore must be avoided at all cost.
3. How to restructure your creative business in France: terminate other contracts with third parties and clean the slate with French authorities
Of course, other contracts with third parties, such as suppliers, local service providers, must be lawfully terminated before the French operations are shut down. The takeaway is that the French entity and its foreign parent company cannot leave a chaotic and unresolved situation behind them, in France.
They must terminate and lawfully sever all their contractual ties with French companies and professionals, before closing shop, in compliance with the terms of any contracts entered into with such French third parties.
Additionally, French companies must pay off any outstanding balances due to French authorities, such as the French social security organisations, the URSSAF, and the French tax administration, before permanently closing down.
4. How to restructure your creative business in France: you must properly wind up your business
Once all the ongoing obligations of the French operations are met, by lawfully terminating all existing agreements such as the commercial lease, the employment agreements, the suppliers’ agreements and the service providers’ agreements, as discussed above, it is time to wind up your business in France.
French limited liability companies have two options to terminate their business as an ongoing concern due to economic grounds, i.e. proceed to a ‟cessation d’activité”.
The first branch of the alternative is to execute a voluntary and early termination of the French business as an ongoing concern. It can be exercised by the French company, its shareholders and its board of directors, when it can still exercise its activity and pay back its debts. If the articles of association of such French company provide for the various cases in which the company may be wound up, such as the end of the term of the French company, or upon the common decision made by its shareholders, then it is possible for the French limited liability company and its directors to execute a voluntary and early termination of the business as an ongoing concern.
The second branch to the alternative, opened to French limited liability companies, occurs when a company cannot pay its debts anymore, and is in a situation of ‟cessation de paiements” i.e. it cannot pay its debts with its assets, in cessation of payments. In this instance, the French company must file a notification of cessation of payments with the competent commercial courts within 45 days from the date on which it stopped to make payments. Also, within that time frame of 45 days, the board of directors of the French company must open a ‟procédure de redressement ou de liquidation judiciaire” (i.e. receivership or liquidation institutionalised process, monitored by French courts) with the competent commercial court. This court will decide, further to examining the various documents filed with the ‟déclaration de cessation des paiements”, which institutionalised process (receivership? liquidation?) is the most appropriate, in view of all the interests that need being taken into account (debts, safeguarding employments, etc.).
If you want to exit the French territory in a graceful manner, you do not want to find yourself in a situation of cessation of payments, and then receivership or liquidation monitored by French courts. Not only this guarantees a protracted and painful judiciary process to terminate your French operations, but this may lead to situations where the money claims made against the French company would be escalated to its shareholders, directors and/or parent company, as explained in our introduction above.
Not only the parent company, and any other shareholder, could be dragged in the mud and found liable, but its directors, and in particular its managing director, too. French commercial courts have no patience for sloppy and irresponsible management, and many managing directors (‟associés gérants”) have seen their civil liability triggered because their actions had caused some prejudices to the French company or a third party. Even criminal liability of an ‟associé gérant” can be triggered, in case the French court discovers fraud. In particular, it is frequent that in collective insolvency proceedings, if the judicial liquidation of a French limited liability company shows an asset shortfall (‟insuffisance d’actif”), the courts order its managing director to pay, personally, for the company’s social liability, if she has committed a management error.
To conclude, the French company acts as a shield for its managing director, except if such director commits a personal mistake detachable from her mandate, in case the company is still solvent. However, if the company is in receivership, both the shareholders’, and the directors’ liability may be triggered in many ways, by French courts, the French social security contributions entity URSSAF and the French tax administration.
It is therefore essential to leave France with a clean slate, because any unfinished business left to fester may hit your foreign company and the management like a boomerang, by way of enforceable and very onerous French court decisions.
Don’t worry, though, we are here, at Crefovi, to service you to achieve this, and you can tap into our expertise to leave French territories unscathed and victorious.
On 30 March 2019, the UK will crash out of the EU without a withdrawal deal in place, and without a request for an extension of the 2 years’ notification period of its decision to withdraw. No second referendum will be organised by the current UK government. Therefore, what’s in the cards, for the creative industries, in order to do fruitful business with, and from, the UK in the near future?
My previous article on the road less travelled & Brexit legal implications, published just after the Brexit vote, on Saturday 25 June 2016, delivered the main message that it was worth monitoring the negotiation process that would ensue the notification made by the United Kingdom (‟UK”) to the European Union (‟EU”) of its intention to withdraw from the EU within 2 years.
We have therefore been monitoring those negotiations for you, in the last couple of years, and came to the following predictions, which will empower your creative business to brace itself for, and make the most of the imminent changes triggered by, the crashing of the UK out of the EU, on 30 March 2019.
1. End of freedom of movement of UK and EU citizens coming in and out of the UK
On 30 March 2019, UK citizens will lose their EU citizenship, i.e. the citizenship, subsidiary to UK citizenship, that provide rights such as the right to vote in European elections, the right to free movement, settlement and employment across the EU, and the right to consular protection by other EU states’ embassies when a person’s country of citizenship does not maintain an embassy or consulate in the country in which they require protection.
Since no withdrawal agreement will be signed by 29 March 2019, between the EU and the UK, UK nationals living in one of the 27 EU member-states will be on their own, as no reciprocal arrangements will have been put in place, in particular in relation to reciprocal healthcare and social security coordination, work permits, right to stand and vote in local elections.
UK nationals living in one of the states which are members of the European Free Trade Association (‟EFTA”), i.e. Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, will also have no safety net, as the UK will also crash out of the EU bilateral agreements with EFTA members, such as the agreement on the European Economic Area (‟EEA”) which ties Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and the EU together, on 29 March 2019. Meanwhile, ‟the UK is seeking citizens’ rights agreement with the EFTA states to protect the rights of citizens”, as set out on the policy paper published by the UK Department for exiting the EU.
It therefore makes sense for UK nationals living in a EU member-state, or in one of the EFTA states, to reach out to the equivalent of the UK Home Office in such country, and inquire how they can secure either a visa or national citizenship in this country. Since negotiating some new bilateral agreements with EU member-states and EFTA states will take years, for the UK to finalise such negotiations, UK nationals cannot rely on these protracted talks to get any leverage and obtain permanent right to remain in a EU member-state or an EFTA state.
For example, France is ready to pass a decree after 30 March 2019, to organise the requirement to present a visa to enter French territory, and to obtain a residency permit (‟carte de séjour”) to justify staying here, for UK citizens already living, or planning to live for more than three months, in France. Therefore, soon after 30 March 2019, British nationals and their families who do not have residency permits may have an “irregular status” in France.
While applying for a ‟carte de séjour” is free in France, and applying for French citizenship triggers only a 55 euros stamp duty to pay, EU nationals living in the UK, or planning to live in the UK, won’t be so lucky.
Indeed, it will set EU nationals back GBP1,330 per person, from 6 April 2018, to obtain UK citizenship, including the citizenship ceremony fee. However, there may be no fee to enrol into the EU Settlement Scheme, which will open fully by 30 March 2019, in particular if a EU citizen already has a valid ‟UK permanent residence document or indefinite leave to remain in or enter the UK”. The deadline for applying in the EU Settlement Scheme will be 31 December 2020, when the UK leaves the EU without a withdrawal deal on 30 March 2019.
Business owners and creative companies working in and from the UK will be impacted too, if they have some employees and staff. It will be their responsibility to ensure and be able to prove that their staff who are EU citizens, have all obtained a settled status: in a display of largesse, the UK government has therefore published an employer toolkit, to ‟support EU citizens and their families to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme”.
