Depression delayed: CMA’s paroxetine pay-for-delay case heads to Luxembourg

On 8 March 2018, the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) gave an initial judgment (see here) in the appeals brought by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and a number of generic manufacturers against the Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) 2016 Paroxetine decision (see here and here).   As explained further below, the CAT has (in a move which perhaps goes against the prevailing zeitgeist) not reached final conclusions on the appeals, but has rather referred a number of questions to the Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

Background

The infringements identified by the CMA in its Paroxetine decision arose out of three patent settlement agreements made in 2001 and 2002 between GSK and various generic manufacturers of paroxetine.  

Paroxetine is an anti-depressant (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor “SSRI”), marketed by GSK under the brand name “Seroxat”, which during the infringement period was one of its highest selling products, accounting for £71.6 million (10% of revenue) in 2001.

The CMA’s investigation into paroxetine was the first UK case to grapple with the contentious area of patent settlement agreements which limit generic companies’ ability to bring their own product to market.  The investigation was formally launched by the OFT in 2011 on the basis of information obtained by the European Commission through its pharmaceutical sector inquiry (2009). 

Following a significant further period of investigation, the CMA in 2016 issued a decision fining GSK, Alpharma and Generics (UK) a total of £44.99 million for agreeing to delay the entry of generic paroxetine in breach of Chapter I and/or Article 101 TFEU.  GSK received the largest penalty, being fined £37,606,275 for its parallel infringement of the Chapter II prohibition:

  • The CMA found that between 2001 and 2004 GSK agreed to make payments and other value transfers of over £50 million to generic suppliers of paroxetine; this amounted to a restriction of competition by object and/or effect. 

  • The CMA also found that GSK’s conduct induced generic providers to delay their efforts to independently enter the UK paroxetine market, abusing its dominant position in breach of Chapter II of the Competition Act.

The CAT Judgment 

The essential element of the CAT’s March 2018 judgment is the reference of five issues to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling.  As things stand, the exact text of the questions has not been formulated (and will no doubt be the subject of fierce debate among the parties).  However, the issues referred will relate to the following areas: 

  1. Potential competition: whether the existence of an interim injunction against generic manufacturers was an insurmountable barrier for entering the market.

    The provisional view of the Tribunal was to find that it was not (since, for example, it could have been discharged). However, it decided to refer a question to the CJEU as the question was similar to one raised in Lundbeck’s appeal (see here). This reference raises issues not dissimilar to those at play in the recent Roche judgment of the CJEU, which considered whether potentially unlawful products could be viewed as potential competitors (see here).

  2. Restriction of competition by object: when the strength of a patent is uncertain, does a transfer of value from the originator to a generic of an amount substantially greater than avoided litigation costs, under a settlement agreement in which the generic company agrees not to enter the market with its generic product and not to challenge the originator’s patent, constitute a restriction by object?

    The CAT emphasised a number of points in connection with this question, including a notable recognition that (a) the uncertainty over patent strength means that a possible outcome of the litigation was that the generic challengers would be held to infringe a valid patent; and (b) an outcome of litigation which upheld the patent should not be viewed as a less competitive outcome than the situation where the patent was overturned.

    A second related question was also identified, which seeks to establish whether a settlement comprising a value transfer which also provides some benefits to consumers (in the form of limited supplies of authorised generic products) should also be viewed as restrictive by object. Again, the preliminary view of the Tribunal was that such limited competitive benefits are not sufficient to draw into question the overall categorisation of the agreement as a by object infringement. If that is correct, it is necessarily a conclusion which will have to be considered in detail for any specific patent settlement agreement, and suggests that a blanket ‘by object’ approach will not be warranted.

  3. Restrictions by effect: in order to show a restriction by effect is it necessary to establish that the counterfactual would have been more competitive? The Appellants argued that the CMA’s Decision did not sufficiently consider the potentially pro-competitive effects of GSK’s agreements with generic manufacturers, for example the savings to the NHS compared to the situation where no authorised generics were on the market.

