High Court rejects application to discharge CMA search warrant

In its judgment yesterday, the High Court rejected an application by Concordia to have a CMA search warrant discharged in relation to two specific drugs (Carbimazole and Hydrocortisone).

Background

The CMA was granted warrants under section 28(1)(b) of the Competition Act 1998 by Mann J on 5 October 2017 following a without notice and private application.  The warrant applied to documents relating to an ongoing CMA investigation into alleged anti-competitive behaviour in respect of a number of pharmaceutical drugs.  The legislation itself provides that the CMA should be granted warrants where it suspects that relevant material might be otherwise concealed or destroyed.  Unusually, the CMA was seeking a warrant despite the fact that Concordia had been subject to, and was cooperating in, an ongoing investigation in respect of both Carbimazole and Hydrocortisone for some 18 months as at the date of the warrant and that Concordia had responded to numerous section 26 notices during this time.  When granting the warrant, Mann J stated that he was satisfied that the application was focussed on “different types of abuse”.  The fact that Concordia would have been on notice from the first formal section 26 request and therefore had already had ample time to destroy or conceal evidence was not sufficient to conclude that no such documents existed on Concordia’s premises.

The warrants themselves were executed on 10 October 2017 and Concordia applied to have the warrant discharged in respect of Carbimazole and Hydrocortisone on the same day.  The reasons given were that there could be no basis for the CMA to conclude that there was a risk that relevant documents would be concealed or destroyed as Concordia had been co-operating fully with the CMA in its ongoing investigation, a fact that had not been raised before Mann J.  Further, the CMA had sought to widen the investigation by suggesting that it was investigating other potential abuses, whereas in fact the CMA had only ever been investigating one particular alleged abuse (i.e. market sharing).

In the interim, the Court of Appeal had given its judgment that in hearing the main application to vary, the High Court must be able to review all relevant materials including any that are subject to public interest immunity. The Court of Appeal also stated that the appropriate time for the court to form a definitive view on what material is subject to public interest immunity (and therefore should be withheld from Concordia) is when the application to vary is made.  On 12 December 2018, having heard arguments from the CMA in a closed hearing, the High Court held that the majority of the CMA’s requests for public immunity interest redactions were properly made and could not (consistent with the Court of Appeal’s view) be disclosed to Concordia, whether into a confidentiality ring or otherwise.

The Judgment 

Finding that Concordia’s application must fail, Marcus Smith J stated that this was primarily as a result of reviewing the material that was properly protected by public interest immunity (and which therefore had not been made available to Concordia).  This material made clear that the focus of the CMA’s ongoing investigation had shifted and that the scope of the document retrieval methodology was no longer appropriate in view of the type of documents and the range of custodians at issue.  In particular, the CMA had taken the view that whilst it was co-operating, Concordia’s response was incomplete and that there remained relevant material within Concordia that would not be caught by the proposed methodology.

Turning to the question of whether the CMA was indeed investigating a different abuse to that it had been following in the course of the ongoing investigation, Marcus Smith J stated his belief that Mann J was not using the term “in a technical way”.  Rather, the term was used to describe the reasonable suspicion raised by the CMA that Concordia may have deliberately framed its search methodology with a view to ensuring that relevant materials were omitted.  If that were the case, then it was reasonable for the CMA to also conclude that a further, targeted section 26 notice might well lead to concealment or destruction of relevant material.

Comment

It remains to be seen whether the CMA will seek to make more use of its section 28 powers to investigate under a warrant without notice. Historically, the CMA has preferred either to proceed under section 26 (on notice information requests) or by using its section 27 powers which enables the CMA to conduct unannounced visits without a warrant. The main practical difference for a company facing a section 28 investigation rather than a section 27 is that in the former the CMA has the power to conduct its search itself, whereas under section 27 the CMA must ask for relevant information to be brought to it.  It is certainly the case that the facts were unusual, particularly given that the decision to seek a warrant was taken despite the ongoing investigation and the fact that Concordia had been co-operating.  It also remains to be seen how the CMA will deal with its reasonable suspicion that Concordia might continue to conceal or destroy relevant materials in the context of any eventual infringement decision. 

