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).

USA v. UK – a united approach to FRAND? Comparing the new judgment in TCL v. Ericsson with Unwired Planet v. Huawei

On 21 December 2017, Judge Selna of the US District Court for the Central District of California released a judgment which is likely to be the most significant US FRAND decision yet. In a case brought to end the global dispute between two giants, TCL (the seventh largest manufacturer of mobile phones worldwide) and Ericsson (holder of one of the largest mobile telecommunications SEP portfolios), Judge Selna set a FRAND royalty rate for Ericsson’s 4G, 3G and 2G patents as part of a five year global licence agreement.

The judgment is of comparable length and complexity to last year’s UK Unwired Planet decision (which we discussed here and here). The approach taken by Judge Selna shares a number of similarities with that of Birss J in Unwired Planet, making use of a top-down methodology and comparable licences. However there are also a number of key differences that, if applied in future judgments, could have a significant impact on how FRAND rates are calculated.

Key differences at a glance 


Analysis

Due to the wealth of detail contained in the TCL judgment, we have picked out just a few key points in this article. For a more detailed analysis, we recommend a post by Professor Contreras (here).

Ericsson’s offers: Judge Selna concluded that Ericsson’s offers were not FRAND, but that (as in Unwired Planet) offering a rate higher than that ultimately determined as FRAND was not a breach of FRAND obligations. Interestingly, Judge Selna also explicitly stated that royalty floors proposed in Ericsson’s offers, aimed at ensuring minimum levels of revenue despite the low prices of TCL’s products, were discriminatory and non-compliant with FRAND. 

Top-down Approach: Both judgments made use of a top-down analysis, but in slightly different ways. In TCL, the focus was on the aggregate royalty burden, established by reference to statements about aggregate rates made by Ericsson and a number of other significant IP holders at around the time the standard was adopted. Whereas Birss J considered such statements to be unenforceable statements of intent, Judge Selna noted the role that they played in ensuring adoption of a particular standard (resulting in global use of LTE rather than WiMax for example), and considered it appropriate to tie the aggregate royalty rate for the standard to those rates. 

Having determined the industry total number of essential patents (a considerably lower number than the total number of declared patents, due to the problem of over-declaration, also considered in detail in Unwired Planet), the Judge then established Ericsson’s share of the total royalty rate.  This was cross-checked with an analysis of comparable licences to ensure a FRAND rate – in principle this was particularly important for 4G, where the ex ante statements pointed to a range of aggregate royalty rates (of between 6 and 10%) – but in practice, it was the 3G top down rate which was adjusted as a result of the comparator licences review. In Unwired Planet the opposite approach was taken, determining a rate using comparable licences, and cross-checking against the implied aggregate royalty. 

Expired Patents: When determining Ericsson’s share of the relevant standards, any of its patents which had expired prior to the date of closing arguments were excluded from its share. However, expired patents were left in the number of total SEPs used as the denominator. The judge argued that removing them would unfairly reward those patentees who still had patents remaining in the standard rather than the public.  While the exclusion of such patents was in part motivated by specific considerations of US law (the prohibition on paying royalties on expired rights), there also appears to be a sound economic basis for ensuring that patentees holding later-expiring patents are not over-rewarded for their rights. This is also arguably in line with the recent Commission Communication on SEPs (discussed here) which suggests that the value of technologies declines over time.

Non-Discrimination: In assessing the non-discrimination aspect of FRAND, both judges agreed that licensors cannot discriminate against similarly situated licensees. Judge Selna looked in some detail at what ‘similarly situated’ means and concluded that the basis for comparison must be all firms reasonably well-established in the world market. This excludes ‘local kings’ – firms that sell most of their products in a single country – but includes industry giants such as Samsung and Apple, despite their greater market share and brand recognition. This approach is good news for licensees whose products retail at lower price points, as it means they should benefit from the same level of rates they do.  Judge Selna explicitly dismissed the relevance of competition law (in this case the US Sherman Act) for this assessment – whereas Birss J. applied Article 102 in determining that – if his primary conclusion about benchmark rates was incorrect – Huawei would still need to show harm to competition resulting from any discrimination between it and other similarly situated licensees. (Coincidentally, the same approach to discrimination has recently been endorsed in the IP – albeit not the SEP – context by Advocate General Wahl in Case C-525/16 MEO – Comunicaçoes e Multimédia.)