    The CAT also started to grapple with an issue which has been underplayed in the European decisions to date, namely the relevance of the outcome of the underlying patent litigation. If one realistic outcome of that litigation was success for GSK, the approach proposed by the CMA would be to reduce the test for identifying effects to “the probability of a possibility”. On the other hand, the CAT did not seem to acknowledge the risk of creating a situation where an agreement is considered restrictive of competition by object yet does not possess the requisite degree of probability for an effects finding that is not made out. This is surely an issue that will have to be fully played out before this, and similar cases, are finally resolved. (Damages litigation in relation to patent settlement agreements is likely to bring this issue to the fore, even if the CJEU elects to side-step the question.)

  4. The correct approach to defining the relevant product market: is the relevant product market paroxetine or all SSRIs? While the Tribunal supported the CMA’s finding of dominance on the basis of a market limited to paroxetine, it criticised its reasoning. It considered the CMA to have taken an overly narrow approach to market definition, based on the impact of generic entry on the price of paroxetine - following the Commission’s ‘natural events’ approach used in its AstraZeneca Decision (2005) (see here). However, the CAT supported the view that from the time when there were potential generic entrants, the market was limited to paroxetine and its generics. It recognised that this preliminary view, which suggests a significant change in the relevant market over time (despite no suggestion that the view of prescribing professionals was subject to a similar change) was a departure from existing case law. In the authors’ view, this approach will lead to legal uncertainty and, more importantly, inappropriately substitutes an analysis based on perceived competitive constraints for an assessment based principally on objective demand factors. As the CAT itself notes, this approach would suggest successful drugs will almost always be found to constitute a distinct market at least from the time when generic entry becomes likely. As the Tribunal notes, this approach would amount to a material change to the “IP bargain” which “might adversely affect the economic purpose of patent legislation”.

    Nevertheless, in making the reference on this point, the CAT has flagged some significant issues which should weigh in the CJEU’s eventual analysis.

  5. Abuse: are potential benefits to the NHS relevant to the assessment of whether GSK had abused a dominant position by entering into the agreements?

    The final question on abuse is limited to an allusion back to the questions referred in relation to the object and effect of anti-competitive agreements. The central issue is again the question of whether the limited pro-competitive benefits derived from the presence of the generic companies as distributors of an authorised generic product are sufficient to undermine the main finding as anti-competitive effects.

Although the judgment is provisional in nature, there is much to absorb. We will report further when the agreed text of the questions to be referred has been published.

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).

Online sales bans in the sports equipment sector: the CMA’s Ping decision

In August last year, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced that it had imposed a fine of £1.45 million on Ping Europe Limited (Ping) for breaching the EU and UK competition rules.  The CMA found that Ping had infringed the Chapter 1 prohibition of the Competition Act 1998 and Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) by entering into agreements with two UK retailers which banned the sale of its golf clubs online.  The CMA chose to apply Rule 10(2) of its procedural rules and addressed the decision only to Ping.  A non-confidential version of the decision was published in December 2017, revealing the UK competition authority’s detailed reasoning for the first time.  

Background. Ping is a manufacturer of golf clubs, golf accessories and clothing.  It operates a selective distribution system in the UK, supplying only retailers which meet certain qualitative criteria. Ping considered that ‘dynamic face-to-face custom fitting’1 was the best way to enhance golf-club choice and quality for consumers, and that such custom fitting could not take place over the internet.  As a result, Ping instigated an ‘internet policy’ which banned its authorised retailers from selling any of its golf clubs online.

The CMA’s competition assessment.  Relying on the CJEU’s judgment in Pierre Fabre, the CMA held Ping’s online sales ban restricted competition ‘by object’.  In the UK authority’s analysis, the ban reduced retailers’ ability to reach customers outside their local geographic areas and to win customers’ business by offering better prices online.  The CMA also relied on Advocate General Wahl’s Opinion in Coty (the CMA’s decision pre-dated the CJEU’s Coty judgment, which we commented on here).  AG Wahl had contrasted the contractual clause at issue in that case (which prevented authorised retailers from selling on third-party online platforms) with more serious restrictions, such as the outright internet sales ban that gave rise to the Pierre Fabre ruling.