Canal+ finds copyright is no match for the EU single market

The EU General Court (GC) has rejected an appeal brought by Groupe Canal+ (a French pay-TV broadcaster) against commitments proposed by Paramount, and accepted by the Commission, to address competition concerns related to cross-border access to pay-TV content (see here – only available in French). 

The GC found that: (i) the commitments proposed by Paramount addressed the Commission’s competition concerns in relation to its content distribution licence with Sky UK; and (ii) that the competition-infringing provisions could not be justified on the basis of copyright protection.

The key competition law issue arose from provisions in the Paramount/Sky UK licence which guaranteed Sky UK absolute territorial exclusivity in the UK and also prevented Sky UK from making its pay-TV services available to consumers in other parts of the EEA in response to unsolicited requests (i.e. a restriction of “passive sales”, the bête noire of competition law).

Background 

In 2014 the Commission began investigating certain clauses in licensing agreements between the six major Hollywood studios (Paramount Pictures, Disney, NBCUniversal, Sony, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros) and pay-TV broadcasters which prohibited the broadcasters from providing content via satellite or online streaming outside their specific EEA member states.

In 2015 the Commission sent a statement of objection to Sky UK and the six Hollywood major studios which considered that bilateral licences that prevented Sky UK from offering access to its pay-TV services to EEA customers outside the UK and Ireland breached competition law (see here). 

In 2016 Paramount gave commitments to the Commission in order to close the investigation.  Paramount committed to stop using clauses preventing broadcasters from responding to unsolicited requests from consumers based elsewhere in the EEA and agreed not to enforce any existing restrictions. These commitments were accepted by the Commission on the basis that they would last for five years (see here).  The Commission Decision accepting the commitments laid out the basis for the infringement; however, as is typical for the commitments process, it did so rather briefly.

Canal+ also had a contract with Paramount and appealed the commitments decision before the GC on the basis that: (i) territorial exclusivity is essential for the production of European cinema, which is mainly financed by TV channels; and (ii) territorial exclusivity is necessary to protect intellectual property rights.

The GC’s findings 

The GC rejected the Canal+ appeal in its entirety. 

It considered that the Commission’s commitments decision established competition concerns under Article 101(1) TFEU and that these were sufficiently addressed by the Decision.  The GC noted that the commitments did not prohibit the granting of exclusive broadcast licences to pay-TV broadcasters; rather, it prohibited only absolute territorial exclusivity.

The GC rejected the argument that territorial exclusivity is necessary to protect intellectual property rights. In particular, it found that copyright owners are free to demand a premium in exchange for a pan-EEA licence. However, if a premium is paid to guarantee absolute territorial exclusivity this is irreconcilable with the imperative of the EU single market. 

Arguments that the relevant clauses promote cultural production and diversity and that their abolition would endanger the cultural production of the EU were also rejected.

Finally, the GC rejected the Canal+ argument that the commitments violate the interests of third parties (such as Canal+) as third parties could still sue Paramount for breach of contract.

Comment

The case is a further illustration of the Commission’s determination to tackle measures that undermine the EU single market, such as absolute territorial protection. Consequently, the use of copyright arguments to justify partitioning the single market will be given short shrift. 

The approach of the GC may also encourage the Commission to press ahead with the pending case against the remainder of the Hollywood studios – despite evidence of considerable concerns (including among politicians) about the impact of any decision on the economics of European TV/cinema.

Having said that, it is unclear what the actual impact of the commitments given by Paramount will be: given the national nature of copyright, anything other than a pan-EU licence will leave the broadcaster exposed to the risk of infringement proceedings if it sells into countries not covered by the licence. 

Brexit and Competition Law: CMA publishes guidance on its role in a “no-deal” scenario

On 29 October 2018, the government laid ‘The Competition (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019’ (the Competition SI) before Parliament. The Competition SI makes provision for the transition to a standalone UK competition regime after exiting the UK in a ‘no-deal’ scenario. The next day (30 October) the CMA published two notices, one on mergers and one on antitrust cases setting out the way it intends to proceed in the event of a ‘no deal’ scenario based on the Competition SI. These notices follow guidance published in September 2018 by Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on merger review and anti-competitive activity in a “no-deal” Brexit scenario. 

