The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit determined that an automotive parts supplier did not have constitutional standing to pursue an antitrust lawsuit against standard essential patent (SEP) owners that refused to directly license SEPs to the supplier on fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) terms. Continental Automotive Systems, Inc. v. Avanci, LLC et al., Case No. 20-11032 (5th Cir. Feb. 28, 2022) (Stewart, Ho, Engelhardt, JJ.)
Continental supplies telematic control units that are embedded in connected cars. The telematic control units provide wireless connectivity using 2G, 3G and 4G cellular standards, allowing users to stream music, navigate to destinations and call for emergency assistance directly from cars. Nokia, PanOptis, and Sharp all claim to own or license SEPs essential to the 2G, 3G, and 4G cellular standards set by standard-setting organizations (SSO). In order to facilitate patent licensing, these individual patent holders (along with many others) entered into an agreement with Avanci, which acts as a licensing agent for the patent holders. Under the agreement, Avanci may sell patent licenses only to car manufacturers or original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), both of which are downstream from Continental in the supply chain. The agreement permits the patent holders to individually license their SEPs to suppliers such as Continental at FRAND rates.
Continental unsuccessfully sought a license from Avanci at FRAND rates. According to Avanci, licenses were available to Continental on FRAND terms from individual SEP holders, and Continental did not need SEP licenses since Avanci sells licenses to OEMs that incorporate Continental’s products. Continental sued Avanci and the individual patent holders, arguing that Avanci’s refusal to sell a license to Continental on FRAND terms constituted anticompetitive conduct in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Avanci moved to dismiss the complaint. As to the threshold issue of constitutional standing, Continental presented two theories of injury that it asserted conferred standing. Continental’s first theory of injury was that if Avanci and the individual patent holders succeeded in licensing the OEMs at non-FRAND rates, the royalties owed on those licenses might be passed through to Continental via indemnity agreements. Continental’s second theory of injury was that Avanci and the individual patent holders declined to provide Continental with a license on FRAND terms, and this denial of property was sufficient injury to establish standing. The district court rejected Continental’s first theory but accepted the second theory, finding that Continental’s unsuccessful attempts to obtain licenses on FRAND terms was an injury that conferred constitutional standing. Even though the district court found that Continental had constitutional standing, it dismissed Continental’s Sherman Act claims for lack of antitrust standing and for failure to plausibly plead certain elements. Continental appealed.
The Fifth Circuit concluded that neither of Continental’s theories of injury were sufficient to confer constitutional standing. As to the first alleged injury, the Court agreed with the district court and found that was too speculative since it depended on several layers of decisions by the OEMs—namely, decisions to accept non-FRAND licenses and then invoke indemnification rights against Continental. The Court further noted that none of the pleadings established that any OEMs accepted non-FRAND licenses or invoked any indemnity rights.
As to the second alleged injury, the Fifth Circuit disagreed with the district court and found that Avanci and the individual patent holders’ refusal to sell licenses did not result in a cognizable injury to Continental. As a threshold matter, the Court explained that Continental had no rights to enforce FRAND contracts between the individual patent holders and the SSO since Continental was not a part of the SSO. The Court further found that even if Continental was contractually entitled to a license on FRAND terms, the contracts were not breached because the individual patent holders had fulfilled their obligations to the SSOs by actively licensing to OEMs, which meant they had made SEP licenses available to Continental on FRAND terms. The Court also noted that Continental did not need to personally own the SEP licenses to operate its business and therefore had not been denied property to which it was entitled.
Finding that Continental did not have constitutional standing, the Fifth Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded with instructions to dismiss Continental’s claims for lack of standing.