EU Court Rules That Royalties for Unpatented Technology Are Not Necessarily Anticompetitive

On 7 July 2016, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) handed down a judgment on whether Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) must be interpreted as precluding effect being given to a licence agreement requiring the licensee to pay royalties for the use of a patent which has been revoked (Sanofi-Aventis v. Genentech, Case C-567/14).

Background

In 1992, Hoechst granted a licence to Genentech for a human cytomegalovirus enhancer. The licensed technology was subject to one European patent and two patents issued in the United States. In 1999, the European Patent Office revoked the European patent.

Under the licence agreement with Hoechst, Genentech was obliged to pay a one-off fee, a fixed annual research fee and a running royalty based on sales of finished products. Genentech never paid the running royalty, however, and in 2008 it notified Hoechst and Sanofi-Aventis (Hoechst’s parent company) that it was terminating the licence. Hoechst and Sanofi-Aventis believed that Genentech had used the enhancer to manufacture its blockbuster drug Rituxan and was therefore liable to pay the running royalty on its sales of that drug.

Sanofi-Aventis initiated two separate actions. In the United States, it brought an action alleging that Genentech infringed the two US patents. The US courts ultimately decided that there was no infringement of the patents in question. Sanofi-Aventis also submitted an application for arbitration against Genentech before the International Court of Arbitration to recover the royalties.

In the arbitral award, the sole arbitrator held that Genentech had manufactured Rituxan using the enhancer and that the company was therefore required under the licence to pay Sanofi-Aventis the running royalties. According to the arbitrator, the commercial purpose of the licence was to avert all litigation on validity. Thus, payments already made under the licence could not be reclaimed, and payments due had to be made regardless of whether the patent had been revoked or was not infringed.

Genentech brought an action before the Paris Court of Appeal seeking annulment of the arbitral award. The company relied on public policy arguments, claiming that a requirement to pay for the use of technology that Genentech’s competitors could use without charge put Genentech at a competitive disadvantage and contravened Article 101 TFEU. The Paris Court of Appeal stayed the proceedings and made a preliminary reference to the CJEU.

CJEU Judgment

The CJEU explained that royalties reflect the parties’ assessment of the value that is attributable to the possibility of exploiting licensed technology, and that this assessment may still apply after expiry of the period of validity of the patent. The court referred to established case law (Case 320/87 Ottung) and held that, where the licensee is free to terminate the licence agreement by giving reasonable notice, an obligation to pay a royalty throughout the validity of the agreement (i.e., not the validity of the IP rights) does not fall within the purview of the Article 101(1) TFEU prohibition.

The CJEU argued that Article 101(1) TFEU does not prohibit the imposition of a contractual requirement providing for payment of a royalty for the exclusive use of a technology that is no longer covered by a patent, on condition that the licensee remains free to terminate the contract. In this respect, the court noted that a royalty reflects (i) the price that is paid for the commercial exploitation of the licensed technology and (ii) a guarantee that the licensor will not enforce its IP rights against the licensee. As such, if the licence agreement is still valid and can be freely terminated by the licensee, the royalty payment is due even if the period of validity of the IP rights in question has expired.

Concluding remarks

This judgment by the CJEU highlights a number of practical considerations that licensors and licensees should be aware of when negotiating and concluding licence agreements.

First, licence agreements ought to expressly provide for what should happen with respect to the payment of royalties where and if the patents in question are revoked.

Second, if a licensor intends to extract royalties for patents that are no longer protected, the licence agreement should expressly state that the licensee is free to terminate the agreement by giving reasonable notice. Licensors should also ensure that licensees are not otherwise restricted in using the licensed technology following termination of the licence agreement. In order to limit antitrust scrutiny, licensors should consider including (e.g., in the preamble of a licence agreement) a brief commercial explanation of why royalties are charged for unpatented technology.

Third, if negotiations regarding royalties for unpatented technology prove difficult (e.g., because of the licensee’s bargaining power), licensors may consider applying a lower royalty rate following expiry of patent protection. Doing so would ensure that the licence agreement remains valid after expiry of the IP rights.

Fourth, extra caution is required when concluding international licence agreements that have a US element. This is because US law does not permit licensors to collect royalties accruing after patent expiry.

DOJ and FTC Encourages Competition Between Lawyers and Non-Lawyers in the Provision of Legal Services in Comments on North Carolina “LegalZoom” Bill

On June 10, 2016, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) jointly submitted a letter recommending that the North Carolina General Assembly limit the definition of the “practice of law” only to activities for which “specialized legal knowledge and training” is demonstrably necessary to protect consumers.  The regulators argue that if such a definition were applied to North Carolina House Bill 436, presently under consideration, it would promote competition between lawyers and non-lawyers in the provision of legal-related services. Continue Reading

Online Sales Restrictions Remain a Hot Topic: UK CMA Issues Statement of Objections

On 9 June 2016, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) issued a statement of objections (SO) to Ping Europe Limited (Ping), a golf equipment manufacturer, alleging that Ping had breached EU and UK competition law by banning the sale of its golf clubs online.

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The European Court Of Justice Requires The European Commission To Provide Adequate Reasons For Its Requests For Information

On March 10, 2016, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) rendered its judgment in the so-called Cement case, (C-247/14 P HeidelbergCement v Commission, C-248/14 P Schwenk Zement v Commission, C-267/14 P Buzzi Unicem v Commission and C-268/14 P Italmobiliare v Commission) ruling that the General Court of the European Union (GCEU) had erred in law in finding that decisions of the European Commission (EC) requesting information from cement manufacturers during the course of a cartel investigation were adequately reasoned.

