Collusion in the online economy – new competition law traps for the unwary?

We reported last year on the Eturas decision, in which the Court of Justice ruled that technical measures applied on an online platform gave rise to a potentially anti-competitive agreement.  The Lithuanian Court which had referred the matter to the CJEU then went on to consider liability, based on the participants’ knowledge of the relevant facts (for a review of this decision, see here).

But the risks posed by agreements over platform T&Cs are not the only thing for companies to be aware of.

The European Commission is now carrying out active enforcement in relation to geo-blocking, which can be achieved primarily through technical measures.  The Steam video games investigation is looking in particular at whether anti-piracy measures have an anti-competitive effect. 

Meanwhile, the CMA last autumn issued a statement noting another practice potentially raising antitrust concerns.  This concerned agreements restricting the use of paid online search advertising (e.g. through use of Google AdWords).  The CMA suggested that restrictions on bidding for particular ad terms, or on negative matching (identifying terms for which ads should not be shown) may infringe the competition rules.  It appears that the CMA sees this in terms of potential effects on competition, rather than as a new form of object restriction, with the CMA stating that the practices are particularly likely to be problematic “where one or more similar agreements include parties that collectively represent a material share of the relevant markets and, in the context of brand bidding restrictions, as a result of negative matching obligations in relation to brand terms which an advertiser would not negatively match but for the agreement”.   It should therefore not be assumed that such a provision would in fact be restrictive of competition – but it is something which bears watching.  Indeed, the CMA is not the only competition authority to have lighted on this issue – a similar point is under investigation in the United States, where the FTC accuses 1-800 Contacts of “orchestrating a web of anticompetitive agreements with rival online contact lens sellers that suppress competition in certain online search advertising auctions”.

In conjunction with this statement, the CMA also announced a market study into digital comparison tools; it described the study as an opportunity to explore the nature of competition between price comparison websites and their relationship with service providers.  This may lead to further issues in this area; in the meantime, judgment in the Coty case, which considers contractual prohibitions on the use of certain online sales channels, such as price comparison websites, is due from the CJEU in the near future.

And then there’s the risk of good ol’-fashioned collusion, with a modern twist.  One thing that comes to mind is the new attention on the significance of privacy conditions for consumers.  Now that these are recognised as a parameter of competition (see here, for example), is there a risk that exchanging information about planned changes to privacy conditions / other online trading T&Cs, or actually agreeing a common strategy for these could amount to a breach of Article 101 or its national equivalents?   Or that an agreement between separate companies to adopt a common practice on such terms (in particular if it results in less protection for consumers) could amount to active collusion?  These are open questions for now, but companies should remember that – while benchmarking is often sensible – they should ultimately take their own decisions, and keep their own counsel, about such matters.

Coincidentally, the consumer arm of the CMA has just closed an investigation into the online terms and conditions of cloud service providers following changes agreed by a number of companies.  The closure statement notes that “the CMA remains interested in unfair terms and conditions, particularly in the digital economy”.  It should not be assumed that this interest is limited only to the parts of the CMA responsible for enforcement of consumer laws… 

A decision of Paramount importance to independent film financing…?

In the latest instalment of the pay-TV saga, the French pay-TV operator Canal Plus has asked EU judges to overturn a commitments decision agreed earlier this year between Paramount and the European Commission.  Those commitments (on which we reported here) ended Paramount’s involvement in the Commission’s antitrust investigation into the distribution arrangements between Sky UK and the six Hollywood film Studios, with no infringement finding or fine. 

The Commission’s investigation into Disney, NBCUniversal, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros remains ongoing.  In the background is the Commission’s Digital Single Market Strategy which aims to break down barriers preventing cross-border E-commerce.

What has been agreed with Paramount? 

Paramount has agreed to remove restrictions on customers trying to access content from another EU country.  In practice, this means it will no longer insert “geoblocking” obligations in its licensing contracts with EU broadcasters. 

As we previously commented, the Commission considered that the Studios bilaterally agreed restrictions with Sky UK that prevented it from both making active sales in to other EU territories and from accepting passive sales requests. 

