Summer FRAND developments: some big antitrust news to come

Back in May this year, the Court of Appeal sat for five days to hear Huawei’s appeal of Birss J’s judgment in Unwired Planet.  The bench included two of the Court’s most experienced patents judges in Lord Justices Kitchin and Floyd (and Kitchin LJ has now been appointed to the Supreme Court, see here). Although rumours circulated that the Court of Appeal’s judgment might be forthcoming before the summer vacation, nothing materialised, and the expectation now is that the judgment will be published at the start of the Michaelmas term, which begins on 1 October. (A reminder of the issues being appealed can be found here.)

That judgment will be hugely significant for the conduct of FRAND negotiations, licensing and litigation both in the UK and elsewhere. This is not least because there are now several FRAND cases before the High Court, including Apple v Qualcomm, Conversant v ZTE & Huawei, Philips v ASUS & HTC and TQ Delta v Zyxel (the latter on ASDL, rather than ETSI telecoms standards). All of these are likely to be affected by the Court of Appeal’s decision.

However, the upcoming judgment isn’t the only relevant FRAND news. FRAND is a global concern, and recently there have been other FRAND developments around the world that are worth noting.

Delay to German Supreme Court ruling in Sisvel v Haier 

Back in 2015, the Düsseldorf Regional Court granted Sisvel an injunction against Haier for infringement of two its SEPs. However, on appeal, the OLG Düsseldorf held that Sisvel had failed to offer Haier FRAND terms as per Huawei v ZTE because Sisvel’s offer was discriminatory (there was a significant difference between Sisvel’s treatment of Haier and its competitors). Sisvel appealed to Germany’s Supreme Court, the Bundesgerichtshof.

In parallel, Haier had brought proceedings challenging the validity of the two Sisvel SEPs. One has now expired, and the other was declared invalid at first instance. Sisvel has appealed this decision.

The Supreme Court has now suspended its decision on the FRAND side of the case until the patent proceedings are completed, to avoid the risk of conflicting judgments (the decision is here, in German).  

It seems likely that if the invalidity decision is upheld, the Supreme Court will decline to make a final determination on the FRAND issues. Given the limited case law available on the discrimination aspect of FRAND (see here for some discussion of this), as well as the lack of consensus on the approach to FRAND in the German regional courts, this will mean that uncertainty continues at least as regards the German position for the foreseeable future.

Haier fails to convince US Court to take up digital TV case

Meanwhile, over in the USA, Haier had sought to turn the tables on other holders of declared SEPs, having brought a case in the Northern District of New York alleging a conspiracy by the holders of SEPs reading onto the ATSC standard.  Haier claimed that a patent pool established by companies including LG and Panasonic and administered by MPEG LA was artificially inflating prices above a FRAND level, and that licensors were refusing to license individually.

The Court rejected the claim on limitation grounds earlier this month (September 2018) and did not engage with the substance of the allegations (see here). 

FTC moves for summary judgment on Qualcomm’s obligation to license competitors 

In the Northern District of California, the FTC is engaged in proceedings against Qualcomm, alleging that Qualcomm has excluded competitors and harmed competition by withholding its baseband processors unless a customer accepts a licence on terms favourable to Qualcomm (including disproportionately high royalties). The trial is scheduled for early January 2019.

However, at the end of August, the FTC filed a motion for partial summary judgment regarding a key aspect of the case. It has asked for a declaration that under its FRAND obligations, Qualcomm must license its SEPs to its chipset competitors such as Intel.

Whether FRAND requires SEP holders to grant a licence to any company that asks for one (known as licensing to all) is a hotly debated topic.  The answer is potentially of wide significance, because it could fundamentally affect the licensing model that has applied in the sector for the past 20 years. For example, if all chipset manufacturers were licensed (potentially at royalties based on the chipset price rather than on the price of a smartphone) the manufacturers of smartphones may not require licences at all (depending on laws relating to pass-through and exhaustion) which would have a major impact on how SEP licensing currently operates.  Alternatively, the price of chipsets themselves might need to rise significantly to account for the increased IPR costs.  Or manufacturers may start to seek to tailor licences to different uses, splitting value along different parts of the supply and distribution chain. 

