European Commission sets up SEP Licensing Expert Group

Introduction

The Commission’s November 2017 Communication on SEPs (on which we reported here) referred to the Commission’s intention to set up an expert group to gather industry practice and expertise on FRAND licensing that could be used to support the Commission’s policy making (the “Expert Group”).  On 5 July 2018 the Commission adopted a decision establishing the Expert Group. As well as setting out what the Expert Group’s tasks will be and noting that the Commission may consult the Expert Group on any matter relating to licensing and valuation of SEPs, the decision explains how the members of the Expert Group will be selected and how observer organisations can play a role. Further information is available on the Commission website.

Membership and selection process

The Expert Group will comprise up to 15 members with substantial experience in licensing and / or the valuation of SEPs (other experts with specific expertise may also be invited to work with the Group on an ad hoc basis). At least two thirds of the members will be appointed in a personal capacity and must act independently and in the public interest. 

The remaining members may be appointed to represent a common interest shared by stakeholders (the member and interest represented will be listed in a Transparency Register). The application form gives the following list of interests that can be represented:
 
a) Academia/Research
b) Civil society 
c) Employees/Workers
d) Finance
e) Industry
f) Professionals
g) SMEs
h) Other (to be specified) 

Applicants will also be required to indicate the policy areas in which the stakeholders they represent operate. The categories of interest are surprisingly broad. Within ‘Industry’ for example, there are likely to be a wide range of (conflicting) views presented.  We have previously discussed some of the areas of fierce debate within industry on topics such as use-based licensing, licensing to all and the appropriate royalty base– see here and here

The deadline for applications is 20 August 2018. Members shall be appointed by DG GROW, after consultation of the other Commission services concerned, for a term of two years. Given its responsibility for IP and standardisation, DG GROW is the directorate taking the lead here: the Expert Group will act at its request and will be chaired by a representative of DG GROW.

Observers

Organisations directly involved in licensing or valuing SEPs may (by invitation) be granted observer status. If appointed, the organisation will be able to nominate an experienced representative to participate in Expert Group meetings, although the representative will not have voting rights or be able to participate in the recommendations or advice produced by the Group. The names of observer organisations and their representatives will be listed in the Transparency Register.

Thoughts

We have previously noted that rival CEN-CENELEC workshops have been set-up to produce Codes of Conduct on best practices for SEP licensing, and that these Codes are likely to adopt very different positions on the most contentious unresolved issues in SEP licensing (here). Recommendations produced by the Commission-backed Expert Group should take into account a wider range of views, and are likely to be more persuasive.

It will therefore come as no surprise that lobbying groups have been quick to set out their views on the sorts of members that should be appointed to the Expert Group. For example, IP Europe “urge[s] the European Commission to ensure broad representation on the expert group from leading European innovators of wireless open standard technologies” (here), whereas ACT | The App Association emphasises the importance of including “the perspective of innovators from all along the value chain” (here). 

Whoever DG GROW decides to appoint (and there is no deadline currently set for when the list of appointed members will be published), it will need to ensure that the Expert Group is capable of grappling with the many complicated issues currently arising in FRAND licensing disputes, as well as new issues that will do doubt arise as the Internet of Things continues to evolve.   

FRAND in the UK (May 2018 edition): Unwired Planet appeal; Apple v Qualcomm

This week has seen the English Court of Appeal hear Huawei’s appeal of the FRAND and remedies judgments issued last year by the High Court in the Unwired Planet litigation (see our reports here and here, and a more detailed analysis here).

Huawei’s appeal spans three main arguments:
 
  • The High Court should not have determined FRAND terms, including rates, for territories other than the UK: it was mistaken in holding that there can only be one set of FRAND terms in any given set of circumstances and erred in finding that this meant that the only FRAND licence was global.  
  • The Judge was mistaken to decide that the non-discrimination (ND) limb of FRAND allows a standard essential patent (SEP) holder to charge similarly situated licensees substantially different royalty rates for the same SEPs.
  • The Court should have found that Huawei had a defence to Unwired Planet’s injunction claim under Article 102 TFEU, and by application of the CJEU’s ruling in Huawei v ZTE: the Court was wrong to hold that the steps laid down by the CJEU in Huawei v ZTE were discretionary factors rather than mandatory conditions.
 
As well as seeking to rebut these points, and uphold the first instance decision, Unwired Planet is disputing:
 
  • The first instance finding that Unwired Planet held a dominant position (despite an acknowledged 100% market share in the market for the licensing of SEPs owned by Unwired, and the admitted indispensability of the infringed SEPs).
  • The decision that its unusually worded injunction claim was in fact a claim for a prohibitory injunction in the sense contemplated by the ruling of the Court of Justice in Huawei v ZTE.  (Unwired had claimed an injunction “save insofar as the Defendants … are entitled to and take a licence to the Declared Essential Patents on FRAND terms (in accordance with the Claimant’s undertakings and the ETSI IPR Policy) and insofar as the Claimant is and remains required to grant such a licence”.)
 
Meanwhile, the English court has this week adjudicated on the summary judgment claim in Apple v. Qualcomm.  (See here for our summary of the original scope of the case; Apple supplemented its claims against Qualcomm shortly before the March hearing to add a follow-on case based on the European Commission abuse decision – as to which, see here.)
 