For short term stays of less than three months per entry, the UK government currently promises that ‟arrangements for tourists and business visitors will not look any different. EU citizens coming for short visits will be able to enter the UK as they can now, and stay for up to three months from each entry”.
To conclude, leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement is going to create a lot of red tape, and be a massive time and energy hassle for EU citizens living in the UK, their UK employers who need to ensure that their staff are all enrolled into the EU Settlement Scheme, and for UK citizens living in one of the remaining 27 EU member-states. There will be no certainty of obtaining settled status from the UK Home Office, until EU citizens have actually obtained it further to enrolling into the EU Settlement Scheme. This is going to be a very anxiety-inducing process for EU citizens living in the UK, and for their UK employers who rely on these members of their staff to get the job done.
Contingency plans should therefore be put in place by UK employers who have EU citizens on their payroll, in particular by setting up offices and subsidiaries in one of the remaining 27 EU member-states, so that EU citizens whose settled status was refused by the UK Home Office may keep on working for their UK employers by relocating to this EU member-state where they will have freedom of movement thanks to their EU citizenships. Besides the Home Office and immigration lawyers’ fees, UK employers need to take into account the legal, accounting, IT and real estate costs of setting up additional offices and subsidiaries in a EU member-state, after 30 March 2019.
2. Removal of free movement of goods, services and capital
The EU internal market, or single market, is a single market that seeks to guarantee the free movement of goods, capital, services and people – the ‟four freedoms” – between the EU 28 member-states.
After 30 March 2019, the single market will no longer count the UK, as it will cease to be a EU member-state.
While it was an option for the internal market to remain in place, between the UK and the EU, as such market has been extended to EFTA states Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA agreement, and to EFTA state Switzerland through bilateral treaties, this alternative was not pursued by the UK government. Indeed, the EEA Agreement and EU-Swiss bilateral agreements are both viewed by most as very asymmetric (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are essentially obliged to accept the internal single market rules without having much if any say in what they are, while Switzerland does not have full or automatic access but still has free movement of workers). The UK, as well as EFTA members who were less than keen to have the UK join their EFTA club, ruled out such option, not seeing the point of still contributing to the EU budget while not having a seat at the table to take any decisions in relation to how the single market is governed and managed.
2.1. Removal of free movement of goods and new custom duties and tariffs
As far as the removal of the free movement of goods is concerned, it will be a – hopefully temporary – hassle, since the UK does not have any bilateral customs and trade agreements in place with the EU (because no withdrawal agreement will be entered into between the EU and the UK by 30 March 2019) and with non-EU countries (because the 53 trade agreements with non-EU countries were secured by the EU directly, on behalf of its then 28 member-states, including with Canada, Singapore, South Korea).
On 30 March 2019, the UK will regain its right to conclude binding trade agreements with non-EU countries, and with the EU of course.
While the UK government laboriously launches itself into the negotiation of at least 54 trade agreements, including with the EU, customs duties will be reinstated between the UK and all other European countries, including the UK. This is going to lead to a very disadvantageous situation for UK businesses, as the cost of trading goods and products with foreign countries will substantially increase, both for imports and exports.
Creative companies headquartered in the UK, which export and import goods and products, such as fashion, design and tech companies, are going to be especially at risk, here, with the cost of imported raw material increasing, and the rise or appearance of custom duties on exports of their products to the EU and non-EU countries. Fashion and luxury businesses, in particular, are at risk, since they export more than seventy percent of their production overseas.
Since the UK has most of its trade (57 percent of exports and 66 percent of imports in 2016) done with countries bound by EU trade agreements, both UK companies and UK consumers must brace themselves for a shock, when they will start trading after 30 March 2019. The cost of life is going to become more expensive in the UK (since most products and goods are imported, in particular from EU member-states), and operating costs are also going to increase for UK businesses.
While some Brexiters claim that the UK will be fine, by reverting to trading with the ‟rest of the world” under the rules of the World Trade Organisation (‟WTO”), it is important to note that right now, only 24 countries are trading with the UK on WTO rules (like any one of the 28 member-states of the EU because no EU trade deal was concluded with these non-EU countries). After 30 March 2019, the UK will trade with the rest of the world under WTO rules, as long as the other state is also a member of the WTO (for example, Algeria, Serbia and North Korea are not WTO members). Moreover, some tariffs will apply to all UK exports, under those WTO rules.
It definitely does not look like a panacea to trade under WTO rules, so the UK government and its Bank of England will weaken the pound sterling as much as possible, to set off the financial burden represented by these custom duties and taxes.
Creative companies headquartered in the UK, which export goods and products, such as fashion and design companies, should now relocate their manufacturing operations to the EU or low wages and low tax territories, such as South East Asia, as soon as possible, to avoid the new customs duties and taxation of goods and products which will inevitably arise, after 30 March 2019.
While a cynical example, since James Dyson was a fervent Brexiter who called on the UK government to walk away from the EU without a withdrawal deal, UK creative businesses manufacturing goods and products must emulate vacuum cleaner and hair dryer technology company Dyson, that will be moving its headquarters from Wiltshire to Singapore this year.
Moreover, the UK will face non-tariff barriers, in the same way that China and the US trade with the EU. Non-tariff barriers are any measure, other than a customs tariff, that acts as a barrier to international trade, such as regulations, rules of origin or quotas. In particular, regulatory divergence from the EU will make it harder to trade goods, introducing non-tariff barriers: when the UK will leave the EU customs union, on 30 March 2019, any goods crossing the border will have to meet rules of origin requirements, to prove that they did indeed come from the UK – introducing paperwork and non-tariff barriers.
2.2. Removal of free movement of services and VAT changes
On 30 March 2019, UK services – accounting for eighty percent of the UK economy – will lose their preferential access to the EU single market, which will constitute another non-tariff barrier.
The free movement of services and of establishment allows self-employed persons to move between member-states in order to provide services on a temporary or permanent basis. While services account for between sixty and seventy percent of GDP, on average, in all 28 EU member-states, most legislation in this area is not as developed as in other areas.
There are no customs duties and taxation on services, therefore UK creative industries which mainly provide services (such as the tech and internet sector, marketing, PR and communication services, etc) are less at risk of being detrimentally impacted by the exit of the UK from the EU without a withdrawal agreement.
However, since the UK will become a non-EU country from 30 March 2019 onwards, EU businesses and UK business alike will no longer be able to apply the EU rules relating to VAT, and in particular to intra-community VAT, when they trade with UK and EU businesses respectively. This therefore means that, from 30 March 2019 onwards, a EU business will no longer charge VAT to a UK company, but will keep on charging VAT to its UK client who is a natural person. Also, a UK business will no longer charge VAT to a EU company, but will keep on charging VAT to its EU client who is a natural person.
Positive changes on VAT are also in the works, because the UK will no longer have to comply with EU VAT law (on rates of VAT, scope of exemptions, zero-rating, etc.): the UK will have more flexibility in those areas.
However, there will no doubt be disputes between taxpayers and HMRC over the VAT treatment of transactions that predate 30 March 2019, where EU law may still be in point. Because the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union (‟CJEU”) will cease completely in relation to UK matters on 30 March 2019, any such questions of EU law will be dealt with entirely by the UK courts. Indeed, UK courts have stopped referring new cases to the CJEU in any event, since last year.
2.3. Removal of free movement of capital and loss of passporting rights for the UK financial services industry
Since the UK will leave the EU without a withdrawal agreement, free movement of capital, which is intended to permit movement of investments such as property purchases and buying of shares between EU member-states, will cease to apply between the EU and the UK on 30 March 2019.
