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.     

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.   

Bienvenue à Bruxelles! Bristows’ Competition and Regulatory teams visit the new Continental Base

Last month, the entire Competition and Regulatory departments took the opportunity to tour our new Bristows office and to explore its Belgian base

Since Bristows opened a Brussels office in May this year, members of the Competition team have been flitting back and forth across the Channel for meetings with European clients.  However, this was the first time that the whole team had been assembled together at our continental abode.  The trip comprised of a visit to the new office, followed by dinner and drinks next to Brussels’ famed Grand Place.  The following morning some of the team went on a tour of the European Parliament building, before saying “À bientôt” and heading back to the London office. 

After disembarking from the Eurostar, the team headed straight over to the new Bristows branch.  A prime location within the centre of Brussels – it took our group about a minute to walk from the Metro station to the office building – the new base will prove useful for Bristows lawyers supporting a large number of clients on matters of EU law; especially for matters that come before the European institutions.  

Once we arrived we were shown around by Competition partner Stephen Smith, who heads up the Brussels division.  The office is stylish and sophisticated, with some tech start-up-style features such as communal working areas, flexible desk booking, and most importantly, a first-rate coffee machine.  After checking e-mails and settling in to the new office, we made our way across town to the heart of the old city, where we enjoyed a delicious dinner at a traditional Belgian bistro. 

The next morning, several members of the team went on a guided tour of the European Parliament.  Our guide gave us a talk about the history of the EU and the role of the European Parliament, before showing us the main chamber, the Hemicycle, where high-profile debates take place between MEPs during the Parliament’s plenary sessions.  Our guide pointed out the booths around the Hemicycle where the translators work.  These translators usually speak 5 or 6 of the 24 official languages of the EU, and are able to translate what is said by an MEP or guest speaker within 2 or 3 seconds of it being said.  This gave us all a greater appreciation of the incredible work that goes on at the European Parliament.  Overall we were given a fascinating insight into the EU institutions, and the tour was a wonderful way to round off our trip to Brussels. 

A big thank you goes to the Competition and Regulatory partners and to Kelly Parker for organising such an interesting trip.

CAT judgment in Pfizer/Flynn: Was the CMA ‘unfair’ in its assessment of Pfizer and Flynn’s prices?

The principal issue is excessive pricing; … the reason for our conclusion is that the judge erred in holding that the economic value of the pre-race data was its competitive price based on cost +. This method of ascertaining the economic value of this product is too narrow in that it does not take account, or sufficient account, of the value of the pre-race data … and in that it ties the costs allowable in cost+ too closely to the costs of producing the pre-race data.

Thus concluded the Court of Appeal some 10 years ago in overturning a High Court judgment identifying an abuse of dominance through excessive pricing, in that case of pre-race data about British horse races.

The chequered history of excessive pricing cases has repeated itself in 2018, with the Competition Appeal Tribunal’s 7 June judgment in the appeals by Pfizer and Flynn of the CMA’s excessive pricing Decision in relation to phenytoin sodium capsules (we’ve previously covered this here, here, and here).   In a blow to the CMA’s ground-breaking case, the CAT has taken issue with the CMA’s analysis of abuse. As a result, it is considering whether to remit this part of the Decision (and consequential findings, such as the penalties imposed) back to the CMA, and essentially let the CMA try again.  

The CAT has succinctly summarised its main conclusions here.  The findings on market definition and dominance have been upheld, but the controversial findings on abuse have been set aside.  This post guides readers through the key points.

What was the CMA actually arguing?

In its Decision, the CMA sought to apply the Court of Justice’s United Brands ‘two-limb’ test for excessive and unfair pricing, and it was on this that the grounds of appeal focussed.  

During the appeal hearing, however, the CMA seemed to place greater emphasis on the comparison of prices before and after the Pfizer-Flynn agreement, perhaps in reliance on AG Wahl’s opinion in the AKKA/LAA case that competition authorities should have flexibility to determine their own framework for assessing prices.  While the CAT acknowledged that significant price increases over time may be a useful indicator of a potential competition problem, and a reason for starting an investigation, this “should not be confused with the test for unfair pricing itself” (439).  This therefore does not seem to be an easy route for the CMA to take on remittal.

The CAT’s analysis of the United Brands test

Taking the CAT’s approach to the two limbs of the United Brands test separately:  

(i) Whether the difference between the costs actually incurred and the price actually charged is excessive 

The CAT did not conclude that facts established by the CMA could not give rise to a finding of excessive prices.  Rather, it was the CMA’s narrow approach to the assessment of excessive pricing which could not support such a conclusion.  The CMA’s use of only a Cost Plus methodology resulted in a price that would have existed under conditions of “idealised competition”, rather than in the ‘real world’.  If the Cost Plus figure was not the normal competitive price, then it was not the right price for the purposes of the United Brands test.  Instead, the CAT should have looked at wider evidence to establish a benchmark price (or range) based on circumstances of “normal and sufficiently effective” competition.  If the Decision is remitted back to the CMA, it may use Cost Plus as part of the methodology, but it will also need to put those theoretical figures in their full market and commercial context.   

