On January 13, 2017, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) issued updated Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property (the Guidelines). The revised Guidelines follow nearly half a year of consideration and public commentary. According to the FTC, the updates were “intended to modernize the IP Licensing Guidelines without changing the agencies’ enforcement approach with respect to intellectual property licensing or expanding the IP Licensing Guidelines to address other topics.” In that vein, the modest updates to the Guidelines affirm that the antitrust agencies still believe that IP issues do not require an altered analysis and that the licensing of intellectual property is generally procompetitive.”

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On December 2, 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States granted cert in a key case regarding the scope of the patent exhaustion doctrine, or “first sale doctrine,” as it relates to (1) sales of a patented item subject to restrictions on post-sale use and (2) authorized sales of a patented article outside of the United States. The US Supreme Court’s resolution of this case will have important implications for secondary markets for patented products and global commerce.

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On 8 September 2016, the General Court of the European Union upheld the European Commission’s decision in which the antitrust regulator imposed fines of approximately EUR 150 million on Lundbeck and a number of generic companies for entering into reverse settlement agreements which delayed the entry of cheaper generic versions of a blockbuster antidepressant.

The Commission had first hinted that patent settlement agreements causing delayed generic entry might be problematic in its 2009 report on the Pharmaceutical Sector Inquiry. Continue Reading EU Court Confirms European Commission’s Decision on Pay-for-Delay Agreements

On October 6, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released its report on patent assertion entity (PAE) activity. The report is the result of research that began in September 2014 to address a gap in the agency’s understanding of PAEs, how they operate and how policies can be developed to reduce nuisance litigation. The study focused on PAE practices, including acquisition, litigation and licensing. The FTC recommends that policymakers address asymmetries in PAE litigation through various procedural and substantive reforms.

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On 8 September 2016, the General Court of the EU (GCEU) handed down five judgments upholding a decision by the Commission of 19 June 2013 imposing fines on Lundbeck, an originator company, and Merck (the parent company of Generics), Arrow, Alpharma and Ranbaxy, four generic companies. The Commission found that the companies had entered into anticompetitive “pay-for-delay” settlement agreements whereby Lundbeck paid a lump sum to the generic companies in exchange for their agreement to delay their entry on the market for Citalopram, an anti-depressant drug.

This ruling is notable in that it is the first time that the GCEU has been asked to rule on patent settlements between originators and generic companies. The GCEU upheld the Commission’s reasoning, noting that the Commission’s reasoning in this case reflects the provisions of its Guidelines on the application of Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) to technology transfer agreements.

Continue Reading General Court of the EU Confirms Fines Imposed on Lundbeck and Generic Drug Manufacturers for Entering into Patent Settlements

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.

On 20 April 2016, the European Commission (Commission) cleared, under its merger control rules, the acquisition of Equens and PaySquare by Worldline subject to, amongst others, a commitment to license technology to any customer interested, at Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) conditions.

Worldline is a French provider of payment services and terminals, financial processing and software licensing and e-transactions services. Equens offers a number of services across the value chain of both payments processing and cards processing services. Its fully-owned subsidiary, PaySquare, provides merchant acquiring services.  This transaction combines two large payment systems operators, active across the full value chain in both payment processing and card processing services.

The EU antitrust regulator was concerned that the acquisition would have raised certain issues with respect to, in particular, merchant acquiring services in Germany.  The Commission’s market investigation revealed that Worldline’s Poseidon software and modules are used by the majority of German network service providers (including PaySquare), there are no other readily available alternatives to Poseidon and post-transaction, Worldline would have the ability and the incentives to favour its new subsidiary PaySquare, in terms of price and quality, over other network service providers relying on Poseidon.

In order to address the Commission’s concerns, the companies offered a commitment to grant licenses for the Poseidon software on FRAND terms during a period of 10 years. Specifically, this commitment consists of the following elements:

  • The granting of a license for Poseidon and its modules to third-party network service providers under FRAND terms and capping of the maintenance fees
  • A monitoring mechanism to ensure compliance with FRAND terms by a licensing trustee and by a group composed of network service providers
  • Giving access to the Poseidon source code under certain conditions
  • Transferring the governance of the ZVT protocol, on which most German point of sale terminals run, to an independent not for profit industry organisation

The Commission’s decision to accept this commitment is interesting for a number reasons; the Commission generally has a strong preference for structural rather than behavioural undertakings, FRAND obligations are typically applicable to technologies that are standardised, and this case presents the first time that a commitment to licence on FRAND terms has been used as a remedy under the EU Merger Regulation.