Capital within the EU may be transferred in any amount from one country to another (except that Greece currently has capital controls restricting outflows) and all intra-EU transfers in euro are considered as domestic payments and bear the corresponding domestic transfer costs. This EU central payments infrastructure is based around TARGET2 and the Single Euro Payments Area (‟SEPA”). This includes all member-states of the EU, even those outside the eurozone, provided the transactions are carried out in euros. Credit/debit card charging and ATM withdrawals within the Eurozone are also charged as domestic.
Since the UK has always kept the pound sterling during its 43 years’ stint in the EU, absolutely refusing to ditch it for the euro, transfer costs on capital movements – from euros to pound sterling and vice versa – have always been fairly high in the UK anyway.
However, as the UK will crash out of the EU without a deal on 30 March 2019, such transfer costs, as well as new controls on capital movements, will be put in place and impact creative businesses and professionals when they want to transfer money from the UK to EU member-states and vice-versa. While the UK government is looking to align payments legislation to maximise the likelihood of remaining a member of SEPA as a third country, the fact that it has decided not to sign the withdrawal agreement with the EU will not help such alignment process.
The cost of card payments between the UK and EU will increase, and these cross-border payments will no longer be covered by the surcharging ban (which prevents businesses from being able to charge consumers for using a specific payment method).
It is therefore advisable for UK creative companies to open business bank accounts, in euros, either in EU countries which are strategic to them, or online through financial services providers such as Transferwise’s borderless account. UK businesses and professionals will hence avoid being narrowly limited to their UK pound sterling denominated bank accounts and being tributary to the whims of politicians and bureaucrats attempting to negotiate new trade agreements on freedom of capital movements between the UK and the EU, and other non-EU countries.
Also, forging ties with banking, insurance and other financial services providers in one of the remaining 27 member-states of the EU may be really useful to UK creative industries, after 30 March 2019, because the UK will no longer be able to carry out any banking, insurance and other financial services activities through the EU passporting process. Indeed, financial services is a highly regulated sector, and the EU internal market for financial services is highly integrated, underpinned by common rules and standards, and extensive supervisory cooperation between regulatory authorities at an EU and member-state level. Firms, financial market infrastructures, and funds authorised in any EU member-state can carry out many activities in any other EU member-state, through a process known as ‟passporting”, as a direct result of their EU authorisation. This means that if these entities are authorised in one member-state, they can provide services to customers in all other EU member-states, without requiring authorisation or supervision from the local regulator.
The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 will transfer EU law, including that relating to financial services, into UK statutes on 30 March 2019. It will also give the UK government powers to amend UK law, to ensure that there is a fully functioning financial services regulatory framework on 30 March 2019.
However, on 30 March 2019, UK financial services firms’ position in relation to the EU will be determined by any applicable EU rules that apply to non-EU countries at that time. Therefore, UK financial services firms and funds will lose their passporting rights into the EU: this means that their UK customers will no longer be able to use the EU services of UK firms that used to passport into the EU, but also that their EU customers will no longer be able to use the UK services of such UK firms.
For example, the UK is a major centre for investment banking in Europe, with UK investment banks providing investment services and funding through capital markets to business clients across the EU. On 30 March 2019, EU clients may no longer be able to use the services of UK-based investment banks, and UK-based investment banks may be unable to service existing cross-border contracts.
3. Legal implications of Brexit in the UK
On 30 March 2019, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (the ‟Act”) will take effect, repeal the European Communities Act 1972 (the ‟ECA”) and retain in effect almost all UK laws which have been derived from the EU membership of the UK since 1 January 1973. The Act will therefore continue enforce all EU-derived domestic legislation, which is principally delegated legislation passed under the ECA to implement directives, and convert all direct EU legislation, i.e. EU regulations and decisions, into UK domestic law.
Consequently, the content of EU law as it stands on 30 March 2019 is going to be a critical piece of legal history for the purpose of UK law for decades to come.
Some of the legal practices which are going to be strongly impacted by the UK crashing out of the EU are intellectual property law, dispute resolution, financial services law, franchising, employment law, product compliance and liability, as well as tax.
In particular, there is no clarity from the UK government, at this stage, on how EU trademarks, registered with the European Union Intellectual Property Office (‟EUIPO”) are going to apply in the UK, if at all, after 30 March 2019. The same goes for Registered Community Designs (‟RCD”), which are also issued by the EUIPO.
At least, some clarity exists in relation to European patents: the UK exit from the EU should not affect the current European patent system, which is governed by the (non-EU) European Patent Convention. Therefore, UK businesses will be able to apply to the European Patent Office (‟EPO”) for patent protection which will include the UK. Existing European patents covering the UK will also be unaffected. European patent attorneys based in the UK will continue to be able to represent applicants before the EPO.
Similarly, and since the UK is a member of a number of international treaties and agreements protecting copyright, the majority of UK copyright works (such as music, films, books and photographs) are protected around the world. This will continue to be the case, following the UK exit from the EU. However, certain cross-border copyright mechanisms, especially those relating to collecting societies and rights management societies, and those relating to the EU digital single market, are going to cease applying in the UK.
Enforcement of IP rights, as well as commercial and civil rights, is also going to be uncertain for some time: the UK will cease to be part of the EU Observatory, and of bodies such as Europol and the EU customs’ databases to register intellectual property rights against counterfeiting, on 30 March 2019.
The EU regulation n. 1215/2012 of 12 December 2012, on jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters, will cease to apply in the UK once it is no longer an EU member-state. Therefore, after 30 March 2019, no enforcement system will be in place, to enforce an English judgment in a EU member-state, and vice-versa. Creative businesses will have to rely on domestic recognition regimes in the UK and each EU member-state, if in existence. This will likely introduce additional procedural steps before a foreign judgment is recognised, which will make enforcement more time-consuming and expensive.
To conclude, the UK government seems comfortable with the fact that mayhem is going to happen, from 30 March 2019 onwards, in the UK, in a very large number of industrial sectors, legal practices, and cross-border administrative systems such as immigration and customs, for the mere reason than no agreed and negotiated planning was put in place, on a wide scale, by the UK and the EU upon exit of the UK from the EU. This approach makes no economic, social and financial sense but this is besides the point. Right now, what creative businesses and professionals need to focus on is to prepare contingency plans, as explained above, and to keep on monitoring new harmonisation processes that will undoubtedly be put in place, in a few years, by the UK and its trading partners outside and inside the EU, once they manage to find common ground and enter into bilateral agreements organising this new business era for the UK.
In order to develop one’s market and increase turnover potential, a company should widen its business internationally. What are the legal and commercial aspects that need to be checked, in order to ensure a successful international development?
1. Draft a business plan
Firstly, international development starts with drafting a business plan, comprising, in particular, a budget forecasting the transaction costs, cash flow projections and cash flow statements, as well as income statements on a 5 to 7 years’ period, and a SWOT analysis (‟Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats”).
2. Find the necessary funds for your international development
Secondly, it is necessary to raise funds, either internally, by using the reserves or a share of the operating result, or externally, by soliciting financial support (in particular with organisations such as Oseo, BpiFrance, Coface, Business France) or by borrowing with banks. It is also possible to reach out to investors, business angels, capital-risk or capital-venture funds, if your company shows very high growth prospects and if you are ready to transfer a share of your company’s shareholding capital.
3. Be well protected
Moreover, and in parallel with the steps described above, it is appropriate to reduce all the risks, in particular legal, linked to the international expansion.
In particular, it is necessary to check the professional indemnity insurance policy which covers your company, as well as its international transactions. If so, on which geographic territories are you covered? Up to which amount? Are there any exclusion clauses to the insurance cover abroad ? Which ones?