Examples of any judicial authority considering this topic are rare. The Commission dodged the issue in preparing its 2017 Communication on SEP Licensing (see here), although the Korea Fair Trade Commission has found Qualcomm’s refusal to license its SEPs to competing chipset manufacturers abusive (the decision is here, but note that Qualcomm is appealing). Although the California Court’s judgment will relate to the ATIS and TIA standards interpreted on the basis of US law (rather than ETSI FRAND interpreted on the basis of French law), it is still likely to be influential in Europe.

BEIS notice on competition law in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit

With Brexit fast approaching, the government has issued further technical notices that set out its plans in the event of ‘no deal’ with the EU27 (our post-referendum view on possible negotiated alternatives are here, although at present the only alternative to no deal remains the so-called Chequers plan).  Issues covered in the notices include the potential loss surcharge-free mobile roaming, the UK’s withdrawal from innovative space programmes, and additional certification requirements for manufacturers.  

However, of most interest to us was the BEIS guidance on ‘Merger review and anti-competitive activity if there’s no Brexit deal’.  It’s short, and perhaps does not say much that is new or surprising, but to summarise the key points:

  • The domestic UK competition regime will remain in place, unchanged bar the removal of references to EU law and institutions, and duties under EU obligations. 

  • The EU block exemptions which are applied as parallel exemptions under UK law will be preserved; so companies that benefit from any applicable exemption will continue to do so, and any new agreements meeting the relevant criteria will also benefit. 

  • The European Commission will not begin investigations into the UK aspects of mergers or cases involving potentially anti-competitive conduct. 

  • There may be no agreement on jurisdiction over live EU merger and antitrust cases which address effects on UK markets (this could include the Commission’s investigation into Aspen’s pricing, Guess’ distribution systems, and geo-blocking by Steam and video games companies).

  • The CMA and UK will no longer be bound to follow future CJEU case law. 

  • A decision made by the European Commission could no longer be relied upon as a binding finding of an infringement in follow-on claims.  

  • A number of the rules governing jurisdiction for damages claims would be repealed (these are covered in a separate notice), and the UK would revert to the existing common law and statutory rules that apply in non-EU cross border disputes.  The UK would however retain the Rome I and Rome II rules on applicable law. 

The confirmation that block exemptions will be preserved does provide some reassurance for UK companies, but there still remains a lot of disconcerting uncertainty – particularly for any company currently engaged in merger talks and at risk of being engaged in a ‘live’ review come 29 March 2019.  However, the government is clearly focusing on solutions to the issues raised earlier this year, and is communicating developments to try and provide certainty for UK businesses; we hope this progress continues with as much transparency as possible.  

As regards the potential for lack of jurisdiction over ongoing merger and antitrust cases, the advice to ‘take independent legal advice’ will be of little comfort to business in view of the significant ongoing uncertainties.  Whilst a pragmatic solution can readily be identified for antitrust cases which address past conduct (and where, as a result, jurisdiction should follow the legal regime in place at the relevant time), the position is less obvious as regards forward-looking merger analysis.  Given the flexibility of the UK’s voluntary merger notification regime, it is to be hoped that further guidance will be forthcoming from the CMA over the next few months should a no-deal exit become inevitable.

The Ping judgment – CAT confirms that internet sales ban is restrictive of competition ‘by object’

In a judgment handed down on 7 September, the UK’s Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) upheld the CMA’s decision of August 20171 that golf equipment manufacturer Ping’s online sales ban was a restriction of competition ‘by object’ and did not qualify for any exemption.  Although the CAT held that Ping’s aim2 in implementing the policy was a legitimate one, the ban was, by its very nature, liable to harm competition between Ping’s retailers. Whilst the CAT did find that the CMA had erred in law by seeking to carry out a proportionality analysis3 (which was not relevant to the question of whether the policy was caught by the prohibition in Article 101(1)), the CAT held that this had no impact on the overall conclusion.  In a small victory for Ping, the CAT found some minor errors in the CMA’s calculation of the fine, resulting in a small reduction in the penalty. 

The CAT’s response to Ping’s grounds of appeal

By object infringement

Ping’s submission was that the presence or absence of a “plausibly pro-competitive rationale” is the key to identifying an infringement by object. However the CAT stated that this submission did not reflect the law as set out in Cartes Bancaires. The CAT was “of the clear view” that regardless of Ping’s subjective aim in introducing the internet sales ban as a means of promoting custom fitting, the ban may be characterised as an object infringement if it reveals a sufficient degree of harm to competition.4  In the CAT’s analysis, the existence of a pro-competitive objective does not per se preclude a finding of infringement by object. This accords with the Court of Justice’s holding in Pierre Fabre that, by excluding a method of distance selling, the internet ban was liable to restrict competition even if that was not its purpose. 