Ping had argued that its online sales ban was objectively justified under the competition rules for three main reasons:

  1. The aim of the ban was to promote face-to-face custom fitting, which fosters inter-brand competition by enhancing product quality and consumer choice;
  2. The ban was necessary to protect Ping’s brand image.  Selling non-custom-fitted clubs would result in an inferior product being placed in consumers’ hands, which would damage Ping’s reputation;
  3. The ban enabled Ping to resolve a ‘free rider’ problem by ensuring that authorised retailers had appropriate incentives to invest in custom fitting. It would be commercially unsustainable for retailers to make investments in appropriate facilities if a potential customer could obtain a custom fitting in a bricks-and-mortar store and then buy the clubs online.

Noting that other high-end golf club manufacturers such as Callaway and Titleist did not restrict online sales of custom-fit clubs, the CMA dismissed Ping’s submissions on objective justification.  Whilst the CMA accepted that the promotion of custom fitting was a “genuine commercial aim”, it thought Ping could have achieved this through alternative, less restrictive means.  According to the CMA, the “main alternative” available to Ping was to permit authorised retailers to sell online if they could “demonstrate [their] ability to promote custom fitting in the online sales channel”.2

Ping’s appeal to the CAT.  Ping has appealed against the CMA’s decision.  In its press release responding to the decision, Ping stated: “Our Internet Policy is an important pro-competitive aspect of our long-standing commitment to custom fitting”.  It also argues in its Grounds of Appeal that the CMA was wrong to find that the online sales ban was disproportionate: the CMA’s proposed alternative measures would, in Ping’s view, be impractical and less effective at maximising rates of custom fitting.  The appeal is due to be heard by the UK Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) in May this year.

Comment.  The Ping decision is the latest in a line of recent cases in which suppliers have sought to restrict retailers’ ability to sell products over the internet.  As we noted here, the German Bundeskartellamt has taken a particularly dim view of online sales restrictions in a number of decisions concerning brand owners’ selective distribution systems.  The publication of the Ping decision also comes hot on the heels of the CJEU’s preliminary ruling in the Coty case, in which it was held that manufacturers of luxury goods can, in principle, prevent their authorised retailers from selling via third-party online platforms such as Amazon and eBay, provided that certain conditions are fulfilled (see here).

Also of note was the CMA’s decision to set out in an ‘Alternatives Paper’ its provisional considerations of ‘realistic alternatives’ to achieve the legitimate aims identified by Ping.  Whilst the CMA states that the evidential burden of establishing whether the online sales ban was justified was Ping’s and despite the CMA’s assertion that it was not required to do so, it is interesting that the CMA was willing to engage in its own alternatives assessment.

It remains to be seen what the CAT will make of Ping’s justifications for its online sales ban.  In the meantime, however, the CMA’s decision again highlights the competition law risks of imposing an outright ban on internet sales.  Like other national competition authorities, the CMA has frequently emphasised the importance of the online sales channel in intensifying intra-brand price competition.  As Senior Director for Antitrust Enforcement Ann Pope put it in the CMA’s press release of August 2017: “The internet is an increasingly important distribution channel and retailers’ ability to sell online, and reach as wide a customer base as possible, should not be unduly restricted.

______________________________________________

1 Dynamic face-to-face custom fitting generally involves: an initial interview; a static fitting in which the golfer’s basic measurements are taken; the fitter identifying potential club shafts for the golfer; a dynamic fitting, including a swing-test assessment of how the golfer is hitting the ball; purchasing advice; and grip fitting.

2 In particular, Ping could (according to the CMA) require its retailers to display on their websites a prominent notice recommending that customers take advantage of custom fitting; and it could determine that only retailers with an appropriate website providing a range of Ping custom fit club options would satisfy its selective distribution requirements.

Third-party platform bans justified for genuinely luxury brands

The Court of Justice of the European Union (‘CJEU’) has today ruled that third-party platform bans may be justified in the selective distribution of luxury goods. The CJEU’s decision in the Coty Germany reference proceedings broadly follows the opinion of Advocate General Wahl which was handed down earlier this year (see here, and further background here). 

