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Ownership Changes in Tech Companies

Many Technology businesses are created through people and businesses that know each other and work together, especially young companies or start-ups. More specifically, many businesses have multiple partners, investors and inventors. As time evolves there is often a need or desire to change the original relationship. The reasons for the change will be factors in determining the type and terms of the new agreement to be drawn.

After it has been determined that the parties wish to depart or have other interests which the parties may wish to pursue, in Technology Corporations, it is all too common that there will be a squabble over Intellectual Property issues.

However, Parting does not have to be sorrow, it can be sweet.

It isn't uncommon that the parties may want to work together or form some sort of a joint-venture/piggy back arrangement. With a creative arrangement, it is more likely that if the parties are willing to work together, not only will both parties leave the working relationship with each other in a well compensated or at least amicable relationship, but all parties may be able to offer their clients and customers more and better services.

The elements in these changes in ownership require an in depth understanding of not just the corporate issues, but also the technology and Intellectual Property (IP) issues. Some of the elements will be similar for each type of contract. Others will differ depending on their identifying nature (Buyout, Change in Ownership of the Business, etc).

In all modifications of Agreements a proper place to start is with the original contracts that formed the business relationship. Legal clauses are “terms of art.” It’s best to be consistent from document to document.

In the rest of this article, I will analyze a few examples of different elements and points for consideration in Technology Modification Agreements. More detailed articles will follow on each type. The examples are not meant to be exhaustive:

The Buyout. A Seller (the person or business leaving the Original Company) wants to sell their interest and then may want to work in unrelated fields or retire.

  1. The Seller’s interests. In this type of agreement the Seller is primarily concerned with getting fair market value for his interest. This can be a one time payment or payments over time. The forms of payment usually include cash and possibly some non-voting equity interest (such as stock) or a share of the profits on a regular basis with defined terms as to what profit means and when payment should be made. All of the benefits that the business offered during the business arrangement need to be considered. On leaving what happens to health insurance, the pension plans, etc? What else does the Seller get? Who does he contact if there’s a problem?
  2. The Buyer’s Interests. The Buyer's position is much more complicated. The Buyer (the Original Company) wants to ensure that its knowledge and Intellectual Property are preserved, and that any and all rights have been clearly assigned. Proprietary papers, business records, business methods, development and knowledge are all assets with value, and should be appropriately assessed in the negotiation.

With technology companies, special attention needs to be paid to all the data, back-ups to the data and knowledge of how to access that data. These issues must be negotiated. Once the Buyout agreement is done the Seller may be difficult or impossible to reach so it’s best to make sure everything of utility remains.

Unfortunately, more often than not, the interests of either (Buyer or Seller) are not always logically based, or in some instances, logically sound. Especially when the parties formed the companies together, a lot of emotional harboring towards some “parts” of an application or business method or functionality may have been involved. These “parts” will be valued at a higher level than others, and perhaps much higher than any financial consultant would deem applicable. It is important to gather as many reasonable and unrelated minds around you at this point. Map out what both parties interests are, both emotionally, and on a financial basis.

Buyout Examples. A common Buyout example is when somebody wants to retire or open up an unrelated business, for example a restaurant. Another example is when an employee or group of employees may be offered a buyout by the Company to reduce costs.

Change in Ownership of the Business.

Sometimes, Owners and Modifier (those seeking a change in ownership status) want to continue in the business but the Modifier wants to change his/her financial relationship with or obligations to the Original Company. This type of modification is not just a change in title (silent partner, equity partner, etc), but is also a change in obligations, interests, and control. In this type of modification both the Modifier and the Original Company want to define the new privileges and responsibilities of both Parties. It is important to identify what these rights and liabilities mean, who interprets any disputes as to their meaning and how they are going to be enforced, etc.

Special attention must be given to any change in the interest in any of the Intellectual Property in the business. Just as in the Buyout agreement all the data, backs-ups to the data and know-how to access that data have to be negotiated. The main difference is that the Modifier is still with the company, just in a different legal capacity.