In the current case the Tribunal found that “the potential impact of the ban on consumers and retailers [was] real and material”. In its view, the ban restricts intra-brand competition; prevents retailers from attracting consumers located outside their catchment areas by offering better prices/service; and removes the advantages of online sales (in particular, access from any location 24 hours a day) to the detriment of consumers. The CAT accepted Ping’s submission that objective justification and proportionality are not in themselves relevant to an assessment of whether an agreement is an infringement by object. 

The human rights ground

According to Ping, its appeal concerned the freedom of a company to pursue a business which involves the sale of a product whose properties are fundamentally inconsistent with internet selling. Ping maintained that it built its brand image as a manufacturer which sells only customised clubs and submitted that the CMA’s decision contravened its human rights under Article 16 by requiring it to sell a product it did not sell and did not wish to sell (i.e. non-fitted clubs). The CAT dismissed this argument, finding that since Ping’s internet policy constitutes an object restriction under Article 101(1), any restriction on the exercise of its rights under Articles 16 and 17 as a result was “proportionate to the legitimate aim of avoiding the distortion of competition within the EU.”  The CAT also accepted the CMA’s submission that the decision does not force Ping to sell a product that it does not already sell –Ping could maintain its policy of promoting custom fitting with or without the ban. 

In relation to the alternative measures proposed by the CMA, Ping’s fundamental objection was that they were likely to lead to customers making uninformed decisions as to which clubs to buy, thereby harming their game and ultimately damaging Ping’s brand. The Tribunal said this was “not compelling”: there is technology that enables an accurate assessment of custom fitting online and other premium golf club brands sell their custom fit golf clubs online.  This suggested that “guessing [custom fit measurements] amongst customers of those brands is not a significant problem”.

The penalty

The CAT considered that the £1.45 million fine imposed by the CMA was “slightly too high” and a further small reduction was therefore appropriate. It found that a fair and proportionate fine, taking into account that it was not an ‘aggravated’ infringement, should be £1.25 million.

The CAT concluded that the CMA erred in treating director involvement as an aggravating factor on the specific facts of the case. If the fact of director-level knowledge alone were treated as an aggravating factor then this infringement could never have been considered as anything other than aggravated. However, Ping restricted competition law through its negligence rather than with intention and so applying an uplift in this case would be “meaningless” and should be “reserved for more reprehensible behaviour”. 

Comment

As we noted in our comment on the CMA’s decision (here), the infringement decision itself was not surprising – outright sales bans have long been considered problematic.  The fact that the CAT has upheld the CMA’s decision is therefore, in itself, equally unsurprising.  Of more interest was the CAT’s consideration of the CMA’s use of an ‘Alternatives Paper’ – this was part of the CMA’s by object case, showing that there were alternative, less restrictive means of satisfying Ping’s legitimate policy aim.  Whilst finding that the CMA had erred in law in its approach, the CAT nevertheless concluded that this was not sufficient to overturn the CMA’s decision.  Rather, the CAT sought to square a particularly tricky circle on the facts of this case – it had sympathy with both the ‘legitimate aim’ behind Ping’s policy and the CMA’s conclusion that an outright internet sales ban is a by object infringement that was “clearly … not objectively justified”.  It seems that the fact that other brands made their custom-fit clubs available online and that Ping itself allowed sales over the internet in the US were decisive here.  

_______________________________________________

1 We commented on the CMA’s decision here

2 Ping contends that the internet ban prevents consumers from making uninformed decisions about their custom fitting specification and so guards against blame being levelled at Ping causing damage to its brand.

3 The CMA previously determined that the internet ban should be prohibited on the basis that the company could have achieved its legitimate aim through less restrictive means. 

4 The Tribunal accepted the CMA’s analysis that if the internet sales ban is so inherently damaging to competition as to amount to an object infringement, it is not necessary to conduct an assessment of the actual effects. 

Big Data? No antitrust problem for Apple/Shazam

Big Data has been a focus for DG Competition for the last few years.  In particular, the Commission has been interested in mergers involving the acquisition of a company holding valuable data, even if it has low turnover (see here). Apple’s $400 million acquisition of Shazam, approved by the Commission on 6 September 2018, falls squarely within this category.

