Standard-essential patent holders and implementers may face uncertainty regarding licensing practices following a May 23 Texas court ruling. In the ruling, a Texas federal judge reached a conclusion different from a recent California court decision—FTC v. Qualcomm—on the question of whether an SEP holder must base its royalty rates on the “smallest salable patent-practicing unit” in order to comply with a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory royalty commitment.
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.
The U.S. International Trade Commission has issued an exclusion order barring importation of certain older model Apple products for infringing a Samsung patent. The case is significant because the infringed patent was standard essential and encumbered by a commitment to license on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms. Patent holders and potential defendants should carefully monitor further developments regarding the availability of injunctive relief for infringement of standard essential patents.
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