Multi-mode: The issue of multimode devices was dealt with differently in the two cases. In Unwired Planet, Birss J computed separate multimode rates based on a set of ratios. In TCL, it was implicit that the rates were single mode, but they appear to apply to multimode products.  Notably, the top-down figures established by the Judge were held to be implicitly multimode rates.

Geographical Regions: Judge Selna considered Ericsson’s patent portfolio strongest in the USA, so applied a discounted rate elsewhere. He divided the world into three regions – USA, Europe and the Rest of the World and established a precise discount rate for each region and each standard. This was clearly a fact-specific exercise, and would depend on the particular; while the Judge indicated that it could have been helpful to break the regions down further, he also noted that any royalty regime should be reasonably straightforward.  
 
Compare this to Birss J in Unwired Planet where the world was divided into only two regions – major markets (for countries where Unwired Planet held 3 or more patents) and other markets.  One striking similarity between the two judgments was that both treated China (where the licensees in each case manufactured their products) as a floor for global royalties, allowing the licensors to claim rates on all global sales, even if there is no local patent protection.  In the case of the TCL judgment, this meant that for 3G, Ericsson’s lower patent holdings in Europe compared to China led to the Rest of World rate applying in Europe as well.

FRAND Rates: The aggregate patent numbers and final rates as determined in both cases are set out below:


It’s worth noting that once Unwired Planet’s and Ericsson’s respective shares of the total relevant SEPs are taken into account, the rates in TCL are more favourable to the licensee than those in Unwired Planet. The comparison between the cases is all the more interesting, given the provenance of the Unwired Planet portfolio which was drawn from Ericsson’s.  In Birss J’s judgment, the Unwired Planet portfolio was considered to be representative of a subset of Ericsson’s, while Ericsson’s 4G benchmark royalty rate was held to be 0.80%.  Given that Judge Selna calculated total industry patent numbers of close to double those found by Birss J, the fact that the Ericsson per patent rate in TCL was almost half that found in Unwired Planet is mathematically unsurprising, and points to considerable convergence on other parts of the analysis.

While the TCL judgment may be welcomed by implementers, an appeal is to be expected.  Meanwhile the appeal in Unwired Planet is due to come before the English Court of Appeal in May 2018, so there is no doubt there will be further developments in this field in the near future. Whether the outcomes of those appeals will further align both sides of the Atlantic or draw them further apart is something that we will have to wait to find out. 

Commission Communication on SEP Licensing – where has the Roadmap led?

Following around a year of lobbying and intensive debate, the Commission has today (29 November 2017) published its Communication on ‘The EU Approach to Standard Essential Patent Licensing’.  

As we reported back in April when the Commission published its initial ‘Roadmap’ for this area, the Communication is intended to address some of the uncertainties in SEP licensing left unresolved following Huawei v ZTE (see e.g. here), and to drive progress for the EU-wide adoption of 5G.  

And as we predicted a couple of months ago, the intensity of the debate surrounding the key issues in SEP licensing means that the Communication is far from overly prescriptive. 

The Communication will take a little while to digest in full, but for now the headline points are:

