As reported previously, German competition law was recently amended. The amendments included with the introduction of a “size of transaction”-threshold a notable change with respect to German merger control. The following is a reminder of five important features of German merger control which you should be aware of:

The jurisdictional thresholds of German merger control are easily triggered

German merger control applies if the parties to a transaction (usually the acquirer and the target) exceeded, in the last financial year, certain turnover thresholds. In an interna­tional context, these thresholds are relatively low and easily triggered:

  • Joint worldwide turnover of all parties > € 500 million, and
  • German turnover of at least one party > € 25 million, and
  • German turnover of another party > € 5 million.

There is a new “size of transaction”-threshold

Since June 2017, German merger control can also be triggered if a newly introduced “size of transaction”-threshold is exceeded:

  • Joint worldwide turnover of all parties > € 500 million, and
  • German turnover of at least one party > € 25 million, and
  • “value of compensation” > € 400 million, and
  • The target company has “significant business activities” in Germany (which may be activities with revenues < € 5 million).

The “value of compensation” includes the purchase price and all other assets and non-cash benefits, as well as liabilities assumed by the purchaser.

Acquisition of minority shareholdings may be notifiable

Similar to the HSR Act, but different to European Union merger control and most European jurisdictions, German merger control is not limited to the “acquisition of control”. Additional triggering events are

  • The acquisition of 25% or more of the shares in a company, and
  • The acquisition of a shareholding below 25% if this, combined with other factors (e.g. the right to appoint one out of five members of the board), may have an im­pact on competition (“acquisition of ability to exercise competitively significant influ­ence”).

Review of joint venture situations

German merger control may apply in joint venture situations that are often not covered by other merger control laws:

  •  German merger control may apply to the setting up of a joint venture company, even if the joint venture will have no activities in Germany. The jurisdictional thresholds may be satisfied by the parent companies alone. While there is an exemption for transactions with “no effect in Germany”, it is interpreted very narrowly and applies only in exceptional circumstances.
  • German merger control applies to all joint venture situations where two or more par­ties acquire or continue to hold a shareholding of 25% or more. Examples:
    – A and B set up a 50/50 production joint venture.
    – A acquires sole control and a 70% shareholding, and B acquires a non-control­ling 30% shareholding.
    – A sells 75% of a fully owned subsidiary to B, and retains only a 25% minority shareholding.
    – A, B and C each own 1/3 in a joint venture company. C divests his share­holding to A and B.

In each of these examples, the turnover of both A and B (and possibly the tar­get/joint venture company) will have to be taken into account for assessing the juris­dictional thresholds.

The bright side: The process is usually quick, efficient and relatively inexpensive

The number of transactions requiring a merger control notification to the German Federal Cartel Office (“FCO”) is, compared to most other jurisdictions, relatively high. On the plus side, the notification process is, in most cases, quick, efficient and, in cases without true com­petition issues, relatively inexpensive.

  • The large majority of transactions notified to the FCO are cleared in Phase 1.
  • The maximum duration of Phase 1 is one month; fairly often, the FCO clears trans­actions within two or three weeks after notification.
  • In straightforward cases, the amount of formal information that needs to be pro­vided is limited, and the notification can be drafted relatively quickly.
  • The fee imposed by the FCO in non-complex matters usually ranges between € 5,000 and € 15,000.

According to Advocate General Nils Wahl’s opinion, delivered on July 26, in the Court of Justice of the European Union’s (CJEU) case Coty Germany GmbH v Parfümerie Akzente GmbH (case C-230/16), suppliers of luxury goods may prohibit their authorized retailers from selling their goods via third-party internet platforms. Such bans do not necessarily infringe Article 101(1) of the Treaty of Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) (which prohibits anticompetitive agreements).

Background of the Case

On July 16, 2016, the Higher Regional Court of Frankfurt lodged a request for a preliminary ruling with the CJEU asking whether selective distribution systems that serve to ensure a “luxury image” for the goods constitute an aspect of competition that is compatible with Article 101(1) TFEU and, whether bans on sales via third-party internet platforms constitute a restriction “by object” and should be viewed as “hardcore restrictions” under the Commission’s Vertical Agreements Block Exemption Regulation (VBER).

