US District Court confirms that Qualcomm must offer RAND SEP licences to rival chipset manufacturers

In California, Judge Koh has granted partial summary judgment in favour of the FTC against Qualcomm, making an order that Qualcomm must license its SEPs to rival chipset manufacturers (such as Intel). 

We explained the background to this judgment and its significance in a previous post. Although the ruling is limited to Qualcomm’s position vis-à-vis competing manufacturers without commenting on the position of other SEP holders, it indicates that FRAND requires ‘licensing to all’ (at least in respect of the rules of ATIS and TIA, which, like ETSI, are members of the Third Generation Partnership Project, the collaboration of standard setting organisations behind the development of standards such as 4G LTE and 3G UMTS). The result could be a shift in the focus point for licensing SEPs in cellular standards from the manufacturers of end devices (handsets) to the manufacturers of chipsets.

The issue

Qualcomm had declared its SEPs as essential to two US standard setting organisations (SSOs), the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS), and the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). In return, each SSO required Qualcomm to license its SEPs on RAND terms (note that the exact wording of the ATIS IPR policy and TIA IPR policy differ slightly, although this made no substantive difference in these proceedings).

The FTC alleged that both of these policies required Qualcomm to license its SEPs to all applicants, including competing chipset manufacturers. Qualcomm argued that the IPR policies contain limitations and that Qualcomm is not required to license its SEPs to applicants, like chipset manufacturers, that only produce components of devices. The FTC applied for partial summary judgment on this point (the trial on the wider issue of whether Qualcomm’s actions have harmed competition is scheduled for January 2019).

The decision

Judge Koh preferred the FTC’s interpretation, taking into account the following points:

  • Non-discrimination: Judge Koh reasoned that “if a SEP holder could discriminate against modem chip suppliers, a SEP holder could embed its technology into a cellular standard and then prevent other modem chip suppliers from selling modem chips to cellular handset producers”. She suggested that such discrimination could enable a SEP holder to achieve a monopoly, in direct contradiction of the stated purpose of the TIA IPR policy.
  • Industry practice: as part of its argument, Qualcomm claimed that chipset manufacturers never receive SEP licences. However, Qualcomm itself had received licences to manufacture and sell components, and had received exhaustive licences from over 120 companies, indicating that it could not be contrary to industry practice for chipset manufacturers to obtain SEP licences. 
  • Prior litigation:  when defending a patent infringement case against Ericsson, Qualcomm had previously claimed that the TIA policy required Ericsson to license any patents ‘required to develop products compliant’ with a given standard. Qualcomm suggested that this requirement would enable all industry participants to develop, manufacture and sell compliant products, and importantly, that chipsets were ‘compliant’ products covered by the policy.
  • Implementing the standard: Judge Koh also dismissed Qualcomm’s arguments that chipset manufacturers do not practise its patents. She noted that neither the ATIS not TIA policy restricts a SEP holder’s FRAND obligations to applicants that themselves practice or implement a whole standard. She emphasised that Qualcomm’s own documents demonstrate that a modem chip is a core component of a cellular handset, and that such chipset implements key cellular technologies.

Judge Koh also referred to a Ninth Circuit precedent (Microsoft II) as establishing that that Qualcomm’s RAND commitments include an obligation to license to all comers, including competing chipset manufacturers. She noted that in Microsoft II the Ninth Circuit had been interpreting a SSO IPR policy with almost identical language to the TIA and ATIS IPR policies.

For all of those reasons, Judge Koh agreed that the test for partial summary judgment (that ‘the meaning of the contract is unambiguous’) was met, and that both IPR policies required Qualcomm to license its SEPs to chipset manufacturers.

Conclusion

Although it was only a hearing for partial summary judgment, this case aired a significant number of the issues and arguments involved in the ‘licensing to all’ debate. These were all dealt with thoroughly by Judge Koh, though Qualcomm is expected to appeal. 

