Insights

Intellectual Property in M&A – and How Representations and Warranty Insurance Fits In
POSTED 9.1.20 M&A

Representations and Warranty (R&W) insurance is a specialized coverage that transfers all the indemnity risk to a third-party – the insurer. If there are any breaches of reps and warranties post-closing, the Buyer simply files a claim and gets paid damages.

In many cases, it’s a much more affordable alternative to traditional indemnification – the holdback of funds in escrow to pay out any possible damages that come up from breaches. Because they take home more cash at closing, R&W insurance is especially appealing to Sellers.

Due to the protection it provides, R&W coverage is becoming an increasingly common feature of transactions in just about every industry. And because it’s now available for deal sizes under $20M, it’s been embraced by Buyers and Sellers of lower and middle market companies, including PE firms and strategics.

Despite its many advantages, R&W insurance went over like a lead balloon in Silicon Valley for many years.

Why? Early R&W policies would exclude intellectual property. It was considered uninsurable. And because IP is such a central part of deals with tech companies, what would the point be of seeking a policy that didn’t protect for breaches in that area?

These days, breaches of IP-related reps and warranties, in which the Seller states that there is no litigation or claims related to IP infringement, they are the sole and exclusive owner of the IP, and they have the right to transfer the IP, are insurable.

This doesn’t have ramifications just for mergers and acquisitions among Silicon Valley tech companies.

Today, every company is a technology company, not just those that have hardware and software as their central offering.

Consider McDonald’s. In 2019, the fast-food giant made three key acquisitions of innovative tech companies: Dynamic Yield, which offers personalization and logic technology, Apprente, known for its voice-based conversational technology, and Plexure, which creates mobile apps.

The goal was to incorporate tech from these companies to install more efficient and personalized ordering through mobile devices, self-order kiosks, and drive-thrus at McDonald’s locations.

When companies like McDonald’s make acquisitions, they want to ensure the IP they’re buying is free of encumbrances that could cost them months or even years down the line, such as code that comes from another source.

The Best Ways for Buyers to Get Ahold of IP They Need

During my recent interview with veteran M&A lawyer Louis Lehot, formerly of DLA Piper and founder of his own boutique law firm, L2 Counsel, he highlighted three different ways a Buyer might get access to IP they need:

  • Mergers are the easiest way to sell a company because it does not require all shareholders to agree to sell all their shares. You simply need a majority of outstanding shares of capital stock to approve it. This type of deal also has tax advantages for the Seller.
  • For Buyers who simply want access to technology, they could simply license it. This way, the Buyer doesn’t have to worry at all about any breaches and liabilities. However, they aren’t the only company able to take advantage of this tech. There could be other license holders.
  • However, for Buyers who want to be able to “build on” IP, developing it to further monetize it, an asset acquisition is the way to go. They are able to only secure the part of the company they need and avoid any liabilities the entity might have. They can also “cherry pick” team members from the target business they want to bring on. This also gives them “exclusivity.”

Typical Breaches of IP Reps

We don’t know if R&W insurance was used in these acquisitions by McDonald’s. However, in deals like this, where the technology and the intellectual property is so important, it’s a good idea for Buyers because of the many risks that might prevent it from fully making use of the IP it has acquired:

  1. Open source code being used. “Open source code is code that’s already been developed,” explains Louis. “And the condition to using that open source is that if your code contains the open source code, then you have automatically granted a license to everyone in the community.”
  2. A failure to secure consent from third parties (such as former employees or founders) who have a claim to the IP for the deal.
  3. Claims from third parties that the IP infringes on their patents or IP rights. For example, former employees from another company are accused of using tech they brought over from their ex-employer.
  4. A failure to properly register the IP with the government.
  5. Lack of evidence that employees or contractors who helped create the IP gave away their rights to the Seller.
  6. The product or service uses or licenses technology from a third party, and the Seller does not have the right to transfer the IP without consent.
  7. If the tech involves sensitive customer data, and there is no privacy policy with customers that allows the company to transfer and disclose this data.

A nightmare scenario: A Buyer acquires a cutting-edge startup with the technology it needs to keep up with their competition. However, post-closing it is discovered – when a lawsuit comes their way – that a bit of critical code backing up this IP was actually from another company. The programmer was simply trying to take a shortcut, and nobody noticed.

  1. One of Louis Lehot’s tools for avoiding situations like this is a questionnaire that covers IP issues. It includes questions like:
  2. How did the IP first come to the company? A red flag here, says Louis, is former employment of founders. If they worked previously at a company and then start a new company doing the same thing in the same way – that’s a huge problem.

Did each founder assign his or her IP to the company? “I’m always shocked to find the number of defective assignments of IP at formation,” says Louis. “And so that’s an easy fix, as long as the founder that contributed that IP is still around. But if you have a co-founder that was really key to the development of the IP, that formation has departed, and you have no leverage to get that person to sign in as assignment later on, that can be sticky.”

R&W Insurance Protects Buyers and Sellers in Case of IP Issues

During the interview, Louis also explained that R&W insurance has revolutionized how deals are done in recent years. Not only does it provide protection but also helps create a less potentially contentious relationship between Buyers and Sellers down the road. As he put it:

“I think it’s in the interest of Buyers and Sellers to externalize the risk of breaches of reps and warranties with insurance. And it really takes the sting out of the friction of an ongoing relationship between a Buyer and the Buyer’s new employees, who are helping the Buyer monetize the IP.”

“Really, going back to those employees and dinging them for indemnification claims is really the last thing you want to be doing and the easiest way to disincentivize them and demotivate them from doing what they need to do.”

The addition of IP protection to Representations and Warranty insurance, as well as its recent price drop and availability for deals involving lower and middle market companies, has made it a game-changer in the M&A world. As a broker, I’ve been fortunate to have had years of hands-on experience with R&W coverage. I’m ready to discuss how it might benefit your next deal. You can contact me, Patrick Stroth, at pstroth@rubiconins.com.