European Commission Communication on Standard Essential Patents

By Giuseppe Colangelo

On November 29, 2017, the European  Commission released the much-awaited Communication on standard essential patents (SEPs) licensing [“Setting out the EU approach to Standard Essential Patents”, COM(2017) 712 final].

The Communication comes in the wake of the UK judgement Unwired Planet v. Huawei,[1] recently delivered by Mr. Justice Birss and analyzed in our previous newsletter. As highlighted by the UK decision, after the judgment in Huawei/ZTE (Case C-170/13), in which the European Court of Justice identified the steps which SEPs owners and users must follow in negotiating a FRAND royalty, there are still several unresolved questions. Notably, the different approaches adopted by Germany and the UK have spurred the Communication to set out “key principles that foster a balanced, smooth and predictable framework for SEPs”.

The key principles reflect two stated objectives: incentivizing the development and inclusion of top technologies in standards by providing fair and adequate returns, and ensuring fair access to standardized technologies to promote wide dissemination.

First, the Commission takes the view that the quality and accessibility of information recorded in standard development organizations (SDOs) database should be improved. Therefore, the Commission calls on SDOs to ensure that their databases comply with basic quality standards, and to transform the current declaration system into a tool providing more up-to-date and precise information on SEPs. Moreover, the Commission stated that declared SEPs should be scrutinized to assess their essentiality for a standard, and will launch a pilot project for SEPs in selected technologies in which an appropriate scrutiny mechanism will be introduced.

Second, the Commission sets out certain general principles for FRAND licensing terms, stating that it is necessary and beneficial to establish a first set of key signposts on the FRAND concept, so as to provide for a more stable licensing environment, guide parties in their negotiations, and reduce costly litigation. In this regard, provided that the parties are best placed to arrive at a common understanding of what are fair licensing conditions and fair rates, the Commission states that:

  1. there is no one-size-fit-all solution on what FRAND is: what can be considered fair and reasonable can differ from sector to sector and over time;
  2. determining a FRAND value should require taking into account the present value add of the patented technology: that value should be irrespective of the market success of the product which is unrelated to the value of the patented technology;
  3. to avoid royalty stacking, parties must take into account whether the aggregate rate for the standard is reasonable;
  4. the nondiscrimination element of FRAND indicates that rightholders cannot discriminate between implementers that are ‘similarly situated’ (see Unwired Planet);
  5. for products with a global circulation, SEP licenses granted on a worldwide basis may contribute to a more efficient approach and therefore can be compatible with FRAND (see Unwired Planet).

A third part of the Communication is devoted to providing guidance in order to achieve a balanced and predictable enforcement environment. With regards to the availability of injunctive relief, the FRAND process requires both parties to negotiate in good faith, including responding in a timely manner. The willingness of the parties to submit to binding third-party FRAND determination – should the (counter-)offer be found not to be FRAND – is an indication of a FRAND behavior. Furthermore, in terms of the timeliness of the counter-offer, no general benchmark can be established, as case-specific elements play a role. Nonetheless, there is a probable trade-off between the time considered reasonable for responding to the offer and the detail and quality of the information provided in the SEP holder’s initial offer.

Even if injunctive relief can be sought against parties acting in bad faith (i.e. parties unwilling to take up a license on FRAND terms), courts are bound by Article 3(2) of the IPR Enforcement Directive, and notably the requirement to ensure that injunctive relief is effective, proportionate, and dissuasive.

Finally, the Commission states that patent assertion entities should be subject to the same rules as any other SEP holder.

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

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