The focus of the First Circuit Court’s opinion in Photographic Illustrators v. Orgill (1st Cir. 2020) was whether a sublicense may be granted by implication and whether, under the facts of the case, the sublicensor (Osram Sylvania, Inc.) actually granted an implied license to the sublicensee (Orgill, Inc.). However, the foundation of the case hinged on whether the sublicensable license granted to Sylvania by the principal licensor (Photographic Illustrators (“PIC”)) was subject to a covenant or a condition.

In the applicable license agreement, PIC expressly granted Sylvania a sublicensable license to use certain PIC photographs to market Sylvania’s lightbulbs. A separate agreement provision required Sylvania to include an attribution notice when publishing the licensed photos. Sylvania granted Orgill, one of its distributors, the right to use certain PIC photos, but Orgill did not include the requisite notice when publishing the photographs. Critically, if the notice requirement was a condition, Sylvania’s grant of the license to Orgill exceeded the scope of PIC’s license to Sylvania, and Sylvania would be exposed to copyright infringement claims for its grant to Orgill. On the other hand, if the notice requirement was a covenant, Sylvania’s grant to Orgill would be a breach of contract, instead of copyright infringement. This covenant-versus-condition issue applies beyond copyright licenses and includes software licenses, technology agreements, and countless other contracts under which use rights are granted.

Whether a contractual use limitation or requirement is a covenant or a condition is important for several reasons:

  • If the limitation or requirement is a condition applicable to rights granted in respect of copyrights, trade secrets, or other intellectual property, failing to satisfy the condition potentially gives rise to an infringement or misappropriation claim, the damages for which often exceed the damages available for breach of a contract covenant.
  • If the limitation or requirement is a condition, the contract’s termination provisions may not provide an express right to cure the failure, thus likely giving the licensor greater termination rights than if the limitation or requirement is a contract covenant.
  • Contractual limitations of licensee liability frequently exclude licensee violations of the license grant, more so than licensee breaches of contract covenants.
  • Especially when the licensed material includes third-party intellectual property, licensors often require licensees to contractually indemnify the licensors for violations of the license grant. Less frequently do licensors extend these indemnification obligations to breaches of contract covenants.

Whether you are a licensor or licensee under a particular contract, be sure to consider if license conditions, or covenants, are in your best interest.

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