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The Ruling of the EU Court of Justice in Intel

By Giuseppe Colangelo

Almost ten years have passed since the Commission began its proceeding against Intel. However, the lawfulness of Intel’s practices remains inconclusive. In its recent judgment (Case C-413/14 P), the Grand Chamber of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) set aside a previous ruling in which the General Court affirmed the decision of the Commission to prohibit Intel’s practices, and referred the case back to the General Court.

The judgment turns on efficiency-enhancing justifications. The Grand Chamber of the CJEU, just as in Post Danmark I (Case C-209/10), reiterates that antitrust enforcement cannot disregard procompetitive effects even in the case of unilateral conduct, such as loyalty rebates. Although Article 102 does not reproduce the prohibition-exemption structure of Article 101, for the sake of consistency there must be room to allow unilateral practices as well. Therefore, like agreements restrictive by object, unilateral conduct which is presumed to be unlawful, as loyalty rebates are, can also be justified and rehabilitated because of the efficiency and consumer welfare benefits it can produce. The General Court’s formalistic approach towards Intel’s rebates demonstrated the need for the CJEU to clarify the role that assessing procompetitive effects must play in the analysis of dominant firms’ practices.

To this end, the CJEU suggests ‘clarifying’ the interpretation of Hoffman-La Roche (Case 85/76), one of the totems of EU antitrust orthodoxy. Unfortunately, it accomplishes exactly the opposite. Intel clearly supports the economic approach by denying a formalist, or per se, shortcut to the authorities. The abusive character of a behavior cannot be established simply on the basis of its form.

In Hoffman-La Roche, the CJEU pronounced that it considered any form of exclusive dealing anathema. To make the link to the exclusive dealing scenarios depicted in Hoffman-La Roche apparent, the General Court introduced a class of ‘exclusivity rebates’ in its ruling on Intel’s pricing practices. This is a new category of discounts different from the previously defined classes of quantity and fidelity rebates.

However, in its judgment the CJEU offers a different interpretation of the law on fidelity rebates. For those cases where dominant firms offer substantive procompetitive justifications for their fidelity rebates, the CJEU requires the Commission to proffer evidence showing the foreclosure effects of the allegedly abusive practice, and to analyze: (i) the extent of the undertaking’s dominant position on the relevant market; (ii) the share of the market covered by the challenged practice as well as the conditions and arrangements for granting the rebates in question, their duration and their amount; (iii) the possible existence of a strategy aimed at excluding from the market competitors that are at least as efficient as the dominant undertaking. As expressly acknowledged by the CJEU, it is this third prong – that is, the assessment of the practice’s capacity to foreclose – which is pivotal, because it “is also relevant in assessing whether a system of rebates which, in principle, falls within the scope of the prohibition laid down in Article 102 TFEU, may be objectively justified.”

The Intel ruling is also a significant step towards greater legal certainty. In addition to being able to effectively assert efficient justifications to overturn the presumption of anti-competitiveness, firms also know that for the CJEU the ‘as efficient competitor test’ (AEC test) represents a reliable proxy (although not the single or decisive criterion) of analysis that cannot be ignored, especially when used by the Commission in its evaluations.

The application of the effect-based approach to all unilateral conduct of dominant firms brings the European experience closer to the rule of reason analysis carried out under Section 2 of the Sherman Act. As indeed is explained by the Court of Appeals in Microsoft [253 F.3d 34 (D.C. Circuit 2001)], when it comes to monopolistic conduct, where the task of plaintiffs complaining about the violation of antitrust law is to show the exclusionary effects of the conduct at stake and how this has negatively affected consumer welfare, the task of the dominant firm is to highlight the objective justifications of its behavior.

The Ruling of the EU Court of Justice in Intel

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Full-work Licensing Requirement 100 Percent Rejected: Second Circuit Rules in Favor of Fractional Licensing

By Martin Miernicki

On 19 December 2017, the Second Circuit handed down a summary order on the BMI Consent Decree in the dispute between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). The court ruled that the decree does not oblige BMI to license the works in its repertoire on a “full-work” basis.

