Licensing of Latvian collecting society prompts CJEU to provide greater clarity on how to determine excessive pricing

Last week the CJEU released its judgment on excessive pricing that could prove of interest to many of our readers.

In 2013 a dispute arose between the Latvian Competition Council and the AKKA/LAA, the Latvian equivalent of the PRS, responsible for licensing the public performance of musical works and collecting the resulting royalties. AKKA/LAA, a monopoly organisation, was fined for excessive pricing (and thus an abuse of a dominant position under Article 102 TFEU) but took this ruling to the courts. In finding that the collecting society had engaged in excessive pricing, the Latvian competition authority had made direct comparisons with prices in the neighbouring states of Estonia and Lithuania and found that the rates applied in Latvia were two to three times higher than those applied in the other two Baltic States. The authority also made a comparison to the rest of the EU on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis. On a reference to the CJEU, the Court was asked to rule on several important questions relating to this assessment.

First, the CJEU dealt with how to make valid comparisons in assessing the imposition of unfair prices. The Court ruled that such comparisons are valid, provided that the relevant Member States are selected according to ‘objective, appropriate and verifiable criteria’ and that the comparison is made on a ‘consistent basis’. Such criteria could include factors as concrete as GDP per capita, or as loose as ‘cultural and historical heritage’. Notably, the Court held that a comparison cannot be considered to be insufficiently representative merely because it takes a limited number of Member States into account. Whilst such a clear statement on the legal position is welcome, recent case law has shown that agreeing objective criteria by which to select comparables is not trivial. For example, in the Unwired Planet litigation (see here), in attempting to agree a FRAND rate for a licence in the telecommunications sector, there was much debate over which licences were the most comparable. 

Second, the CJEU dealt with the circumstances in which prices would be considered excessive. The Court ruled that there is no minimum threshold, but instead that Article 102 will bite where a difference in price is ‘both significant and persistent on the facts’. Looking at the growing number of actions against pharmaceutical companies for excessive pricing, most notably the Commission investigation into Aspen (reported on in August), a key question remains as to what amounts to a significantly and persistently higher price. An obvious starting point, now validated by this ruling, is a comparison with other Member States, but with so many different national healthcare and regulatory systems in place in the EU this may not be straightforward.  

Overall, this decision provides some welcome guidance, but there still remains plenty to ponder!

The CJEU’s Intel judgment – First thoughts and some predictions

Today’s Intel judgment from the Court of Justice does not strictly concern the Competition Law/IP interface.  However, it is a case which has considerable interest for potentially dominant companies, as well as a strong technology thread. 

At the basis of today’s judgment is the European Commission fine of €1.05bn, imposed on Intel back in 2009, and upheld by the General Court in 2014, for abusing a dominant position by granting exclusivity rebates to customers.  
 
In brief, the CJEU has today held that the General Court did not sufficiently analyse all of Intel’s arguments that its conduct did not foreclose competitors. The General Court’s failure to analyse the results of the ‘as efficient competitor’ (AEC) test was a particular focus of the criticism. The CJEU has therefore remitted the case to the lower court for further consideration on the central abuse of dominance question.  

Much ink will no doubt be spilled in analysing this judgment, but for now, the points below seem to be key:

  • Relevance of ‘as efficient’ competitors. The Court emphasises that Article 102 applies when conduct foreclosure of “as efficient competitors”; in other words, the provision is not intended as a tool for protecting entities which lack the ability to compete effectively and which are therefore likely to be less attractive to consumers.  
Strictly speaking, the CJEU’s remittal to the GC only requires it to look again at the AEC test because the Commission had in fact carried out such a test, and the GC had not responded to all of Intel’s arguments about it (143-144).  However, the fact that the Court embraces a reference to “competitors considered to be as efficient as [the dominant company]” within its general legal framework (133, 136) suggests that it will not be easy for competition authorities (or indeed private action claimants) to walk away from this test. This is mirrored in the Court’s description of the abuse finding which must be reached before an assessment of objective justification can take place (140).

  • Form vs. effects. On a first read, the judgment is a shot in the arm for effects- rather than form-based analysis (136-140).  On this reading, the mere fact that an exclusivity rebate exists is not enough in itself to establish anti-competitive foreclosure. The extent of dominance plays a role here, as well as the market coverage and duration of the practice (both the market coverage and duration were considered by the Advocate General to be ‘inconclusive’ in themselves).  
However, there are a couple of stings in the tail.  First, to avoid a formalist approach, a company under investigation must adduce evidence during the initial investigation to show that its conduct was not in fact capable of affecting competition (138).  Past cases (e.g. AstraZeneca) suggest that this evidence should be contemporaneous with the conduct.  Second, evidence of a strategy to exclude will be considered relevant (139).  While case law establishes that a company’s intention is less relevant than the objective effects of the conduct, it seems to us that clear evidence of an anti-competitive strategy will make it much more difficult to support an argument that the conduct was incapable of affecting competition. 