These restrictions effectively granted Sky UK ‘absolute territorial exclusivity’ in the UK and Ireland, eliminating cross-border competition between Sky and other pay-TV broadcasters in other Member States.

Why is Canal Plus appealing?

Canal Plus wants the General Court to annul the Paramount settlement, as – in common with other EU broadcasters – it considers that the terms agreed with the Commission risk undermining the EU system of film financing which relies on broadcasters being able to use different pricing and release strategies for different EU counties.  

The appeal seems likely to face an uphill struggle; the General Court has only recently underlined the high hurdle for a successful appeal against a commitments decision in its Morningstar judgment.  Nevertheless, the Commission appears to be seeking to understand (or at least to address) this issue – it is understood to have requested further information from Sky and the remaining Hollywood Studios about the potential impact of a decision on the financing of independent films. 

Last thoughts 

Sky has also been in the news of late in relation to the recent bid by Twentieth Century Fox for the 61% of Sky that it does not already own.  If cleared, Sky’s future distribution arrangements with the film arm of Twentieth Century Fox are likely to fall outside of any future competition remedy imposed by the Commission in the Hollywood Studios investigation. Once their production and distribution businesses are vertically integrated, the rules on anti-competitive agreements will no longer apply, as there will no longer be any agreement between separate undertakings. 

Case T-873/16 Groupe Canal + v Commission

Premier League scores in latest dispute with pub broadcasting football matches

The ever-increasing amount of money tied up in TV deals for Premier League football perhaps makes it unsurprising that The Football Association Premier League (“FAPL”) has been willing to litigate on a number of occasions against publicans using foreign satellite services to show football matches in pubs.

Following the CJEU’s decision in the joined cases FAPL v QC Leisure and Murphy (C-403/08 and C-429/08) and the subsequent High Court decision in FAPL v QC Leisure (here) the law in this area is relatively settled. Although FAPL can grant rights on a territorial basis, exclusive licences preventing the supply of foreign satellite decoder cards into other Member States are unlawful. Despite this, the FAPL on-screen graphics and logos incorporated into the live feeds of football matches are copyright protected works. FAPL is therefore able to bring actions for copyright infringement for any unauthorised uses of these. The success of such actions will depend on the terms of the agreement that a decoder card is supplied under.

As an aside, it may be possible for pubs to avoid infringement claims by only switching the screens on at kick-off, and attempting to cover up any FAPL logos and graphics. This would be challenging in practice however, given the frequency in which graphics pop up throughout the matches (for example when a player is booked or a replay is shown).

FAPL v Luxton

The Court of Appeal has recently added to the relevant pool of judicial opinion by rejecting an appeal by Mr Luxton, the proprietor of a pub in Swansea, against the summary judgment granted in favour of FAPL by the High Court in January 2014. Mr Luxton had used a domestic satellite decoder card originally sold by a Danish broadcaster to show Swansea City matches following Swansea’s promotion to the Premier League.  Mrs Justice Rose held that by using a domestic satellite decoder card rather than a commercial one, Mr Luxton was using FAPL’s copyright works without its consent. 

Mr Luxton raised two EU law defences which have now been considered by the Court of Appeal (see here).

The two defences raised

  1. That the proceedings brought by FAPL were an illicit attempt to prevent Mr Luxton from using a foreign decoder card, isolating the UK market from the continental market in breach of Articles 101 and/or 56 TFEU.
  2. The (alleged) illegal arrangements between FAPL and its exclusive licensees in Europe had prevented Mr Luxton from obtaining a commercial foreign card; FAPL should therefore be prevented from exercising its copyright in respect of the domestic foreign card.
The Court of Appeal’s decision

Floyd LJ gave the leading judgment, disposing of both defences relatively quickly. On the first, he noted that in bringing the action, FAPL was relying on the right of a copyright owner to prevent the unauthorised communication to the public of copyrighted works. This right could also be enforced against a person in the UK who used a domestic card issued by FAPL’s UK licensee (Sky) for commercial purposes. The fact that Mr Luxton was using a foreign domestic card did not make any difference; FAPL’s right was not one that depended on the use of the card in a particular territory. Enforcement of the right could not therefore be capable of reinforcing allegedly unlawful agreements to partition the market.  

