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 February 15, a Texas federal jury found that Ericsson did not breach its obligation to offer HTC licenses to its standard-essential patents (SEPs) on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms. The verdict ended a nearly two-year dispute as to whether FRAND obligations preclude a licensing offer based on end products rather than components. Ericsson succeeded in convincing the jury that its FRAND commitment does not require it to base royalty rates for its SEPs on the value of smartphone chips rather than the phones themselves. The jury verdict suggests that other SEP holders may be able to successfully argue that basing royalty rates on end products rather than components does not violate their FRAND obligations.
Ericsson holds patents that the parties agreed are essential to the 2G, 3G, 4G and WLAN wireless communication standards, and made a commitment to several standard setting organizations to license those SEPs on FRAND terms. HTC makes smartphones that implement Ericsson’s SEPs and brought suit against Ericsson in April 2017, alleging that Ericsson overcharges for its SEPs.
- Wading into the merging streams of antitrust and patents, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld dismissal of an antitrust suit where a jury verdict in a parallel case found no patent infringement. Cascades Computer Innovation, LLC v. RPX Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Case No. 16-15782 (9th Cir., December 11, 2017).
- Cascades Computer Innovation is a non-practicing entity that owns a series of 38 patents (collectively known as the Elbrus portfolio) allegedly used to optimize Android devices. Cascades intended to license these patents for use by companies including Motorola, HTC, Samsung, LG Electronics, Dell and RPX (a defensive patent aggregator that purchases patents on behalf of subscriber organizations using membership fees). An agreement couldn’t be reached. Cascades alleged this lack of agreement was due to a conspiracy between the defendants, using RPX, to not seek licenses for use of these patents—an agreement in violation of antitrust law.
- Cascades filed two related lawsuits against Samsung, Motorola, HTC and others in separate district courts with separate causes of action. In Illinois, Cascades’ claim rested on patent infringement. Although the entire Elbrus portfolio was referenced in the complaint, the court determined only one patent, referred to by the court as “the ‘750 patent,” was truly at issue. Cascades asserted that merely installing the Android mobile device operating system resulted in an infringement of this patent. In California, Cascades relied on antitrust law arguing the agreement between defendants not to purchase licenses amounted to a violation. Again, the ‘750 patent was primarily at issue. Thus, Cascades simultaneously argued that a group of companies infringed on their patent and also that those companies illegally conspired to refuse to obtain licenses for use of that patent.
- A jury in Illinois determined there was no patent infringement, which undercut Cascades’ argument in California. Without any infringement, the court in California noted “[o]nly those who possess antitrust standing by virtue of having suffered antitrust injury may bring a private action for damages for violation of the antitrust laws” before ruling for the defendants on a motion for judgment on the pleadings. The California court reasoned that in order to show antitrust injury, there must be harm to competition, not any particular competitor. The court reasoned that a “failure to license a non-infringed patent typically cannot serve as the basis for a cognizable antitrust injury.” Because Cascades’ entire theory of injury was based upon ongoing infringement of the ‘750 patent, and not on any potential, unalleged future infringement, there was no antitrust injury in the case.
- On appeal, the 9th Circuit determined the district court “properly recognized the preclusive effect of [the Illinois decision] and correctly reasoned that because the defendants did not infringe the ‘750 patent, Cascades’ failure to license the patent was not a cognizable antitrust injury.” In a footnote, the panel explained, “[h]ere, the defendants were not infringing the valid patent; therefore, they were not using the invention. Thus, the failure to license had no effect [...]