As to the benchmark figures themselves, which used the PPRS derived 6% return on sales, the CAT seemed to accept the PPRS was a potentially relevant indicator, but found the CMA placed too much reliance on it – particularly as Department of Health evidence expressed doubts as to its relevance.  The CAT cautioned that the PPRS was intended to apply in different circumstances to those in this case.  

(ii) Whether a price has been imposed which is either unfair in itself or when compared to competing products

The second limb of the United Brands test appears to give regulators two options: the issue here was whether these were genuine alternatives (as the CMA had only considered the first, ‘unfair in itself’), or whether the CMA should have considered both.  The CAT found that, although the CMA did not need to succeed under both to show a price was unfair, it did need to consider whether the alternative would show a price is one that undermines the basis of a finding of unfairness, in particular where a party under investigation has raised the issue.  While the CAT does not refer to the recent Intel judgment of the CJEU, there is a flavour of its ruling here.  

The CMA had determined that there were no products which could provide a ‘meaningful comparison’, but the CAT found that the CMA’s argument to support this was at fault, and it should have considered the suitability of comparators in more depth.  In particular, tablets produced by Teva were around twice the price of the Pfizer-Flynn Capsules; but this price came from an agreement with the Department of Health which reflected the economic value of the Teva tablets.  Even though those tablets were accepted by the CAT to be outside the relevant market as defined, they appeared to be sufficiently comparable to be worthy of more in-depth consideration.  The contrast drawn between the narrow function of market definition and the wider consideration of competitive constraints relevant in considering abuse is an important and sensible contribution to Article 102 case law generally.

The CAT found that the question of the ‘economic value’ of the Pfizer-Flynn Capsules (which the CMA had considered separately) was best addressed in the context of the ‘Unfairness Limb’.   The CMA had found that the economic value did not exceed the Cost Plus price it had calculated, and considered that there were no non-cost factors which served to increase it.  However, the CAT expressed concern that the evident economic value derived from the benefit patients received had been rejected.  Although the CAT acknowledged that patients did only have limited choices, the CAT found that the CMA should still have attempted a qualitative assessment of this benefit.  Assigning a monetary value to this benefit and assessing by how much it should be reduced due to patients’ limited choices is likely to be difficult.    

Findings of abuse set aside

The CAT decided that further assessment of competitive conditions using information beyond the scope of the Decision would be required.  For that reason, the CAT could not make its own findings as to whether there was an abuse by either company.  Instead, it has provisionally proposed to remit the abuse section Decision back to the CMA, but will now fix a further hearing for the parties to address it on this point.  

Given the policy issues surrounding price increases in the pharmaceutical sector, remitting the Decision for more a comprehensive analysis with the benefit of further clarity in a novel area (from the CAT and the CJEU in AKKA/LAA) is probably the best outcome for all concerned – although the recent closure of the regulatory ‘loophole’ that allowed unregulated price-rises perhaps reduces the long-term benefit.  This ‘have another go’ approach was also the outcome in the CAT’s first hearing for a collective proceedings order – another novel area where policy objectives would have been frustrated by an outright refusal.    

There have been immediate knock-on effects: the CMA has indicated that other active investigations it has in the area may now be severely delayed.  The end of the CMA’s investigation into hydrocortisone seemed to be in sight, and it will be interesting to see how the CMA proceeds with that, as well as the Pfizer / Flynn case.  

The CAT’s difficulties in applying the United Brands test are also likely to be of interest to the Commission, given that it has opened an excessive pricing investigation (into Aspen Pharma) – its first of that type in the pharmaceutical industry.

But while the CMA will clearly have its work cut out (assuming the CAT goes ahead with the remittal), it should not be assumed that this judgment is the end of the story for excessive pricing cases in the UK.  

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.

Advertising in the digital age – the future role for competition law

The House of Lords Select Committee on Communications has published its final report following a wide-ranging investigation into the UK digital ad market.  Its headline finding is that a lack of transparency hinders the ability of advertisers to ascertain whether they receive value for money for ads.

Of particular note for those who follow competition law is the Committee’s recommendation that the CMA conduct a market study into digital advertising to investigate whether the market is working fairly.  The Government has also been encouraged to undertake a review of whether current competition law is adequate to regulate the 21st century digital economy, potentially as part of its work on the UK’s Digital Charter (see here). 

Context for the review 

At its origin, the House of Lords’ inquiry had something of a Brexit flavour, focussing on the competitiveness of the UK advertising industry in the global economy.  The role of digital advertising was seen as signalling a potential need for the analogue industry to adapt to change.  The high value of advertising in the UK economy was also noted.

What were the Committee’s findings? 

The final report unsurprisingly notes the increasing role played by online advertising, the complexity of the business models involved and the increasing possibilities for individually targeted ads.  Concerns are expressed that online advertising is not held to the same standards as print advertising, which may lead to a decline in trust and thus value.  At the same time, the proportion of overall spend is rapidly switching to online ads.