The initial dispute arose when Coty, a supplier of luxury cosmetics in Germany, brought an action against one of its authorized retailers, Parfümerie Akzente, for having infringed a provision in Coty’s selective distribution agreement that prohibited the retailers from distributing the luxury products via third-party platforms, such as Amazon, in order to preserve the brand image. The agreement provided that the authorized retailers could only sell the products online through an “electronic store window,” provided that the luxury character of the products was preserved. Continue Reading Advocate General Wahl Delivers Opinion on Legality of Bans on Online Sales via Third-Party Platforms in Selective Distribution Systems

On 12 July 2017, the German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) published a guidance paper (Guidance Paper) on the prohibition of resale price maintenance (RPM). The Guidance Paper has a particular focus on the food retail sector. At the same time, it offers good insights into the FCO’s current overall thinking on RPM. The FCO reiterates that companies engaging in RPM may be subject to severe fines. In addition, it is evident from the Guidance Paper that the FCO has a very broad understanding as to what may be considered as RPM.

WHAT HAPPENED:

  • RPM describes a situation where a supplier and a retailer agree that the retailer will not resell the supplier’s products below a certain (minimum) price.
  • While RPM falls under the rule of reason under US Federal antitrust law, it is considered as a hardcore antitrust restriction in most European jurisdictions, as well as under some US State antitrust laws (cf. Maryland’s Attorney General’ recent challenge of RPM).
  • The FCO is arguably the most active antitrust authority in terms of RPM. In recent years, it imposed fines for alleged RPM in a number of proceedings across various industries, including cosmetics, furniture, mattresses, tools and toys. In December 2016, the FCO imposed fines totaling € 260.5 million on 27 food retailers and food manufacturers.
  • A number of authorities provided in the past guidance on RPM. For example, the European Commission addresses RPM in its Guidelines on Vertical Restraints, and in the United Kingdom, the CMA published in June 2017 a one-pager on RPM. The FCO’s Guidance Paper now offers very comprehensive and specific guidance on RPM, in particular, but not exclusively, with respect to the retail sector.

Continue Reading THE LATEST: German Antitrust Authority Issues Guidelines on Resale Price Maintenance

A number of amendments to the German competition law (Amendment) entered into force on 9 June 2017. The key changes are:

  • Merger control: Introduction of a new “size of transaction”-threshold
  • Sanctions for antitrust law infringements: Rules of liability aligned to EU concept, in particular with respect to “parental liability”
  • Private enforcement: Implementation of EU Cartel Damage Claims Directive.

Continue Reading Reform of German Competition Law

It is difficult for General Counsel and their teams to monitor all new developments adequately. With the growth of the Internet and the daily updates to EU competition rules, everyone receives and has access to masses of information, but it is difficult to select that which is really relevant to one’s business.

McDermott’s EU Competition team across Brussels, France, Germany and Italy has authored the EU Competition Annual Review 2016 to help General Counsel and their teams to focus on the essential updates that they should be aware of.

This Special Report summarizes recent developments in EU competition rules during the year 2016 where several new regulations, notices and guidelines were issued by the European Commission and many interesting cases were decided by the General Court and the EU Court of Justice.

All these new rules and judicial decisions can be relevant for international companies operating in the EU. Indeed, in addition to the daily update, this booklet provides an overview of the main recent developments in EU competition rules and can be kept as a ready reference when dealing with complex issues of EU competition law.

Read the full report.

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.

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

The first European citizen to be extradited from Europe to the United States for criminal antitrust conduct recently succeeded in having a Berlin court refer the matter of his extradition to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in the context of his damages action with regard to his extradition, after a series of multiple setbacks and a 24-month period of imprisonment.

Continue Reading CJEU to Rule on Extradition of EU Citizens in Criminal Antitrust Proceedings

As many dealmakers doing business in Europe have realized, German and Austrian merger filing requirements are sometimes a bit tricky, and in some respects different from the rules in place at EU level and in other EU member states. For instance, it may be that a transaction has to be notified in one of these two countries although the transaction leads to a mere minority shareholding or one of the undertakings involved achieved (almost) no local turnover.