  • The current declaration system needs modernising to ensure greater transparency about which SEPs are actually essential and – in an era of great patent liquidity – who owns them. A new EU body may become involved in this.  And if this all seems rather aspirational, to be noted that the Commission is aware of the (not inconsiderable) costs implications, and suggests that changes may only be possible prospectively, e.g. for 5G…
  • There remains significant flexibility in how FRAND values are established, but a couple of preferences emerge from the guidance
    • ‘In principle’, FRAND values should not include any value attributable to the inclusion of the technology in the standard.  This is in line with previous statements in the Commission’s Horizontal Guidelines, and diverges from the approach in Unwired Planet, where both parties accepted that some such value could be taken by the patentee (see para 97).  However, where technology “has little market value outside the standard” (hardly an infrequent situation), other techniques may be needed, such as comparisons between types of contribution.
    • Aggregate royalty rates are important, and should be taken into account.  The Commission proposes that FRAND value should reflect the  “present value added” by the SEP, bearing in mind that this can change over time, and that it should not include value attributable to market success of the product.
  • Non-discrimination between similarly situated licensees remains fundamental, and evidence of non-discrimination forms part of the information that SEP holders should provide to licensees.  
  • Chipset licensing remains possible – but is not mandated.  One of the key areas of dispute in industry was whether the FRAND obligation required SEP holders to license all comers, including component manufacturers, or whether they can decide to license end manufacturers (thus giving a higher potential royalty base) to the exclusion of those higher up the value chain.  The report does not come off the fence on this issue, save to say that business models may vary from sector-to-sector.  Cases such as Apple v. Qualcomm will therefore have to continue to fight this issue out from first principles.
  • Use-based licensing is not mandated – but nor is it wholly out of the question.  This is another area of significant dispute in industry, with a deep split between rights holders and potential licensees (see the Fair Standards Alliance’s response to the Communication here…).  The concept behind use-based licensing is that it allows SEP holders to charge different rates for different uses (e.g. compare a smart car, a smartphone and a smart thermostat).   The Communication does conclude that FRAND is not a one-size-fits-all concept, and may differ from sector-to-sector and over time.  However, it also emphasises the need not to discriminate between similarly–situated parties.  
  • Safeguards against the inappropriate use of injunctions are still needed to prevent both exploitation (using threats to extract unfairly high licence terms) and exclusion.  Companion papers giving guidance on ‘certain aspects’ of the IP Enforcement Directive (here) and on ‘A balanced IP enforcement system’ (here) have also been published.
  • The Communication confirms that non-practising entities should be subject to the same rules (including on transparency and injunctions) as other SEP holders.  As with many of the points in this paper, there is no big surprise here.
And overall?  The Communication will be pored over by industry, and – while not binding in any strict legal sense – will no doubt feature in arguments on both sides of the FRAND debate.  There are certainly some common-sense points in here, as well as some regulatory aspiration.  But if this is a roadmap, it is certainly not the end of the road – and we will continue to watch as the debate unfolds in the UK, Europe and beyond.

SEPs, 5G and the IoT: where will the Commission land on use-based licensing?

In April this year we reported that the Commission had released a Roadmap towards a ‘Communication on Standard Essential Patents for a European digitalised economy’,  intended to address some of the uncertainties in SEP licensing left unresolved following Huawei v ZTE (see e.g. here), and to drive progress for the EU-wide adoption of 5G. Originally expected in May, the Communication is now said to be likely to be published before the end of the year. Part of the reason for the delay appears to be a dispute between several directorates within the Commission as to the appropriateness of use-based licensing for Internet of Things (IoT) enabled devices.

Recap: the IoT & 5G

The Internet of Things (IoT) will result in increasing inter-connectivity between devices. For example, smart kitchen appliances can already be turned on remotely. A new smart fridge might re-order milk automatically. On a grander scale, lighting systems in towns and cities might vary the level of illumination produced by streetlamps based on the time of day, season, or even weather conditions. 

Some of these new technologies will be very data hungry. They will all require the ability to connect to mobile networks and other devices. This is where standards come in. Standards like 3G and 4G enable fast mobile connectivity. 5G, currently in development, will enable even faster transfers of data. Each of these standards incorporates thousands of patents which have been declared essential to use of the standard (SEPs). The holder of an SEP must commit to license its SEPs on Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) terms. 

