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Intellectual Property Due Diligence

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© 2002, Gallagher & Dawsey Co., LPA
April 2002

The importance of due diligence in any investment, merger, or acquisition decision cannot be understated. Decisions can no longer be made based solely upon a good business plan. In today's knowledge based economy intellectual property (IP) is often a company's single most valuable asset. However, IP due diligence is typically an afterthought.

The Goals
The goals of IP due diligence should be collaboratively identified by the organization leading the general due diligence investigation and the IP due diligence team. The goals should then be reduced to an IP due diligence plan.

The IP due diligence team should consist of independent IP counsel. The target company's IP counsel should not be used as one can never fully critique their own work, in addition to the potential conflicts of interest.

Several factors must be considered in identifying the goals of the plan. First, the team should discuss the nature of the transaction. IP due diligence goals will differ for investments, mergers, and acquisitions. Secondly, the financial value of the transaction must be considered. There is no use in completing $1 million in due diligence for a $1 million dollar transaction. Third, the risk associated with the transaction must be analyzed. For instance, a $1 million venture capital (VC) investment in a high-tech start-up has a much higher probability of loss than a $100 million merger of established companies. Fourth, the underlying reason for the transaction should be discussed. For example, if a company is acquiring a target company for a particular product line or technology there should be a primary focus on the IP protecting that interest.

The Scope
The scope of IP due diligence investigations is limited by the goals identified above. The scope of IP due diligence should include investigations into the patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets of the target company to identify weaknesses, potential liabilities, and potential opportunities.

There are some general considerations applicable to all forms of IP. For instance, all of the target company's current IP should be identified and cataloged, including current patent and trademark applications. This process should identify the dates of application, issuance, expiration, required maintenance payments, and whether foreign IP protection has been obtained. Additionally, the true ownership of each piece of intellectual property must be identified. This is particularly true for IP that has been licensed or assigned to the target company. Ownership verification requires meticulously analyzing assignments and licensing agreements, as well as cross-referencing the Patent & Trademark Office files. A golden rule of IP due diligence is to independently verify everything!

There are several aspects of IP due diligence that are unique to situations wherein the target company possesses a patent portfolio. A complete investigation into a company's patent portfolio can be expensive, yet the cost is typically a drop in the bucket when compared to the cost of litigating a patent infringement claim. Carefully identifying the goals of the IP due diligence investigation will often eliminate the need to completely analyze over half of a company's patents. After all, there is no need to perform due diligence on outdated IP that the company no longer uses. Alternatively, IP that is essential to a company's operations should be afforded additional scrutiny.

An IP due diligence plan should include an infringement analysis of the company's key IP assets. Key patents should be analyzed first to determine if they sufficiently cover the product line of interest. It is not uncommon to find that a company's patent portfolio does not adequately protect their main product lines.

The analysis should then turn to competitor's products. It is essential to identify potential infringement lawsuits during the due diligence investigation. One must determine both whether competing products infringe the target company's patents and if the target company's products infringe patents owned by third parties. During this investigation the IP due diligence team can also identify whether the target company's patents are very broad and strong or narrow and weak. The strength of patents has a direct relationship to their value.

A target company may be willing to contribute to the cost of the infringement analysis portion of the IP due diligence. This is because a non-infringement opinion from counsel can protect a company from claims of willful patent infringement. When a company relies in good faith on a competent opinion of an attorney that the company's product does not infringe a third party's patent, the company will not be held to be a willful infringer. This is important because actual damages can be increased threefold in cases of willful infringement.

Comprehensive due diligence investigations into trademark, copyright, and trade secret matters are not nearly as involved as patent investigations. However, when mergers or acquisitions involve ownership transfer of valuable trademarks it is imperative to investigate the validity, ownership, and potential infringement claims of the mark.

Conclusion
IP due diligence is necessary to avoid costly mistakes and properly determine the value of business transactions involving IP. This is true for both traditional brick and mortar companies and high tech companies. The specialized nature of IP due diligence requires that an IP attorney be retained to properly perform the investigations.
 
 
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