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Fifth Circuit Affirms Jury Verdict on Willing Licensee FRAND Commitment

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a jury verdict finding that a standard essential patent (SEP) owner did not breach its commitment to license its SEPs on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms. The ruling establishes not only that willing licensee disputes can be subject to jury adjudication, but also that in willing licensee disputes, traditional patent damages factors such as apportionment are not required, since willing licensee disputes are based in contract law rather than patent law. HTC Corp. et al. v. Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson et al., Case No. 19-40566 (5th Cir. Aug. 31, 2021) (Elrod, J.) The panel concluded that the district court properly instructed the jury on the meaning of FRAND and did not err in granting a post-trial declaratory judgment in the SEP owner’s favor.

Ericsson holds patents that are essential to the 2G, 3G, 4G and WLAN wireless communication standards and made a commitment to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) to license those SEPs on FRAND terms. In order to minimize the risk of anticompetitive behavior, standards setting organizations such as ETSI may exclude patented technology from their standards if an SEP holder does not commit to license the patent on FRAND terms.

HTC makes smartphones that implement Ericsson’s SEPs. In 2016, Ericsson and HTC were engaged in negotiations to renew their third licensing agreement. Negotiations broke down, and HTC filed a lawsuit alleging that Ericsson breached its commitment to provide a license on FRAND terms. HTC argued that Ericsson’s royalty rate should be based on the smallest salable patent-practicing unit (SSPPU) of HTC’s smartphones—specifically, the baseband processor component—rather than the net sales price of the entire end-user device. Ericsson counterclaimed for a declaration that it had complied with its FRAND obligation. Ericsson argued that its offer to HTC was fair and reasonable because its licenses to other similarly situated device makers were also based on the value of the end-user product, not just the smallest salable unit. After an earlier Fifth Circuit decision (applying French law) determined that the ETSI intellectual property rights policy contained no express language requiring SEP holders to base royalties on the SSPPU. The Court also noted that the prevailing industry standard has been to base FRAND licenses on the end-user device. Thus, a “reasonable person” would not interpret Ericsson’s FRAND commitment to mean that it must base its SEP royalties on the SSPPU.

The case proceeded to trial, and a Texas jury found that Ericsson did not breach its FRAND commitment. The district court also granted a declaratory judgment in Ericsson’s favor following trial, concluding that Ericsson’s offers were FRAND. HTC appealed to the Fifth Circuit, challenging the district court’s exclusion of several of its proposed jury instructions and the declaratory judgment in Ericsson’s favor. At trial, the district court had instructed the jury that whether a license is FRAND “will depend on the totality of the particular facts and circumstances,” and that “there is no fixed or required methodology for setting or calculating [...]

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Standard Essential Patent Licensing Practices Do Not Violate Antitrust Laws

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 [...]

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German Competition Authority Files Amicus Brief in SEP Litigation

In 2019, Nokia filed a series of patent infringement complaints against Daimler before several German courts. Nokia alleged that connected cars made by Daimler infringed Nokia’s patents. Nokia considered the relevant patents as essential for certain wireless communication standards. Nokia v. Daimler, Case No. 2 O 34/19 (Mannheim District Court). On 18 June 2020, the litigation took a surprising turn: The German competition authority, the Federal Cartel Office (FCO), filed an amicus curiae brief with the relevant patent infringement courts (FCO docket no. P-66/20). (more…)




District Court Violated Ericsson’s Right to Trial by Jury in Setting FRAND Rate

The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit vacated a district court decision setting license rates for standard-essential patents (SEPs), holding that the district court deprived the patent owner of its constitutional right to trial by jury. TCL Commc’n Tech. Holdings Ltd. v. Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson, Case Nos. 8-1363, -1732 (Fed. Cir., Dec. 5, 2019) (Chen, J.).

Ericsson holds a number of patents that are essential to the 2G, 3G and 4G mobile communications standards set by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). As a member of ETSI, Ericsson has agreed to license its SEPs to implementers of the ETSI standards on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms. TCL manufactures mobile devices that implement the ETSI standards.

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