The negotiation of FRAND terms is often contentious (see for example our reports on the Unwired Planet case in the UK, here and here, Huawei v ZTE in the EU, and Ericsson v D-Link and CSIRO v Cisco in the US). Most FRAND litigation to date has focussed primarily on mobile phones or similar devices. As more types of product with connectivity are developed, licensing negotiations (and litigation following failed negotiations) risk becoming even more complicated. However, as there could be more than 29 billion IoT connected devices by 2020, with IoT systems creating an economic impact of more than $11 trillion per year by 2025 (source), the stakes are considerable.

The difficulties of drafting the Communication

A number of recent reports have indicated considerable debate within the Commission about the contents of the Communication. The centre of the dispute is use-based licensing: whether SEP holders should be able to charge different rates to different licensees depending on the nature of the final product that implements the technology. 

For example, it is argued that 5G is more valuable to a mobile phone, where connectivity is integral to its operation, than to a smart energy meter that might only connect once a day. It is therefore suggested that charging a higher royalty rate for a 5G enabled mobile phone than a 5G enabled meter is fair. This is the position supported by some big SEP holders such as Qualcomm, Nokia and Ericsson.

On the other hand, small developers claim that by focussing on the final product, SEP holders are trying to take a cut of the value created by other inventors who have come up with innovative new uses of a technology. Some vocal critics of current licensing practices take issue with the SEP holder practice of granting licences only to those who produce and sell the final product, such as Samsung, Apple or Huawei. Instead, they argue that SEP holders should be obliged to grant licences to all-comers, including companies higher up the supply chain, for example to those that produce the wireless chipsets incorporating the SEP technology. 

However, this option could also create its own challenges. If a number of companies in the supply chain have all taken licences to the same underlying SEPs, this could result in a form of ‘double-dipping’ – allowing SEP holders to recover higher royalties (depending on the extent to which the licence would otherwise ‘pass-through’ from the company highest in the chain to the end manufacturer). It could also result in an increase in the number and complexity of licensing negotiations. Those who support use based licensing argue that the simplest way of licensing SEPs of this sort is at the point where the final product incorporating the patented technology is complete, and that a single licence at that point is the neatest and most efficient licensing model. 

Underlying both positions is a concern about the price to be paid for standard essential technology. Those who develop that technology and contribute it to standards want to ensure a return on their investment and argue that good financial incentives are required to ensure continued innovation. Those who use the technology argue that they are happy to pay, but also need their incentives to continue bringing new data-dependent products to market not to be crimped by patentees charging royalties which exceed the value contributed by standardised technologies. Implicitly, both arguments assume that relying on royalties at an earlier point in the value chain will result in lower costs for product developers and lower returns for patentees.

Our understanding is that within the Commission itself, some directorates largely support the views of the SEP holders. They cite concerns about the need to preserve SEP holders’ incentives to innovate and support the use based model, which would enable SEP holders to calibrate the royalties sought finely by reference to different uses. On the other hand, DG Competition continues to be concerned about the position of implementers. It notes that they may face significant difficulties in acquiring licences directly, as well as the potential for unjustified price discrimination between users if companies higher in the supply chain are not able to obtain, and pass on the benefits of, licences to all comers. Over recent years, DG Competition has also frequently focussed on incentives for follow-on innovation both in TMT and in other sectors, which again tends to favour the position of implementers. 

Whatever the final text of the Communication, the intensity of the debate surrounding it means that it is unlikely to be overly prescriptive. Discussion on these issues is likely to continue over the coming years across an array of industry forums and within bodies such as ETSI, not least because of the global nature of the debate. It’s also worth noting that representatives from a number of technology companies such as Nokia, Ericsson and Orange have formed a committee to establish an industry-wide code on best practices for SEP licensing (here – subscription required). It will be interesting to see if that code supports or conflicts with the Commission’s approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apple’s battle with Qualcomm spreads to the UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

A FRAND torpedo? An update on Vodafone v Intellectual Ventures

Patentees commonly litigate in Germany. The validity of a patent is considered separately from (generally after) any infringement claims. Infringement proceedings, including injunctive relief, are not typically stayed pending a validity challenge. The availability of a relatively quick infringement decision and potential injunction against a licensee who has not complied with the Huawei v ZTE framework seem to make it an attractive option. 

