Standards and FRAND Terms in the Post Huawei World

By Giuseppe Colangelo

The judgment of the European Court of Justice (CJEU) in Huawei/ZTE (Case C-170/13)
marked a milestone in the patent war which has characterized standardization activities in the last decade. The CJEU identified the precise steps which standard essential patents (SEPs) owners and users have to follow in negotiating fair reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) royalties. Compliance with this code of conduct will shield IPRs holders from the scrutiny of competition law and, at the same time, will protect implementers from the threat of an injunction and the consequent disruptive effect on sales and production.

In primis, the patent holder must inform the SEPs user about the alleged infringement and make a specific and written FRAND offer, provided the latter has shown willingness to obtain a license on fair and reasonable terms. The exact amount of the royalty and the way in which it has been calculated should be specified in the offer. In case of refusal, the implementer must promptly propose a counter-offer that complies with FRAND requirements. If such counter-offer is also rejected, the alleged infringer must provide appropriate security to continue using the patents, either by providing a bank guarantee or by placing the requisite amount on deposit. In addition, the parties have the option to request that the royalty level be set by an independent third party decision without delay. Patent owners will instead be granted an injunction if the implementer, while continuing to use the patent in question, have not diligently responded to the first licensing offer, in accordance with recognized commercial practices in the field and in good faith, which is a matter that must be established on the basis of objective factors and which implies that there are no delaying tactics. Furthermore, with regard to liability for past acts of use, the CJEU also explained that Article 102 TFEU does not prohibit the SEPs owner from bringing an action for the award of damages or the rendering of accounts. The above requirements and considerations do not, however, deprive the potential licensee of the right to challenge the validity and essentiality of the patent at issue.

Despite the CJEU’s efforts, many shadows still loom on the horizon of the EU standard-setting community. In such a complex context, the recent activity by certain national courts in filling the gaps left by the CJEU and shedding light on some of the thorniest questions is undoubtedly welcome, and deserves the utmost consideration. Among these decisions, the UK judgement Unwired Planet v. Huawei[1] recently delivered by Mr. Justice Birss is of utmost importance.

 

The UK dispute Unwired Planet v. Huawei

Unwired Planet, a U.S. based patent assertion entity that holds a worldwide patent portfolio which includes numerous SEPs to various telecommunications standards, claimed that Huawei was an unwilling licensee. Huawei counterclaimed that Unwired Planet was abusing its dominant position by offering to license its entire global portfolio (SEPs and non-SEPs) and by demanding royalty rates higher than FRAND ones.

On 5 April 2017, the High Court of England and Wales delivered its judgement.

Justice Birss addressed several important topics. First, Birss stated that only one set of licensing terms can be ultimately considered FRAND in a given set of circumstances. From this perspective, the judge disregarded the view of those authors, U.S. judges (e.g. Robart in Microsoft v. Motorola) and perhaps even the CJEU in Huawei, according to whom FRAND may well comprise a range of terms. Indeed, although the Huawei case did not deal with FRAND pricing, yet it acknowledged that parties can make divergent FRAND offers and counter-offers, thereby confirming that there is no unambiguous FRAND point and that several distributional FRAND prices exist.

Furthermore, as a consequence of the single FRAND rate, Birss found that, during the negotiation, the parties could make offers that would not be FRAND. An obligation focused only on making FRAND offers is considered unrealistic since a process of fair negotiation will usually involve some compromise between the parties’ rival offers: if the standard setting organization demands that offers made by a patentee must themselves consist of FRAND terms, then that would condemn patentees to always end up with negotiated rates below a FRAND rate. Therefore, according to the UK Court, it makes much more sense to interpret the FRAND obligation as applicable primarily to the finally agreed terms rather than to the offers.

It seems that Birss aimed to reduce the relevance of the Huawei decision (and of the competition law, in general) also relatively to another point. After recalling the purpose of a FRAND commitment and its alleged contractual nature, the UK judgment concluded that the contractual commitments submitted to the standard setting organization (ETSI) are stricter than antitrust provisions. Indeed, since competition law fines only excessive prices, a rate can be in line with antitrust rules even if it is higher than the FRAND benchmark. In sum, according to the English Court, FRAND commitments can be enforced under contract law without recourse to competition law.

Turning to the process of negotiating FRAND licenses, with respect to the type of behavior that can be considered FRAND, the Court stated that making extreme offers and taking an intransigent approach is not FRAND. In this regard, Huawei was considered unwilling because it insisted on having an offer for just a UK license (instead of a worldwide one).

Moreover, Birss provided useful insights about the determination of FRAND rates. An appropriate way to establish the FRAND royalty would be to determine a benchmark rate governed by the value of the patentee’s portfolio: counting patents and making reference to existing comparable licenses are key steps of the determination process. In the High Court’s words, a patentee who refuses to accept those terms would be in breach of its FRAND undertaking. With respect to the non-discrimination element, the Court rejected a “hard-edged” approach capable of applying to reduce a royalty rate (or adjust any license term in any way) which would otherwise have been regarded as FRAND. On the contrary, the Court endorsed a “general” approach, which requires that rates cannot differ based on the licensee but only on the value of the portfolio licensed.

The UK judgement demonstrates that after Huawei there are still several pending questions. It is not surprising that the European Commission has recently intervened to announce a Communication in order to fill the gaps by complementing existing jurisprudence through best practice recommendations.[2]

[1] [2017] E.W.H.C. 711 (Pat).

[2] European Commission, Roadmap towards a Communication on ‘Standard Essential Patents for a European digitalised economy’, 2017, 2, available at https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/initiatives/ares-2017-1906931_en.

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