Hamerschlag J, in the New South Wales Supreme Court, has ruled that disputes between a licensor and licensee under a technology licence agreement fall within the arbitration clause in the agreement and, consequently, the arbitrator’s determination that he has jurisdication is valid and binding on the parties.

The disputes between the parties related to (1) the application of the “improvements” clause and (2) whether licence fees would be payable if the licensee embarked on different strategies in the future. Hamerschlag J rejected the licensor’s, Lardken’s, argument that neither of the matters were disputes within the scope of the arbitration clause, cl. 19(b):

(b) All disputes arising in connection with this Licence, which are not adjusted by Licensing Agreement between the parties concerned, shall be finally settled by arbitration. The arbitration shall be held before a single arbitrator appointed by the parties or in the absence of agreement by the Chair of the Law Society of New South Wales, and conducted in accordance with and under the Commercial Arbitration Act 1984 of New South Wales. Judgment upon the award rendered may be entered in any court having jurisdiction, or application may be made to such court for a judicial acceptance of the award, or an order of enforcement as the case may be.

The improvements clause

Lardken licensed Lloyd to use Lardken’s technology relating to methods of collecting energy, converting it to heat, transferring the heat energy to a storage medium based on graphite and extracting and releasing the heat energy into useable form.

The licence agreement had one of those “Improvements” clauses, cl. 5.4(a), by which Lloyd agreed to transfer ownership of any improvements in the technology it developed to Lardken and would receive a non-exclusive licence back.

A third party, Ausra, applied for patents in the USA and Australia. Lloyd had notified Lardken about these applications, but had settled a dispute with Ausra on terms that Ausra assigned its rights in the patent applications to Lloyd. Lardken claimed that “Ausra’s” patent applications had been developed from confidential information about Lardken’s technology which, it was alleged, Ausra accessed at Lloyd’s facility. Lardken also claimed it was entitled to ownership of patent applications filed by one of Lloyd’s subsidiaries, Solfast.

Lloyd denied that any of this technology were improvements within the meaning of the licence agreement and, when Lardken refused to agree, referred the matter to arbitration.

Lardken argued that these disputes were not capable of determination by the arbitrator as a matter of public policy as only the Commissioner of Patents had authority under the Patents Act to grant patents or, subject to appeal to the Court, determine who was an entitled person under s 15 and s 32 and s 36.

Hammerschlag J held that the issue between the parties was a dispute about whether the Ausra or the Solfast technology fell within the terms of cl. 5.4(a). That was a dispute falling within the scope of the arbitration clause. The arbitrator’s decision would not, and could not, affect the Commissioner’s determination whether to grant the patent applications or not. The Commissioner’s powers under ss 15, 32 and 36, to determine entitlement, were not exclusive: questions of assignment for example were regularly determined in other fora. All the arbitrator’s decision would do would be to decide rights and obligations as between Lardken and Lloyd.

The liability to pay licence fees

Lloyd also sought the arbitrator’s ruling that it would not have to pay additional licence fees if:

  1. it itself constructed something using Lardken’s technology; or
  2. it sub-licensed one of its subsidiaries to construct something using Lardken’s technology.

Lardken argued the dispute about Lloyd’s potential liability to pay royalties in the future was not a ‘dispute’ capable of arbitration. There was, as yet, no “live issue” between the parties, it was really an attempt to seek an advisory opinion about a hypothetical eventuality.

Hammerschlag J also found that this was a dispute covered by the arbitration clause.

When Lloyd had written to Lardken stating its interpretation of the licence agreement, Lardken had responded disagreeing. Thus, at [101]:

There is thus clear disagreement between the parties on matters arising in connection with the Licensing Agreement. Each has claimed that the Licensing Agreement operates in a way which the other disputes; see Halki Shipping Corporation v Sopex Oils Ltd [1998] 1 WLR 726 at 757. See also the incisive discussion as to what constitutes a dispute in Tjong Very Sumito v Antig Investments at 747 and following, and Sutton et al, Russell on Arbitration , 23rd ed (2007) at [5-003].

Further, that fact that there was an element of futurity about the liability to pay did not render it purely abstract or hypothetical. Hammerschlag J accepted that purely hypothetical matters may not qualify as ‘disputes’, At [104]:

Although both of these disputes involve an element of futurity they are not purely abstract or hypothetical in the sense which makes them incapable of being the subject of determination. They concern whether certain prospective conduct will result in liability to pay fees under the Licensing Agreement (or put another way whether in the event of that conduct occurring the failure to pay would be a breach of contract). It was not suggested that the prospect that that conduct would occur was fanciful.

In reaching this conclusion, his Honour noted that declarations could be granted by the Court in similar situations:

98. In The Commonwealth v Sterling Nicholas Duty Free [1972] HCA 19; (1972) 126 CLR 297 at 305 Barwick CJ said:

The jurisdiction to make a declaratory order without consequential relief is a large and most useful jurisdiction. In my opinion, the present was an apt case for its exercise. The respondent undoubtedly desired and intended to do as he asked the Court to declare he lawfully could do. The matter, in my opinion, was in no sense hypothetical, but in any case not hypothetical in a sense relevant to the exercise of this jurisdiction. Of its nature, the jurisdiction includes the power to declare that conduct which has not yet taken place will not be in breach of a contract or a law. Indeed, it is that capacity which contributes enormously to the utility of the jurisdiction.

Hammerschlag J did note, however, it was a matter for the arbitrator’s discretion whether or not to make a determination on the issue.

The judgment doesn’t say how much it would cost to build one of these plant, but one might well think it makes sense for a party to be able to find out in advance what, if any, licence fee would be payable before it had committed to, or incurred, the expense of building the plant.

Larkden Pty Limited -v- Lloyd Energy Systems Pty Limited [2011] NSWSC 268

Lid dip: Steve White