To avoid the risks of an injunction in Germany, implementers actually or potentially subject to infringement proceedings there might think about asking a court in another jurisdiction to consider any FRAND dispute. This could enable them to argue that issues relevant to an injunction, such as whether the implementer is a ‘willing licensee’, are already subject to the jurisdiction of another Court, making it more difficult for the patentee to get an injunction. 

This is exactly what happened in Vodafone v Intellectual Ventures. As this blog reported here, when faced with infringement proceedings in Germany, Vodafone launched a FRAND countersuit in Ireland (with an ex parte application for permission to serve out of the jurisdiction). Earlier this year (unreported judgment [2017] IEHC 160), Intellectual Ventures responded by making an application to the Irish Court on the basis of Articles 29 and 30 of the Recast Brussels Regulation. It claimed that the German Court had been ‘first seised’ and so the Irish Court was required (or alternatively that it should exercise its discretion) to decline jurisdiction, or at least stay the proceedings. 

Despite identifying a number of overlaps relating to FRAND between the Irish and German proceedings, the Irish Court did not agree that Article 29 applied. The Irish proceedings did not involve the same cause of action or even the same parties (because of the involvement of an Intellectual Ventures subsidiary in the Irish case). However, given the degree of overlap between the two sets of proceedings, the Court considered that some form of discretionary relief under Article 30 was appropriate. It decided not to decline jurisdiction under Article 30, but agreed to stay the proceedings pending the final judgment of the Düsseldorf Court, expected in September, at which point, the various issues discussed might become clearer, e.g. the extent to which the German Court would cover FRAND.

The success of Vodafone’s tactic is therefore yet to be fully determined. It will be very interesting to see to what extent the German Court takes into account the Irish proceedings when issuing its infringement decision, and in deciding whether to grant an injunction. In the meantime, it seems that implementers wishing to secure a favourable FRAND jurisdiction would ideally act pre-emptively, before patent infringement proceedings are issued.

A final point worth noting arises from Unwired Planet v Huawei (see this blog’s posts here and here).  In that case the English High Court decided that it could settle the terms of a FRAND licence (dealing with incidental FRAND disputes along the way) and that a FRAND licence between companies operating on a world-wide basis would be global in scope. 

There are many issues relevant to determining jurisdiction and the operation of the Recast Brussels Regulation. However, with the English Court clearly prepared to determine FRAND licence terms and having held that a FRAND licence will be global, there is perhaps more potential now to argue successfully that if FRAND proceedings have been issued in one jurisdiction, a Court in another should be cautious about granting an injunction or coming to any other conclusion that might conflict with any FRAND findings of the first Court. Indeed, if the implementer has made it clear that it will accept the terms settled by a Court, it may be difficult to argue convincingly that it should be regarded as “unwilling” or dilatory.

Unwired Planet v Huawei: a new FRAND injunction

Mr Justice Birss has once again broken new legal ground by granting what he has termed a ‘FRAND injunction in Unwired Planet v Huawei.

As a reminder, in April Mr Justice Birss handed down the first UK court decision determining a FRAND royalty rate (see here). A post-judgment hearing took place in May to establish whether or not Huawei should be subject to an injunction in the UK and the issue of permission to appeal.

The FRAND injunction

At the post-judgment hearing, Huawei had argued that the judge should not grant an injunction. As Huawei intended to appeal the decision, it said that it could not enter into the FRAND licence agreement at this stage, in case the Court of Appeal determined that different FRAND terms were appropriate. Huawei claimed that to grant an injunction now would effectively be punishing it for exercising its right to appeal. It also noted that if an injunction was granted, it would last until 2028 (when the patent found valid and infringed in the first patent trial expired), despite the FRAND licence agreement expiring in 2020. Therefore, Huawei would be forced to negotiate a new licence from an extremely weak position – it would automatically be injuncted if terms could not be agreed. 

Huawei requested that the judge accept undertakings in lieu of granting an injunction, offering to: (a) enter into the licence following its appeal, and (b) to comply with the terms of the licence as if it was in effect (including paying royalties) until its appeal was finished.

