When the Department of Defense (“DOD”) procures defense items that require substantial investment to design, test, and manufacture, it often seeks to acquire, along with these products, the contractor’s technical data package (“TDP”) used to build the product. Complete TDPs can facilitate effective competition—perhaps by neutralizing an otherwise daunting incumbent’s advantage—when the products are up for rebid a few years later. But in seeking TDPs—and rights in technical data and computer software (collectively “data”) generally—the DOD is prohibited from requiring a contractor, as a condition of obtaining a contract, to relinquish greater rights in data deliverables than the DOD is otherwise entitled to obtain based on who funded the development of the data. See DOD Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (“DFARS”) 227.7103-1(c), 227.7203-1(c).
Notwithstanding this prohibition, the DOD frequently obtains greater data rights than it is entitled to based on actual funding of the development—i.e., limited rights (development privately funded), government purpose rights (mixed funding), and unlimited rights (development funded by the government). How does this happen?
Bid protests challenging DOD attempts to extract greater rights in data than it is entitled as a condition for contract award have been rare. In Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, B-416027 (May 22, 2018), the protester complained that the Air Force sought a minimum of government purpose rights in software regardless of funding source (i.e., even if the software had been funded exclusively at private expense). While the argument made sense on the merits, it was untimely filed, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office refused to consider the argument even though it could have done so based on the “significant issue” exception to its timeliness rules. The protest still had an impact, however. Subsequent to the protest, the Air Force clarified its intent and disclaimed any intent to insist upon government purpose rights as a minimum.
The Air Force’s walk-back of its Request for Proposal language—which did seem to communicate an insistence upon at least government purpose rights—apparently reflected the Air Force’s recognition that such insistence was unlawful. And perhaps, as a practical matter, the Air Force recognized that there are ways to incentivize offerors to provide greater data rights than they are otherwise required to—without making such provisions an express condition for award.
An incentivizing technique used frequently by DOD procurement offices in recent years is making optional the provision of a robust TDP. This may include the government’s right to provide the data to the contractor’s competitors in future procurements even where the source of development funding would not normally grant the government such authority. In such procurements, an offeror can choose whether to offer a TDP with greater data rights than that to which the government would otherwise be entitled. An offeror who chooses not to offer such a package would still be considered eligible for award—if this was not the case, the DOD would be violating the DFARS by making award eligibility conditional upon providing greater rights than that to which the DOD is entitled. But an offeror who does offer greater rights than those to which the DOD would otherwise be entitled would receive additional credit in the evaluation.
Evaluation credit typically takes the form of an adjustment to the offeror’s evaluated price. For example, the solicitation may provide that, to the extent an offeror proposes to provide a “perfect” TDP, giving the DOD maximum flexibility to provide the TDP to the offeror’s competitors, the offeror’s proposed price will be adjusted downward for purposes of evaluation by a significant amount, such as $100,000 or more. TDPs that are less than optimal but that still provide some value to the DOD would be a assigned a more modest credit. Offerors who choose not to offer TDPs receive no price evaluation credit.
If you are scratching your head, wondering whether an offeror who chooses not to offer an optional TDP effectively takes itself out of the running for a realistic chance of award, that is understandable. And if that possibility means that, as practical matter, optional TDPs really are not optional—or are optional only for companies that want to compete in significant DOD procurements with no real chance of winning—an argument can be made that such evaluation scheme is at odds with the DFARS, and defeats the purpose of the underlying regulation. This issue has not been addressed in any published protests.
Deciding whether to voluntarily grant greater TDP rights is a weighty decision that concerns interests beyond the immediate competition. Contractors evaluating whether and how to respond to DOD requests for more extensive data rights, particularly in the competitive procurement context, must consider:
- How will providing such rights impact the contractor’s overall business?
- To the extent such impacts may be adverse, do the potential upsides of winning the contract make up for this?
- If not, can the solicitation be challenged as unlawfully conditioning contract award eligibility on provision of data rights to which the DOD is not entitled?
If the answer to question three is yes, the contractor must be proactive and, to avoid the fate of Sikorsky, raise any protest challenging the solicitation prior to the deadline for receipt of proposals.