The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit vacated a district court decision that found Qualcomm’s patent licensing practices violate antitrust laws and reversed a permanent, worldwide injunction against several of Qualcomm’s business practices. Fed. Trade Comm’n v. Qualcomm Inc., Case No. 19-16122 (9th Cir. Aug. 11, 2020) (C.J. Callahan).
Qualcomm sells modem chips that are incorporated into cellular handsets (i.e., smartphones) made by companies such as Samsung, Huawai, Apple and others. Qualcomm also holds a number of standard essential patents (SEPs) implemented by modem chips that are essential to cellular communication standards. A core part of Qualcomm’s business model is that it only licenses its SEPs to smartphone makers, i.e., its original equipment manufacturer (OEM) customers, not to rival modem chip suppliers—even though its rivals’ chips practice Qualcomm’s SEPs. Doing this allows Qualcomm to maximize its profits by charging royalty rates based on the value of the end-product smartphones rather than just the modem chip. In addition, Qualcomm will not supply modem chips to OEM customers unless they first pay to license Qualcomm’s SEPs (“no license, no chips”). OEMs must pay this licensing fee to Qualcomm even if they source chips from another supplier.
In January 2017, the FTC filed suit against Qualcomm in the Northern District of California, alleging that Qualcomm’s licensing practices violate the antitrust laws and unfairly protect its monopoly power as a modem chip supplier. Following a two-week bench trial, the district court issued a lengthy opinion ruling in favor of the FTC and ordering extensive injunctive relief requiring Qualcomm to change its business practices. The court made a number of findings, including: (1) Qualcomm’s refusal to license its SEPs to rival chipmakers violates both its FRAND commitments to standard-setting organizations (SSOs) and an antitrust duty to deal; (2) Qualcomm’s royalty rates for its SEPs are unreasonably high because they are based on the value of end products and (3) Qualcomm’s royalties, in conjunction with its “no license, no chips” policy, imposes an anticompetitive “surcharge” on the price of its rivals’ chips. Qualcomm appealed.
The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision in its entirety and vacated the injunctive relief which had been ordered, finding that Qualcomm’s licensing practices amount to “hypercompetitive,” not anticompetitive, behavior. The Court recognized that Qualcomm’s licensing practices are designed to maximize its profits, but concluded that they do not unfairly distort competition within the modem chip markets. According to the Court, the district court improperly extended the reach of the antitrust laws in issuing its injunction.
The Ninth Circuit addressed and rejected each of the district court’s findings. First, the Court concluded that Qualcomm does not have an antitrust “duty to deal” with its rival chipmakers. The Court emphasized that the Supreme Court has recognized only a narrow exception to the general rule that a business need not deal with its competitors, and concluded that the exception was not met here. The Court also concluded that whether Qualcomm breached a FRAND commitment to license its SEPs to rivals was [...]