The Court makes a number of rulings which will be of interest to brand owners:

  • Selective distribution may be justified for luxury goods to protect the ‘allure and prestige’. This clears up the uncertainty which arose following the Pierre Fabre judgment which seemed to suggest that the preservation of a luxury image could not justify a restriction of competition. The CJEU has confirmed that the judgment in that case should be confined to the particular facts at issue.
  • Third party platform bans may be justified in the selective distribution of luxury goods. The CJEU has ruled that, in the context of selective distribution, a supplier of luxury goods can, in principle, prohibit authorised distributors from using ‘in a discernible manner’ third-party platforms such as Amazon. Any third-party platform ban must have the objective of preserving the luxury image of the goods, be applied uniformly and not in a discriminatory fashion, and be proportionate to the objective pursued.

This ruling certainly gives some more leeway for brand owners of luxury goods, but should not be seen as an absolute green light for third-party platform bans. In particular, such restrictions must be justified by the goods in question (i.e. they must have a genuine ‘aura of luxury’) and must be a proportionate means of preserving the luxury image. This will be for national courts and authorities to interpret, and we can expect a fairly high threshold. The German Competition Authority, the Bundeskartellamt, has already said that it considers the CJEU’s decision to be limited to genuinely prestigious products. That said, the ruling does make clear that third-party platform bans do not amount to a hardcore restriction of competition, and thus it will be open to brand owners to seek to justify their use on a case-by-case basis.  

Deciding on terms of privacy policies – what are the risks of anti-competitive collusion?

Big data is the talk of the town in competition circles.  But it is perhaps a more mundane concern which could pose greater risks for a larger number of companies.  An article by a couple of regular CLIP Board contributors published earlier this year in Privacy Law International notes the increasing tendency to regard privacy as a parameter of competition, and explores the risks of collusive conduct being identified in relation to the terms of privacy policies. Is there a risk of a future information exchange case around the treatment of data privacy?  Could a concerted practice be found where companies benchmark their privacy policies against each other? Would this be as serious a concern as exchanges relating to future pricing intentions? 

Read on for our views on all of these questions here

Economical with the truth? When providing misleading information to authorities might be an object infringement

One of the more intriguing Opinions to be given by an Advocate General recently came out in late September (Case C-179/16, F. Hoffmann-La Roche and Others v Autorità Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato (AGCM), Opinion of Advocate General Saugmandsgaard Øe delivered on 21 September 2017). 

 It is full of interesting observations on market definition in the pharma sector; the distinction between object and effect; how to look at the question of competition between licensors and licensees under the Technology Transfer Regulation; and how to assess whether a restriction of competition exists. We will be writing about these (and more) a bit later, but thought that in the meantime those of you who are particularly interested in Life Sciences might want to take a look at our sister blog On The Pulse. A short article has been posted there which briefly summarises the Advocate General’s views on whether there is a duty on pharma companies under Article 101 not to agree to provide information which is objectively misleading to the regulatory authorities. In this instance the information found to be misleading related to the relative safety of two products, one of which was authorised to treat ophthalmic conditions and one of which was not, but which was being prescribed off-label – so quite unusual circumstances (although perhaps a situation that could be expected to arise more in future, as second, third and fourth medical uses become the norm).

You may remember that a similar legal issue has already been discussed under Article 102 in the AstraZeneca case (see here and here) where dominant companies were found to be subject to a duty to act transparently when dealing with the patent authorities. The extent of the duty was somewhat modified by the CJEU, but the obligation to provide all relevant information, and to clarify information which subsequently turns out to be incorrect, still exists. It will be interesting to see whether the CJEU follows the Advocate General in his approach to identifying a similar duty under Article 101, and whether the Advocate General’s expansive reading of when information may be misleading is approved by the Court.

Pat Treacy

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.