3.2. Intellectual property
Moreover, it is essential to protect your brand well and, if possible, the designs of your company, internationally, within all the territories where you intend to expand your activity. Thus, it is recommended to register your trademark in the countries which manufacture your products as well as in the countries where these products are sold. International extension of your trademark – French or European , is therefore ‟de rigueur”.
The same applies to designs which constitute the most important intangible assets of your company. For example, a bag which is the cash cow of your business, because its sales represent more than 20 percent of your annual turnover, must be protected through the registration of a design with the EUropean Union Intellectual Property office and, if possible, other intellectual property offices abroad.
4. Growing your business abroad, either on your own or through a third party
International development can occur in various ways:
- either the company will invest on its own, by leasing some premises or a shop located on the desired foreign territory;
- or the company will delegate the management of the international expansion to a third party, such as an agent, a distributor, a licensee or a franchisee. It is therefore necessary to set up and negotiate appropriate agreements, which will rule the relationships with the landlord, in case of a direct expansion by the company, or with an agent, distributor, licensee or franchisee. These contracts are complex and often set out some mandatory provisions required by the law in force. It is therefore necessary to obtain legal advice, from counsel located in the foreign jurisdiction in question, before signing anything with the other party.
If you develop your business on your own, abroad, you will have to ask yourself whether you need to incorporate, or not, a new company which will be located on the territory which is the object of such expansion. Will this new company be a subsidiary, a branch, the parent company, a sister company of the French company? What is the most advantageous for you, from a tax and accounting standpoint? Again, in this case, it is necessary to seek advice from your lawyer, so that your counsel may conduct in depth research on the pros and cons of each option. Your counsel may also connect you to competent chartered accountants, in the country where the international expansion is taking place, who will be able to manage the accounting of the new legal entity.
5. Make sure to comply with local consumer law
If your business sells products and services to consumers, there is a high probability that a legal framework is in place, in the country where you intend to expand, to protect its consumers. You therefore need to inform yourself about such regulatory framework, before starting to sell your products and services to consumers abroad, in order to ensure that your wares will be offered in compliance with the laws in force. Otherwise, beware of administrative, legal and even criminal proceedings and actions which may target your company, especially if you sell products off premises (on internet, at fares, markets, trade shows, etc.).
International expansion is a dynamic and fascinating project for your company, which may increase exponentially its sales’ impact. However, risks are high, from a legal and tax standpoint, and it is necessary to prepare with details such international adventure, in order to minimise all these risks. To this effect, seek advice from a specialised lawyer becomes indispensable.
Copyright & neighbouring rights updates on both sides of the pond: progress in sight for right ownersCrefovi : 14/10/2018 8:00 am : Antitrust & competition, Articles, Copyright litigation, Emerging companies, Entertainment & media, Information technology - hardware, software & services, Intellectual property & IP litigation, Internet & digital media, Litigation & dispute resolution, Music law, Outsourcing, Technology transactions
Notable headway is being made, on both sides of the pond, to legislate for better protection and empowerment of owners of copyright & neighbouring rights. While such parallel progresses, made in the European Union and the USA, do not relate to resolving the same business and legal issues pertaining to copyright & neighbouring rights, they are notable as they illustrate a power shift, away from tech companies and their VOD and streaming platforms, as well as other distribution channels such as satellite and online radio, towards right owners such as music composers, performers, producers, film directors, etc.
1. Adoption of the Directive on copyright in the Digital Single Market
In my article on ‟Copyright in the digital era: how the creative industries can cash in”, I detailed how the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, published his political guidelines for a new Europe which had, at its core, a connected Digital Single Market (‟DSM”), suitable for copyright & neighbouring rights.
Central to the development of the DSM, is the implementation of the EU directive on copyright in the DSM 2016/0280 (the ‟DSM Directive”) in the 28 member-states of the European Union (‟EU”). The key provisions of the DSM Directive, relating to copyright & neighbouring rights, include:
- providing rights of fair remuneration in contracts for authors and performers (articles 14 to 16);
- creation of an ancillary right for press publishers (article 11);
- obligation of online service providers (social networks, platforms, etc) to take measures to prevent infringement (article 13);
- new mandatory exceptions to infringement (articles 3 to 4);
- facilitating the use of out-of-commerce works by cultural heritage institutions (article 5).
The essence of each of these key provisions in the DSM Directive is set out in my article on ‟Copyright in the digital era: how the creative industries can cash in”.
The aim of the DSM Directive is to reduce the differences between national copyright regimes and to allow for wider online access to copyrighted works by users across the EU, in order to move towards a proper DSM.
First introduced by the European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs on 20 June 2018, the DSM Directive was approved by the European Parliament on 12 September 2018, and will now enter formal trilogue discussions (i.e. closed-door compromise negotiations held between the three bodies involved in the legislative process of the EU institutions, which are the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament, to finalise the wording of the DSM Directive). This trilogue is expected to conclude in January 2019, with a final plenary vote taken by the European Parliament then. Once the DSM Directive is signed into law, each of the 28 member-states of the EU will have to transpose it in its national legal framework, during a two-year transposition period.
It is worth mentioning that, on 20 June 2018, when the European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs proposed the negotiating mandate on the DSM Directive to the European Parliament, such proposal was rejected.
While Members of the European Parliament (‟MEPs”) generally agree that most provisions set out in the DSM Directive are non-controversial, the most contentious aspects of the DSM Directive are its articles 11 and 13. The former prevents online content platforms and news aggregators sharing links without paying for them, while the latter requires online platforms to monitor and effectively enforce copyright laws.
So what is the fuss all about?
Article 11 of the DSM Directive concerns press publications and deals with links to, or copies of, press publications. Today, 57 percent of internet users access press content through social networks or search engines; while the media cannot claim any rights on these hyperlinks. Article 11 sets out that right holders shall be able to obtain a fair and proportionate remuneration for the digital use of their press publications from tech platforms, such as Facebook, Linkedin, Google, etc.
As the right owners to press publications most often will be the publishers, there is also a paragraph incorporated, ensuring that the publishing houses will remunerate the actual authors, i.e. the journalists.
Merely sharing hyperlinks to articles, accompanied by ‟individual words” to describe them, can be done freely.
Despite those restrictions to the scope of article 11, several MEPs view this article as a ‟link tax” (tax on hyperlinks), and consequently an infringement of the freedom of expression.
Article 13 of the DSM Directive provides for the use of protected content – for instance, pictures, music, code, videos – uploaded by someone other than the right holder to online content sharing service providers, which store and give access to large amounts of works, such as YouTube or DailyMotion.
When article 13 of the DSM Directive will enter into force, platforms will have to enter into licensing agreements with right holders, regarding the use of the protected content. This will probably be done through a compulsory licensing system, which already exists for other areas relating to the use of intellectual property protected material.
If it is not possible to enter into licensing agreements with the right holders, the platforms and right holders must cooperate in order to ensure that unauthorised protected works are not available on these platforms.
Therefore, article 13 requires the platforms to proactively work with right holders to stop users from uploading copyrighted content without right holders’ prior consent. This will require automatic scanning and filtering of all material being uploaded to platform sites, such as YouTube, Dailymotion or Facebook.
Small and micro platforms will not be subjected to article 13, while Wikipedia and other open source platforms will also be exempted.
Despite those restrictions to the scope of article 13, several MEPs view the mandatory and automatic filtering and scanning of content as potentially too onerous for small and start-up platforms, thereby encouraging centralisation and consolidation of the internet since only large platforms will have the means and tools to implement this automatic filtering.
