The keenly awaited appeal judgment in Unwired Planet v Huawei was handed down yesterday. In its unanimous judgment, the Court of Appeal dismissed Huawei’s appeal, confirming Mr Justice Birss’s first instance decision (see previous commentary here and here) on FRAND licensing of standard-essential patents (‘SEPs’). We summarise the key findings below.
1. Global licensing may be FRAND
The Court of Appeal held that a global licence can in principle be FRAND, and that if such a licence is refused by an implementer, the SEP holder should be entitled to the usual relief available for patent infringement, including an injunction. Agreeing with Birss J that Unwired Planet’s portfolio is substantial in size and scope and that Huawei’s business is global in nature, the Court decided that a global licence is what reasonable companies would have agreed on the facts of this case.
The Court of Appeal disagreed with Birss J on one point. In the Court’s analysis, Birss J’s finding that there is only one set of FRAND licence terms in any given scenario was at odds with the complexities of patent licensing – and concepts such as fairness and reasonableness did not sit easily with Birss J’s rigid approach. This did not affect the Court’s overall conclusion on the global licensing issue, however.
The Court of Appeal’s strong endorsement of Birss J’s approach means that the UK is likely to remain an attractive forum for SEP holders seeking to resolve global licensing disputes. Nevertheless, the judgment still leaves scope for new issues to be raised: the Unwired Planet saga turned very much on its own facts and on Birss J’s assessment of those facts. The judgment does not mean that every future court-determined SEP licence will necessarily be global: this will depend on the nature of the portfolio to be licensed and the implementer’s sales and manufacturing footprint. The law in this area is likely to continue to develop as new issues are raised (for example, an appeal of a jurisdiction challenge is currently pending before the Court of Appeal in another FRAND licensing case) and as other jurisdictions continue to develop their FRAND jurisprudence.
2. Unwired Planet’s offer was non-discriminatory
The Court of Appeal agreed with Birss J that the ‘ND’ limb of the FRAND obligation only requires a SEP holder to offer a rate which reflects the proper valuation of the portfolio to all potential licensees. However, a SEP holder is not prevented from charging less than that benchmark rate if it chooses to do so. Indeed, the Court acknowledged that price discrimination is inherently neither pro- nor anti-competitive, stating that “an effects-based approach to non-discrimination is appropriate”. In cases where discrimination below the FRAND benchmark rate does cause competitive harm, this can be addressed by the application of competition law.
The approach of the Court of Appeal is in line with European competition law, which only identifies anti-competitive discrimination where there is a risk of competitive harm. Arguably, the ruling at first instance went further, and required actual harm to be proved (the Court of Appeal did not address this point).
SEP holders are likely to welcome this flexibility, which may also be beneficial for implementers who are looking to take advantage of a bespoke deal. But in the context of litigation, implementers may be concerned that the ND obligation now lacks teeth. Nevertheless, prior licences of a particular portfolio are likely to remain of critical importance in any comparator licence analysis under the “fair and reasonable” limb of FRAND (unless they can be sufficiently differentiated, such that they are deemed not to be comparable), so the Court of Appeal’s judgment doesn’t give SEP owners a free hand to license at differential rates.
3. The Huawei v ZTE negotiation framework is not a set of prescriptive rules
The Court of Appeal has taken a pragmatic view, holding that just one part of the Huawei v ZTE framework is mandatory: the obligation on the SEP owner to contact and notify the implementer before starting litigation. The remainder of the framework is said to provide a ‘safe harbour’ – the licensor may stray from it, but in doing so faces risks of infringing Article 102 and being unable to obtain an injunction.
Whilst the Court has endorsed Birss J’s relatively flexible approach to applying the Huawei v ZTE framework, parties should nonetheless think carefully before straying too far from the scheme established by the CJEU. Non-compliant conduct may remain high-risk if litigation occurs in the courts of other EU member states.
What next for FRAND?
The High Court’s judgment has been upheld and so the ‘FRAND injunction’ issued by Birss J will now take effect, unless a further suspension is ordered while an appeal to the Supreme Court takes place. Huawei has already indicated that it may seek permission to appeal.
It remains to be seen to what extent the courts of other countries, including emerging FRAND centres such as China, will sit back and allow the UK courts to play ringmaster on FRAND/SEP issues. Recent guidelines issued by the courts of Guangdong (an important tech centre in China) suggest that global FRAND disputes may also find a home in other jurisdictions.