Right of first refusal (ROFR or RFR) is a contractual right that gives its holder the option to enter a business transaction with the owner of something, according to specified terms, before the owner is entitled to enter into that transaction with a third party. A first refusal right must have at least three parties: the owner, the third party or buyer, and the option holder. In general, the owner must make the same offer to the option holder before making the offer to the buyer. The right of first refusal is similar in concept to a call option.
An ROFR can cover almost any sort of asset, including real estate, personal property, a patent license, a screenplay, or an interest in a business. It might also cover business transactions that are not strictly assets, such as the right to enter a joint venture or distribution arrangement. In entertainment, a right of first refusal on a concept or a screenplay would give the holder the right to make that movie first while in real estate, a right of first refusal would create incentive for the tenant to take better care of their leased apartment in case the opportunity to purchase arises in the future. Only if the holder turns it down may the owner then shop it around to other parties.
Because an ROFR is a contract right, the holder's remedies for breach are typically limited to recovery of damages. In other words, if the owner sells the asset to a third party without offering the holder the opportunity to purchase it first, the holder can then sue the owner for damages but may have a difficult time obtaining a court order to stop or reverse the sale. However, in some cases, the option becomes a property right that may be used to invalidate an improper sale.
ROFR also arises in visitation agreements/orders in divorce cases. In such cases, an ROFR may require a custodial parent to offer parenting time to the non-custodial parent (rather than having a child supervised by a third party) any time that the custodial parent or his/her family is unable to exercise his/her right to parenting time (such as if the custodial parent needs to travel out of town). Under these circumstances a breach may result in a finding of contempt and any remedies for contempt.
An ROFR differs from a Right of First Offer (ROFO, also known as a Right of First Negotiation) in that the ROFO merely obliges the owner to undergo exclusive good faith negotiations with the rights holder before negotiating with other parties. A ROFR is an option to enter a transaction on exact or approximate transaction terms. A ROFO is merely an agreement to negotiate.
ROFR: Abe owns a house and Bo offers to buy that house for $1 million. However, Carl holds a right of first refusal to purchase the house. Therefore, before Abe can sell the house to Bo, he must first offer it to Carl for the $1 million that Bo is willing to buy it for. If Carl accepts, he buys the house instead of Bo. If Carl declines, Bo may now buy the house at the proposed $1 million price.
ROFO: Carl holds a ROFO instead of an ROFR. Before Abe can negotiate a deal with Bo, he must first try to sell the house to Carl on whatever terms Abe is willing to sell. If they reach an agreement, Abe sells the house to Carl. However, if they fail, Abe is free to start fresh negotiations with Bo without any restriction as to price or terms.
The following are all variations on the basic ROFR:
Many other variations are possible. A fully drafted ROFR addresses all of the types of issues and more, and in the case of valuable or complex transactions it is subject to negotiation and review by business transaction attorneys. However, many ROFR are not completely specified. Even the best drafted ROFR agreements suffer a high risk of dispute and litigation because they are anticipating future transactions and contingencies that are unknowable when the ROFR originates.
In venture capital deals, the right of first refusal is a term sheet provision permitting existing investors in a company to accept or refuse the purchase of equity shares offered by the company, before third parties have access to the deal. The main goal of the provision is to allow investors to prevent ownership dilution as the company raises additional capital. Typically, the provision will exempt certain types of shares, such as those in an employee pool, or shares issued to equipment loaners or lessors. Startup companies are advised to attempt negotiating out this right, because it enables existing investors to send stronger (potentially negative) signals to new investors, and consequently drive down the company's valuation.