 

Background[1]

ASCAP and BMI are the two largest U.S. collective management organizations (CMOs) which license performance rights in musical works. Both organizations are subject to so-called consent decrees which entered into force 2001 and 1994, respectively. In 2014, the DOJ’s Antitrust Division announced a review of the consent decrees to evaluate if these needed to be updated. The DOJ concluded the review in August 2016, issuing a closing statement. The DOJ declared that it did not intend to re-negotiate and to amend the decrees, but rather stated that it interpreted these decrees as requiring ASCAP and BMI to license their works on a “full-work” or “100 percent” basis. Under this rule, the CMOs may only offer licenses that cover all performance rights in a composition; thus, co-owned works to which they only represent a “fractional” interest cannot be licensed. In reaction to this decision, BMI asked the “rate court” to give its opinion on this matter. In September 2016, Judge Stanton ruled against the full-work licensing requirement, stating that the decree “neither bars fractional licensing nor requires full-work licensing.”

 

Decision of the court

On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed Judge Stanton’s ruling and held that fractional licensing is compatible with the BMI Consent Decree. First, referencing the U.S. Copyright Act – 17 U.S.C. § 201(d) –, the court highlighted that the right of public performance can be subdivided and owned separately. Second, as fractional licensing was common practice at the time the decree was amended in 1994, its language does indicate a prohibition of this practice. Third, the court rejected the DOJ’s reference to Pandora Media, Inc. v. ASCAP, 785 F. 3d 73 (2d Cir. 2015) because this judgment dealt with the “partial” withdrawal of rights from the CMO’s repertoire and not with the licensing policies in respect of users. Finally, the Second Circuit considered it to be irrelevant that full-work licensing could potentially advance the procompetitive objectives of the BMI Consent Decree; rather, the DOJ has the option to amend the decree or sue BMI in a separate proceeding based on the Sherman Act.

 

Implications of the judgement

The ruling of the Second Circuit is undoubtedly a victory for BMI, but also for ASCAP, as it must be assumed that ASCAP’s decree – which is very similar to BMI’s decree – can be interpreted in a similar fashion. Unsurprisingly, both CMOs welcomed the decision. The DOJ’s reaction remains to be seen, however. From the current perspective, an amendment of the decrees appears to be more likely than a lengthy antitrust proceeding under the Sherman Act; the DOJ had already partly toned down its strict reading of the decree in the course of the proceeding before the Second Circuit. Yet, legislative efforts might produce results and influence the further developments before a final decision is made. A recent example for the efforts to update the legal framework for music licensing is the “Music Modernization Act” which aims at amending §§ 114 and 115 of the U.S. Copyright Act.

[1] For more information on the background see Transatlantic Antitrust and IPR Developments Issue No. 3-4/2016 and Issue No. 5/2016.

 

Update on the Apple and Qualcomm Proceedings

By Nicole Daniel

Introduction

The proceedings between Apple and Qualcomm began in January 2017 in the U.S. District Court in San Diego when Apple filed suit against Qualcomm over its allegedly abusive licensing practices with its wireless patents. Qualcomm then filed unfair competition law counterclaims. This case is being overseen by U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel.

Apple then sued Qualcomm for similar violations in the UK, China, Japan, and Taiwan.

In July 2017 Qualcomm filed patent claims against Apple also in the U.S. District Court in San Diego. This case is being overseen by U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw. At the same time Qualcomm filed a complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission accusing the Apple iPhone of infringing five Qualcomm patents.

 

District Court Case I

In November 2017, Judge Curiel issued a split decision in the first patent and antitrust case between Apple and Qualcomm.

Apple has been seeking a declarative judgment that it had not infringed the nine Qualcomm patents at issue and asked the court to decide on a fair and reasonable licensing rate. Judge Curiel denied those claims, holding instead that no detailed infringement analysis as to the Additional Patents-in-Suit had been conducted.

Judge Curiel further held that Qualcomm had not adequately pleaded claims against Apple based on California’s Unfair Competition Law. These allegations stemmed from Apple’s decision to use both Qualcomm and Intel chips in its iPhone. Before, Apple exclusively used Qualcomm’s chips in earlier versions of the iPhone.

In a hearing in October 2017 the lawyers for Qualcomm claimed that Apple executives threatened to end their business relationship if Qualcomm publicly claimed that its own chipsets were superior to Intel’s. In his order judge Curiel held that Qualcomm had not adequately pleaded the specific facts indicating its own reliance on an alleged omission or misrepresentation by Apple.  Accordingly, Qualcomm lacked standing under Unfair Competition Law.