Regarding the second defence, the judge did not consider Mr Luxton’s use of the domestic card to be a consequence of FAPL’s agreements and practices. Even if the effect of those practices was to starve the market of foreign commercial cards - that did not make the use of foreign domestic cards a natural consequence of FAPL’s actions. Though Mr Luxton thought he had purchased a commercial card rather than a domestic one, this could not change the outcome, as if his argument was correct a publican who deliberately sought out a foreign domestic card would be in the same position.
 
Comments on ‘Euro-defences’

The decision provided some interesting commentary on the overlap between IP and EU/competition law, noting that it “has long been recognised that in some circumstances an intellectual property right may become unenforceable because what lies behind it is an attempt to divide up the market in the EU contrary to the provisions on free movement”. A breach of the Treaty isn’t enough – there must be a sufficient connection between the exercise of the right and the unlawful agreement in question.

Floyd LJ cited Lord Sumption’s warning in Oracle that this sort of ‘Euro-defence’ “must be scrutinised with some care” due to the risk of litigation devaluing intellectual property rights by increasing the cost and delay associated with their enforcement. In that case of course, the Euro-defence was rejected on the grounds that the unlawful conduct relied on was collateral to the particular rights which the claimant was seeking to enforce.

Scope for Commission activity?

A further point of note is that the evidence adduced in this case showed the difficulty of actually obtaining a foreign commercial card.  FAPL accepted that there is an arguable case that foreign broadcasters are still behaving as if they are bound not to provide commercial cards outside their national territories, and that if Mr Luxton had used a commercial card, he would have had an arguable defence that it authorised him to communicate the copyright works to the public in the UK. (Whether this defence would succeed may be the subject of further litigation in the future). 

Cross-border access to digital services is a central part of the Commission’s Digital Single Market Strategy and this is evidently an area in which the Commission is willing to take action – see our thoughts on the Commission’s investigation into Paramount’s pay-TV licensing practices here. This is certainly a space worth keeping an eye on in the future, as if it continues to prove difficult to obtain foreign commercial cards, thereby defeating attempts to deliver digital services across borders, there may be grounds for action by the Commission.

The privacy & competition law overlap: new competition rules on big data?

A few days ago, we reported on the European Data Protection Supervisor’s (EDPS) Opinion on coherent enforcement of fundamental rights in the age of big data (see our post here, and the Opinion here). 

On Thursday 29 September, at a Conference organised by the EDPS and BEUC, Commissioner Vestager gave a speech on Big Data and Competition in which she echoed some of the points raised by the EDPS (see here).

She confirmed that the Commission is “exploring whether we need to start looking at mergers with valuable data involved, even though the company that owns it doesn’t have a large turnover” (because, for example, it has not yet managed to monetise its data). 

Noting that “the competition rules weren’t written with big data in mind”, she also stated that the Commission is conducting an impact assessment on whether national competition authorities need new powers to deal with big data, and hinted that a proposal for new EU legislation, likely a Directive, may be on the table early next year. 

The current prognosis (subject to the outcome of the pending legal challenges) is that the UK may well have triggered Article 50 by then, and may have ceased to be an EU Member State before any such Directive has to be implemented.  This gives rise to the potential for different approaches to the treatment of big data in competition enquiries between the EU and UK post Brexit.

Data Pooling

‘Big data’ tends to be perceived as a (potential) competition issue in the context of tech giants which hold an enormous amount of data.  In her speech, Commissioner Vestager noted that in addition to a single company data set, large amounts of data can also be amassed as a result of several companies pooling their data.  She suggested that this might even be beneficial for competition, enabling smaller companies to compete more effectively with big companies.

However, she also warned that certain risks accompanied this, noting that “companies have to make sure that the data they pool doesn’t give away too much about their business.  Otherwise, it might become too easy for them to coordinate their actions, rather than competing to cut prices and improve their products”.  And of course, if companies are controllers of personal data, they can only share that data subject to applicable data protection laws.

The Commissioner ended her speech by saying that she “will keep a close eye on how companies use data”.  For our part, we will continue to keep a close eye on the EU / UK authorities’ approach to data.