Unlike in the recent Conversant v. Huawei & ZTE decisions, which confirmed that the English court had jurisdiction to hear a global FRAND claim at the remedies stage of a patent infringement action (although also granted permission to appeal that decision), in Apple v. Qualcomm, the High Court declined to allow Apple to bring its case alleging breach of Qualcomm’s FRAND undertaking.  The difficulty stems primarily from the attempt to use the UK Qualcomm subsidiary – which does not own relevant patents, and did not give FRAND undertakings – as an anchor defendant for a claim based on FRAND declarations given by its ultimate parent company, Qualcomm Inc.  The Judge, Morgan J, held that the reference in clause 6.1 of the ETSI IPR Policy to “the owner” of SEPs did not mean that affiliates of the owner should be required to comply with the ETSI FRAND undertaking.  Such an obligation would apply only if such affiliates themselves also owned IP to which the undertaking directly applied (e.g. other patents within the same family).  The Judge did not consider his ruling to be in any way inconsistent with Birss J’s ruling in Unwired Planet.  He therefore granted Qualcomm ‘reverse summary judgment’ against Apple’s claim, preventing Apple from continuing to advance this case (subject to the outcome of any permitted appeal).  
 
Apple had also brought a number of related claims, including for patent revocation/non-infringement and exhaustion.  These have been allowed to proceed (but arguably do not address the central dispute between the parties).  However, other issues relating to Qualcomm’s licensing practices were held not to meet the jurisdictional gateways, and not to be sufficiently closely related to the patent claims.  Apple’s competition law damages case, including a claim that Qualcomm charged “supra-FRAND royalties” also hangs in the balance – while the Judge was not concerned about similar US proceedings, he has expressed concerns about whether loss was actually suffered by the claimants in the jurisdiction, and has permitted Qualcomm to adduce evidence on this point, to which Apple may respond.
 
The judgment of Morgan J shows that the English court is alive to the need to allow only appropriate cases to proceed, but also contains valuable guidance on how future claimants can improve their chances of passing through the relevant jurisdictional gateways. 
 
We will report in due course on the outcome of the Unwired Planet appeal – judgment is expected before the Court’s August break. 

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.

Race to publish rival SEP & FRAND Codes of Conduct: new CEN-CENELEC working groups established

In October last year we reported on the difficulties that the Commission was facing in drafting its Communication on SEPs, in particular relating to the issues of use-based licensing or chipset licensing (see here).  We also noted that certain industry participants, such as Nokia and Ericsson, had confirmed their intention to establish an industry-wide code on best practices for SEP licensing.

In the subsequent months there have been some significant developments. The Commission’s Communication has been published (here, analysed in an article we wrote for the CIPA Journal here), although there was a notable absence of any specific reference to use-based or chipset licensing. The Nokia-backed proposal for a Code of Conduct has also crystallised into the form of a CEN-CENELEC workshop that kicked off in October 2017 (WS-SEP). 

Perhaps alive to the risk of that workshop producing a Code of Conduct that favoured SEP holders, a rival CEN-CENELEC workshop was set up by ACT (The App Association) and the FSA (Fair Standards Alliance) in February 2018 (WS-SEP2). Although slower off the mark, this second workshop is operating to a faster timetable; both workshops aim to produce a final text of their Code of Conduct by June 2018.

The detailed project plans for each workshop reveal exactly the sorts of differences in approach that one might expect. Both workshops intend their participants to discuss a range of FRAND issues in order to identify best practices from which a Code of Conduct can be developed. However, there are some clear differences in emphasis from each workshop.

WS-SEP focuses on the goal of concluding licence agreements and resolving licensing disputes quickly and efficiently. As part of this, it proposes the establishment of an ‘IoT SEP Licensing Gateway’, describing this as a “process and structure to engage in licensing discussions and resolution in a streamlined or more systematic way”.

On the other hand, WS-SEP2 envisages a broader range of topics being covered, making specific reference to the issues of patent hold-up and licensing without mandatory bundling on a portfolio only basis.

The differences in approach are perhaps most clearly seen in the sections of each workshops’ project plan which deal with what we have previously described as use-based and chipset licensing (here) – topical issues that the Commission did not address directly in its SEP Communication. 

Both workshops recognise the importance of developing guidance on the value of a standardised technology. However, while WS-SEP2 states that “a patent owner cannot seek to exaggerate the value of its patent by focusing on value created by downstream innovators and devices”, WS-SEP warns that “the price of a car does not reflect the value of connectivity in a car, equally the price of a chip may not reflect the value that connectivity, enabled by a chip brings to an end product”.

And though WS-SEP2 intends its guidance to cover “[t]he long history of FRAND licensing at all levels of the supply chain”, by contrast, WS-SEP takes a much narrower approach, proposing discussion on “[t]he appropriate licensing points to efficiently provide access-for-all”. 

The Commission’s decision to avoid taking a stance on either of these issues in its Communication, the value at stake in the light of the IoT and the impact that use-based and chipset licensing could have on royalties paid in new licences meant that these areas were always likely to become a battleground.  

We will be very interested to see the final products of both workshops. However, if the end result is two conflicting Codes of Conduct, they may have little impact on resolving the most contentious FRAND issues. 

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. 

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.

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.

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.