Shazam is a music recognition app.  Consumers can use Shazam to record a clip of an unknown song playing in a bar or other public place – Shazam turns this into an audio fingerprint and matches this against its database containing the audio fingerprints for millions of songs in order to identify the song playing.  Shazam generates revenue through referring users once a song has been identified to Spotify, iTunes, Google Play music or other streaming services.  Although Shazam has been downloaded over 1 billion times, and is used over 20 million times a day, in 2016 it made a loss of over £3.5 million on revenues of just over $40 million.  Apple isn’t buying Shazam for its profitability, but rather the data it possesses on its millions of users, including which songs they like to listen to and other trends.

There have been a string of mergers in which data has been an issue, starting with Google/DoubleClick in 2008 and including Facebook/WhatsApp in 2014, and Microsoft/LinkedIn in 2016.  In most of these cases, the data-related concerns have centred on potential barriers to entry arising due to the concentration of valuable data in the hands of one company. The Commission looked for example at whether other advertisers would be able to replicate the data held by Google after its acquisition of DoubleClick, or whether access to the LinkedIn database was an essential part of developing advanced customer relationship management technology using machine learning in the Microsoft case.  

In Apple/Shazam the concern was different. The Commission opened a phase II review of the transaction on 23 April 2018 (here) because it was concerned that access to Shazam’s data might enable Apple to target directly the customers of its rivals (such as Spotify or Google Play Music) to encourage them to switch to Apple Music.  Unlike the more general concern in previous cases that it might be harder for new players to enter the market, here the Commission was specifically concerned about the potential for active harm to Apple’s competitors.

However, following its review, the Commission concluded (here) that:

  • Access to Shazam's data would not materially increase Apple's ability to target music enthusiasts and any conduct aimed at making customers switch would only have a negligible impact. 
  • The merged entity would not be able to shut out competing providers of digital music streaming services by restricting access to the Shazam app; the app has a limited importance as an entry point to music streaming services. 
  • The integration of Shazam's and Apple's datasets on user data would not confer a unique advantage to the merged entity in the markets on which it operates; Shazam's data is not unique and Apple's competitors would still have the opportunity to access and use similar databases.
Commissioner Vestager released a short statement accompanying the clearance: 

"Data is key in the digital economy. We must therefore carefully review transactions which lead to the acquisition of important sets of data, including potentially commercially sensitive ones, to ensure they do not restrict competition. After thoroughly analysing Shazam's user and music data, we found that their acquisition by Apple would not reduce competition in the digital music streaming market."

There seemed to be a hint of disappointment that the Apple/Shazam transaction had not ultimately enabled the Commission to take real action against a big tech company hoovering up a smaller but data-rich target, but Vestager’s comments do reveal how seriously the Commission views the acquisition of data and its potential to pose a threat to fair competition. 

There are a number of other interesting aspects to this particular transaction. The Commission’s press release also explicitly stated that “a merger decision does not release companies from respecting all relevant data protection laws”.  We have previously looked at the privacy / competition overlap (here and here for example) and this is a pointed reminder from the Commission that whilst there are no competition concerns related to the data in this transaction, Apple will have to ensure that it treats the newly acquired data in a manner that complies with the GDPR.

Apple/Shazam did not meet the turnover thresholds set by the EUMR.  It was reviewed by the Commission only because Austria (the one Member State where the transaction did meet the national merger notification threshold) submitted a referral request to the Commission under Article 22(1) EUMR. This was the first time in over two years that a national competition authority had referred a transaction up to the Commission.  Austria’s request was joined by Iceland, Italy, France, Norway, Spain and Sweden – equal to the record highest number of authorities seeking a referral (here – subscription required).

The interest taken by these national authorities in this transaction reflects the increasing recognition of the importance of acquisitions of innovative companies. There have been some concerns that high value transactions of companies with low turnovers (but valuable data) may escape review by competition regulators. For example Intel’s 2017 $15 billion acquisition of Mobileye, an Israeli company manufacturing self-driving car technologies, avoided review in Europe due to Mobileye’s low revenues in Europe.  As we discussed here, Germany (like Austria) has recently amended its domestic competition law; changing its merger thresholds to try and capture these kinds of transactions. 

We suspect there will be plenty more phase II investigations of big data mergers in the future.

