The Topps Company, maker of “Bazooka” bubble gum, licensed Stani to manufacture and distribute the gum in Argentina. The original license was entered into in 1957 and was to expire in 20 years. It provided that Topps would share its “know-how, formulae, processes and techniques” with Stani in exchange for royalties on Stani’s sales. In 1976, the parties entered into a new 10-year agreement, with Stani given an option to extend it for another 10 years. The new agreement provided for the parties sharing Topps’ “manufacturing technology, marketing concepts and techniques, … and trademark use” in exchange for Stani’s payment of a yearly license fee. In the 1976 agreement, Topps also gave Stani “the exclusive non-assignable right and license to manufacture … and sell within the [relevant] Territory, during the continuance of this Agreement, Licensed Products utilizing TOPPS Technology.” Emphasis added. Four years later, the parties entered into two new contracts: a third license agreement, and an escrow agreement. The 1980 license agreement, which expired by its terms in April 1996, gave Stani the same “exclusive non-assignable right and license” that had been given in 1976 except that the corresponding 1980 provision ended with the words “Licensed Products” and did not include "utilizing TOPPS’ technology." The escrow agreement (for which Stani paid $100,000) recited that, absent a default, upon expiration of the 1980 license agreement legal title to the registration in Argentina of the trademarks “Topps” and “Bazooka” would pass to Stani.
In 1999, three years after the 1980 license agreement expired, Topps sued Stani and its parent corporation, Cadbury (to whom Stani had assigned the trademarks), alleging that Stani was continuing to use Topps technology which constituted misappropriation of trade secrets. In its answer, Stani denied that it was using Topps’ formulae but argued that, in any event, it had the right under the parties’ agreements to do so. The district court granted summary judgment to Stani and its parent, reasoning that the 1976 and 1980 documents (including the assignment to Stani of the Argentina registration of the trademarks) necessarily gave Stani the right to continue using Topps’ chewing gum formulae after April 1996. The Second Circuit reversed on the ground that summary judgment was inappropriate because the agreements were ambiguous with regard to Stani’s rights after April 1996. Topps Co. v. Cadbury Stani S.A.I.C., No. 06-5316-cv (2d Cir., May 15, 2008).
The court of appeals said that, on the one hand, the 1980 license agreement provided that the “TOPPS Trademarks and the Topps Technology shall at all times remain the exclusive property of TOPPS or its assigns” and gave Stani the right to use TOPPS formulae only “during the continuance” of the agreement. Those provisions suggest that Stani had no post-April 1996 rights. On the other hand, the “during the continuance” provision might have been intended to refer solely to what was to happen if there was an early termination of the 1980 license for cause, and there was no provision expressly granting or expressly denying Stani the right to the formulae after April 1996. Moreover, the assignment of trademark registration gave Stani at least the right to make a substantially similar product if it could do so without using the Topps formulae and without deceiving customers. Therefore, the parties’ intent was a material disputed issue requiring a trial.