Mr Justice Birss essentially took the view that the offer of undertakings now was too little, too late. He decided that an injunction should be granted. However, he recognised the risk that this might affect negotiations or disputes about the terms of the licence in later years. To resolve this, he granted a new kind of injunction, which he called a “FRAND injunction”. This would be like a normal injunction, but with the following extra features:

  • A proviso that it would cease to have effect when the defendant enters into a FRAND licence; and
  • Express liberty to return to court to decide whether the injunction should take effect again at the end of the FRAND licence (if it ends before the relevant patents expire, or ceases to have effect for any other reason).
The injunction is to be stayed pending the result of the appeal, on terms that provide for appropriate royalty payments from Huawei to Unwired Planet in the meantime.

Permission to appeal 

Mr Justice Birss granted Huawei permission to appeal on three main issues:

  1. The global licence: including: (i) whether more than one set of terms can be FRAND, (ii) whether a UK only licence was FRAND, (iii) whether the court is able to determine FRAND terms, including rates, for territories other than the UK, and (iv) whether it is appropriate to grant an injunction excluding Huawei from the UK market unless it took a global licence.
  2. Hard-edged non-discrimination: Huawei have permission to appeal the finding that a distortion of competition is required for the non-discrimination aspect of FRAND to apply, but not whether or not there was a distortion of competition in this case.
  3. Huawei v ZTE (Article 102 TFEU): regarding the judge’s findings on abuse of dominance and injunctive relief.
This permits a fairly wide-ranging appeal, especially as regards the competition law elements of the latter two issues. The trial judgment appeared to downplay the importance of competition law in FRAND issues (see here for more information); the appeal may enable a renewed focus on it.

The FRAND licence 

In his main trial judgment, Mr Justice Birss settled the terms of the FRAND licence to be entered into by Unwired Planet and Huawei. This latest judgment annexes a copy of the final form of that licence. Given the shroud of secrecy that usually surrounds such patent licence agreements, this is a unique insight, reflective of the judge’s desire throughout the case to ensure as much transparency as possible.

Transparency is likely to be helpful as the law in this area continues to develop. With the advent of new technologies developed for 5G and the Internet of Things, new companies may need to enter the FRAND licensing field for the first time. Without being able to draw upon any previous experience of negotiating licences in this area, they will be at a disadvantage in negotiations. 

If other judgments follow Mr Justice Birss’ lead and annex copies of any FRAND agreement determined by the court, these would provide useful points of reference for negotiating parties. It might also reduce the requirements for third party disclosure (a costly, time-consuming exercise) in any subsequent litigation. Otherwise, such disclosure will be essential in FRAND cases involving relatively new entrants to the market – they are unlikely to have many licence agreements that can be used by the judge as comparables as part of the process for determining a FRAND rate.

Conclusion

Yet again, Mr Justice Birss provides plenty of food for thought. Assuming that Huawei does go ahead with its appeal, it will be fascinating to see how the Court of Appeal responds to these issues.

Pat Treacy and Matt Hunt



Patent licensing: 5G & the Internet of Things

The next telecommunications standard, 5G, and the nascent Internet of Things (IoT), promise a world of high-speed interconnectivity. We’re already accustomed to people talking to smart devices to ask them to play music, or to order a taxi or takeaway. The technology for truly smart homes and even smart cities is following closely (see here for examples of how the IoT is already being used).

Standardisation will be essential to maximising the benefits of both the IoT and 5G. After all, there’s no point in having a smart thermostat that can be adjusted remotely if you can’t connect to it whilst out of the house because your phone is made by a different manufacturer. Standardisation will ensure that 5G/IoT devices and systems can connect and work together.

There will be thousands of patents essential to the operation of the standards developed. As the IoT grows and 5G is rolled out, the issue of how these patents are licensed will become increasingly important. Standard essential patents (SEPs) have to be licensed on a FRAND basis, but determining a FRAND royalty rate is a challenging task.