District Court Case II

In the district court patent case, Apple filed counterclaims arguing that Qualcomm infringed patents relating to enabling extended battery life in a smartphone or other mobiles devises by supplying power only when needed. This technology serves to maximize battery life.

Apple further argued that it created the smartphone as its own product category in 2007 when it introduced the iPhone. Qualcomm merely developed basic telephone technology which is now dated.

Qualcomm, on the other hand, argued that the success of the iPhone is due to its technology as Qualcomm has developed high-speed wireless connectivity over decades.

The discussion of who essentially invented the smartphone is of importance since under U.S. President Trump the term “innovator” has become very significant. On 10 November 2017 Makan Delrahim, the new chief of the Department of Justice’s antitrust division, made a policy speech and stated that the government aims to rebalance the scales in antitrust enforcement away from implementers who incorporate the inventions of others into their own products. There will be more emphasis on the innovators’ rights so as to protect their patent-holder rights in cases concerning patents essential to technology standards.

 

 

Further Cases filed and the Case at the US International Trade Commission

In November 2017, Qualcomm filed three new district court patent cases against Apple as well as one new complaint for the case pending before the U.S. International Trade Commission. In sum, Qualcomm accuses Apple of infringing 16 non-standard essential patents for technology implemented outside the wireless modern chip.

Despite this litigation, Qualcomm has so far remained a key supplier of chips to Apple.

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).

U.S. District Court Grants a Preliminary Injunction Allowing Data Harvesting on LinkedIn’s Public Profiles

By Valerio Cosimo Romano

On 14 August 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (“Court”) granted a motion for a preliminary injunction against the professional social networking site LinkedIn (“Defendant”), enjoining the company from preventing access, copying, and use of public profiles on LinkedIn’s website and from blocking access to such member public profiles.

 

Background

HiQ Labs (“Plaintiff”) is a company which sells information to its clients about their workforces. This information is gathered by analyzing data collected on LinkedIn users’ publicly available profiles, which are automatically harvested by Plaintiff. HiQ is entirely dependent from LinkedIn’s data.

Plaintiff resorted to this legal action after Defendant attempted to terminate the Plaintiff’s ability to access the publicly available information on profiles of Linkedin users (after years of apparently tolerating hiQ’s access and use of its data). Plaintiff contends that Defendant’s actions constitute unfair business practices, common law tort and contractual liability, as well as a violation of free speech under the California Constitution.

 

Irreparable harm and the balance of hardships

First, the Court evaluated the existence of a potential irreparable harm for the parties. The Court concluded that, without temporary relief, hiQ would go out of business and that LinkedIn does not have a strong interest to keep the privacy of its users, who made their respective profiles publicly available on purpose. Therefore, the court recognized that the balance of hardships weighs in hiQ’s favor.

 

Likeliness to prevail on the merits

The Court went on to establish the parties’ respective likeness to prevail on the merits. It considered four claims.

 

Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”)

LinkedIn argued that all of hiQ’s claims failed because hiQ’s unauthorized access to LinkedIn violates the CFAA. The CFAA establishes civil and criminal liability for any person who intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access and thereby obtains information from any protected computer. Defendant explicitly revoked the Plaintiff’s permission to acquire data on its systems. According to Defendant, the CFAA is violated when permission has been explicitly revoked by the data’s provider. Plaintiff contended that applying the CFAA to the access of public websites would expand its scope well beyond what was intended by the Congress at the time it enacted the statute since, under Defendant’s interpretation, the CFAA would not leave any room for the consideration of either a website owner’s reasons for denying authorization or an individual’s possible justification for ignoring such a denial.

The Court sided with hiQ, asserting that the CFAA is not intended to police traffic to publicly available websites. According to the Court, a broad reading of the Act would set aside the legal evolution of the balance between open access to information and privacy. Given that the CFAA was enacted well before the advent of the internet, the Court refused to interpret the statute in that manner. The Court further clarified that this does not impair the possibility for a website to employ measures aimed at preventing harmful intrusions or attacks on its servers.