Luxury brands, third party platforms and EU competition law – guidance from AG Wahl

The Court of Justice of the European Union (‘CJEU’) has today handed down Advocate General Wahl’s opinion in the Coty Germany reference proceedings (see press release here, the full opinion should be published later today). The press release explains that the Opinion proposes that the European Court find that a supplier of luxury goods may prohibit its authorised retailers from selling its products on third-party platforms such as Amazon and EBay. For the background to the case see our earlier post here

The Opinion begins by restating that selective distribution systems for luxury and prestige products do not necessarily fall within the prohibition of anticompetitive agreements under Article 101(1) if they meet three well-established criteria:

  1. the resellers are chosen on the basis of objective criteria of a qualitative nature which are determined uniformly for all and applied in a non-discriminatory manner for all potential resellers; 
  2. the nature of the product in question, including the prestige image, requires selective distribution in order to preserve the quality of the product and to ensure that it is correctly used; and 
  3. the criteria established do not go beyond what is necessary.
AG Wahl then goes on to deal with the restriction which is at the centre of this dispute, namely a provision which prohibits the authorised sellers from using third party platforms for internet sales “in a discernible manner”. He states that – in the present state of development of e-commerce – such a restriction does not necessarily fall within Article 101(1) where three criteria are met. However, it seems to us that the criteria he lists is merely a restatement of the well-established criteria for lawful selective distribution set out above, i.e. that the criteria:  

  1. are dependent on the nature of the product; 
  2. are determined in a uniform fashion and applied without distinction; and 
  3. do not go beyond what is necessary.
The assessment of the facts will ultimately be left to the German Court.  However, AG Wahl does observe that the contested clause does not appear to be caught by Article 101(1). In fact, he suggests that the restriction is likely to improve competition by ensuring the products are sold in an environment that meets the qualitative criteria and guarding against the phenomena of “parasitism” (a more loaded term than the usual reference to ‘free-riding’). He points out that the restriction does not amount to an absolute prohibition on online sales (which is considered a serous restriction of competition) for two reasons. First, the restriction still allows authorised distributors to sell through their own websites and to make use of third party platforms “in a non-discernible manner”. Second, distributors’ own online stores are still the preferred distribution channel so such a restriction cannot be assimilated to an outright ban or substantial restriction on internet sales.  This analysis leaves a number of questions open, and certainly suggests that the analysis of such restrictions may change if the popularity of third party platforms continues to grow.  

Finally, the Opinion proposes that, in the event that a restriction on third party platforms does fall within Article 101(1), it may well be exempted under Article 101(3), including under the block exemption for vertical agreements. AG Wahl does not consider a third party platform ban to be a hardcore restriction which would automatically exclude the relevant distribution agreement from the benefit of the block exemption. 

Overall, the AG Opinion appears to be in line with the Commission’s recent final report in its e-commerce sector inquiry, which recognised that price is not the only relevant competition consideration when selling goods online: “While price is a key parameter of competition between retailers, quality, brand image and innovation are important in the competition between brands. Incentivising innovation and quality, and keeping control over the image and positioning of their brand are of major importance for most manufacturers to help them ensure the viability of their business in the mid to long term.”  The AG Opinion is a first step in showing how this balance may in future be struck – although crucially the Opinion is not binding on the CJEU who will now begin its deliberations in this case. The final word on these issues will be left to the European Court, and this will no doubt be keenly awaited by brand owners, online retailers and third party platforms alike.

Online auction commitments demonstrate digital markets are central to CMA’s priorities

The CMA has accepted commitments from ATG Media, the largest provider of online auction sites in the UK, to bring an end to practices which it considered hinders competition from rival bidding platforms (press release and decision here and here). 

ATG’s Live Online Bidding (LOB) platforms cover a wide range of markets, including: antiques and art; industrial and insolvency; and construction and agricultural equipment. 

LOB platforms are aggregators that host live auctions run by multiple auction houses. They aim to attract both individual bidders and auction houses to list live auctions. Traditionally live bidding was available only by attending in person or by telephone.

The CMA’s investigation began in November 2016 and focused on three practices:

  • obtaining exclusive deals with auction houses, so that they do not use other providers;
  • preventing auction houses getting a cheaper online bidding rate with other platforms through Most Favoured Nation clauses; and
  • preventing auction houses promoting or advertising rival live online bidding platforms in competition with ATG Media.
In order to bring the investigation to an end ATG has given the CMA legally binding commitments under the Competition Act 1998 to stop all three practices. 