While there will be some costs involved for tech platforms, in connection with the establishment of security measures for securing that protected content is dealt with in the right manner, right holders will have much more financial incentives to upload their content to these platforms, once the DSM Directive is adopted by final vote in January 2019 and then transposed by each member-state.
Online providers of user-generated content will no longer be able to hide behind any Safe Harbor provisions, which essentially set out that, when users share content that infringes someone else’s copyright, the conduit through which that content is shared is not liable for the users’ infringing activity, as long as such platform, if and when a copyright owner notifies it of such infringement, for example by way of a ‟take down” notice, takes action to remove that content.
For the first time in history, through the DSM Directive, it is recognised that online content sharing service providers are not meant to be protected by Safe Harbor law, but should license any content first, as well as take proactive measures to prevent users from uploading unlicensed content.
2. Signature of the Music Modernization Act into US law
As explained in my article ‟Crefovi’s take on Midem 2015: wider income streams, that transparency issue and levelling the playing field”, the US congress ignored the copyright reform bills, such as the Songwriter Equity Act, the Allocation for Music Producers Act and the Fair Play Fair Pay Act, drafted by the US music industry, for many years.
While US radio broadcasters and other stakeholders fiercely pushed back on any introduction of a sound recording public performance royalty for AM/FM (terrestrial) radio in the USA, the collection and distribution of digital sound recording public rights, made by the US non-profit organisation established by Congress, SoundExchange, on behalf of artists and producers, was not as efficient and wide-ranging as it could have been.
As a consequence, many US artists, producers and managers worked from abroad, mainly in Europe, in order to benefit from wider sources of income and, in particular, from sound recording public performance royalties, also called neighbouring rights royalties.
This sorry state of affair is now over, with the Music Modernization Act (‟MMA”) signed into law on 11 October 2018, further to being passed through both the House and Senate.
The MMA is a combination of three bills, as follows.
The Music Modernization Act which aims at improving how music licensing and royalties would be paid in consideration of streaming media services in the three following ways:
- It sets up a non-profit governing agency that will create a database relating to the owners of the mechanical license of sound recordings – i.e. the copyright that covers the composition and lyrics of a song (not the rights over the performance and recording of such song, which are held under a different license and collected by SoundExchange); such new agency will establish blanket royalty rates, which will be applied to pay composers and songwriters, when their songs are used by streaming services, and when such songs are recorded in this database. Such new agency and database should eliminate the difficulty previously faced by streaming services to properly identify any mechanical license holders. These royalties will be paid by streaming services, to the new agency, as a compulsory license, not requiring the mechanical license holder’s permission. The agency will then be responsible for distributing such royalties.
- It ensures that songwriters, composers and lyricists are paid a portion of mechanical license royalties for either physical or digital reproduction of a song with their lyrics or musical composition, at a rate set by contract.
- It revamps the rate court process when disagreements over royalty rates arise, with a random judge in the United States District court for the Southern District of New York assigned to oversee and handle such cases, from now on.
The Compensating Legacy Artists for their Songs, Service, and Important Contributions to Society Act (the ‟CLASSICS Act”), which addresses the situation of sound recordings made before 15 February 1972, which were not covered under federal copyright law, leaving them up to the individual states to pass laws for recording protection. This had created a complex series of laws that made it difficult for copyright enforcement and royalty payments. The CLASSICS Act sets out that sound recordings before 1972 are covered by copyright until 15 February 2067, with additional language to grandfather in older songs into the public domain at an earlier time. Indeed, recordings made before 1923 will enter the public domain on 1 January 2022, with recordings made between 1923 and 1956 being phased into the public domain over the next few decades.
The Allocation for Music Producers Act (‟AMP”) set outs that SoundExchange must also distribute part of the royalties on sound recordings, collected on digital sound recording public rights, to ‟a producer, mixer or sound engineer who was part of the creative process that created the sound recording”.
While the MMA streamlines the music-licensing process in the digital era, it is worth noting that the more beefy provisions set out in the Fair Play Fair Pay Act have not been incorporated in it. Indeed, the Fair Play Fair Pay Act had been designed to harmonize how royalties were paid by terrestrial radio broadcasters and internet streaming services, on sound recording public rights. While songwriters and composers will now receive mechanical license royalties on both digital streaming and radio plays, performing artists and music producers will remain at a disadvantage since their performance royalties will keep on only being collected by SoundExchange on digital and streaming plays; not on terrestrial radio plays. It is baffling that the US government still considers such use of songs and sound recordings on radio to be merely ‟promotional” and therefore devoid of royalties for performers.
While the MMA is, without any doubt, a step in the right direction, to improve the financial well being of US songwriters, composers and lyricists, and, to a degree, of US artists, producers and performers as well as US music professionals such as music producers, engineers and mixers, these US reforms are nowhere as forward thinking and protective towards right owners than the DSM Directive or, even, the current EU copyright and neighbouring rights protection framework. Indeed, all the provisions set out in the MMA relate to the protection and remuneration of rights which have long been fully protected, and monetised, in the EU.
To conclude, the EU remains at the forefront of protecting right owners in the digital era, compared, in particular, to the USA, and it will be interesting to watch which side of the protection spectrum the United Kingdom decides to take, once it fully withdraws from the EU and ceases to have any obligation to transpose the DSM Directive in its national law, as a member-state, on 29 March 2019.
Where does Netflix stand, in terms of expanding its business model, content and distribution channels, worldwide? Where is it heading towards, in the current content distribution ecosystem?
1. Netflix’s state of play in 2018
On 15 May 2015, during the ‟In conversation with Ted Sarandos” event at the Cannes Film Festival, I asked Netflix’s chief content officer why not acquiring some major film studios in order to have more power and clout, while negotiating the shortening, or even removal, of the ‟first theatrical window” to release audiovisual content into the public domain worldwide. Surely, through vertical integration, Netflix would be able to successfully convince countries’ governments and theatre owners, around the world, that adopting its day-and-date release strategy is a win-win solution for all?
Ted Sarandos was visibly annoyed by my question at the time, dismissed it entirely by saying something to the effect that buying independent or major studios would not work because Netflix would not get access to their back catalogue anyway, which was where the real cash was. I was baffled by the narrow-minded approach adopted by Sarandos in his reply to my points, but thought he may have snapped that back at me because I was putting him on the spot in front of an audience of more than 300 people, at the most prestigious film festival on earth!
Three years down the line, and my envisioned best strategy for Netflix to beef up its worldwide presence, not only online, but also in the brick and mortar space, is becoming a reality. I was dead on the money: Netflix reported yesterday that they are in advanced talks to acquire Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp studios.
This is the only way forward, for Netflix, as it has almost reached saturation as far as the distribution of its content on its website and online applications are concerned, worldwide. Indeed, Netflix members with a streaming-only plan can watch TV shows and movies instantly in over 190 countries (Netflix is only not yet available in China, nor is it available in Crimea, North Korea, or Syria due to US government restrictions on American companies there). Moreover, in key markets such as the US, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, Netflix had a penetration rate as high as 72 percent in the second quarter of 2017.
While more and more consumers subscribe to Netflix streaming plans around the world, with a total number of 117.58 million streaming subscribers worldwide in the fourth quarter of 2017, the average length of subscription to Netflix is 43 months per US broadband households. Therefore, Netflix benefits from a loyal and dutifully paying customer base, which is growing at a 18 percent rate year-on-year. Fixed as well as operating costs, and overheads, are relatively low for Netflix, since it only counts approximately 5,400 employees (by comparison, Microsoft has 124,000 while Apple has 123,000) and since it does not need any plush real estate or other types of tangible assets as part of its successful business strategy. Meanwhile, Netflix’s revenues in 2017 were USD11.69 billion – increasing more than tenfold between 2005 and 2016 – and Netflix’s net income in 2017 was at a comfortable and cushy USD559 million.
