Trademark Holding Companies: Speculative Benefits, Certain Pitfalls

From time to time clients ask us whether they should “protect” their trademarks from their company’s liabilities by setting up a separate trademark holding company. Often they have heard about tax savings or read something online suggesting that any company with substantial trademark assets to protect ought to be segregating them into a separate corporate entity. Except in exceptional circumstances, however, the trademark holding company is a bad idea.

Trademark holding companies were originally devised by lawyers as tax-saving devices — specifically to reduce an operating company’s corporate franchise tax liabilities in the state or states of operation. (Corporate franchise taxes are the taxes a corporation pays to a state for the privilege of doing business there.) Theoretically, the savings could be substantial. The holding company is typically set up in Delaware or Nevada, where there is no corporate income tax on intangibles (like trademarks). The parent company transfers its trademarks to the holding company, which then licenses them back in return for a royalty. The royalty is then treated as an expense to the operating company and tax-free income for the holding company. This sleight of hand may still work in some jurisdictions, but in many places, the courts have already caught on.

No Tax Savings in New York.

Under New York law, trademark holding companies have been consistently disregarded as a means of reducing taxes. The lead case regarding tax liability is Sherwin-Williams Co. v. Tax Appeals Tribunal, 2004 NY Slip Op 07737 [12 AD3d 112] October 28, 2004. There, the New York Court of Appeals (New York State’s highest court) upheld a determination that Sherwin-Williams (an Ohio corporation) was required to report the income earned by its trademark holding company (a Delaware corporation) formed for the purpose of holding some 500 Sherwin-Williams domestic trademarks. The establishment of the holding company and the licenses back to the parent company, the court said, lacked any valid business purpose apart from tax avoidance.

Sherwin-Williams argued that it formed the holding company to: (1) improve quality control oversight with regard to its many licensees and franchisees; (2) enhance its ability to enter into third-party licensing arrangements at advantageous royalty rates; (3) insulate its  trademarks from the parent company’s liabilities; and (4) have flexibility in preventing a hostile takeover. To accomplish those purposes, the holding company established separate office space in Delaware and named as President an individual who had no previous association with the parent company. The tax tribunal and New York courts found these reasons unpersuasive. Not only did the parent company call the shots on management of the trademarks, but the President of the trademark holding company was a person who had no prior experience as a trademark manager. Thus the deduction for royalties that Sherwin-Williams’ operating company paid to its subsidiary holding company was disallowed and the combined income of both entities — the operating company and the holding company — was found subject to New York state corporate franchise tax.

The Sherwin-Williams case is only the most recent New York case to reach this conclusion regarding the reduction of tax liability via trademark holding companies. How would Sherwin-Williams have fared in a lawsuit in which it was sued for trademark infringement or in which the operating company was sued for breach of contact by a licensee or by a consumer for product liability?

Limitations on Liability.

Sherwin-Williams argued to the New York courts that it formed its trademark holding company in part to “insulate the trademarks from the parent’s liabilities,” but the court found ample reason to find the two companies were simply alter egos — at least from the standpoint of tax liability – including the fact that control over the quality of the Sherwin-Williams’ goods came from the parent company, rather than its subsidiary. That finding would not bode well for other types of claims. Automobile Insurance Co. of Hartford v. Murray, Inc., 04-CV-770A (LGF), a 2008 decision from the U.S. District Court, Western District of New York, bears this out. In that case, a lawnmower manufacturer that was sued for product liability attempted to defend itself on the basis that its trademark holding company was the actual owner and licensor of the trademark and therefore the wrong party had been sued. The court examined the organization and function of the holding company, however, and determined that it was formed “with no other business purpose … except to hold and license” the operating company’s trademarks. Consequently, the operating company was found to be the “de facto” or “actual” licensor.