Moreover, it is important to realize that just because they are taking a step back from the business, the Modifier(s) are still required to maintain and adhere to “fiduciary duties.” These duties should require any partners to ensure that they do not act in any way antagonistic to the company or its interests.

Change in Ownership of the Business Examples. A person wants to become a silent partner or the reverse. A non-equity partner wants to become an equity partner or the reverse.

Sharing Ownership of the Intellectual Property and or Data Sharing Agreements.

It is not uncommon (it is even hoped for) that the Original Company may want to continue the current business but also begin a new service or application. The Businesses involved are typically the Original Company (the business before any change is made to who can access the Intellectual Property) and the New Company (the second business formed by using some of the Intellectual Property of the first business.). The parties to this type of Contract are the Owners of the Original Company and the Owners of the New Company or their authorized agents.

In this type of contract it is essential to define:

  1. The Intellectual Property at stake,

  2. How that Property is going to be accessed,

  3. Who has the right to access,

  4. In what manner is it going to be accessed,

  5. What financial considerations should there be for access and

  6. The liabilities for unauthorized access and/or improper access which may damage the Intellectual Property.

These terms need to be defined for both the Original Company and the New Company.

Often times, this branch off would be jump started by licensing the Intellectual Property or forming some sort of Joint Venture. The more you know about how your Intellectual Property is created, how it is used and what benefits there are from using it, the better you will be able to address these questions.

New or Joint Venture Examples. In some cases this decision to begin a New Company may come from the top, where the Original Company may decide for legal or financial or conflict of interest or creative reasons that it is best to create a second business venture (the New Company). In other cases this decision may come from below where an employee wishes to go out on their own but wants to do so, on a friendly basis.

When a New Company Owner sells his shares back to the Original Company and leaves the Original Company to become an Owner of the New Company, the Contract is known as a Redemption Agreement.

A specific example of a Data Sharing Contract is when a New Company wants to begin a social networking site or an advertising business USING the contact information acquired in the Original Company.

Competition (New and Independent Businesses). With all types of separation agreements, and especially in the Technology Industry, individuals leave with a lot of business information, practices, methods, contacts, strategy and plans in their memory. Normally, contracts like non-compete clauses, non-solicitation, and similar restrictions are often implemented to protect these business interests. It is important to craft these restrictions carefully. The technology industry moves at a pace much quicker and with much more rapid change and development than other industries. Courts recognize this, and therefore it is important to structure these restrictions that are 1. legally binding and 2. easily understood and defined from both parties.

It is primarily important to identify if there is immediate or foreseeable competition. Is the Competitor leaving the area or is he going into a venture that complements the original business? Is the Competing product or offering something that the Original Company is considering offering or developing? Often a place to start is the competition clause in the original contract. In either case many of the issues in Item 3 (Change in Ownership of the Intellectual Property/Data Sharing Contracts) apply.


  1. Direct Competition. If competition is going to be direct then items such as fair market value, loss of profits, licensing agreements and more have to be considered. The Original Company will want fair consideration and fair protection (non-interference with his business contacts for example) for allowing the competition. The New Company will want the right to use the Intellectual property free from the worry of any litigation.

  2. Indirect Competition. The elements of the Competition should be defined first. Term, Business Interests at Issue, Geography, etc. After that the same elements as for Direct Competition should be considered – factoring in that the less the competition the less the Competitor will want to pay and the less the initial company will have a right to demand.

For more information on Competition see Non-Compete Language in Change of Ownership of Intellectual Property Contracts.

Sometimes the contract will be a combination of the above. The list given is not meant to be exclusive.

Be careful with the agreements, clearly define the interests and licenses, and Remember that the other standard elements of a contract are also required: Consideration, Competence and it must be Lawful



Yahoo Rejects Microsoft Bid

Earlier this week Microsoft made a public bid to purchase Yahoo, now Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO ) shareholders have filed suit – objecting to Yahoo's rejection of the $44.6 billion bid. The first lawsuit filed has been on behalf of the Wayne County Employee's Retirement System of Michigan, owner of approximately 13,600 shares.