Basically, Netflix is swimming in cash, having now successfully implemented its scaling-up strategy in the online space, worldwide. All this disposable income needs being reinvested back into the business, co-founders Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph not being the types of guys slaving for Netflix’s shareholders by splurging into annual dividends’ distributions. In fact, Netflix never paid dividends to its shareholders in the past 10 years!
2. First step of Netflix’s vertical integration strategy: leap into content creation and production
In the last 5 years, 1997 founded Netflix, which started out as a postal DVD rental company, successfully implemented the first steps to its vertical integration strategy, no matter what Sarandos has to say on the subject.
The real decision-maker, here, is co-founder, chairman and CEO Reed Hastings, who has fully grasped that Netflix must own every product or service of its supply chain, to make real money. In this context, vertical integration entails owning distribution as well as content. Hence, the leap into content creation and production for Netflix, as licensing existing content was merely enough to beef up its budding catalogue and render it attractive to a wider and ever more culturally-diversified customer base growing exponentially around the world.
Making beaucoup bucks comes from owning 100 percent of the content, without any licensing royalties to pay back to rightowners. Such fully-owned content can even be licensed back, opening up new revenue streams such as content licensing or even a branded channel with traditional distributors, for Netflix. Films can be easily snatched up at film markets in Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and the American Film Market in Santa-Monica all year round, and Netflix’s deep pockets let it pick the very best of the crop on offer from sales agents and distributors avid to ingratiate themselves with streaming video on-demand services (‟SVoD services”). Film and show projects and productions are also brokered directly between the talent and Netflix, the most notable examples of that being Netflix’s production and commission of House of Cards, Orange is the new Black, The Crown, Making a Murderer, and Stranger Things. In 2018, Netflix Originals’ busy-bee content pipeline is made up of 80 films that the company has either acquired or commissioned, which sounds positively outlandish compared to the 12 films released by Disney, and 20 released by Warner Bros, in 2018.
Owning the content also solves the headache posed by the theatrical distribution model which, according to Ted Sarandos, ‟is pretty antiquated for the on-demand audiences we are looking to serve”. Netflix, he said, is not looking to kill windowing but rather to “restore choice and options” for viewers by moving to day-and-date releases. Indeed, Netflix has brokered many recent theatrical deals – it plans to release the sequel to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon day-and-date online and in Inmax theatres. This (overdue) move into day-and-date release positively enrages theatre owners and exhibitors, especially further to the snafu triggered by Netflix managing to get two of its original films, Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories, chosen to compete in the official selection of the 2017 Cannes film festival.
3. Next step of Netflix’s vertical integration strategy: film studios’ acquisitions
Netflix’s vertical integration and expansion strategy does not stop here, though, because it still has so much disposable income to invest and, hey, why not acquiring more content, stakeholders, market share and clout in the films’ and shows’ sectors, if you can, right? SVoD services like Netflix have declared an open war on the fragmented audiovisual content industry which has prospered for decades, grazing on horizontally segmented industry models. Netflix is at the forefront of structuring end-to-end vertical SVoD services, going direct to consumers and ruthlessly bypassing theatres, broadcasters, networks, cable operators and even television manufacturers. This digital revolution transforms television and filmed entertainment, especially traditional broadcast TV, and is fostered by the big and fast-growing inroads of internet and over-the-top (‟OTT”) video platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Google’s YouTube.
Shaken at its core, a wave of consolidation is subsequently coming to the entertainment content delivery industry, with Netflix ready to snatch up any shaky yet prestigious film studio that comes along, such as Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp studio. Not only does the studio Besson co-founded in 1999 has a rich and high quality original content library and back catalogue (comprising Lucy, Taken, Le Grand Bleu, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, among others), but striking an exclusive direction and production deal with seminal and highly creative Besson would reinforce the prestige of Netflix, while making the platform even more appealing to European, and Asian audiences, in particular.
I predict that, should the right opportunity comes along, Netflix will repeat this vertical expansion masterstroke and acquire more major and/or independent studios.
It is true that vertical expansion has boundaries, in particular due to the anti-competitive risks that it entails, and that the issue of vertical integration in the entertainment business has been the main focus of policy makers since the 1920s. For example, in the United States v Paramount Pictures Inc. case, the US Supreme court ordered on 3 May 1948 that the five vertically integrated major studios, MGM, Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures and RKO, which not only produced and distributed films but also operated their own movie theatres, sell all their theatre chains. However, today, many media conglomerates already own television broadcasters (either over-the-air or on cable), the production companies that produce content for their networks, and also own the services that distribute their content to viewers (such as television and internet service providers). Bell Canada, Comcast, Sky plc and Roger Communications are vertically integrated in such a manner – operating media subsidiaries and providing ‟triple play” services on television, internet and phone services in some markets. Additionally, Bell and Rogers own wireless providers, Bell Mobility and Rogers Wireless, while Comcast is partnered with Verizon Wireless. Similarly, Sony has media holdings through its Sony Pictures division, including film and television content, as well as television channels, but is also a manufacturer of consumer electronics that can be used to consume content from itself and others, including televisions, phones and PlayStation video game consoles.
In this context, it is quite difficult imagining Netflix slapped with any anti-competition lawsuits or investigations, because it goes on a buying spree of film studios, even one of the ‟Big Six” majors.
4. Masterstroke of Netflix’s vertical integration plan: broadcasting networks and theatre chains
The next stage of Netflix’s vertical integration and expansion strategy, in addition to buying, producing and commissioning its own content, and in addition to acquiring film studios, is to delve into distributing its own content in the ‟real” world (i.e. offline sphere), either on other media distribution channels such as a broadcasting network, or in movie theatres.
I predict that, in 10 years, if TV is still a medium used by consumers, Netflix will have its own TV channels and broadcasting networks. In the future, if people still attend movie theatres from time to time, to watch special effects films there in particular, Netflix will also invest in buying back fledging exhibitors’ chains, causing direct competition to China’s Dalian Wanda-owned cinema group which is currently on a buying spree of theatre chains across Europe and the US.
This ‟online to offline strategy” is currently being implemented with brio by originally pure player Amazon, which is currently buying brick and mortar retail spaces all other the world, in order to continue its competitive assaults on traditional grocery stores and malls, increase its market share and get closer to its clients’ base worldwide. Amazon is at a way more mature growth point than Netflix, of course, but provides excellent footprint of the future roadmap that Netflix is undoubtedly going to implement.
5. No space for Apple in Netflix’s vertical integration strategy
Some commentators in the entertainment and finance industries pretend that Apple will buy Netflix but this is an oversight.
Firstly, Netflix has zilch incentive to accept an acquisition offer, even from a tech behemoth like Apple, because it is in such a strong strategical and financing position, and will be in that sweet spot for many more years to come in spite of its lesser-known SVoD competitors, such as Amazon Prime, Hulu and Vudu, tagging along.
Secondly, and thanks to such solid said vertical integration strategy and financials, Netflix’s valuation is simply too high, now. It is trading at all-time highs, with a USD94 billion market cap.
Thirdly, co-founder Reed Hastings, who still very much keeps a tight rein on Netflix as its chairman and CEO and enjoys the ride, is unlikely to sell his business at a meagre premium of 6 percent or so (USD100 billion).