In this context, it should be noted that companies violating a filing obligation are subject to appreciable fines and run the risk that the closing acts of the transaction are null and void under civil law. Particularly after the recent Spar decision of the Austrian Supreme Cartel Court, which led to a tenfold increase of the fine originally imposed by the Austrian Cartel Court, it can be expected that the amount of fines for competition law breaches will generally increase in Austria. Against this background, it is worth noting some existing peculiarities and some new developments regarding the filing thresholds:

Continue Reading Update: Peculiarities of the Merger Filing Requirements in Germany and Austria

In May 2015, the European Commission launched a two-year, industry-wide inquiry into the e-commerce sector to gather data on the functioning of e-commerce markets, so as to identify possible competition concerns. This sector inquiry focuses particularly on potential barriers erected by companies to cross-border online trade in goods and services where e-commerce is most widespread (e.g. electronics, clothing and shoes), as well as in digital content.

While the European Commission intends to provide specific guidance on European e-commerce issues when it publishes its final report in 2017, early insights can be found in national competition authorities’ recent decisions, particularly in France and Germany.

In France, the French Competition Authority (FCA) announced on 18 November 2015 the closure of an investigation into the contractual practices of the sporting goods manufacturer Adidas, as a result of Adidas’ change in its online sales policy.

This FCA investigation, which had been carried out in coordination with the German Bundeskartellamt (BKA), centered on the company’s restriction of online sales for its selective distributors. The conditions for online sales, which were introduced in 2012, included restrictions on retailers from selling via large online platforms such as eBay and Amazon Marketplace.

Continue Reading E-Commerce: National Competitions Authorities Weigh In on Sales Restrictions Regarding Online Marketplaces

The long-awaited ruling on the seeking of injunctions in the context of standard-essential patents encumbered by fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms has been delivered by the Court of Justice of the European Union, in Huawei v. ZTE C 170/130. Although the judgment lays down the legal test applicable to injunctions involving standard-essential patents, and significantly clarifies the landscape that had previously been shaped by the European Commission, a number of issues remain unresolved.

Huawei Technologies entered into negotiations with ZTE Corporation over the possibility of concluding a licence agreement in relation to Huawei’s patent that is essential to the long-term evolution (commonly known as 4G) standard, on FRAND terms. Given that negotiations between the companies were unsuccessful, and because Huawei contends that ZTE continued using the standard-essential patent (SEP) without paying royalties, Huawei brought an infringement action against ZTE, seeking an injunction to stop the sale of certain ZTE products.

In adjudicating the matter, the Regional Court of Düsseldorf considered that the outcome of the litigation largely depended on whether or not the action brought by Huawei constituted an abuse of dominance. Given this consideration, and the uncertainty surrounding the topic of SEP injunctions, the Court made a reference for a preliminary ruling to the CJEU. The Court asked in what circumstances a dominant SEP holder, who has committed to grant licences to third parties on FRAND terms, can seek an injunction to stop an infringement of that SEP, or to recall products manufactured using the SEP, is to be regarded as committing an abuse contrary to Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).

The Test for SEP Injunctions

The CJEU decided that the following conditions must be satisfied before a dominant SEP licensor can validly bring an injunction against a party infringing an SEP, without acting contrary to Article 102 TFEU.

Notification From The SEP Holder

Prior to taking any action, a SEP holder that has given an irrevocable undertaking to a standardisation body to grant a licence to third parties on FRAND terms, must alert the alleged infringer to the infringement complained about. This prior notice must designate the SEP in question, and specify the way in which it has been infringed.

“Willingness” of The Alleged Infringer

After the alleged infringer has been informed about the infringement, it must (somehow) express its willingness to conclude a licensing agreement on FRAND terms. Presumably, this willingness refers to the alleged infringer agreeing to receive a FRAND offer from the SEP holder. It would seem, therefore, that an alleged infringer who is not prepared to enter into any sort of bona fide negotiations would be presumed to be unwilling.

Unfortunately, although the CJEU refers to the concept of “willingness”, it does not address the criteria for determining the alleged infringer’s willingness. The ruling therefore does not make it entirely clear what the potential licensee should do in order to be treated as willing.

FRAND Offer

The SEP holder must present to the alleged infringer a specific, written offer for a licence on FRAND terms, in accordance with the undertaking given to the relevant standardisation body. In particular, this written offer must specify the amount of the royalty, and the way in which that royalty is to be calculated.

Although the CJEU’s judgment does not elaborate on what is to be considered as FRAND, it states that the SEP holder may not discriminate between licensees, i.e., the licence terms must be comparable with the licensing arrangements the SEP holder has already concluded with other competitors. The CJEU therefore places the burden of knowing what is FRAND on the licensor. Regardless of whether or not the licensor is able to discharge this burden, the ruling does not help the licensee, who has no guidance on determining whether or not the licence it has been offered is actually FRAND-compliant, particularly as it doesn’t have access to the licensor’s existing agreements.