The CMA’s Annual Plan 2017/18 (here) stresses the importance of digital markets in its enforcement priorities: “Online aspects of markets have become a major focus of our work, as many industries have become more digital in how they trade, raising important questions of policy and law.”

Online platforms (particularly those with market power) are likely to face increased scrutiny as competition authorities across the world focus ever more of their resources on the digital economy.   

Transparency may undermine online competition: Commission’s Final Report on the E-commerce Sector Inquiry

On 10 May 2017 the European Commission published its Final Report on the E-commerce Sector Inquiry, together with accompanying Q&As, and, for those who want something rather longer, a Staff Working Document

The inquiry, launched over 2 years ago, and part of the wider Commission Digital Single Market Strategy (see our earlier comment here) has gathered evidence from nearly 1,900 companies connected with the online sale of consumer goods and digital content.
The Report’s main findings

  • Price transparency has increased through online trade, allowing consumers instantaneously to compare product and price information and switch from online to offline. The Commission acknowledges that this has created a significant ‘free riding’ issue, with consumers using the pre-sales services of ‘brick and mortar’ shops before purchasing products online. 

  • Increased price transparency has also resulted in greater price competition both online and offline.  It has allowed companies to monitor prices more easily, and the use of price-tracking software may facilitate resale price maintenance and strengthen collusion between retailers.

  • Manufacturers have reacted to these developments by seeking to increase their control of distribution networks though their own online retail channels, an increased use of ‘selective distribution’ arrangements (where manufacturers set the criteria that retailers must meet to become part of the distribution system) and the introduction of contractual restrictions to control online distribution.
How about changes to competition policy? 

The Report does not advocate any significant changes to European competition policy, but rather confirms the status quo. The key point of interest are as follows: 

  • Selective distribution – whilst the Commission has not recommended any review of the Vertical Block Exemption Regulation (‘VBER’) ahead of its scheduled expiry in 2022, the Commission notes that the use of selective systems aimed at excluding pure online retailers, for example by requiring retailers to operate at least one ‘brick and mortar’ shop, is only permissible where justified (for example in respect of complex or quality goods or to protect suitable brand image).

  • Pricing restrictions – dual pricing (i.e. differential pricing depending on whether sales are made online or through a bricks and mortar outlet) will generally be considered a ‘hardcore’ (or object) restriction of competition when applied to one and the same retailer, although it is capable of individual exemption under Article 101(3) TFEU, for example if the obligation is indispensable to address free-riding by offline stores.  

  • Restrictions on the use of marketplaces – the Report finds that an absolute ban on the use of an online marketplace should not be considered a hardcore restriction, although the Commission notes that a reference for a preliminary ruling is pending before the CJEU (C-230/16 - Coty Germany v Parfümerie Akzente).

  • Geo-blocking – a re-emphasis of the existing position on territorial and customer restrictions – active sales restrictions are allowed, whereas passive sales restrictions are generally unlawful. Within a selective distribution system, neither active nor passive sales to end users may be restricted. The Commission also make clear that companies are free to make their own unilateral decisions on where they choose to trade.

  • Content licensing – the significance of copyright licensing in digital content markets is noted, as is the potential concern that licensing terms may suppress innovative business practices.  

  • Big Data – possible competition concerns are identified relating to data collection and usage. In particular, the exchange of competitively sensitive data (e.g. in relation to prices and sales) may lead to competition problems where the same players are in direct competition, for example between online marketplaces and manufacturers with their own shop.  
What happens next?

The Commission has identified the need for more competition enforcement investigations, particularly in relation to restrictions of cross-border trade.  It is expected that more investigations will be opened in addition to those already in play in respect of holiday bookings, consumer electronics and online video games. In a more novel approach, the Commission’s press release also name-checks a number of retailers (in particular in fashion) who have already reformed their business practices “on their own initiative”.
  
The Commission also highlights the need for a consistent application of the EU competition rules across national competition authorities.  It remains to be seen whether the Commission will seek to use its enforcement investigations to address inconsistencies such as those evident in the more interventionist stance of some national authorities (e.g. the Bundeskartellamt) in respect of issues such as pricing restrictions.