Mergers

Whether the UK leaves the EU with or without a negotiated agreement, it is inevitable that the CMA will have to take on some of the burden of merger reviews from the European Commission. The CMA has now clarified that in a no-deal scenario, the CMA will have jurisdiction to review the UK aspects of mergers that are still being reviewed by the Commission on 29 March 2019, provided that the usual merger control thresholds are met, i.e. if the CMA has reasonable grounds to suspect that the transaction may give rise to a relevant merger situation. 

Any company engaged in a merger to which this is likely to apply to should discuss the possible ramifications with the CMA at an early stage in the transaction, particularly where the merger is likely to give rise to UK competition issues. The CMA may then suggest to such companies that they enter into pre-notification discussions with the CMA in parallel with any EU review. The CMA has been monitoring non-notified merger cases that may fall into this category, and will continue to do so in the lead up to the withdrawal date. 

The UK will have no jurisdiction over mergers that have been reviewed by the Commission and where a decision has been published before 29 March, unless the decision is subsequently annulled. Provided the Commission has not issued a decision on or before 29 March, the CMA will no longer be excluded by the EU Merger Regulation from taking jurisdiction over the UK aspects of the merger and the provisions of the Enterprise Act 2002 will therefore apply. 

For mergers referred to the CMA by the Commission before the withdrawal date, the CMA’s usual processes will apply. 

Antitrust

Following the UK’s exit from the EU, the CMA will no longer have jurisdiction to apply Article 101 TFEU on anti-competitive agreements and Article 102 TFEU on abuse of dominance. The CMA’s jurisdiction will extend only to applying the equivalent UK national prohibitions in the Competition Act 1998 (Chapter I and Chapter II). 

The CMA’s guidance notes that section 60 of the Competition Act 1998, requiring the CMA and UK courts to interpret UK competition prohibitions consistently with CJEU decisions and principles, will no longer apply under the Competition SI (including to cases already opened on or before 29 March 2019). A new provision, section 60A, will apply instead. This provision will oblige the UK competition enforcers and courts to ensure there is no inconsistency with the pre-exit EU competition case law, however they will have the power to depart from the EU case law where they “consider [it] appropriate in the light of particular circumstances”. 

On exit, the CMA may conduct investigations into breaches of the domestic prohibitions before or after exit day, including cases where the CMA was relieved of its competence by the European Commission. However the CMA will not be able to open investigations, where before exit, the Commission reached an infringement decision that has not been subsequently annulled. 

Seven EU Block exemption regulations will be retained in EU law in amended form. In practice this means that agreements that met the criteria of these block exemption regulations remain exempt from the UK provisions.

The relevant block exemption regulations are:
  • Liner shipping regulation (expiring 30 April 2020)
  • Transport regulation
  • Vertical agreements regulation (expiring 31 May 2022)
  • Motor vehicle distribution regulation (expiring 31 May 202)
  • Research and development regulation (expiring 31 December 2022)
  • Specialisation agreement regulation (expiring 31 December 2022)
  • Technology transfer regulation (expiring 30 April 2026)

The power to amend or revoke the block exemptions is transferred to the Secretary of State under the Competition SI. The CMA expects to consult on the block exemptions as they expire in order to advise the Secretary of State. 

The CMA’s antitrust notice added that following a no deal Brexit, any existing or potential applicant for leniency under the Commission’s leniency programme in respect of conduct also covered by the CMA’s leniency programme should make a separate application for leniency to the CMA. 

While these notices give some initial guidance on the CMA’s approach, it is hoped that the CMA will publish further advice for the benefit of companies that are likely to be affected, particularly if the prospect of a no-deal Brexit becomes more likely. Indeed it is highlighted in the notices, that the CMA shall keep under review the necessity of further guidance or updates and shall add to the notices as appropriate.

Polish Plant Protection Products: CJEU confirms Commission was right to reject investigation

In its judgment of earlier this year, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) upheld a decision of the European Commission to reject a case involving distributors and manufacturers of plant protection products (PPPs) on the grounds of insufficient EU interest. 

