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.
Federal Judge Finds Qualcomm Violated the FTC Act Through Monopolistic and Exclusionary Conduct
On May 21, a California federal judge ruled in favor of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in its suit against Qualcomm in a much-anticipated decision, concluding that Qualcomm violated the FTC Act by maintaining its monopoly position as a modem chip supplier through a number of exclusionary practices, including refusing to license standard essential patents (SEPs) on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms. Qualcomm likely will appeal the decision to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, but in the meantime, the court’s sweeping decision is likely to affect the course of dealing between SEP-holders and licensees. The decision is likely to substantially affect the ways in which SEP-holders take their technology and associated components that they manufacture to market.
District Court: IPR Policy Does Not Automatically Require License Fees Based on Components
The US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas ruled that for the purposes of honoring a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) commitment, a pool member is not required to base royalties for its standard essential patents (SEPs) on the value of components. HTC America Inc. et al. v. Ericsson Inc., Case No. 6:18-cv-00243-JRG (E.D. Tex. Jan. 7, 2019) (Gilstrap, J). According to the court, Ericsson’s commitment to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) does not specify whether it must use the value of components or end-user devices to calculate royalty rates. Thus, there is no ETSI prescribed methodology for calculating the license fee under the FRAND commitment.
Ericsson holds patents that are essential to the 2G, 3G, 4G and WLAN wireless communication standards and made a commitment to ETSI to license those SEPs on FRAND terms. HTC makes smartphones that implement Ericsson’s SEPs and alleged that Ericsson is overcharging for SEP licenses. According to HTC, Ericsson’s FRAND commitment to ETSI requires it to base its royalties on the value of the “smallest salable patent-practicing unit (SSPPU) in the phones.” In October 2018, Ericsson moved for a ruling that its FRAND commitment does not require this method of calculation and allows Ericsson to base its royalties on the value of end-user devices, i.e., smartphones.
FTC Secures Partial Victory Requiring SEP Holder to License to All Comers in Antitrust Case
Recently, a federal district court in California granted partial summary judgment for the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in an important intellectual property and antitrust case involving standard essential patents (SEP). The court’s decision requires an SEP holder to license its SEPs for cellular communication standards to all applicants willing to pay a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) rate, regardless of whether the applicant supplies components or end-devices. The decision represents a significant victory for the FTC in enforcing its views of an SEP holder’s commitments to license patents on FRAND terms.
THE LATEST: DOJ and FTC Take Divergent Positions on Intellectual Property Issue
In testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim from the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and Chairman Joseph Simons from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) staked out differing interpretations of when antitrust considerations are relevant in standard setting agreements restricted by fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) rates, a rare divergence of opinion between the two antitrust enforcement agencies.WHAT HAPPENED:
- Since AAG Delrahim took over as head of the DOJ Antitrust Division in September 2017 he has consistently hinted at a differing interpretation of antitrust law as it relates to standard essential patents and FRAND rates in the context of antitrust.
- Standard essential patents (SEPs) are patents that have been incorporated into a standard by a standard setting organization and industry participants to facilitate interchangeability between products. Often, to be included in a standard, patent holders agree to license a patent essential to that standard at a FRAND rate.
- With the proliferation of standards, more scrutiny has been devoted to SEPs and FRAND rates, and some companies have brought antitrust suits relating to “patent hold-up” or the refusal to license a patent on FRAND terms (typically seeking higher royalties or fees on patents for widely adopted standards).
- In testimony on October 3, 2018, AAG Delrahim indicated his view was that a patent holder’s unilateral decision not to license a patent—even if that patent is part of a standard—is not conduct intended to be reached by the antitrust laws. AAG Delrahim indicated such a dispute would more appropriately be handled by contract law.
- This position differs from that of the FTC, where Chairman Simons has indicated that antitrust law can be relevant in patent hold-up cases.