Competition law challenge to orphan drug prices in the Netherlands

Some months back, we reported on an initiative by the Dutch Council for Public Health and Society which considered measures for containing high drug prices.  Of particular note were the proposals for compulsory licensing, and the application of the new measures to orphan drugs as well as to more mainstream products (orphan drugs are those which are applicable to rare diseases affecting less than 0.05% of the population).  

Now a newly formed Dutch foundation for “pharmaceutical accountability” (the Stichting Farma ter Verantwoording, or SFV) has announced that it has presented a dossier to the Dutch competition authority requesting that it take action against Leadiant Pharmaceuticals in relation to the price of chenodeoxycholic acid (CDCA) which is used for a metabolic disease affecting around 60 people in the Netherlands (report in English here).  The focus of the complaint is on the difference between the current price of CDCA (€140 per capsule), and the price of the same drug which was formerly used in the treatment of gallstones (c. €0.28 per capsule).  According to the SFV’s report, the orphan designation was secured in Leadiant only  last year, following a two-year period when the drug was not on the market.  The orphan designation means that Leadiant will have market exclusivity for a 10-year period.  However, unlike some orphan drugs, CDCA was not a new product, but was used off-label for the disease in question for a number of years before withdrawal.  

This complaint highlights the competing policies of effective protection and incentivisation of drug development, including for small patient populations, and that of cost containment for health budgets.  Assuming the Dutch Competition Authority agrees to investigate, it will have to grapple with questions as to the appropriate return on an orphan product (bearing in mind the limited patient population which presumably means that fixed costs of producing the drug will have to be allocated at a much higher rate than for non-orphan drugs), and the question of whether the drug’s previous use for treatment of gallstones is comparable to its current use under the orphan designation.  There is no doubt that the prior off label use was more cost effective for treating Dutch patients, but on the other hand the orphan designation should assure the continued availability of the drug in circumstances where it was otherwise withdrawn from the market, and will have involved additional testing to ensure that appropriateness of the treatment.  

Whether these policy tensions are questions that are appropriately answered through the application of competition law is a wider question that will no doubt continue to stimulate discussion and dissent.

Concordia and the CMA – a drama in (at least) three parts

Last week, Concordia International released a management report in which it announced the names of six drugs currently under investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”).  This relates to an investigation into Concordia’s UK activities, which is the third launched by the CMA into Concordia’s business since April 2016, and forms part of a wider inquiry into the UK pharmaceutical sector. 

The investigation was launched in October 2017, and we now know that it involves the following products: 

  • Carbimazole, used to treat hyperthyroidism; 
  • Nitrofurantoin, an antibiotic;
  • Prochlorperazine, used to treat nausea and psychosis;
  • Dicycloverine, a gastrointestinal muscle spasm relaxant;
  • Trazodone, an antidepressant; and 
  • Nefopam, an analgesic. 
According to Concordia, the CMA has confirmed that it will be continuing its investigation into Nitrofurantoin and Prochlorperazine. It is currently assessing whether to continue its investigation into Trazodone, Nefopam and Dicycloverine. This investigation is still at an early stage, unlike a couple of others. 

The other current investigations involving Concordia are an abuse of dominance case about alleged excessive pricing of Concordia’s ‘essential’ thyroid drug, Liothyronine, and a case involving a possible ‘pay-for-delay’ agreement between Concordia and Actavis for hydrocortisone tablets (we previously discussed this here). Both cases have progressed to an advanced stage, with statements of objections having been issued by the CMA, but progress appears to have been delayed, perhaps because of the CAT’s June judgment in the Pfizer/Flynn case, which overturned the CMA’s controversial excessive pricing decision (covered here).

This latest announcement re-emphasises the CMA’s continued interest in the pharmaceutical sector and its eagerness to weed out anticompetitive practices in this industry, including the more novel, sector-specific forms of abuse and collusion such as ‘pay-for-delay’ strategies. It will be interesting to see whether the CMA follows a similar approach in these cases to that taken in other recent pharmaceutical cases, such as Pfizer/Flynn and the Paroxetine (GSK) case (discussed here). We will be keeping a close eye on any developments over the coming months…

Online advertising – Government acknowledges challenges ahead for competition law

We reported a few months ago on the House of Lords Communications Select Committee's report on advertising in the digital age.

The Committee’s report set out the challenges currently facing the UK’s advertising industry in light of factors such as Brexit and the ever-expanding digital economy.  Notably, the Committee called on the CMA and other regulatory bodies to adopt robust standards for online advertising and made several recommendations to the Government of ways to help ensure that digital advertising “is working fairly for businesses and consumers”.