The Commission’s Roadmap

Following two studies on SEPs published at the end of last year (see here), on 10 April 2017, the Commission released a Roadmap that sets out its plan to publish a ‘Communication on Standard Essential Patents for a European digitalised economy’ later this year, possibly as early as May or June. The Communication (which will not have the binding force of a Directive or Regulation) is intended to complement the Commission’s Digital Single Market project, and to help work towards the goal of having 5G rolled out across the EU by 2025. 

The Roadmap identifies three main issues that the Commission will seek to address in its Communication to ensure a balanced, flexible framework for SEP licensing:

  • Opaque information about SEP exposure: the lack of effective tools for potential licensees too identify which patents they need to take licences for in order to implement relevant standardised technologies.
  • Unclear valuation of patented technologies: the difficulties in assessing the value of new technology (for both licensors and licensees), including the lack of any widely accepted methodology.
  • Risks of uncertainty in enforcement: the general framework provided by the CJEU in Huawei v ZTE is a starting point for agreeing a FRAND royalty rate, but it does not provide complete guidance. There are many technical issues that aren’t addressed, such as how portfolio licensing, related damages claims, and ADR mechanisms should be dealt with. (NB: some of these issues have been recently addressed in the UK case Unwired Planet v Huawei, see our initial thoughts on that case here.)

It is unclear if the Communication will address other issues with standardisation and SEP licensing, such as over-declaration, hold-up, hold-out, the appropriate royalty base (a particularly difficult challenge in the diverse world of the IoT) or whether a total aggregate royalty burden is appropriate.

Use-based licensing?

The Roadmap does not offer any specific details as to how the Commission intends to solve the issues it identifies. However, according to MLex (here – subscription required), an outline of the Commission’s Communication seen in February suggested that the Commission was considering a licensing model that would enable licensors to offer licensees different royalty rates depending on how the relevant technology is used. This could extend to allowing licensors to refuse to offer a licence if the final use of the technology cannot be identified and tracked.

This suggestion has caused concern amongst a number of companies. ACT | The App Association, an organisation sponsored by Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, PayPal & others which represents more than 5,000 small technology firms, has written to the Commission claiming that such a licensing model poses a substantial threat to innovation. It argues that in order for suppliers to obtain licences under this model, they might be required to monitor their customers’ business practices and potentially to charge different customers different prices depending on how they use the technology. It also claims that this model could appropriate the value created by new innovators. If a company succeeds in developing a new use for a particular sensor by incorporating it into a health app for example, it might find itself being charged higher royalties for this new use of the sensor.   

We have reported before on how new licensing models may be required to make best use of the IoT. Qualcomm, Ericsson and Royal KPN (among others) have backed a new licensing platform called Avanci. This is designed to remove the need for lengthy bi-lateral licence negotiations by making flat rate FRAND licences available for particular patent portfolios. However, it is now over six months since Avanci launched and there have been no reports yet of it successfully concluding any licence agreements.

The proper royalty base for patent licences has been a controversial topic for a number of years now. There has been considerable debate over whether licences should be based upon the price of the smallest component in which the patent is implemented, or the final price of the end product. This issue has been addressed by the courts on occasion, particularly in the US (see our post on CSIRO v Cisco here for example).

The new Communication is intended to provide best practice guidance on SEP licensing. If the Commission does opt for a use-based licensing model, this would be a controversial choice. However, whatever the Commission decides, given the number of conflicting interests and amounts of money at state, it is unlikely to satisfy everyone. 

Unwired Planet v Huawei: Is FRAND now a competition law free zone? Not so fast…

It has been two weeks since Mr Justice Birss handed down his latest judgment in Unwired Planet v Huawei (see here for a summary), which is almost long enough to get to grips with the 150 or so pages. There has already been a huge amount of discussion as to what this judgment means in practice and we have even overheard some suggest that, when it comes to FRAND in the future, we can simply ignore competition law altogether. This week we were invited by our friends at the renowned IP law blog, IPKat, to have our say on this. You can check out our thoughts on the IPKat blog here.