SEPs, 5G and the IoT: where will the Commission land on use-based licensing?

In April this year we reported that the Commission had released a Roadmap towards a ‘Communication on Standard Essential Patents for a European digitalised economy’,  intended to address some of the uncertainties in SEP licensing left unresolved following Huawei v ZTE (see e.g. here), and to drive progress for the EU-wide adoption of 5G. Originally expected in May, the Communication is now said to be likely to be published before the end of the year. Part of the reason for the delay appears to be a dispute between several directorates within the Commission as to the appropriateness of use-based licensing for Internet of Things (IoT) enabled devices.

Recap: the IoT & 5G

The Internet of Things (IoT) will result in increasing inter-connectivity between devices. For example, smart kitchen appliances can already be turned on remotely. A new smart fridge might re-order milk automatically. On a grander scale, lighting systems in towns and cities might vary the level of illumination produced by streetlamps based on the time of day, season, or even weather conditions. 

Some of these new technologies will be very data hungry. They will all require the ability to connect to mobile networks and other devices. This is where standards come in. Standards like 3G and 4G enable fast mobile connectivity. 5G, currently in development, will enable even faster transfers of data. Each of these standards incorporates thousands of patents which have been declared essential to use of the standard (SEPs). The holder of an SEP must commit to license its SEPs on Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) terms. 

The negotiation of FRAND terms is often contentious (see for example our reports on the Unwired Planet case in the UK, here and here, Huawei v ZTE in the EU, and Ericsson v D-Link and CSIRO v Cisco in the US). Most FRAND litigation to date has focussed primarily on mobile phones or similar devices. As more types of product with connectivity are developed, licensing negotiations (and litigation following failed negotiations) risk becoming even more complicated. However, as there could be more than 29 billion IoT connected devices by 2020, with IoT systems creating an economic impact of more than $11 trillion per year by 2025 (source), the stakes are considerable.

The difficulties of drafting the Communication

A number of recent reports have indicated considerable debate within the Commission about the contents of the Communication. The centre of the dispute is use-based licensing: whether SEP holders should be able to charge different rates to different licensees depending on the nature of the final product that implements the technology. 

For example, it is argued that 5G is more valuable to a mobile phone, where connectivity is integral to its operation, than to a smart energy meter that might only connect once a day. It is therefore suggested that charging a higher royalty rate for a 5G enabled mobile phone than a 5G enabled meter is fair. This is the position supported by some big SEP holders such as Qualcomm, Nokia and Ericsson.

On the other hand, small developers claim that by focussing on the final product, SEP holders are trying to take a cut of the value created by other inventors who have come up with innovative new uses of a technology. Some vocal critics of current licensing practices take issue with the SEP holder practice of granting licences only to those who produce and sell the final product, such as Samsung, Apple or Huawei. Instead, they argue that SEP holders should be obliged to grant licences to all-comers, including companies higher up the supply chain, for example to those that produce the wireless chipsets incorporating the SEP technology. 

However, this option could also create its own challenges. If a number of companies in the supply chain have all taken licences to the same underlying SEPs, this could result in a form of ‘double-dipping’ – allowing SEP holders to recover higher royalties (depending on the extent to which the licence would otherwise ‘pass-through’ from the company highest in the chain to the end manufacturer). It could also result in an increase in the number and complexity of licensing negotiations. Those who support use based licensing argue that the simplest way of licensing SEPs of this sort is at the point where the final product incorporating the patented technology is complete, and that a single licence at that point is the neatest and most efficient licensing model. 

Underlying both positions is a concern about the price to be paid for standard essential technology. Those who develop that technology and contribute it to standards want to ensure a return on their investment and argue that good financial incentives are required to ensure continued innovation. Those who use the technology argue that they are happy to pay, but also need their incentives to continue bringing new data-dependent products to market not to be crimped by patentees charging royalties which exceed the value contributed by standardised technologies. Implicitly, both arguments assume that relying on royalties at an earlier point in the value chain will result in lower costs for product developers and lower returns for patentees.

Our understanding is that within the Commission itself, some directorates largely support the views of the SEP holders. They cite concerns about the need to preserve SEP holders’ incentives to innovate and support the use based model, which would enable SEP holders to calibrate the royalties sought finely by reference to different uses. On the other hand, DG Competition continues to be concerned about the position of implementers. It notes that they may face significant difficulties in acquiring licences directly, as well as the potential for unjustified price discrimination between users if companies higher in the supply chain are not able to obtain, and pass on the benefits of, licences to all comers. Over recent years, DG Competition has also frequently focussed on incentives for follow-on innovation both in TMT and in other sectors, which again tends to favour the position of implementers. 

Whatever the final text of the Communication, the intensity of the debate surrounding it means that it is unlikely to be overly prescriptive. Discussion on these issues is likely to continue over the coming years across an array of industry forums and within bodies such as ETSI, not least because of the global nature of the debate. It’s also worth noting that representatives from a number of technology companies such as Nokia, Ericsson and Orange have formed a committee to establish an industry-wide code on best practices for SEP licensing (here – subscription required). It will be interesting to see if that code supports or conflicts with the Commission’s approach.

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