Finally, Apple’s specialty and strength lie in its hardware and products, not so much in its software and services (apart, perhaps, from Apple’s video editing software, Final Cut Pro): the integration of Netflix into Apple will reinforce the latter’s positioning as a serious software and online applications’ provider, but will do absolutely nothing for the former’s vertical integration strategy, which now charges ahead towards film studios’ acquisitions, broadcasting networks’ acquisitions and theatre chains’ acquisitions.
In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein’s revelations, which triggered many more about sexual predators killing it in Hollywood and other creative industries, it is topical to look into the pros and cons of alternative dispute resolution in entertainment. While Weinstein and other top brass in the entertainment industry used to do away with accusations of predatory sexual behaviour made against them, by signing non-disclosure and out-of-court settlement agreements with their victims, the crux of the matter is that creative endeavours rely heavily on the goodwill, reputation and other intangible assets owned by the above-the-line personnel (film director, producers, scriptwriter) and by the casted actors. In this context, how to make the most of alternative dispute resolution, in the entertainment and creative industries, while retaining and respecting work ethics and human values? How to balance the need for secrecy and protection of the goodwill and reputation of top creatives, with the moral obligation to ensure that they are held accountable for their actions and business endeavours in the creative community and beyond?
1. What is alternative dispute resolution in the creative industries? Why use it?
Alternative dispute resolution (‟ADR”) is the use of methods such as mediation, negotiation or arbitration to resolve a dispute without resort to litigation.
ADR procedures are deemed to be usually less costly and more expeditious than litigation, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries where merely the court costs represent a substantial portion of the financial budget to allocate, in order to resolve a dispute through litigation.
ADR procedures, unlike adversarial litigation, are often collaborative and strive to allow parties to understand each other’s positions. ADR also allows the parties to come up with more creative solutions than a court may not be legally allowed to impose.
ADR also offers the option of confidentiality and secrecy to the parties involved in a dispute, while such option very rarely exists in court, especially in common law litigation proceedings which rely heavily on broad, expensive and virtually unlimited discovery such as in the USA and, to a degree, England & Wales. Instead of draining the financial resources and competitiveness of your creative business, which could well be invested in job creation or Research & Development for example, why not use ADR to limit the reputational impact and financial consequences of resolving a dispute?
For these reasons above, ADR procedures are increasingly being used in disputes that would otherwise result in litigation, including high-profile labor disputes, divorce actions and personal injury claims.
While arbitration is a process similar to an informal trial where an impartial third party – the arbitrator – hears each side of a dispute and issues a decision, mediation is a collaborative process where a mediator works with the parties to come to a mutually agreeable solution.
2. In which context should you use alternative dispute resolution in the creative industries?
ADR services are becoming increasingly en vogue, with courts strongly pushing antagonised parties to resolving their disputes out of court, in a move to unclog court dockets. Many judiciary stakeholders complain that court dockets are heavily and unjustifiably congested as a result of the indiscriminate filing and delayed processing of cases in the courts of justice.
While English courts made it compulsory for parties, a long time ago, to have complied with the Practice Direction on Pre-Action Conduct and any relevant of the 14 Pre-Action protocols before commencing legal proceedings, as well as to have considered ADR (such as mediation) both before commencing litigation and during the litigation process, French courts have finally caught up with such trend further to the entering into force of the new articles 56 and 58 of the French civil procedural code: on 1 April 2015, at last, it became compulsory for parties to attempt to resolve their disputes out-of-court, through ADR, and for any claimant to prove and justify that he attempted to solve the dispute out-of-court with the defendant, prior to litigation.
This reform remains wishful thinking in France though, since these articles 56 and 58 of the French civil procedural code do not even clearly define the notion of ‟attempting to resolve the dispute out-of-court”. However, I have noticed that my French peers, ‟avocats à la cour” in France, tend to send one or two ‟lettres de mise en demeure” (i.e. letters before court action) before filing a litigation claim with a French court, instead of merely sending court summons without any warning to helpless defendants being sued for tens of millions of euros by aggressive French claimants and their French counsels, as was usual practice and totally acceptable in France prior to that reform!
Even French bars promote mediation and ‟collaborative law” to their lawyer members, coaxing them into registering as lawyers trained for ADR.
The entertainment sector is notorious for the considerable number of pending court cases, arguments, disputes it generates, and for the sheer variety of conflicts that arise in this business, as any reader of major trade papers Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter would attest. Consequently, the creative industries are a particularly fertile soil for ADR proceedings, and ADR has grown substantially over the past 15 to 20 years in these industrial sectors.
3. Who can provide ADR services?
While the two most common forms of ADR are arbitration and mediation, negotiation is almost always attempted first to resolve a dispute. It is the preeminent mode of dispute resolution. Negotiation allows the parties to meet in order to settle a dispute. The main advantage of this form of dispute settlement is that it allows the parties themselves to control the process and the solution.
As explained below in section 4, negotiations are better conducted by French ‟avocats” in France, since the without prejudice privilege rule does not apply to any communication exchanged between contractual parties, prior to filing a lawsuit. Only communications exchanged between French lawyers is protected by confidentiality and secrecy.
In England & Wales, however, parties can conduct negotiations directly, by making use of the without prejudice rule explained below in section 4, which will prevent all their attempts and negotiating communications from being used in court by the other party.
Mediation is also an informal alternative to litigation. Mediators are individuals trained in negotiations, who bring opposing parties together and attempt to work out a settlement or agreement that both parties accept or reject. The leading mediation institution in England is the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (‟CEDR”).
Arbitration is a simplified version of a trial involving limited discovery and simplified rules of evidence. The arbitration is headed and decided by an arbitral panel. To comprise a panel, either both sides agree on one arbitrator, or each side selects one arbitrator and the two arbitrators elect the third.
As a result, several bodies have sprung up over the years, specialising in providing either mediation and/or arbitration services and panels to the creative industries, such as:
- the American Arbitration Association (‟AAA”), which has an entertainment panel, and its international posting The International Centre for Dispute Resolution (‟ICDR”) ;
- the Judicial Arbitration & Mediation Service (‟JAMS”), in the USA and JAMS International in London, UK;
- the Independent Film & Television Alliance (‟IFTA”) in Los Angeles, USA, which has a panel of arbitrators in all regions of the world;
- the Mediation and Expedited Arbitration for Films and Media Centre, for the resolution of all types of disputes in the entertainment and media sectors, as well as the Domain name dispute resolution services, exclusively for the resolution of domain name disputes, from the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) in Geneva, Switzerland;
- the London Court of International Arbitration (‟LCIA”), in London, UK, which is the major arbitration institution in England;
- Trademark mediation services of the International Trademark Association (‟INTA”), exclusively for the resolution of trademark disputes, and
- the dispute resolution services of the widely-renowned International Chamber of Commerce (‟ICC”), which has offices all over the world.
The founding and managing partner of our law firm Crefovi, Annabelle Gauberti, is a member of the panel of arbitrators and mediators of most of these above-mentioned institutions.
Even online platforms have been set up, in the last 5 years, to offer ADR services to natural persons and businesses who want to avoid the intricacies, costs and lengthy duration of fully-blown litigation, such as eJust and Mediaconf. It is a little early to assess whether such online ADR platforms do provide adequate resolution services to members of the public and the business community at large, but it is telling that they even managed to get financing from tech investors and venture capital and seed funds.
4. How does ADR support you in resolving your dispute?
ADR refers to any means of settling disputes outside the courtroom. It typically includes early neutral evaluation, negotiation, conciliation, mediation or arbitration.