Response to FRAND Offer

The alleged infringer must respond to the FRAND offer, in accordance with recognised commercial practices in the field, and in good faith. The alleged infringer must not engage in any delaying tactics.

If the alleged infringer is deemed to be using delaying tactics once a FRAND offer has been presented by the SEP holder, e.g., if the alleged infringer causes any undue delays in the negotiations, this may point towards its “unwillingness” and prevent it from using Article 102 TFEU in a counterclaim against the SEP holder. The CJEU judgment also, however, states (albeit in rather loose terms) that the alleged infringer “cannot be criticised” for challenging the validity of the SEP and/or its essential nature. The combination of these two requirements might therefore lead to a problem if, for example, the alleged infringer accepts the FRAND offer, but does so on the condition that validity of all the relevant IP rights be confirmed before the courts.
The infringer’s response to the FRAND offer will usually be one of the following:

Acceptance of the FRAND offer, in which case the SEP holder cannot seek an injunction, but can claim damages for the unlicensed use of the SEP
Rejection of the FRAND offer, which presumably makes the alleged infringer an “unwilling” licensee and therefore enables the SEP holder to seek injunctive relief
Submission of a FRAND-compliant counter-offer, to which the SEP holder must respond before taking any further steps.

Counter-Offer

If the alleged infringer wishes to submit a counter-offer, it must do so promptly and in writing, and in compliance with FRAND terms.

This is an important requirement because, under most national systems, an offer presented in writing will be contractually enforceable by the SEP holder. This may imply that “willingness” is a behavioural condition, i.e., that mere statements by the alleged infringer do not amount to willingness, but a concrete step has to be taken before the alleged infringer can rely on an Article 102 TFEU defence.

This seems to place an even heavier burden on the alleged infringer, for whom it may potentially be a lot more difficult to determine what corresponds to FRAND terms, particularly in light of the inherent information asymmetry between the SEP holder and the potential licensee.

Rejection of The Counter-Offer

Security

According to the CJEU, if the alleged infringer has already been using the SEP without a licence, it must provide appropriate security e.g., though a bank guarantee or the placing of funds in a deposit account, from the point at which the counter-offer is rejected.

Third Party Determination

If the parties are unable to agree bilaterally on the details of the FRAND terms following the counter-offer by the alleged infringer, the parties “may” request that the amount of the royalty be determined by an independent third party. Although reasonable at first sight, the application of this step remains rather unclear. The wording in the judgment suggests that the parties are not obliged to seek third-party determination, but that they “may” do so. It is also not clear what consequences would follow if one of the parties rejected the proposal to have a court or an arbitrator decide on the level of royalties.

Injunction

If the alleged infringer continues to use the patent in question and has not diligently responded, either by accepting the FRAND offer or by submitting a FRAND counter-offer, the SEP holder may seek an injunction stopping the infringement or seek the recall of products made using the SEP , without risking Article 102 TFEU scrutiny.

By making it a condition that the alleged infringer must still be using the patent in question for the SEP holder to seek injunctive relief, the CJEU draws a clear distinction between an injunction based on the alleged infringement of an SEP and proceedings brought with a view to obtaining the rendering of accounts or an award of damages. This means that, notwithstanding the multiple steps and requirements that have to be followed when seeking an injunction, if the SEP holder only intends to pursue an action for damages for the unlicensed use of its SEP, Article 102 TFEU cannot be invoked by the alleged infringer.

Comment

The CJEU’s judgment sets out the final, general and legally binding test applicable to injunctions based on an infringement of a FRAND-encumbered SEP sought by a dominant market player.

To a large extent, the ruling reflects the European Commission’s earlier efforts to regulate the practices in question. That said, it is difficult to say whether or not the pro-licensee safe harbour envisaged by the European Commission has been fully embraced by the CJEU in its current decision. The number of issues that remain unresolved, e.g., in relation to the existence of dominance on the part of the SEP holder, the definition of “willingness”, or the meaning of FRAND, potentially makes the legal test less useful in practice.

Licensors and potential licensees are therefore still advised to take caution when structuring transactions involving SEPs.

Mafalda de Oliveira Dias and Michal Kocon, Trainee solicitors also contributed to this article.