Indeed, in most situations it is doubtful that a trademark holding company would be effective at protecting anything. The operating company/”licensee” will not be able to insulate itself from trademark infringement claims of its subsidiary holding company / “licensor.” Any such lawsuit would almost of necessity be brought against both companies, since both would have played a part in the alleged infringement. Nor is the trademark holding company/”licensor” likely to get away with pointing to its “licensee” (which is usually the licensor’s parent company!) as the sole party liable for breaches of contract or product liability. As one of the leading experts on trademark law has said, “in general, it is accurate to conclude that there is a very substantial risk that a trademark licensor … will be held liable for the torts of licensees…” McCarthy § 18:74 under the theory that the the licensee is a related company. This is especially true where the two companies share board members, management and/or office space. Notwithstanding Murray, where only the operating company was sued, it is the customary practice for attorneys when filing suit to include as many different entities and individuals as could be liable or capable of paying a judgment. In short, whether the claim is asserted against the operating company or its holding company, piercing the corporate veil would not be difficult.

The only possible protection that a holding company might afford to the trademark is an instance in which the operating company is sued for reasons unrelated to its licensing and business activities — for example, if the operating company defaulted on a mortgage or lease, or was sued for some kind of tortious (non-product-related) conduct — but even there, if the operating company’s assets were insufficient to satisfy the judgment, the trademarks might still be reachable as assets of the operating company.

Legal Pitfalls of Licensing through Trademark Holding Companies

In deciding whether to pierce the corporate veil of a trademark holding company, the courts will consider a number of factors, including whether the two companies have common directors or officers; whether the parent corporation owns all or most of the stock in the subsidiary; whether the parent finances the subsidiary; whether the subsidiary has any business with any entities other than the parent; whether the subsidiary has any assets other than those conveyed to it by the parent; and whether employees, officers and directors of the parent (and not the holding company) are the ones controlling the quality of the goods sold under the marks owned by the holding company. In principal, setting up a holding company is easy. But forming and operating one that will be recognized by the courts as an independent entity is time-consuming and expensive. And there is no bulletproof formula for success. In the cases cited above, the holding companies had different management, their own offices, and multiple licensees (i.e., various sources of income), but still failed in their purported objectives. A trademark holding company owned by a parent operating company is by its very nature suspect, but an “independent” holding company owned personally by the owners of a parent operating company is no better. In addition to these problems, there is the legal risk that a trademark holding company just might put a company’s trademarks at risk.

Although trademark holding companies are common, not only have they not been fully endorsed by the courts, but they have also caused damage to trademark owners. Not long ago, one of our clients sued two trademark infringers. The client’s trademarks are owned by a holding company (established by predecessor counsel, not us). One of the defenses mounted by the other side in a countersuit for invalidity is that the licensor holding company doesn’t exercise sufficient control over its licensees. Rather, they argued, control is exercised by the holding company’s parent corporation and the holding company has therefore made a “naked license.” The remedy for a naked license is for the court to declare that the trademark in question was abandoned by the trademark owner. In CNA Financial Corp. v. Brown, 922 F. Supp. 567 (M.D. Fla. 1996), reconsideration den. by 930 F. Supp. 1502 (M.D. Fla. 1996), aff’d, 162 F.3d 1334 (11th Cir. 1998), a court did just that. CNA lost its trademark because the court found that it did not actually control the quality of the services offered by its licensees, but only controlled how the marks themselves were used. (The issue in our client’s case was never addressed by the court, as the case was subsequently settled in our client’s favor.)

This is not the only risk. A holding by a court that an operating company is the de facto or actual licensor of the trademark, as in the Murray case cited above, opens the door to the corollary conclusion that the holding company’s trademark applications and maintenance filings in the PTO were fraudulent, since the holding company may not be the true owner of the trademark. That would be an additional ground for cancellation of trademark registration.

There are still other complications, including how a court or the PTO will view a transfer of a trademark to a holding company, without a transfer of the accompanying “goodwill.” Under U.S. law, trademarks cannot be assigned “in gross” but must be assigned together with the business (i.e., the goods and services) represented by the trademarks. In other words, because the “goodwill” is created by the business, a trademark cannot exist independently of it. A transfer of a trademark to a holding company may thus be considered an assignment in gross, which is voidable and subjects the trademark to cancellation. Indeed, if the holding company does no business other than licensing, it may be very difficult to claim that any goodwill at all is associated with the legal owner of the mark.

These latter issues have not been directly addressed either by the courts or the PTO. However, the risk of losing one’s trademarks by transferring them to a U.S. holding company, when weighed against some very speculative benefits, hardly seems worth it.

(In a future posting, I will deal with a slightly different scenario: where the trademark holding company is located outside the United States.)