Yahoo's rejection of Microsoft's (NSDQ: MSFT ) offer, using language that indicated an encouragement of higher offers from the software giant, is little more than a play for a better deal. That, coupled with Yahoo being seen in talks with News Corp on Wednesday, has lead some analysts to believe Yahoo is on the auction block.

This entire deal can be viewed as a power-play to create a Google Adsense competitor in the online advertising market. However, both Yahoo and Microsoft are competitors in the search engine market, and their services overlap in several other smaller areas. Microsoft is still reeling from their much-anticipated but largely disappointing release of the newest version of their Windows operating system, Vista, with some believing nothing short of a full-scale recall is imminent. Likewise, Yahoo reported a drop in profits 23% last quarter, and has been acquiring "Web 2.0" companies that are seen as having no readily apparent revenue generating business models. Flickr alone, the search giants online photo hosting service, is said to cost the company $1m monthly in bandwidth.

Yahoo, appearing desperate to avoid a takeover, is said to have reached out to its chief competitor Google in hopes of forming an alliance to withstand the takeover bid from Microsoft. Google has issued no public statement, but insiders have said the company has no interest in any sort of partnership, fearing such actions would attract antitrust attention in the U.S. and EU.

Microsoft Bids for Yahoo

After an unsolicited $44.6 billion bid by Microsoft to purchase outstanding Yahoo shares on February 1th, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection House, Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-IL) has stated that a confidential briefing will be held with his panel in the coming weeks.

Additionally House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy, and Consumer Rights, Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) are holding a February 8th hearing on internet competition.

Microsoft and Yahoo both operate in essentially the same arena: Google’s shadow. A merger between the two companies could bring Google its first real competition in the internet advertising market.

Yahoo is said to still be undecided as to how to proceed forward, CEO Jerry Yang sent a letter to his 14,300 employees stating that "There's obviously been a lot of talk about Yahoo in recent days, and we won't let it distract us from pursuing our transformation strategy" and assuring them that the board is working in "a complex and evolving landscape", with the help of outside advisors. The letter goes on to mention “strategic alternatives”, leading some to believe Yang’s Yahoo is not for sale – voluntarily, anyway.

Safe Harbor for Websites

The DMCA provides in section 17 U.S.C. section 512(c) several “safe harbor” provisions for service provider's connection to infringing online materials. These safe harbor provisions are usually applicable when a service provider is either unaware, unable to be aware, or unable to regulate the content that is being transmitted or shared. However, the DMCA safe harbor provisions were initially intended to protect for Web Hosts and service providers, and not necessarily the web sites themselves, but that was before the introduction of user content based websites such as YouTube, Myspace, Craigslist, and many others.

However, the DMCA does require that service providers adopts and utilizes policies to both terminate repeat infringers and apply standardized acceptable procedures in the prevention of copyright infringement.

If you are planning on developing, operating, or maintaining a website which authorizes, encourages, our utilizes user generated content, there several things which one should take into account in regards to protecting yourself from law suit.

1. Ensure that your website and its use falls under the specifications of the DMCA “safe harbor” provisions, whether that be section 512(c) or any other provision.

2. Develop a policy and procedure in which the website is able to remove content which has been flagged as infringing material and notification of both the content provider and the user who submitted the infringing material.

3. Let your site take its natural course. In other words, it would behoove the website owner to minimize the control of material submitted by users on the website. The more control the Owner and maintainers of a website exert, the more the owner/maintainer will be responsible for the content which users upload.

4. Do not target any revenue generating plans at infringing or potentially infringing content. One of the major downfalls of Grokster were the advertisements which encouraged users to infringe on copyrighted materials.

5. Do not directly infringe either by content posted by the owner or maintainer of the website, or encouraged. If you encourage infringement or post the content yourself, it is more likely that a court will deny any “safe harbor” provision protections.

6. Attempt to the largest degree possible the licensing of content from providers. The more licensing agreements a website is able to sign, the less likely someone will bring suit.

Please consult an attorney for any specific advice in regards to the DMCA, or Website Compliance.


*This article was written by Jeffrey C. Neu, Esq. an Internet and Technology Lawyer in New Jersey.