Following on from that report, the Government has now published its response.

What was the Government's response?

The following aspects will be of interest to competition lawyers:

  • The Government acknowledged that the regulatory challenges posed by the online advertising industry are extensive. The Government encourages continued self-regulation of online advertising, but may consider legislating in this area. A White Paper that focuses on online harms will be published later this year, which may shed light on any planned legislation relating to online advertising. 
  • In relation to the lack of transparency in the digital media advertising market, the Government stated that it is keen to gather more evidence on the business models in this market. This will hopefully form part of the Digital Charter's work programme and will be included in the Carincross review into the sustainability of the press (expected early 2019). However, it noted that because the CMA is an independent authority, the Government‘s powers to direct the CMA to undertake an investigation or study are extremely limited. 
  • Despite receiving an increase in funding, it remains unlikely that the CMA will have sufficient resources to fund a wide-ranging market study into digital advertising. This is because the additional £23.6 million funds allocated to the CMA by the Treasury will be going towards preparation for Brexit.  Market studies are cost intensive for the regulator, and many have speculated that they may be a likely casualty of the CMA’s increased enforcement responsibilities. 
  • The Government is to conduct an overall consumer markets review, to be completed by April 2019. As part of this review, the Government will consider how best to ensure the UK's competition framework is effective in responding to challenges presented by digital services.

The response to the Committee’s report indicates that the Government acknowledges the need to gather more evidence and to develop better tools in order to be able to deal with potentially complex competition issues arising in digital ad markets.  It also notes the overall preference for self-regulation (which should allow markets to self-correct), rather than introducing a rigid regulatory framework. However, with the CMA about to take on the burden of cases that would normally be dealt with by the European Commission, it remains to be seen whether the UK will be able to adapt quickly to the particular challenges posed by rapidly evolving digital markets. 

Commission considers pricing algorithms in fining consumer electronics manufacturers for RPM

Last year, we speculated whether the European Commission might target pricing algorithms (here) and noted that the Final Report of the Commission’s E-Commerce Sector Inquiry had identified the wide-scale use of pricing software as an issue that might raise competition concerns (here).

On 24 July 2018, the Commission announced that four consumer electronics manufacturers, including Asus and Pioneer, have been fined a total of over €111 million for imposing fixed or minimum resale prices on their online retailers (here). If the online retailers tried to set lower prices than those requested by the manufacturers, they were threatened with actions such as the withdrawal of supplies of the product in question.  

Interestingly, the Commission noted that the use of pricing algorithms by the online retailers exacerbated the impact of the manufacturers’ conduct. Many retailers were using pricing algorithms to automatically adapt their prices to those of their competitors. So where manufacturers were able to force some online retailers to adopt higher prices than they wished to, this had a broad impact across overall online prices.  It meant that other online retailers would match those higher prices, rather than the lower prices that might otherwise have been introduced.  In essence, this is rather akin to the umbrella price effects arising from many cartel-type agreements between competitors, but is not something that would – in the pre-pricing-algorithm era – have been so possible in the world of distribution agreements.

This isn’t an example of the Commission taking issue with the use of pricing algorithms in their own right. It hasn’t accused the online retailers of using pricing software as a means of coordinating on prices. Nor has it taken aim at the companies producing such software. The Commission did flag the manufacturers’ use of “sophisticated monitoring tools” to track resale prices, which enabled them to intervene quickly if a retailer attempted to decrease its prices, but otherwise pricing algorithms/software were part of the background to the decisions rather than the focus.

This may have been because there is nothing novel in the underlying competition law infringements committed in these cases; they appear to be classic cases of resale price maintenance contrary to Article 101 TFEU – although it is true that the Commission has not enforced against such agreements for a number of years before this announcement. In any event, there is nothing here to alarm companies making use of pricing algorithms or monitoring software, as long as they aren’t using such tools to implement an unlawful strategy.

However, these decisions do show that the Commission is alive to the potential for pricing algorithms and other software tools to be utilised as part of anti-competitive conduct, and such tools may feature more heavily in future Commission decisions. The Commission launched a number of other investigations following the E-Commerce Sector Inquiry (see here and here) into issues such as the licensing and distribution of merchandising products, the geo-blocking of PC video games, and hotel price discrimination on the basis of customer location.  Any decisions adopted following the conclusion of those investigations may offer some further guidance on the use of pricing algorithms.