 

California Constitution

According to Plaintiff, LinkedIn also violated California’s constitutional provisions on free speech, which confer broader rights than those provided by the First Amendment. In Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robbins, the California Supreme Court held that the state free speech right prohibited private owners from excluding people from their property when their property is an arena where constitutionally valuable actions take place, like engaging in political speech or sharing fundamental parts of a community’s life. The internet, hiQ contends, can be therefore interpreted as a “public space”, and thus be subject to such doctrine.

However, The Court found that no court had expressly extended Pruneyard to the internet. Thus, it concluded that no serious question had actually been raised with regard to constitutional rights under the California Constitution.

 

Unfair competition law

HiQ also argued that Defendant’s actions had the anticompetitive purpose of monetizing the data with LinkedIn’s competing product and that this conduct amounted to unfair competition under California’s unfair competition law, which broadly prohibits “unlawful, unfair or fraudulent” practices, including those practices that do not explicitly violate antitrust laws, but threaten the spirit of such laws.

According to Plaintiff, Linkedin is violating the spirit of antitrust laws in two ways: first, it is leveraging its power in the professional networking market to secure advantage in the data analytics market. Secondly, it is violating the essential facilities doctrine, which precludes a monopolist or attempted monopolist from denying access to a facility it controls that is essential to its competitors, by precluding them to enter the market.

The Court concluded that Plaintiff had presented some evidence supporting its assertions, but also remarked that during the proceedings LinkedIn may well be able to prove that its actions were not motivated by anticompetitive purposes.

 

Promissory estoppel

The Court did not recognize any basis for a further common law promissory estoppel claim based on an alleged promise made by Defendant to make the data as public as possible and even available to third parties.

According to the court, there was no proof of such a promise and Plaintiff did not cite any authority applying promissory estoppel made to someone other than the party asserting that claim.

 

Public Interest

Lastly, the Court considered the public interest. Plaintiff argued that a private party should not have the unilateral authority to restrict other private parties from accessing information that is otherwise available freely to all. Defendant, in contrast, argued that if the users knew that this data was freely available to unrestricted collection and analysis by third parties for any purposes, they would be far less likely to make the information available online.

The Court concluded that granting blanket authority to platform owners to block access to information publicly available on their websites may pose a serious threat to the free and fair flow of information on the Internet and that the questions related to antitrust enforcement leaned further in favor of granting the motion for the preliminary injunction.

U.S. Appeals Court for the Ninth Circuit Finds Per Se Treatment Inapplicable to Tying Arrangement in the Premium Cable Services Market

By Valerio Cosimo Romano

On 19 September 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit (“Appeals Court”) affirmed with a split decision the tossing by the U.S. District Court For the Western District of Oklahoma of a jury verdict in a suit alleging that a telecommunications company had illegally tied the rental of set-top boxes to its premium interactive cable services.

 

Parties and procedural history of the case

Cox Communications, Inc. (“Defendant”) operates as a broadband communications and entertainment company for residences and businesses in the United States. Its subscribers cannot access premium cable services unless they also rent a set-top box from Cox. A class of subscribers in Oklahoma City (“Plaintiffs”) sued Defendant under antitrust law, alleging that Defendant had illegally tied cable services to set-top-box rentals in violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act, which prohibits illegal restraints of trade.

The jury found that Plaintiffs had proven the necessary elements to establish a tying arrangement. However, the District Court disagreed, and determined that Plaintiffs had offered insufficient evidence for a jury to find that Cox’s tying arrangement had foreclosed a substantial volume of commerce in Oklahoma City to other sellers or potential sellers of set-top boxes in the market for set- top boxes. The District Court also concluded that Plaintiffs had failed to show anticompetitive injury.

 

Tying theory

A tie exists when a seller exploits its control in one product market to force buyers in a second market into purchasing a tied product that the buyer either didn’t want or wanted to purchase elsewhere. Usually, courts apply a per se rule to tying claims, under which plaintiffs can prevail just by proving that a tie exists. In this case, there is no need for further market analysis.

The Supreme Court determined that tying two products together disrupted the natural functioning of the markets and violated antitrust law per se. However, the Supreme Court has declared that the per se rule for tying arrangements demands a showing that the tie creates a substantial potential for impact on competition.