On April 13, 2016, the US District Court for the District of Delaware denied InterDigital’s motion to dismiss an antitrust suit filed by Microsoft (Microsoft Mobile, Inc. v. InterDigital, Inc., Case No. 15-cv-723-RGA).  In the suit, Microsoft alleged that InterDigital engaged in an unlawful scheme to acquire and exploit monopoly power over standard essential patents (SEPs) required for 3G and 4G cellular devices.  Specifically, Microsoft asserted that InterDigital falsely promised to license its 3G and 4G SEPs on Fair, Reasonable, and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) terms in order to ensure its SEPs were included in standards set by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI).  According to the complaint, InterDigital failed to live up to its commitment to FRAND licensing terms, and instead acquired monopoly power in the 3G and 4G cellular technology markets and used that power to demand supra-competitive royalties, “double-dip” royalty demands, and has pursued “baseless” International Trade Commission litigation against Microsoft and others.

In its motion to dismiss, InterDigital asserted that Microsoft failed to adequately plead a Sherman Act § 2 monopolization claim, namely that Microsoft failed to show that InterDigital possessed and exercised monopoly power and failed to adequately allege injury.  The court disagreed, finding Microsoft’s allegations to be materially similar to those found to be sufficient by the Third Circuit in Broadcom Corp. v. Qualcomm Inc. (2007).  With respect to monopoly power, the court found that Microsoft’s allegations as to the necessary technology standards, market entry barriers, and InterDigital’s market share to be sufficient.  The court found that allegations of an “intentional false promise” to license technology on FRAND terms, which was relied upon in selecting the technology for inclusion in mandatory standards, and breach of such promise was “sufficient to show anticompetitive conduct.”

As to injury, InterDigital asserted that its litigation activity was protected by the Noerr-Pennington doctrine.  The court held that injury was sufficiently pled, and that the Noerr-Pennington doctrine did not immunize InterDigital as its scheme, as alleged by Microsoft, would have been “ineffective without the threat of litigation” and therefore it was properly included in Microsoft’s anticompetitive scheme allegations.

This latest ruling demonstrates that prospective licensees may be able to raise antitrust claims against SEP holders when negotiations fail and litigation ensues.

On 18 March, the European Commission (Commission) published its initial findings on geo-blocking in the framework of its ongoing antitrust sector inquiry into e-commerce.

The findings are based on responses to questionnaires sent to more than 1400 retailers and digital content providers from all 28 EU Member States in 2015.

The questionnaires focused on geo-blocking practices in the sales of goods (clothing, shoes and accessories, consumer electronics, household appliances, computer games and software, toys and childcare articles, books, media carriers, cosmetic and healthcare products, sports, outdoor, house and garden equipment), and in the provision of digital content services (films, sports, TV programmes, music).

The findings suggest that geo-blocking is a widespread practice. Where the sale of tangible goods is concerned, in most cases the decision to have geo-blocking in place is made unilaterally by the retailer.  In only 12 percent of the cases, retailers were forced by contract to put restrictions in place on cross-border sales.

On the other hand, geo-blocking in digital content is for the most part a contractual requirement imposed by suppliers (for 59 percent of the respondents).

The data on geo-blocking now published by the Commission seem to strengthen the Commission’s suspicions that geo-blocking practices are widespread and may significantly impact intra-EU cross-border trade. The Commission said that geo-blocking may be in breach of competition law, particularly when it results from agreements between businesses or if practised by a dominant market player.

However, the Commission also recognized that retailers and service providers may have valid reasons to put geo-blocking in place to restrict cross-border sales. In light of this, the Commission may decide to address the conditions under which geo-blocking is justified in further legislation or guidance to businesses first, rather than take  immediate enforcement measures on the back of the sector inquiry.

Any ensuing enforcement action would have to take place on a case-by-case basis, separately from the overall sector inquiry.

It is expected that the Commission will present its final report on the present inquiry by the middle of 2016.

McDermott has authored the Italian chapter of the 2016 edition of “Intellectual Property & Antitrust” published by Getting the Deal Through, a valuable work tool for legal practitioners dealing with intellectual property and competition law.

This chapter addresses the statutes for granting IP rights, enforcement options and remedies, as well as the interplay between Italian IP and competition legislation, jurisdiction of competition and IP agencies, cartels, price maintenance, abuse of dominance and remedies.

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