In a froth: Trademark licensing fails to disguise anti-competitive market sharing arrangement

The CMA has today issued a £1.71m fine against two laundry companies for market sharing.  Micronclean Limited was fined £510,118 and Berendsen Cleanroom Services Limited was liable for £1,197,956. The companies both specialise in laundering clothes worn in ‘cleanrooms’.  These are highly sterile environments, with meticulous rules on the cleanliness of equipment and clothing, which are vital in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

The two companies had established a joint venture agreement in the 1980s where both traded under the ‘Micronclean’ brand.  However it was only in 2012 that they started the market sharing arrangement, attempting to mask it as a reciprocal trademark licence arrangement.

This arrangement had two problematic elements.  First an artificial line was drawn between London and Anglesey; customers south of that line were reserved for Berendsen, whilst those to the north were allocated to Micronclean.  Second, over and above the territorial restrictions, companies decided to reserve specific customers to themselves and agreed not to compete for them.

Geographic market sharing and customer allocation is illegal (other than where legitimate exclusivity arrangements are concluded as part of a broadly pro-competitive agreement such as technology licensing). In this instance, the CMA did consider whether the arrangement, when taken as part of the wider joint venture agreement, could be justified.  Unfortunately for Micronclean and Berendsen the CMA concluded that it could not.  In particular the CMA found that the companies were competitors and two of the biggest players on the market. This left customers, including the NHS, with few options in choosing service providers. 

The existence of the trade mark agreement did nothing to change that fundamental position. Trade mark licences do not generally fall within the scope of the Technology Transfer Block Exemption.  In any event, the EU Commission’s Guidelines on Technology Transfer, which provides broad guidance on the analytical approach to the competitive effects of IP licensing, make clear that sales restrictions agreed between competitors in a licensing arrangement are likely to be regarded as market sharing, particularly where the licence is a cross licence (or “reciprocal” in the language of the block exemption) – and so it proved here.

This case serves as a reminder that anti-competitive practices which take place under the guise of an IP licence will not avoid scrutiny by the competition authorities.  In this instance the arrangement came to light in the context of two related merger reviews in the industry undertaken by the CMA – also a reminder of the importance of due diligence and early review of competition issues in the context of corporate transactions. As Ann Pope, Senior Director at the CMA added to the press release: “Companies must regularly check their trading arrangements, including long-running joint ventures and collaborative agreements, to make sure they’re not breaking the law.

Third-party platform bans justified for genuinely luxury brands

The Court of Justice of the European Union (‘CJEU’) has today ruled that third-party platform bans may be justified in the selective distribution of luxury goods. The CJEU’s decision in the Coty Germany reference proceedings broadly follows the opinion of Advocate General Wahl which was handed down earlier this year (see here, and further background here). 

The Court makes a number of rulings which will be of interest to brand owners:

  • Selective distribution may be justified for luxury goods to protect the ‘allure and prestige’. This clears up the uncertainty which arose following the Pierre Fabre judgment which seemed to suggest that the preservation of a luxury image could not justify a restriction of competition. The CJEU has confirmed that the judgment in that case should be confined to the particular facts at issue.
  • Third party platform bans may be justified in the selective distribution of luxury goods. The CJEU has ruled that, in the context of selective distribution, a supplier of luxury goods can, in principle, prohibit authorised distributors from using ‘in a discernible manner’ third-party platforms such as Amazon. Any third-party platform ban must have the objective of preserving the luxury image of the goods, be applied uniformly and not in a discriminatory fashion, and be proportionate to the objective pursued.

This ruling certainly gives some more leeway for brand owners of luxury goods, but should not be seen as an absolute green light for third-party platform bans. In particular, such restrictions must be justified by the goods in question (i.e. they must have a genuine ‘aura of luxury’) and must be a proportionate means of preserving the luxury image. This will be for national courts and authorities to interpret, and we can expect a fairly high threshold. The German Competition Authority, the Bundeskartellamt, has already said that it considers the CJEU’s decision to be limited to genuinely prestigious products. That said, the ruling does make clear that third-party platform bans do not amount to a hardcore restriction of competition, and thus it will be open to brand owners to seek to justify their use on a case-by-case basis.