- The FTC demonstrated its view in a recent complaint filed against Qualcomm, Inc. The complaint summarizes the patent hold-up concern:
Once a standard incorporating proprietary technology is adopted, the potential exists for opportunistic patent holders to insist on patent licensing terms that capture not just the value of the underlying technology, but also the value of standardization itself. To address this “hold-up” risk, [standard setting organizations] often require patent holders to disclose their patents and commit to license standard-essential patents (“SEPs”) on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (“FRAND”) terms. Absent such requirements, a patent holder might be able to parlay the standardization of its technology into a monopoly in standard-compliant products.WHAT THIS MEANS:
- Going forward, US antitrust enforcement with respect to SEP issues may be limited to the FTC. AAG Delrahim’s speeches indicate that it will be the rare case that the Antitrust Division pursues such cases in the future.
- This divergence between the two US agencies responsible for enforcing antitrust laws will create confusion for SEP holders and their licensees with respect to the risks of US government intervention. Companies dealing with SEPs and FRAND rates will want to be cognizant of which agency is reviewing, as approaches may be [...]
THE LATEST: FTC Acting Chairman Ohlhausen Signals Potentially Reduced Role for Antitrust Oversight of Intellectual Property Disputes
- On Friday, October 13, acting FTC chairman Maureen Ohlhausen delivered a speech at the Hillsdale College Free Market Forum titled, “Markets, Government, and the Common Good,” highlighting her view on the intersection between IP and antitrust domestically and abroad.
- Chairman Ohlhausen’s position, that IP rights must be vigorously protected, is in line with her long-held belief that some enforcement of antitrust laws, especially abroad, has been overzealous when it comes to intellectual property.
- In 2012, Ohlhausen objected to the FTC’s decision to require Robert Bosch GmbH to refrain from pursuing injunctions on certain SEPs (standard essential patents), and she wrote a dissenting opinion on the commission’s consent agreement with Google Inc. and Motorola Mobility Inc. requiring Google to withdraw claims for injunctive relief on SEPs.
- In Friday’s speech, she argued that though “foreign [governments] take or allow the taking of American proprietary technologies without due payment,” the US should continue to protect patent rights and avoid punishing a company for “a unilateral refusal to assist its competitors.”
- Ohlhausen also addressed what she termed the current “age of IP skepticism” as it relates to patent-assertion entities (PAEs).
- She concluded that while some minor changes may be appropriate to promote innovation in the face of “Litigation PAEs” employing nuisance litigation techniques, these changes should be “narrowly tailored to address observed behavior.”
- She voiced support for case management practices that could mitigate litigation cost asymmetries between PAE plaintiffs and defendants, increased transparency, and rules encouraging courts to stay litigation by PAEs when parallel proceedings are already underway, but eschewed more drastic measures such as the creation of “new, specialized guidelines to address particular types of IP disputes,” which, she argued, are unsupported by the available evidence.
- In her view, “the key to addressing the US patent system lies in incremental adjustment where necessary based on a firm empirical foundation.”
- Ohlhausen’s concern that certain antitrust enforcement “inappropriately morphs antitrust law into a tool for price regulation” is a notable policy direction that could make the FTC less inclined to pursue cases involving alleged violations of SEPs.
- Under her direction, any changes forthcoming at the FTC are likely to be minor adjustments reflecting the belief that protecting patent rights is “fundamental to advanc[ing] innovation.”
FTC and DOJ Update Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property
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.”
Ninth Circuit is the First Appeals Court to Rule on RAND/SEP Licensing
In a decision written by Judge Marsha S. Berzon, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appels for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a first-of-its-kind district court judgment relating to royalty rates for standard-essential patents (SEP). As part of the standard setting process, many standards organizations require members who hold patents necessary to implement a given standard to commit to license those patents on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms (RAND). Because inclusion in a standard can increase the importance and value of a patent, parties often differ on what constitutes a reasonable royalty. In this case, district court Judge James Robarts of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington established a multi-factor framework to determine the appropriate royalty rates and ranges for SEPs. Several other courts later employed similar approaches. Motorola’s appeal challenged the district court’s authority to determine the royalty rate at a bench trial. The company also contended that the district court mis-applied Federal Circuit precedent on patent damages. The Ninth Circuit rejected these arguments, finding that Motorola had consented to the bench trial and holding that Judge Robart’s “thoughtful and detailed analysis” was “consistent with the Federal Circuit’s recent approach.” Microsoft Corp. v, Motorola, Inc. et al; Case No 14-35393 (9th Cir, July 30, 2015) (Berzon, J.)