The privacy & competition law overlap: co-operation between enforcement agencies?

Last week, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) released an Opinion on coherent enforcement of fundamental rights in the age of big data (available here). It builds on a Preliminary Opinion issued by the EDPS in 2014, which aimed to launch a debate on how to apply the EU’s objectives and standards in areas such as data protection, consumer protection and competition more holistically. 

Recognising that the Commission’s wide-ranging Digital Single Market strategy presents an opportunity to launch a new, coherent approach, the EDPS makes recommendations (amongst others) for: (i) how merger controls should take personal data into account, and (ii) a voluntary network where regulatory bodies can share information (a Digital Clearing House). 

Is personal data an asset that should be considered in mergers?

The EDPS Opinion considers that the largest web-based service providers (Google, Amazon etc., some of the biggest companies in the world) “owe their success to the quantity and quality of personal data under their control as well as to the intellectual property required to analyse and to extract value from these data”.  And it’s true that gaining access to customers’ personal data has been a significant factor in some of the big tech acquisitions of the last couple of years (Facebook purchasing WhatsApp for example, or Microsoft’s pending acquisition of LinkedIn). 

In a speech in March this year (here), Commissioner Vestager highlighted the fact that data is an asset, and that it can be a company’s assets rather than turnover that make it an attractive target.  She warned that important deals which warrant review may be missed under the current system, as the acquisition of a company with access to – as yet unmonetised or undervalued – data may not meet the Commission’s turnover test (as with Facebook/WhatsApp, which only fell within the Commission’s remit due to Facebook’s Article 4(5) request).

The EDPS supports greater scrutiny of acquisitions of this sort, and recommends that the expertise of independent data authorities should be utilised to consider the effect of such acquisitions on consumer welfare. 

Is privacy a competition law issue?

Commissioner Vestager downplayed the importance of privacy and data for competition enforcement in a speech in Copenhagen on 9 September (text here).  She noted that “our first line of defence will always be rules that are designed specifically to guarantee our privacy” and that “we shouldn’t be suspicious of every company which holds a valuable set of data”.  However, she did leave the door open for competition enforcement action in this area, recognising that a company in control of a unique set of data may be able to use it to shut rivals out of the market.

The EDPS Opinion also considers the interface between competition and privacy, but with a particular emphasis on personal data.  It speculates that in the near future machine-learning algorithms may be able to exploit differences in consumers’ sensitiveness to price (identifiable from their personal data), enabling firms to segment the market into each individual consumer and charging according to his or her willingness to pay.

Should such an issue arise, it would prompt concerns from data protection authorities about whether personal data was being used in an appropriate way, and from competition authorities about the effect of such use on consumers and the market. 

Surely it makes sense for these authorities to share expertise on these matters?

Digital Clearing House

Even before machine-learning algorithms take over, it’s clear that there are occasions where competition and privacy overlap, and where regulators can help one another.  This already happens on occasion.  The EDPS points to examples such as: 

  • The French competition authority’s interim decision in September 2014 that GDF Suez had abused its dominant position by using personal data collected when it was a state monopoly to later offer a promotion on an open market. 
  • The UK Data Protection Authority advised the CMA on its proposal to invite households who had not switched energy suppliers for three years to opt out from having their details shared with rival suppliers.
  • Germany’s competition regulator, the Bundeskartellamt is currently investigating Facebook’s privacy policies with input from a number of other national authorities – as we reported here.
The EDPS seeks to build on this kind of co-operation, proposing a voluntary network of contact points in regulatory authorities at national and EU level who are responsible for regulation of the digital sector.  Such a network could discuss the most appropriate legal regime for pursuing specific cases or complaints, and could potentially use data protection and consumer protection standards to determine theories of harm relevant to merger control and exploitative abuse cases.

From a competition law perspective, this is not uncontroversial: the relevance of other laws to the competition regime has been rejected on a number of occasions in the past.  Introducing privacy standards could open the floodgates to a need to consider, for example, environmental considerations, or industrial or social policy.  Added to which, there would doubtless be a number of practical challenges to setting up such a network – the first which springs to mind is persuading the diverse authorities involved to listen to one another!