While the two most common forms of ADR are arbitration and mediation, negotiation is almost always attempted first to resolve a dispute. It is the preeminent mode of dispute resolution.
In England & Wales, any pre-litigation negotiation process should be conducted on a ‟without prejudice” basis, pursuant to the without prejudice principle. Indeed, if a communication between negotiating parties has been made in compliance with the without prejudice privilege, it will not be admissible in court and therefore cannot be used as evidence against the interest of the party that made it. The rationale behind this form of legal privilege is that it is in the public interest that disputing parties should be able to negotiate freely, without fear of future prejudice in court, with a view to settling their disputes wherever possible.
It works! Many parties in England & Wales who have disputes, in particular employment disputes which can be conducted through the robust ACAS dispute resolution process, make the most of the without prejudice privilege during negotiations, and settle their claims out-of-court.
Even mediation, which, at its most basic level, is nothing more than a negotiation conducted through an intermediary (the mediator) to resolve commercial matters and even, sometimes, family disputes, benefits from the without prejudice privilege rule in England & Wales, according to which no communications made during the proceedings can be disclosed without the express agreement of the mediating parties in the event that no settlement is reached. If successful, a mediation concludes with a settlement agreement, which is enforceable as a contract.
In France, such without prejudice rule does not apply, which means that any attempt to negotiate and settle out-of-court must be lead by French ‟avocats à la cour” representing the parties, since only the discussions and negotiations of French lawyers are protected and confidential, and therefore not disclosable in court. This is a serious hindrance to the emergence of sturdy ADR in France, since parties cannot confidentially negotiate an out-of-court settlement without French lawyers and since all their direct communications will be disclosable in court. ADR is therefore a costly process in France because parties must instruct French ‟avocats” from the get-go, especially when the parties put in the balance the fact that litigation is free in France, i.e. that the French court costs are close to nil. Why then bother with ADR when filing a lawsuit would result in a cheaper process to obtain a 100 percent enforceable judgment?
Of course, both the UK and France must comply with Directive 2008/52/EC on certain aspects of mediation in civil and commercial matters (the European Mediation Directive), which objective is the facilitation of access to ADR and the promotion of the amicable settlement of cross-border disputes, by the promotion of the use of mediation as well as of a balanced relationship between mediation and judicial proceedings. It seeks to protect the confidentiality of the mediation process and ensures that when parties engage in mediation, any limitation period is suspended.
In England, arbitration proceedings are governed (‟law of the seat”) by the Arbitration Act 1996, which applies to both domestic and international arbitration. In France, articles 1442 to 1527 of the French civil procedural code, govern arbitration proceedings. Apart from the Arbitration Act 1996 in England and articles 1442 to 1527 of the French civil procedural code in France, and depending on the parties’ arbitration agreement, various institutional arbitration rules may find application, such as the rules of the LCIA, ICC, etc. In England and France, virtually all commercial matters are arbitrable, while disputes involving criminal and family law matters are generally considered non-arbitrable.
Parties can decide to use arbitration when they have agreed to do so in a contract, in particular in the dispute resolution clause (‟clause compromissoire” in French) set out in such contract. If there is an international aspect to the commercial transaction, depending on the type of disputes which are likely to arise between the parties, depending on who the parties are as well as the secrecy of their contractual commitments and obligations, parties may be inclined to set out a dispute resolution clause which chooses arbitration over litigation, in their contract. Such dispute resolution clause would ousts jurisdiction of courts except for purposes of supporting and/or supervising arbitration proceedings and would define the seat (legal place) of any future arbitration. In addition, the dispute resolution clause would clearly set out the governing law, the applicable procedural rules (LCIA, IFTA, ICC, etc.), the number of arbitrators, the language of the arbitration and whether some rights of appeal apply.
If and when a dispute arises, the aggrieved party would merely refer to that dispute resolution clause set out in the contract and, probably after a few attempts to negotiate and resolve this dispute directly with the other party, would file an arbitration with the arbitration body designated in this dispute resolution clause, pursuant to the designated institutional arbitration rules.
Arbitration is very often used in the entertainment sector and creative industries, where reputation and goodwill are some of the most important assets owned by a creative business, and therefore where confidentiality and secrecy are of the essence.
For example, 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 (over 200 small and medium sized Spanish music publishers), on one side, and the Spanish collective rights society SGAE, on the other side. The binding arbitration focused primarily on two claims:
- the inequitable sharing of money received by SGAE from a user of music 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.
After considering the evidence, the three WIPO arbitrators decided:
- to have an equitable distribution, so as not to prejudice other authors, there must be changes in the SGAE distribution rules. These rules must change so that the broadcasters receive via their publishing companies for music uses in the early morning hours (when there is no significant audience or commercial value) a variance between 10 percent and 20 percent of the total collected from them, respectively. The arbitrators unanimously agreed it should be 15 percent. After applying this limitation, new distribution rules also should reflect an equitable value for music broadcast during other programming blocks of time;
- that the distributions must stop for inaudible music, as identified by the technology used by Spanish company BMAT or a company using similar technology;
- that SGAE should disperse its ‟scarcely audible fund” as described in the written decision.
5. Are ADR decisions enforceable? How binding are the available methods of ADR in nature?
An arbitral award is final and binding but a party can appeal to the courts on a point of law, unless the arbitration agreement excludes this ability. Leave of the court to appeal the award is severely restricted under the Arbitration Act 1996 in England & Wales, and under articles 1442 to 1527 of the Civil procedural code in France (and can even be excluded by the arbitration agreement) and the applicant must show, among other things, that the determination of the question of law will substantially affect the rights of the parties and that it is just and proper for the court to determine the question/dispute.
The arbitral award may also be challenged on the basis that the arbitral tribunal did not have jurisdiction to decide the dispute, or that there was a serious irregularity affecting the arbitral tribunal, the proceedings or the award (for example, the tribunal failed to deal with all the issues that were put to it or was biased).
The Convention on the recognition and enforcement of foreign arbitral awards 1958 (the ‟New York Convention”), to which both England and France are parties, allows the enforcement of either an English arbitration or a French arbitration award across the 157 Convention countries in accordance with those countries’ own laws. Likewise, the Arbitration Act provides for enforcement in England of an arbitration award rendered in another New York Convention country. The most common method of such enforcement is to seek judgment of the English court in terms of the award (and that judgment can then be enforced as a judgment of the English court). Meanwhile, articles 1442 to 1527 of the French civil procedural code provide for enforcement in France of an arbitration award rendered in another New York Convention country, further to the issue of an exequatur order (‟ordonnance d’exequatur”) by the competent ‟Tribunal de grande instance” in France.
Settlement agreements which are reached through mediation or negotiation are contracts and are therefore enforceable if the requirements for a valid contract are satisfied. If, by extraordinary, one of the parties breaches the provisions of the settlement agreement, the other parties will be entitled to file some contractual breach claims with the courts.
To conclude, ADR proceedings are especially adapted to the requirements of the entertainment sector and creative industries at large, where cross-border deals are the rule and the need to protect the reputation and goodwill of contracting business partners is paramount. While the legitimacy of non-disclosure and confidentiality provisions set out in existing settlement agreements is hotly debated at the moment, in relation to sexual harassment cases against Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Brett Ratner, Dustin Hoffman, James Toback, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., etc., it is wise to set out well-drafted arbitration clauses in film production agreements as well as employment agreements with the above-the-line film team and casted actors, in order to avoid promotional and marketing disasters, such as that suffered by Lionsgate upon the release of ‟Exposed”, a thriller starring Keanu Reeves, after the film’s actual director asked for his name to be removed.