The long-running patent dispute between Microsoft and Motorola spans several courts and countries. The crux of the conflict traces back to October 2010 when Microsoft sued Motorola for alleged infringement of certain smartphone patents. Thereafter, the parties explored a possible cross-licensing arrangement to resolve their dispute. Motorola sent letters proposing licenses for 802.11 and H.264 SEP portfolios, with a proposed royalty rate of 2.25 percent of the price of the end product, which Motorola represented was in keeping with its RAND commitments on the patents. Microsoft disagreed. Soon after, it filed suit in the Western District of Washington, alleging that Motorola had breached its RAND commitments to the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the standard-setting organizations that developed the 802.11 and H.264 standards. Motorola responded by filing suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, seeking an injunction to prevent Microsoft from using its H.264 patents. The cases were consolidated before Judge Robart in the Western District of Washington. Motorola also brought patent-enforcement actions before the International Trade Commission and in Germany. Microsoft alleged in an amended complaint that the filing of these injunctive orders constituted a breach of contract on the grounds that a RAND commitment bars a patent holder from seeking injunctive relief.
The proceedings before Judge Robart slowly moved forward throughout 2011 and 2012. The district court held that the RAND commitment made by Motorola to the standard-setting organizations created an enforceable contract, which standard users like Microsoft are able to enforce as third-party beneficiaries. Judge Robart determined, however, that, in order for a jury to determine whether Motorola had breached its RAND commitment, it must first know what the [...]
DOJ Issues Business Review Letter Pertaining to SSO Policy on Standard-Essential Patents and RAND Commitments
The Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently issued a business review letter stating that it would not challenge the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.’s (IEEE’s) proposed revisions to its patent policy. These patent policy revisions seek to address the “wide divergence” in expectations between holders of patents essential to an IEEE standard and the market participants seeking to implement such standards. The DOJ’s response looked favorably on the IEEE’s proposed revisions pertaining to RAND royalties and limitations on injunctive relief for standard-essential patent holders.
FTC Focuses Enforcement Efforts on Health Care, Technology and Energy Sectors
On November 15, 2013, Chairwoman Edith Ramirez testified on behalf of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) before the House Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform on the topic of antitrust oversight and enforcement. Ramirez explained that the FTC “focuses its enforcement efforts on sectors that most directly affect consumers, such as health care, technology and energy.”
The FTC has identified health care provider consolidation as a significant component of increasing health care costs, and overseeing provider combinations has remained a key priority for the agency. The FTC has also undertaken efforts to promote competition between manufacturers of generic and brand-name drugs. In addition to litigating “pay-for-delay” settlements, the Commission has filed amicus briefs to advocate against other practices it considers anticompetitive, such as “product hopping,” the practice of altering the formula of a brand-name drug in a minor, non-therapeutic way in order to preserve monopoly power in the face of generic competition.
In the technology arena, the FTC has targeted the problem of patent hold-up. The Commission has pursued enforcement actions aimed at preventing holders of standard essential patents from rescinding agreements to license the patents on reasonable and non-discriminatory (RAND) terms. The FTC is also actively looking into the potential harms and efficiencies of “patent assertion entities,” which are companies “with a business model focused primarily on purchasing patents and then attempting to generate revenue by asserting the intellectual property against persons who are already practicing the patented technology.”
The Chairwoman noted that the Commission utilizes “all the powers at its disposal” to police competition in the energy sector, and it considers merger review “essential to preserving competition in these markets.” The agency also monitors gasoline and diesel fuel prices on a daily basis for unusual pricing activity, which could be a sign of anticompetitive conduct.