The Brexit shaped spanner in the works

It’s too early to tell what appetite there is across Europe for a Digital Clearing House, but any UK involvement may obviously be affected by Brexit.  Aside from the politics involved, UK authorities may have to apply different legal frameworks to the rest of Europe (see our competition blogs on Brexit here and here, and our colleagues’ blog on the data protection implications here).  We’ll also have to wait and see if the CMA shares the view of the EDPS on the importance of personal data.

Either way, we expect there to be significant developments in this area in the future.

That’s a wrap! The European Commission accepts Paramount’s pay-TV commitments

We hope you've got your popcorn ready because yesterday, there was a new development in the ongoing Sky UK / Hollywood Studios pay-TV investigation: the European Commission announced that it has accepted the commitments offered by Paramount Pictures, which are now legally binding.
 
We've blogged extensively on this investigation here and here, but as a quick recap:
July 2015: Statement of Objections

The Commission sent a Statement of Objections to Sky UK and six US film studios (including Paramount) in July 2015.  The Statement addressed certain clauses in the licensing contracts between Paramount and Sky UK which:

  1. prevented Sky UK from allowing EU customers outside the UK and Ireland to access Paramount films via satellite and online; and  
  2. required Paramount to ensure that broadcasters other than Sky UK were prevented from making their pay-TV services available in the UK and Ireland.

The Commission was mainly concerned that these clauses raised competition issues for pay-TV broadcasters which were operating on a cross-border basis, and consequently might restrict the EU's Single Market.  
 
April 2016: Paramount's Commitments

In response, Paramount offered four proposed commitments to the Commission in April 2016.  These were:
 
  1. when licensing its film output for pay-TV to a broadcaster in the EEA, Paramount would not (re)introduce contractual obligations, which prevent or limit a pay-TV broadcaster from responding to unsolicited requests from consumers within the EEA but outside of the pay-TV broadcaster’s licensed territory (No “Broadcaster Obligation”);
  2. when licensing its film output for pay-TV to a broadcaster in the EEA, Paramount Pictures would not (re)introduce contractual obligations, which require Paramount to prohibit or limit pay-TV broadcasters located outside the licensed territory from responding to unsolicited requests from consumers within the licensed territory (No “Paramount Obligation”);
  3. Paramount Pictures would not seek to bring an action before a court or tribunal for the violation of a Broadcaster Obligation in an existing agreement licensing its film output for pay-TV; and
  4. Paramount Pictures would not act upon or enforce a Paramount Obligation in an existing agreement licensing its film output for pay-TV.

The latest development

Following the usual market testing of the commitments, the European Commission yesterday announced that it has accepted them.  Paramount's commitments look wide-reaching: they apply to online and satellite broadcast services, and cover the standard pay-TV services as well as relevant subscription video-on-demand services.  The Commission also stated that the commitments will last for five years and apply throughout the European Economic Area.

The investigation into the other five studios continues, with the other companies still disputing the Commission's allegations.  But this latest announcement could well act as a trigger for further developments (and potentially even proposals of commitments), so stay tuned for a sequel coming to a screen near you soon.

UPDATE: International spring cleaning time to review those IPR Guidelines

For those of you who read my blog post from earlier this month on the recent flurry of international IPR guidelines announcements (see here), we thought some of you might be interested in a more in depth look at the Canadian IPR Enforcement Guidelines written by Canadian law firm McCarthy Tétrault (for a link to their interesting article see here).  

The article summarises the most notable new guidance in the Canadian guidelines – namely in relation to pharma patent litigation settlements, product switching, standard setting and SEPs and patent assertion entities.  It also contains links to previous articles discussing the evolution of the guidelines.  There are many parallels to ongoing IPR policy developments in Europe but a few differences also stand out (e.g. express discussion of the potential for criminal liability for pharma patent litigation settlements (not something that has reared its head in Europe… (yet?)) and a helpful distinction between so called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ product switching).

International spring cleaning: time to review those IPR guidelines…

A number of national competition agencies have recently been reviewing their IPR guidelines giving rise to some interesting trends and developments…  

On 31 March 2016 the Canadian Competition Bureau released updated IPR Enforcement Guidelines (the “Canadian IPR Guidelines”) (see here for a press release and here for the Enforcement Guidelines themselves). The main revisions to the Canadian IPR Guidelines focus on the Bureau’s position on patent settlements and product switching in the pharma sector as well as the conduct of patent assertion entities and conduct involving SEP owners.
  