Judge Koh’s reliance on Qualcomm’s previous conduct highlights a frequent problem for large SEP holders that act as both licensor and licensee; it is difficult for such companies to eliminate conflicting positions in different cases.  However, not every judge will place the same weight on such considerations: in Unwired Planet, Birss J dismissed the relevance of past statements made by Ericsson and other SEP holders as to the appropriate total royalty burden (although in TCL Judge Selna took the opposite approach).   

In any event, this ruling is unlikely to be the last word on the matter. The case primarily focussed on contractual interpretation, rather than on antitrust as such. Establishing a contractual requirement for Qualcomm to offer licences to competing chipset manufacturers is one thing. Whether Qualcomm and any chipset manufacturers can agree the terms of a (F)RAND licence is quite another, particularly given that the order relates only to the ATIS and TIA IPR policies and so has a direct impact only on licences to those of Qualcomm’s SEPs which have been declared to ATIS/TIA, rather than necessarily on its global portfolio.  It remains to be seen whether Qualcomm will elect to carry this finding across to SEPs declared to other standards bodies, such as ETSI, and whether chipset manufacturers will in fact benefit from an exhaustive licence from Qualcomm.

Global FRAND issues unpicked in Japan Patent Office’s new licensing guidance

We have previously reported on FRAND guidance from other jurisdictions outside of Europe, such as those published in South Korea a couple of years ago (see here), as well as on EU initiatives, such as last year’s Commission Communication (see our comments here).

Earlier this year, the Japan Patent Office (“JPO”) published a “Guide to Licensing Negotiations Involving Standard Essential Patents”, which aims to shed light on key topics concerning FRAND licensing. It provides a useful summary of licensing negotiations and royalty calculations for standard essential patents (“SEPs”), including taking into account the possible implications of the rise of the Internet of Things on future FRAND-based negotiations.

The Guide focusses on the “two aspects of FRAND”: the negotiation process itself, and the terms of the resulting licence agreement. 

For the first aspect, it gives advice on how to negotiate in good faith, from the perspectives of both the patent holders and the implementers of patented technology. It also sets out actions that it suggests are likely to increase the efficiency of FRAND licensing negotiations, including around timing and issues such as the level of the supply chain at which negotiations should take place. Generally, the Guidelines limit themselves to outlining the issues, and are far from prescriptive.  However, the footnotes provide useful examples of cases from around the world that demonstrate how courts have dealt with particular aspects of these negotiations, including Unwired Planet v Huawei ([2017] EWHC 711 (Pat)) and Huawei v ZTE (Case C-170/13 [2015] CJEU), which we have reported on previously (see, for example, here and here).  Indeed, the licensing negotiation methods proposed are closely aligned to the perspective of the Court of Justice.

For the second aspect of FRAND, namely the terms of the licence, the Guide focusses predominantly on different ways of calculating a FRAND royalty, including the “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches for calculating the royalty rate. It also sets out the advantages and disadvantages of using the smallest saleable patent practising unit compared to the entire market value as the royalty base, a subject that has sparked debate in recent years with the emergence of new technology such as smart phones and connected vehicles. 

Of particular note is the fact that the JPO’s Trial and Appeal Department now provides non-binding advisory opinions in relation to the technical scope of a patented invention. Also, since April 2018 the JPO has been offering opinions to parties in disagreement over the essentiality of a patent. This appears to be in line with an increased emphasis in Japan on arbitration and alternative dispute resolution: in June 2018, it was announced that Asia’s first international arbitration centre specialising in patent disputes would be opening in Tokyo later in the year (see here). 

From the European perspective, the global reach of the Japanese guide is of note: drawing on case law from around the world, it suggests that different national approaches to FRAND can be unified.  For the authors, it is too soon to assume that there is a consistent global approach of FRAND.  Recent announcements from US policy-makers, for example, suggest that the approach to the balance to be struck between licensor and licensee may be changing in a way which differs from that seen in Europe (compare and contrast, for example, Assistant AG Delrahim’s rejection of the role of antitrust in FRAND violations which appears likely to favour licensors, evident desire for balance between licensor and licensee interests in most of the European Commission’s recent statements.