Pharma stock management - nothing extraordinary in limiting parallel trade?

Pharmaceutical stock management – the brand-owner practice of limiting quantities sold to levels required for the local market in a bid to limit parallel exports – has been a feature of European markets for at least much of the past two decades. 

It was the 2004 Bayer (Adalat) decision of the Court of Justice, coupled with the continued supply obligations in Article 81 of Directive 2001/83 (as amended) which opened up a route for brand owners to effectively limit exports from lower price Member States without risking engaging the prohibition on anti-competitive agreements for limiting parallel trade.  That route essentially rested on unilateral conduct by the brand owner – but as such left open the risk of abuse of dominance rules applying.  As pharma markets are often narrowly drawn by competition regulators, this remained a significant concern.

It was another year before the first case raising the question of how Article 102 applied to stock management came before the Courts (Syfait, 2005).  That case was a referral to the CJEU from the Greek Competition Commission – but the request was stymied by a procedural point, and the Court declined to respond to the request for a preliminary ruling.  It was another few years before the same case came back before the CJEU.  This time the CJEU endorsed the benefits to consumers from parallel trade, and clarified that it may be an abuse of a dominant position for a pharmaceutical manufacturer to refuse to meet ‘ordinary orders’ from existing customers (Lelos, 2008).

Surprisingly, it took 10 years before the next development in the saga, when the Hellenic Competition Commission (“HCC”) found that GlaxoSmithKline (“GSK”) had abused a position of dominance in the market for migraine medicines in Greece by refusing to fulfil any orders in their entirety of Imigran and by refusing to meet ‘ordinary orders’ from wholesalers.  As a result, the HCC fined GSK a total of just over €4 million.  In reaching that decision, the HCC clarified that orders from wholesalers which were out of all proportion to a previous order history, could legitimately be refused as being of an ‘extraordinary’ character.  Assessing whether an order was ‘ordinary’ within the meaning set out in Lelos required a review against the annual size of previous orders and supplies per wholesaler, total national consumption per year and the pattern of previous business relations between the pharmaceutical manufacturer and the wholesaler in question.  Despite its findings on abuse, the HCC indicated that orders of significant quantities of products intended primarily for the parallel export market are likely to qualify as ‘extraordinary’, and rejected other parts of the complaints against GSK on that basis.

It seems that stock management issues in general may once again be an area of particular focus for regulators – it is interesting to note that in its case opening report initiating formal antitrust proceedings against Aspen Pharmacare, the Commission cites stock management alongside unfair and excessive prices.  Whatever the outcome of that case, it is clear that even a dominant firm can legitimately refuse orders that are ‘extraordinary’, but in doing so, the manufacturer must be able to justify this decision by reference to national market requirements and previous business relations with the wholesaler in question.

Coty gets green light for online platform ban

The Higher Regional Court of Frankfurt ruled last Thursday that Coty Germany’s ban on distributors selling products over the Amazon.de platform is a justifiable restriction of online sales. The full judgment has not yet been released, but the court has published a statement (in German) summarising the decision. 

This ruling follows the decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union (‘CJEU’) at the end of last year in a preliminary reference arising from the dispute (see here). The CJEU ruled the restriction of sales through third party platforms such as Amazon is not a hardcore restriction of competition, and may be justified where it has the objective of preserving an ‘aura of luxury’ that is linked to the quality of the goods. However, the CJEU stated that it was for the national courts to decide whether such restrictions are justifiable and proportionate, on a case-by-case basis.

Following the CJEU’s reasoning, the Frankfurt court found that the selective distribution system implemented by perfume supplier Coty, including the ban on sales over third party platforms such as Amazon.de, was compatible with competition law because it was based on objective qualitative criteria applied uniformly and without discrimination, and because it did not go beyond what was necessary to preserve the luxury image of the goods. It also confirmed that the specific clause banning the advertising and selling of Coty products via Amazon.de was proportionate to the objective of preserving the quality of these luxury products. The Frankfurt court therefore concluded that Coty’s selective distribution did not infringe EU competition law. 

The findings of the Frankfurt court are not surprising given the strong steer given by the CJEU in the reference proceedings. However, we will be reading the full judgment closely when it’s available, to see if there is any indication that the German courts support the view of the German Competition Authority, the Bundeskartellamt, that the CJEU’s decision should be limited to genuinely prestigious products or whether it can be applied more widely...