Facts

The facts in the case date back to the 2000s, when Agria Polska, a Polish company involved in the parallel importation of PPPs, claims it was subjected to a coordinated series of wrongful allegations which sought to impugn the legality of its PPPs.  Agria Polska characterised the statements made against it by its competitors (including DuPont, BASF and others) to national authorities and courts as “false” or “misleading”, and the resulting inspections and court cases as “vexatious proceedings” within the meaning of ITT Promedia v Commission.  

In 2010, it lodged a complaint with the European Commission, alleging that the entities referred to in the complaint, had engaged in practices that amounted to infringements of Articles 101 and 102 TFEU. The allegation encompassed the use of customs control procedures which the competitors used to seek to block the import of Agria Polska’s products into Poland.

The Commission declined to open an investigation, finding that that there was insufficient evidence in support of the complaint, and that the resources necessary for the investigation would be disproportionate in view of the limited likelihood of establishing the existence of an infringement. 

Agria Polska’s appeals

Agria Polska appealed the Commission’s refusal to open an investigation, seeking an annulment of the Commission’s decision on procedural and substantive grounds, also alleging that the Commission infringed its right to effective judicial protection under Article 13 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The General Court (GC) rejected the appeal, finding that the Commission had not committed a manifest error of assessment when it declined to open the investigation. 

On a further appeal, in which judgment was given in September 2018, the CJEU upheld this finding.  According to the CJEU, the entities referred to in the complaint were entitled to inform national authorities of the alleged IP infringements committed by Agria Polska, and to cooperate with the authorities carrying out investigations into Agria Polska. The Court cited the Commission’s viewpoint that the principles on vexatious litigation drawn from ITT Promedia and on the provision of misleading statements from AstraZeneca were not intended to apply to situations in which undertakings informed the national authorities of allegedly unlawful conduct or actions by other undertakings.  The CJEU noted in particular that the administrative and judicial authorities involved in those cases “had no discretion as to whether or not it was appropriate to act on the applications made by those undertakings”; this was contrasted with the position of the relevant Polish authorities involved in the complaints lodged by Agria Polska’s competitors which were able to take decisions on the merits.   

The CJEU therefore upheld the GC’s judgment, declining to annul the Commission’s decision. The CJEU noted that “…it is for the Member States to provide remedies sufficient to ensure effective judicial protection for individual parties in the fields covered by EU law”, and that it is not the Commission’s responsibility to plug gaps in judicial protection left by national courts by opening an investigation where the likelihood of finding an infringement of Articles 101 and/or 102 is low.

Impact

As human rights and competition law continue to brush against each other in the EU courts, it is noteworthy that the CJEU was not convinced by Agria Polska’s arguments. The courts have established that a complainant does not have a fundamental right to a full Commission investigation, particularly in cases where it would not be in the interest of the EU to launch an investigation. 

The CJEU’s approach in Agria Polska also demonstrates the high hurdle that represented by the ITT Promedia line of cases.  It seems that it is particularly difficult to justify an investigation into “vexatious proceedings”; as previous case law has established, recourse to legal action will be considered abusive only in exceptional circumstances.  In the opinion of the authors, the case arguably overstates the distinction between the lack of discretion supposedly held by regulatory and patent authorities in AstraZeneca with the position in this case.  Such authorities are well able, and routinely do, ask questions and seek more information from applicants for patents or marketing authorisations.  Conversely, it understates the impact of multiple litigation proceedings on an undertaking whose competitors are undoubtedly better funded than it.  (There is no doubt either that the parallel trade carried out by Agria Polska represented a disruptive influence on the market, which the competitors would have had an interest in hindering.)  It cannot be excluded a different case could be pursued in future, if, for example, the foreclosure effects were clearer.  Indeed, the case must be seen for what it is – namely, an appeal against a Commission decision not to investigate.  Given the implications for public resources, it is unsurprising that such cases are only rarely overturned.

Case C-37/17 P Agria Polska v Commission, judgment of 20 September 2018.

CLIP of the month: Does orphan drug pricing pose an antitrust problem?