Nevertheless, for those with an interest in FRAND issues, the JPO Guide is well worth reading for an overview of the key considerations for parties engaged in SEP licensing negotiations. The JPO has stated that it aims to keep the Guide updated regularly, with contributions from experts from around the world.  

Summer FRAND developments: some big antitrust news to come

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

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

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

Delay to German Supreme Court ruling in Sisvel v Haier 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coty gets green light for online platform ban

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

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

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

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

MasterCard and Visa MIFfed as the Court of Appeal considers two-sided markets; SCOTUS itself is two-sided (Part 2 – the USA)

Following on from yesterday’s blog on the MasterCard / Visa decision, we’ve also taken a look at how the US is approaching antitrust issues in two-sided markets, with SCOTUS giving its first Opinion on these in the AmEx litigation (originally brought with the DoJ, but continued by only eleven states following the administration change). 

AmEx is a closed loop network, with AmEx holding relationships with Cardholders and Merchants.  In a 5-4 decision considering anti-steering provisions that prohibited merchants from avoiding fees by discouraging AmEx use at the point of sale, SCOTUS found no violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act (upholding the U.S. 2nd Cir. Court of Appeals).  SCOTUS was asked to determine whether the parties had met the burdens in a three step rule of reason analysis (plaintiff must prove anticompetitive effects; defendant must show a procompetitive justification; plaintiff must show that efficiencies could have been achieved through less restrictive means).  

The plaintiffs sought to argue that a market definition wasn’t necessary because they had offered evidence that showed adverse effects on competition.  The majority disagreed with this, and noted that the cases relied on by the plaintiffs for this proposition were horizontal restraint cases. Here, vertical arrangements were at issue, and given that they’re not always anti-competitive, the market definition was relevant.  

The majority held that the relevant market included both sides of the transaction, and it had to be shown that both sides of the transaction were harmed by the provision.  The Court stated that “a market should be treated as one sided when the impacts of indirect network effects and relative pricing in that market are minor”, and divided two-sided markets into two categories:

  1. Two-sided transaction platforms that facilitate a single, simultaneous transaction and are best understood as supplying that transaction as the product (such as those between AmEx Cardholders and Merchants); and

  2. Platforms where the two sides aren’t selling directly to each other (such as newspapers, where users are indifferent to the amount of advertising).

Further, with the first category, evaluating both sides would be necessary to assess competition; only other two-sided platforms can compete for transactions.  Non-transaction platforms often do compete with companies that do not operate on both sides.  Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, their evidence was insufficient as they had only focused on the increase to merchant fees.  This division will perhaps create some debate as to which category a platform falls into, and arguments around how strong indirect network effects are. 

The majority stated that in order to show that the provisions were anticompetitive, plaintiffs should have demonstrated that they increased the cost of credit card transactions above a competitive level, reduced the number of transactions, or otherwise stifled competition.  In fact, the majority found that the provisions were pro-competitive, as they helped maintain a competitor to MasterCard and Visa. 

The dissenting opinion, which included some persuasive points, wanted the US to follow other jurisdictions and take action against high fees charged by credit-card companies to Merchants, viewing the provisions as clearly anticompetitive.  It referred to findings by the District Court, and stated that a market definition was unnecessary because of direct evidence of anticompetitive effects (primarily that AmEx was able to keep increasing fees without losing any large Merchants), but the correct relevant market should have been only the one side – the services are complementary, not substitutes – and that the other side of the market should have come in at the second step of the rule of reason analysis.  This perhaps puts the dissenting justices more in line with the CoA’s approach.   

Dissenting, Justice Breyer further countered the view that the provisions were pro-competitive by stating that “if American Express’ merchant fees are so high that merchants successfully induce their customers to use other cards, American Express can remedy that problem by lowering those fees or by spending more on cardholder rewards so that cardholders decline such requests”.  