Turning to the part of the report focussing on digital advertising, the Committee found that despite the proliferation of adtech models, the digital ad market in the UK is currently dominated by a small number of tech firms. 

Acknowledging that dominance is not illegal in itself, the Committee nevertheless noted the evidence given by Prof. Barwise on the economic impacts of increased market concentration and network effects: “once you achieve a dominant market share in this kind of market, it is almost impossible to be displaced … The most you can hope for is that they get eclipsed by someone dominating a new market that becomes bigger,” and “Most of the new technology is being developed by startups and the big tech players. When a startup is looking successful, it tends to get bought by one of the big tech players.

What are the prospects of regulatory intervention? 

Investigations into digital markets by competition authorities is something of a global trend, and the French authorities in particular have already carried out a specific study on digital ad markets (here).  The prevalence of these studies reflect wider political and public concerns about the perceived power and reach of some online players, as well as the concern to ensure the continuation of an open internet (the alternative to extensive advertising may be increasing use of paywalls). 

The Committee specifically calls upon the CMA to undertake a market study into the online ad industry “to investigate whether the market is working fairly for businesses and consumers”.  

However, it remains to be seen whether the CMA will pick up the Committee’s gauntlet.  Michael Grenfell (Executive Director for Enforcement, CMA) told the Committee that “the CMA had already been asked to conduct a market study into online advertising but declined to do so because they had not found any detriment to consumers on preliminary consideration”.  

Mr Grenfell appears to be referring to the CMA’s report on "The commercial use of consumer data", June 2015, which did not identify a specific competition issue in relation to online advertising and concluded that “we see no reason, at present, why our existing competition and markets tools would not be effective at tackling conduct that gave rise to competition concerns in these markets”. 

The CMA also pointed to its limited resources.  While it has received a cash boost since that date, the demands of Brexit may make such wide-ranging studies unlikely for now.

Nevertheless, the current Department of Business and Industry Strategy’s consultation on ‘modernising consumer markets’ (see here – the consultation is intended to review the effectiveness of the UK’s competition and consumer protection laws in digital markets) may lead to further intervention.

What next for digital advertising?

The Committee’s report illustrates that the digital ad market remains a focus of attention and concern.  Despite the CMA’s stated position in the report, discussion of increased ex ante regulation, and ex post competition based investigations cannot be ruled out. But for all the focus on British competitiveness, and even though localisation of ads is important, many aspects of this debate transcend national boundaries.  The British government and the CMA are not the only players who will define the evolution of online ad markets.

‘Baysanto’: EU merger clearance of the Bayer/Monsanto confirms continued attention to innovation markets

Last week, the European Commission confirmed that it had cleared the proposed merger between Bayer and Monsanto, the third mega-merger in recent times between seeds / pesticides giants following those between ChemChina and Syngenta, and Dow and DuPont.

In common with the previous mergers in the sector, the Commission has required divestments and commitments by the parties in order to remove problematic areas of overlap.  And these again focussed not only on existing products, but on areas of innovation where both parties had active R&D projects.

The full decision is not yet available, so it is unclear whether the Commission has gone as far in identifying potential ‘innovation spaces’ as in Dow/DuPont, where it used a patent citation analysis to measure ‘innovation output’ (see the relevant section of our Survey of IP/competition law developments from 2017 for more detail).  However, it has identified a number of areas of where innovation needed to be protected before the merger could be approved, including innovation competition in:

  • GM and non-GM traits (i.e. specific plant features traceable to identifiable genes) conferring herbicide tolerance or insect resistance; and
  • herbicides / herbicide systems (i.e. herbicide combined with a trait ensuring herbicide tolerance).
Other areas of innovation (e.g. biological pesticides) were not considered to raise competition concerns.

Relevant commitments offered by Bayer include divestment of its vegetable seed and broadacre (i.e. large-scale agricultural) seeds and traits businesses, including the associated R&D units in each case, as well as three specific lines of research for non-selective herbicides (to be divested to BASF, subject to a separate merger approval).  Bayer also committed to license its digital agriculture offering and pipeline to BASF, allowing it to replicate Bayer’s position in the EEA (where Monsanto was otherwise the main competitor to Bayer’s system).

The increased focus on very early stage product developments is controversial.  In its focus on ‘innovation spaces’, the Dow/DuPont merger traversed new ground in merger analysis, considering product pipelines at a time even before specific products may have been identified.  Our new CLIP of the month, by Andrea Lofaro, Stephen Lewis and Paulo Abecasis is an ideal introduction to the economic questions involved, including whether consolidation is likely to decrease incentives to innovate (as the Commission fears) or whether it may in fact encourage innovation (both by the parties and by others in the market) and enhance the ability to take advantage of innovation that has been carried out.  

Debate will no doubt continue over these questions for some time to come.  In the meantime, Bayer and Monsanto will continue their efforts to obtain clearance for the transaction from other authorities, including the USA.