In the USA, a rare or orphan disease is defined as affecting fewer than 200,000 people and more than 7,000 rare diseases have been identified to date. The EU adopts a similar definition and identifies the existence of a similar number of rare diseases (see here). 

Pharmaceutical companies are often reluctant to fund R&D for orphan diseases. As they affect so few people, there is no guarantee that successfully developed orphan drugs will be profitable. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America estimates that 95% of rare diseases do not have approved treatments (see here).

Both the US and EU have therefore sought to incentivise companies to develop orphan drugs. For example, in the US, the Orphan Drugs Act 1983 provides tax credits for clinical research into rare diseases, and the EU’s Horizon 2020 scheme provides funding of around €900 million for collaborative projects related to rare diseases.

Although more than 600 orphan drugs and biological products have now been approved in the US, they are still scarce, and often come with a high price attached. Given the relative lack of competition in this area, it’s no surprise that antitrust concerns have been raised about the potential for excessive prices to be charged.

This month’s CLIP examines antitrust enforcement actions involving orphan drugs in the US. It concludes that there has not been a special focus on orphan drug pricing compared to any other drugs. 

From the European perspective, we’ve noted the attempt by the Dutch foundation for ‘pharmaceutical accountability’ to secure an investigation into orphan drug pricing in the Netherlands (here).  As long ago as 2003, the OFT (as it then was) issued an abuse of dominance decision against Genzyme, in relation to a margin squeeze involving a treatment for an orphan indication. More recently, the question of excessive pricing in the pharmaceutical sector has been a focus across Europe.  The UK’s CMA and CAT looked at it in Pfizer/Flynn (see here), and the European Commission is investigating Aspen Pharma for its pricing practices for cancer medicines (here). 

In this current climate, whether it’s an orphan drug or any other potentially dominant product, pharmaceutical companies need to be prepared to justify their prices in case one of the competition regulators does come calling. 

Amazon Marketplace seems to be the Commission’s next big data antitrust target

Following up on our recent post about the big data concerns assessed by the Commission in the Apple/Shazam merger (here), the news that the Commission has opened a preliminary investigation into Amazon’s use of third-party merchant data on its Marketplace platform is another sign of the Commission’s continued focus on data in all its guises.

The investigation is reportedly based upon complaints received by the Commission, as well as behaviour observed during the e-commerce sector inquiry (see Commissioner Vestager’s announcement here). Although the investigation is still in a preliminary, information-gathering stage, the Commission is examining platforms like Amazon Marketplace where the platform both hosts smaller merchants and acts as a merchant itself. The Commission is considering whether competition concerns arise if the platform is able to collect sensitive data about products sold through a marketplace and then to make use of that data to boost its own sales. As part of the probe, the Commission has issued Requests for Information to online retailers that use Amazon Marketplace (see here).    

Viewed in a broader context, the reason why the UK has set up an independent panel to examine digital competition (which met for the first time recently – here) is to try and get ahead of these sorts of issues that arise as the e-commerce sector continues to grow. The terms of reference for the panel include questions such as ‘what effect can the accumulation and concentration of data within a small number of big firms be expected to have on competition?’.

Whilst it can be appreciated that marketplace platforms offer great exposure for small businesses that might otherwise struggle to gain access to buyers, they typically pay either a listing fee, commission, or monthly fee to the platforms for that privilege. In addition to receiving this compensation, the platform is in the advantageous position of being able to examine the sales of thousands of small businesses to determine which kinds of products sell well, and which don’t. It seems plausible that by using this data, the platform could increase its share of sales for the most profitable or most popular products by developing its own brand business. And if the sales of small business are at risk of being cannibalised by a platform in this manner, then it is clear that competition concerns may arise as small sellers struggle to compete with the platform’s own brand.

Although the use of data by a platform in this manner is a relatively novel concern, it echoes concerns raised by suppliers of brands in the consumer goods sector.  Most supermarkets these days have their own private label ranges, making them competitors to, as well as the retailers for, branded goods. They are similarly in the relatively privileged position of being able to make use of sales data of competitors to support their own offering.  It will be interesting to see whether this so-called ‘gatekeeper’ issue will be something the CMA considers as part of its investigation of the Sainsbury’s/Asda merger, which was referred to a phase II investigation on 19 September 2018 (here).