Back in the UK, the Merricks collective claim is attempting to show that harm was caused to consumers –not on the flip side of the market, but by Merchants passing on the cost of the MIFs to customers.  Although the CAT refused to allow the action, the appeal is due to be heard later this year.  Whilst there is quite a hurdle to jump in how to ensure consumers receive compensatory amounts rather than token sums of money, if the class is certified, the analysis of effects on consumers and the links between the different markets could make for interesting reading. 

(On a collective action side note…  After two years of build-up, it’s good to see that the first trucks collective claim has started rolling towards certification, and interestingly, is using a special purpose vehicle more typical of litigation in the Netherlands than the UK.)

MasterCard and Visa MIFfed as the Court of Appeal considers two-sided markets; SCOTUS itself is two-sided (Part 1 – the UK)

Whilst the Court of Appeal’s judgment in MasterCard / Visa, and the SCOTUS Opinion in AmEx may seem a little outside our usual area of focus, they are nevertheless decisions that relate to the operation of two-sided markets.  With multi-sided platforms in innovative technological markets, such as Google, Facebook and Uber, increasingly drawing antitrust attention, (see here, and here) there may be some helpful guidance to be drawn from long established industries such as banking and finance. 

This post comes in two parts, with today focusing on the MasterCard / Visa judgment, and tomorrow focusing on the AmEx litigation. 

The Court of Appeal judgment 

Both MasterCard and Visa operate four-party payment schemes:

  • Cardholders contract with an Issuer for a card to buy goods from Merchants;
  • Merchants contract with Acquirers to obtain payment from the Cardholders;
  • Issuers (mostly banks) contract with Acquirers (also mostly banks) to settle transactions.

The Issuers compete for the business of the Cardholders, and the Acquirers compete for the business of the Merchants; but each side is dependent on the other.  The MasterCard / Visa schemes operate as open loop networks, and those participating are subject to various rules – including a requirement to pay fees, including multi-lateral interchange fees (‘MIF’s), that are charged by the Issuer to the Acquirer, and ultimately paid by Merchants in each card transaction.  The MIFs could have been negotiated individually between the Issuer and the Acquirer, but in practice default MIFs set by MasterCard / Visa were used.   

This raised an interesting Article 101(1) question: do the schemes’ default MIFs amount to a restriction of competition by effect?  The European Commission thought so in issuing a 2007 decision against MasterCard in respect of cross-border card transactions, a decision which spawned a multitude of follow-on and standalone actions for damages against both MasterCard and (by analogy given the similarities between their systems) and VISA.  The CAT initially found for the Claimant in one damages action, but the High Court subsequently found for the Defendants in separate actions (MasterCard and Visa).  The Court of Appeal was tasked with addressing these inconsistent outcomes.

The systems themselves operate across three separate markets (an inter-systems market, an issuing market, and an acquiring market), and it was common ground that the relevant market was the acquiring market.  However, arguments raised by the parties (particularly the ‘death spiral’ argument, where MasterCard claimed that if it lowered its MIFs, Issuers would have switched to Visa and the MasterCard scheme would have collapsed) concerned effects on the inter-system market, and the issuing market.  The CoA held that the first question is whether the MIFs restricted competition in the acquiring market. The second question is then whether the MIFs were objectively justified, and at that point, it is legitimate to consider both sides of the two-sided market and the inter-system market. 

The CoA ultimately found that the fees were unlawful, and all three cases are to be remitted to the CAT for an assessment of damages, and a determination as to whether any objective justification applies.  Tomorrow, we’ll set out how the US Supreme Court came to the conclusion that provisions which affected Merchants’ transaction costs were not anti-competitive, with analysis turning on a definition of the market that has implications for all platforms.     