It’s perhaps too early to predict what impact this judgment will have on future cases – not least because a further referral back to the CJEU in this case remains possible.  However, a couple of possible consequences are:

  • Reduced options for formalistic short-cuts in establishing infringement – arguably this is of greater relevance in the private litigation context, given that competition authorities have tended to carry out extensive analysis of effects as a fall-back (or have closed cases where such evidence cannot be established, as with the CMA’s recent decision on impulse ice creams).
  • Again in the private litigation context, the practice of splitting questions of dominance and abuse into separate trials may not be the best solution for conduct of this kind, given that the degree of dominance may affect whether the conduct is in fact anti-competitive or not.
As for Intel’s fate when it comes back before the GC, all bets are off.  But given the CJEU’s indication of the significance of evidence of an anti-competitive strategy, we wouldn’t like to bet against a further confirmation of the Commission’s original conclusions…

Apple’s battle with Qualcomm spreads to the UK

On 19 May 2017 Apple issued a major claim against Qualcomm in the English Court. This is part of a widely reported global dispute between the two giants. The English action includes an Article 102 abuse of dominance claim as well as a FRAND licensing claim and was issued just a month after the English Court’s first FRAND valuation in Unwired Planet v Huawei (Bristows’ blog post here and here). The particulars of the claim are now available and make fascinating reading. 

On the FRAND licensing front, Apple seeks a declaration that Qualcomm has breached its obligations to ETSI, by failing to offer a FRAND licence for Standard Essential Patents (SEPs), seeking excessive and non-FRAND royalties. 

As far as competition law and Article 102 is concerned, Apple makes a number of arguments. 

It claims that Qualcomm is abusing its dominant position in the markets for LTE, CDMA and UMTS chipsets by refusing to license its SEPs to competing chipmakers. This means that if a chipset is purchased from a company other than Qualcomm, the purchaser must then obtain a licence from Qualcomm for use of Qualcomm’s standard-essential IP. Apple asserts that Qualcomm’s practices exclude chipset competitors from the market, as well as being in breach of its contractual FRAND obligations.

Apple also complains about various aspects of agreements between itself and Qualcomm. These expired in 2015, and in 2016 Apple began to purchase chipsets from Intel. This has doubtless affected the nature and timing of the litigation.

As mentioned above, Apple contends that Qualcomm’s royalties are excessively high. It then argues that to reduce the effective royalty rate it had to pay, it had no commercial alternative other than to conclude rebate agreements which involved granting Qualcomm exclusivity over Apple’s chipset supply. Apple maintains that one consequence of this arrangement has been to limit the emergence of other chipset manufacturers, who have been precluded from competing for Apple’s custom. Because of Apple’s importance as a purchaser of chipsets this is argued to have foreclosed a significant part of the potential demand. Qualcomm’s practice of forcing customers to take a licence and to agree to exclusionary terms is said to further reinforce the exclusionary effects. 

A particular feature of the rebate agreement which is criticised by Apple is that it was conditional on Apple agreeing not to pursue litigation or governmental complaints that the royalties were ‘non-FRAND’. 

Apple explains that Qualcomm’s royalties are charged in addition to the price of the chipset itself, and are based on the price of the end device being sold by the licensee, rather than on the price of the chipset in which it is argued that all the patented technology is practised. Apple takes the position that in order to be acceptable the royalty should be calculated by reference to the smallest saleable patent practising unit (SSPPU) – in this instance the chipset, rather than the phone. This is said to guard against situations where two phones that use the same Qualcomm technology could incur significantly different royalty obligations for use of the same SEPs based only on their different end sales prices. Those sales prices which differ because of completely different aspects of the phones, such as design or additional functionalities. This issue was not considered by Birss J in Unwired Planet v Huawei. The argument was raised in Vringo v ZTE, but was dropped before trial. 

Apple makes several arguments which are in tension with the recent Unwired Planet v Huawei Judgment. These include: that licensees can be acting in a FRAND manner even though they refuse to take a licence of an entire patent portfolio of declared SEPs, irrespective of validity or essentiality; that the FRAND royalty for an SEP should reflect the intrinsic value of the patent; and that the standard (of which that technology is a part) constitutes value that Qualcomm has not created and which it should not seek to capture through its FRAND licensing. 

Finally, in an attempt to demonstrate that Qualcomm’s royalty is not FRAND, Apple states that Qualcomm holds a quarter of the declared SEPs for the LTE standard and compares Qualcomm’s royalty with the (presumably lower) licence fee it pays other SEP holders, who combined hold one third of the relevant SEPs.

Ultimately, Apple claims that Qualcomm’s undertaking to ETSI is ineffective to constrain its dominance as an SEP owner. This may be a direct response to comments by Birss J in Unwired Planet v Huawei that an SEP holder may not always hold a dominant position, for example, because of the FRAND obligation and the risk that implementers may engage in patent hold-out. 

Conclusion

Developments in this case will be interesting when set against the recent judgment in Unwired Planet v Huawei, in which Birss J considered many of the issues raised by Apple. But Apple also makes arguments that go well beyond the issues considered in that case. For example, Apple’s arguments about exclusionary rebates may be affected by the Intel judgment, due to be handed down by the EU’s Court of Justice on 6 September 2017.  It also sits alongside parallel antitrust litigation in the US, including retaliatory actions by Qualcomm designed to exclude Apple’s handsets from import to the US. How this case, and the global dispute, evolves will be fascinating to follow – and not only for those with an interest in SEP and FRAND issues.