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.

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…

The chips are down! The Commission fines Qualcomm for abuse of dominance

The Commission has fined Qualcomm €997 million for abuse of dominance. The Commission found that Qualcomm had paid Apple to use only Qualcomm LTE baseband chips in its smartphones and tablet devices (see here) and that this was exclusionary and anti-competitive. 

Commissioner Vestager has said Qualcomm “denied consumers and other companies more choice and innovation – and this in a sector with a huge demand and potential for innovative technologies”, as “no rival could effectively challenge Qualcomm in this market, no matter how good their products were.

LTE baseband chips enable portable devices to connect to mobile networks. The Commission considers Qualcomm to have had a market share of over 90% between 2011 and 2016 (the period of the infringement). 
 
The Decision centres on an agreement between Qualcomm and Apple in force from 2011 to 2016 under which Qualcomm agreed to make significant payments to Apple. The payments were conditional on Apple not using chips supplied by Qualcomm’s rivals, such as Intel, in Apple’s mobile devices. Equally, Apple would be required to return a large part of Qualcomm’s previous payments if it decided to switch chip suppliers. The Commission also identifies Qualcomm’s IP rights as contributing to the significant barriers to entry in the chip market, reinforcing Qualcomm’s dominance.

The Qualcomm Decision is similar to the Commission’s 2009 Decision to fine Intel €1.06 billion for giving rebates to major customers in return for them exclusively stocking computers with Intel chips – a decision recently remitted by the CJEU to the General Court for further consideration of the ‘as efficient’ competitor analysis (see here and here). 

Applying the CJEU’s reasoning in Intel, Qualcomm sought to justify its rebate arrangements with Apple on the basis of the ‘as efficient competitor test’. However this attempt was rejected by the Commission as there were “serious problems” with Qualcomm’s evidence (see here).

Separately, Apple has also argued that Qualcomm’s dominance may be reinforced by its strategy for licensing its standard essential patents (SEPs) to competing chip manufacturers. Apple is bringing cases against Qualcomm around the world, alleging that it has engaged in “exclusionary tactics and excessive royalties”. In litigation launched in the English Patent Court in 2017, Apple alleges that Qualcomm is unwilling to license its SEPs to competing chip manufacturers, offering only patent non-assert agreements (see here) which could have a foreclosing effect on other chip manufacturers. (We understand that this case is subject to a jurisdiction challenge, due to be heard in the coming months.)

Qualcomm’s patent licensing arrangements are described (by Apple in its pleadings) in the diagram below:

The Qualcomm Decision reiterates the aggressive approach adopted by the Commission to policing rebates given by dominant companies and potential foreclosure effects. Following the Qualcomm Decision, Commissioner Vestager said “[t]he issue for us isn't the rebate itself. We obviously don't object to companies cutting prices. But these rebates can be the price of an exclusive relationship – the price of keeping rivals out of the market and losing the rebate can be the threat that makes that exclusivity stick” (see here). 
 
As litigation and antitrust clouds swirl around Qualcomm’s business model, in a separate case filed in the Northern District of California in 2017, the US Federal Trade Commission has similarly alleged that Qualcomm is using anti-competitive tactics to maintain its monopoly of baseband chips and has rejected requests for SEP licenses from Intel, Samsung and others (see here and here).

In parallel, competition authorities in China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have fined the company a total of $2.6 billion in relation to its SEP licensing policies and pricing (see here).

In summary, while the EU Commission fine is significant, and interesting for competition lawyers as it perhaps suggests that the significance of the Intel CJEU judgment may be more limited than anticipated, it is only part of the overall picture for Qualcomm (and for the sector as a whole). Indeed, even with today’s decision, the Commission has not brought its interest in Qualcomm to an end, as it is still investigating a separate predatory pricing complaint which was filed in 2015.  

The cumulative impact of these legal issues (as well as Qualcomm’s rejection of Broadcom’s takeover bid) may have contributed to a fall in Qualcomm’s share price – although Qualcomm had better news from DG Comp recently when its proposed acquisition of NXP was cleared by Brussels on 18 January (see here and here).

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.