The CJEU guidance in MEO on price discrimination in licensing may also impact FRAND / SEP licences

Introduction

AG Wahl began his Opinion in MEO v Autoridade da Concorrência by noting that it presented the CJEU with an opportunity to clarify the law on differential pricing. Under Article 102(c) TFEU it can be an abuse for a dominant undertaking to apply “dissimilar conditions to equivalent transactions with other trading parties, thereby placing them at a competitive disadvantage”. Discrimination has always been a tricky issue under Article 102 (it is one of relatively few competition issues to have received a thorough discussion by the English Court of Appeal - see British Horseracing Board, paragraphs 265-278)  and it has never been entirely clear to what extent the EU authorities consider that the practice of price differentiation necessarily results in a finding of competitive disadvantage, or how much disadvantage is required to infringe Article 102. 

Price differentiation is a topical issue. The increasing use of pricing algorithms offers the potential for companies to engage in ‘personalised’ pricing on a mass scale, offering different prices to different consumers based on an algorithmic assessment of the highest price each individual is likely to pay. But they may also facilitate anti-competitive price coordination and so could give rise to concerns (see here and here).

Similarly, as the Internet of Things and 5G lead to new market entrants requiring SEP licences, it will be important for licensors to consider how to charge different licensees different prices without infringing the non-discrimination limb of FRAND.

Can it be assumed that price differentiation is likely to distort competition? Should a competition authority have to demonstrate that the competitiveness of any business placed at a disadvantage by differential pricing has suffered? The CJEU decision in MEO offers some useful guidance on these questions.

Facts

MEO is a mobile / telecoms service offered by Portugal Telecom. As part of this service MEO provides television content, and therefore pays royalties to the Portuguese collecting society that manages the rights of artists and performers, GDA.  In 2014 MEO made a complaint to the Portuguese Competition Authority that GDA had abused its dominant position by (amongst other things) applying different terms and conditions (including price) to MEO compared to another entity also providing television content, NOS. The Portuguese Competition Authority found that GDA had applied different tariffs to different customers between 2009 and 2013. However, it concluded that this price differentiation had no restrictive effects on MEO, and so took no action against GDA. MEO appealed this decision to the Portuguese Regulation and Supervision Court, which referred a number of questions regarding differential pricing to the CJEU.

CJEU decision

The CJEU referred to its previous decisions in Intel and Post Danmark II in setting out three key principles that applied:

  1. Proof of actual, quantifiable deterioration of a particular customer’s competitive position is not required for a finding of competitive disadvantage.

  2. All the relevant circumstances must be examined to determine whether price discrimination produces or is capable of producing a competitive disadvantage

  3. The mere presence of an immediate disadvantage affecting operators who are charged more does not mean that competition is distorted or capable of being distorted.

The CJEU also noted that when assessing particular prices charged by a dominant undertaking, the authorities may assess the undertaking’s negotiating power, the conditions and arrangements for charging any tariffs, their duration and amount, and the existence of any strategy aimed at excluding companies from a downstream market. The CJEU also reaffirmed that there is no de minimis threshold for the purposes of determining whether there is an abuse of a dominant position, albeit this will feed into the analysis of potential effect (paragraph 29). 

Impact

This decision offers helpful clarifications on how Article 102(c) should be interpreted. Although relatively narrow in scope, it has broad implications, particularly in the FRAND context; price discrimination between licensees is a controversial topic that has received relatively little judicial or regulator attention to date.  

As we describe in this article, in its Communication on SEPs, the Commission appeared to endorse a specific non-discrimination obligation in FRAND, stating that SEP holders cannot discriminate between implementers that are ‘similarly situated’. However, it did not specifically say that there is a requirement for distortion of competition between those similarly situated licensees (as for example the High Court had held in Unwired Planet, though this issue is being appealed), or whether harm to an individual firm rather than harm to competition might be sufficient (as a US court recently decided in TCL v Ericsson).

The CJEU’s MEO decision suggests that price discrimination will only be abusive if it leads to a distortion of competition (paragraph 27). So it seems there is scope for licensors to charge similarly situated licensees different royalty rates without breaching their FRAND obligations, as long as they do not distort competition by doing so.

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.