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General Court of the EU Dismisses Trioplast Application Seeking Reimbursement of Interest Paid for Being Late in Paying Cartel Fine

With a judgment handed down on 12 May 2016 (Case T-669/14, Trioplast Industrier AB v. European Commission), the General Court of the European Union (GCEU) dismissed an action brought by Trioplast Industrier AB (Trioplast Industrier) claiming the annulment of an alleged decision by the European Commission (EC) to ask Trioplast Industrier to pay interest for the late payment of a fine imposed on it for its involvement in the industrial bags cartel.

The case shows that when handed a fine, interest begins to accrue regardless of whether the fine is altered down the line through appeal.

By way of background, in 2005, the EC found that between January 1982 and June 2002 there had been a cartel on the market for plastic industrial bags consisting in, inter alia, price-fixing, agreements on sales quotas and the allocation of tender contracts. Among the addressees of the EC decision was Trioplast Wittenheim, a company that directly participated in the infringement. Trioplast Wittenheim was a subsidiary of FLSmidth before being purchased by Trioplast Industrier in 1999. The EC imposed a fine on Trioplast Wittenheim of €17.85 million and decided that Trioplast Industrier and FLSmidth should be held jointly and severally liable with Trioplast Wittenheim for the amounts of €7.73 million and €15.30 million, respectively.

Trioplast Industrier and FLSmidth each lodged an appeal before the GCEU seeking the annulment of the EC decision. Shortly afterwards, Trioplast Industrier provided the EC a bank guarantee for €4.87 million.   Continue Reading

Lessons Learned – The State of Affairs in US Merger Review

In the last year, the US antitrust regulators successfully challenged multiple transactions in court and forced companies to abandon several other transactions as a result of threatened enforcement actions. Looking back at the different cases, there are some trends that we see developing in the government’s positioning on mergers, and these should be kept in mind as parties contemplate mergers and acquisitions moving forward.

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District Court Blocks FTC and PA AG Challenge to Hershey-Pinnacle Merger

On May 9, 2016, the US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania denied the motion by the Federal Trade Commission and Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General for a preliminary injunction to enjoin the merger of Penn State Hershey Medical Center and PinnacleHealth System. The decision ends a string of victories by the FTC in recent health care merger litigation.

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Polish Competition Authority Supports UBER

On 5 May 2016, the Polish Office of Competition and Consumer Protection (UOKiK) published a position paper in which it expressed its opinion on Uber’s operations on the Polish market for transportation services.

UOKiK has been monitoring and analysing the effects of the emergence of such online platforms on the Polish market and concluded that Uber (i) encourages competition, (ii) is beneficial to consumers and (iii) provides for innovative solutions.

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FTC Emphasizes Competitive Issues Arising From Partial Interest Acquisitions

On May 9, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) posted an article summarizing recent developments and areas of competitive sensitivity in the acquisition of partial equity interests.  Most antitrust challenges to mergers or acquisitions involve situations in which an acquiror takes control of the target company.  However, substantive antitrust issues also can arise from acquisitions of less than controlling interests.  The FTC has previously sought substantial remedies in acquisitions of minority interests in a competitor.  These remedies have included imposing firewalls, altering companies’ ownership interests to become passive investors, or seeking divestitures.

The FTC’s post, which can be found here, outlines three ways in which partial-interest acquisitions in a competitor could lessen competition.  First, an entity could use its interest—through representatives on a competitor’s board, for example—to affect decisions of the target.  Second, an acquiring company’s partial ownership in its competitor could reduce the acquiring company’s incentives to compete aggressively.  This feature arises because, by virtue of holding an interest in its rival, a company can still achieve an economic gain even if it does not win a competition or make a sale if the company in which it holds an equity interest obtains that business.  Third, an entity could gain access to non-public, competitively sensitive information of its competitor, increasing the risk of coordinated conduct.

None of these theories are new, and they are contained in the 2010 FTC / DOJ Horizontal Merger Guidelines.  Nevertheless, the FTC’s posting provides a helpful reminder for companies contemplating transactions that they need to evaluate not only the obvious anticompetitive effects raised by acquisitions of control, but also the less obvious theories of competitive harm.

When Customer Supply Contracts Lead to Trouble: Exclusive Dealing Provisions Result in FTC Monopolization Action against Invibio

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) continues to aggressively enforce the antitrust laws. On April 27, 2016, the FTC took action against Victrex, plc and its wholly owned subsidiaries, Invibio, Inc. and Invibio Limited (collectively, Invibio) because of exclusivity terms in its supply contracts. The consent order requires Invibio to cease and desist from enforcing most of the exclusivity terms in its current supply contracts and generally prohibits Invibio from requiring exclusivity in future contracts. Invibio is also prohibited from using other pricing strategies, such as market-share discounts, that would effectively result in exclusivity.

Exclusive dealing by a monopolist may be challenged and prohibited when the acts allow the monopolist to maintain its monopoly power. Total foreclosure is not a requirement for unlawful exclusive dealing—it simply must foreclose competition in a substantial share of the relevant market so as to adversely affect competition.

The FTC’s complaint alleged that Invibio’s exclusive dealing provisions in its customer contracts foreclosed a substantial share of the market from two entrants despite those entrants offering a similar product at lower prices. In addition to using exclusivity terms in its long term supply contracts to impede its competition and maintain its monopoly power in the worldwide market for implant-grade polyetheretherketone (PEEK), the FTC complaint also alleged that Invibio used strategies to “coerce or induce device makers to accede to exclusivity terms, including threatening to discontinue PEEK supply or to withhold access to regulatory support.” Continue Reading

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