This followed hot on the heels of an announcement by the Korea Trade Commission (“KFTC”) on 30 March 2016 that the Guidelines regarding the Unfair Exercise of Intellectual Property Rights (“the Korean IPR Guidelines”), which have recently been amended, became effective on 23 March 2016 (the revised Guidelines do not yet appear to be publically available in English at least).  The primary purpose of the Korean IPR Guidelines is to provide a framework for the KFTC to regulate abuse of IPRs by holders of SEPs (including in particular NPEs).   The Korean IPR Guidelines were previously amended in December 2014.  The most interesting changes at that time included de facto SEPs being included within the definition of SEPs, and the introduction of examples of abusive or unreasonable acts, including the filing for injunctive relief against willing licensees by an SEP holder that has committed to grant a license on fair reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms.  

The most notable changes to the Korean IPR Guidelines this time around are:

  1. carving out de facto SEPs from the IPR Guidelines (stakeholders argued that the previous change to include them led to over-regulation of the exercise of IPRs); 
  2. removing the reference to the choice of governing law and dispute resolution mechanism which is unilaterally unfavourable to one party as a factor in determining whether an exercise of patent rights in unfair; and 
  3. including a standard for determining unfair refusals to license which focuses on the intent of the SEP holder, the surrounding economic circumstances and the effects of the refusal to license.
Similar developments have taken place not that far from South Korea, with China also drafting IPR Guidelines.  China’s top antitrust authority, the Anti-monopoly Commission (“AMC”) of the State Council has instructed four Chinese antitrust enforcement agencies: the National Development and Reform Commission (“NDRC”); the State Administration of Industry and Commerce (“SAIC”); the Ministry of Commerce (“MOFCOM”); and the State Intellectual Property Office (“SIPO”) to draft antitrust guidelines on IPRs.  It has reported that these agencies are finalizing their respective drafts and that they were due to submit them to the AMC by the end of March 2016.  The AMC coordinates antitrust policies in China, so it will be responsible for consolidating the drafts and issuing an integrated policy.  

The purpose of the Chinese Guidelines will be to provide guidance on when the enforcement of IPRs, and in particular patents, would contravene China’s Antimonopoly law.  China’s IPR Policy is still very much under development. However, these latest developments correlate with a growing international view that the Chinese antitrust authorities are increasingly treating IPR as an enforcement priority (although I think it is still agreed that China has some way to go before it becomes a major jurisdiction for the enforcement of IPR).  One recent example from 2014 was the Chinese Authorities’ investigation into Qualcomm for anticompetitive conduct involving its licensing of 4G SEPs (see our previous blog post here).

It is unsurprising that telecoms and pharma both come under the spotlight in all these new IPR Guidelines given the competition law issues afoot globally in both sectors. The EU Commission’s TTBE Guidelines were also updated in 2014 to include new sections relevant to pharma and telecoms (see our previous blog post here).  It is also interesting to see such a detailed approach to IP and antitrust issues being taken in other jurisdictions and that these new Guidelines are in places going further than their EU counterparts, for example in their discussion of PAEs/NPEs, SEPs and injunctions and refusal to license IPRs. 

Competition law no bar to patent licence royalties

Advocate General Wathelet has delivered a significant Opinion on the relationship between Article 101(1) and patent licences. This arose from a disputed arbitration award between Genentech and Sanofi-Aventis, and followed a reference to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), from the Paris Court of Appeal. 

The AG noted that Article 101(1) is not there to protect the efficacy of commercial arrangements, and will be engaged only where an agreement between undertakings has the object or effect of restricting or preventing competition and affects trade between member states. 

What was the case about? 

The original arbitration concerned a dispute over unpaid royalty payments under a patent licence where one of the underlying patents had been revoked. The arbitrator found that the licensee should continue to pay royalties, notwithstanding the revocation of the patent. This was on basis that the licensee had entered into the licence to enable it to use the relevant technology without the risk of litigation. The licensee contested the award. The French Court of Appeal referred various questions to the CJEU including whether paying royalties for a revoked patent had put the company at a competitive disadvantage to competitors who had not been required to pay for the technology and therefore infringed Article 101(1).

What about Article 101 and Patent royalties?

Wathelet commended the reasoning in Ottung (1989 CJEU) that an obligation to pay royalties in a licensing agreement after patent expiry “may infringe Article 101(1) TFEU where the licence agreement either does not grant the licensee the right to terminate the agreement by giving reasonable notice, or seeks to restrict the licensee’s freedom of action after termination.” 

Applying that approach, Wathelet considered that there was no infringement of Article 101(1) here, as Genentech was freely able to terminate the agreement with a “very short” notice period of two months, and its “freedom of action was not restricted in any way during the period after termination, and it was not subject to any clause preventing it from challenging the validity or infringement of the patents at issue”. He also observed that the licence contained no restrictions on the licensee’s ability to set prices or conduct research.

The AG therefore held that Article 101(1) was not engaged and that Genentech should pay Hoechst EUR 110 million in back royalties even though a licensed patent had been revoked. In the circumstances:  “the mere use of the technology at issue during the term of the licence agreement was sufficient to trigger the obligation to pay”. 

The position taken by the Advocate-General reflects the views set out in the Technology Transfer Guidelines (paragraph 184) which regards royalty arrangements in technology licences as generally outside the scope of Article 101 and falling into the realm of commercial negotiation.
 
Arbitration disputes and Article 101? 

The AG also confirmed that competition issues arising in the context of arbitrations can always be referred by national courts to the CJEU. 

He gave short shrift to arguments that dealing with Article 101(1) issues through the  preliminary ruling process would infringe French law. It had been argued that French law prevented international arbitration awards being subject to judicial review, save in circumstances where there has been a flagrant infringement of international public policy. 

The AG considered that the CJEU was bound to give a preliminary ruling upon request by a national court, unless the request related to a fictitious dispute, or was on general or hypothetical questions, where the questions to the CJEU bore no relation to the facts.

So where does the case leave patentees?

This case is important for many patent owners and licensees, as it clarifies that Article 101(1) is not a bar to enforcing a licensing agreement and receiving royalties even when a licensed patent has been declared invalid (or, by implication, expired). 

This is in direct contrast to the US Supreme Court’s decision in Kimble v Marvel of June 2015, which confirmed that a patent holder cannot charge royalties for the use of his invention in the US after its patent term has expired. 

It will be interesting to see the CJEU’s final decision, as AG opinions are only persuasive (but in practice usually followed).

Genentech Inc. v Hoechst GmbH, formerly Hoechst AG, Sanofi-Aventis Deutschland GmbH (Case C-567/14).

Germany’s competition probe into Facebook’s T&Cs, precedent or outlier?

The German Competition Authority (BKA) has opened an investigation into Facebook “on suspicion of having abused its market power by infringing data protection rules”.   

The BKA’s press release indicates it is taking an expansive view of its competition law powers, “There is an initial suspicion that Facebook's conditions of use are in violation of data protection provisions. Not every law infringement on the part of a dominant company is also relevant under competition law. However, in the case in question Facebook’s use of unlawful terms and conditions could represent an abusive imposition of unfair conditions on users”.

This attempt to use competition law, in order regulate privacy, appears to put the BKA in conflict with the European Commission’s position: that it that it has not yet found competition problems in relation to ‘big data’ and that of the Court of Justice of the European Union: “any possible issues relating to the sensitivity of personal data are not, as such, a matter for competition law”. 

The BKA is also tacking in a different direction to the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which regards potentially unfair terms and conditions as a matter for enforcement under EU rules on unfair contractual terms, rather than competition law. 

It is too soon to tell whether the BKA’s interventionist approach to data protection will be followed by other national competition authorities. Here at the CLIP Board we suggest this is unlikely, rather the BKA’s investigation may be better seen in the context of German’s troubled historical relationship to personal information. However, we do anticipate increased competition scrutiny of potential foreclosure concerns in relation to dominant platforms and access to proprietary data.