On the basis of Supreme Court’s precedents, lower courts have defined the elements needed to prove per se tying claims. In particular, in the Tenth Circuit, a plaintiff must show that (1) two separate products are involved; (2) the sale or agreement to sell one product is conditioned on the purchase of the other; (3) the seller has sufficient economic power in the tying product market to enable it to restrain trade in the tied product market; and (4) a ‘not insubstantial’ amount of interstate commerce in the tied product is affected. If a plaintiff fails to prove an element, the court will not apply the per se rule to the tie, but then may choose to analyze the merits of the claim under the rule of reason.

 

Legal precedents

According to the Appeals Court, legal precedents (Eastman Kodak, Microsoft) show that in some industries a per se treatment might be inappropriate.

In this regard, the Court cited a recent case from Second Circuit (Kaufman), concerning the same kind of tie by a different cable company. In Kaufman, the court thoroughly explained the reasons why the tying arrangement at issue didn’t trigger the application of the per se rule.

To start, the court explained that cable providers sell their subscribers the right to view certain contents. The contents’ producers, however, require the cable companies to prevent viewers from stealing their content. This problem is solved by set-top boxes, which enable cable providers to code their signals. However, providers do not share their codes with cable box manufacturers. Therefore, to be useful to a consumer, a cable box must be cable-provider specific.

After explaining the function of set-top boxes, the Second Circuit turned to the regulatory environment and the history of the cable industry’s use of set-top boxes. The court described the Federal Communication Commission’s (“FCC”) attempts to disaggregate set-top boxes from the delivery of premium cable, and stated that the FCC’s failure is at least partly attributable to shortcomings in the new technologies designed to make premium cable available without set-top boxes. The court also pointed out that one FCC regulation actually caps the price that cable providers can charge customers who rent set-top boxes. Under the regulation, cable companies must calculate the cost of making such set-top boxes functional and available for consumers, and must charge customers according to those costs, including only a reasonable profit in their leasing rates.

On this basis, the Second Circuit concluded that the plaintiffs’ factual allegations because they didn’t trigger the application of the per se tying rule.

 

Analysis

In our case, the discussion relates to the fourth element (affection of a ‘not insubstantial’ amount of interstate commerce in the tied product). Plaintiffs claim that this element only requires consideration of the gross volume of commerce affected by the tie, and that they met this requirement presenting undisputed evidence that Cox obtained over $200 million in revenues from renting set-top boxes during the class period. On the other side, Defendant maintains that this element requires a showing that the tie actually foreclosed some amount of commerce, or some current or potential competitor, in the market for set-top boxes.

According to the Appeals Court, recent developments in tying law validate the district court’s order and support Cox’s interpretation of tying law’s foreclosure element. Based on the Supreme Court’s tying cases and other precedents, the Appeals Court therefore concluded that Plaintiffs had failed to show that the tie has a substantial potential to foreclose competition.

The Appeals Court’s reasoning is based on four points. First, Cox does not manufacture the set-top boxes that it rents to customers. Rather, it acts as an intermediary between the set-top-box manufacturers and the consumers that use them. This means that what it does with the boxes has little or no effect on competition between set-top-box manufacturers in the set-top-box market, as they must continue to innovate and compete with each other to maintain their status as the preferred manufacturer for as many cable companies as possible. Second, because set-top-box manufacturers choose not to sell set-top boxes at retail or directly to consumers, no rival in the tied market could be foreclosed by Cox’s tie, and therefore the alleged tie does not fall within the realm of contracts in restraint of trade or commerce proscribed by § 1 of the Sherman Act. Third, all cable companies rent set-top boxes to consumers. This suggests that tying set-top-box rentals to premium cable is simply more efficient than offering them separately. Fourth, the regulatory environment of the cable industry precludes the possibility that Cox could harm competition with its tie, as the regulatory price control on the tied product makes the plaintiffs’ tying claim implausible as a whole.

The Appeals Court also argued that it does not have to apply the rule of reason unless Plaintiffs also argued that the tie was unlawful under a rule of reason analysis. However, as Plaintiffs had expressly argued that tying arrangements must be analyzed under the per se rule, the court did not address whether Defendant’s tie would be illegal under a rule of reason analysis.

 

Final outcome

The Appeals Court therefore agreed with the District Court that Plaintiffs had failed to show that Defendant’s tying arrangement foreclosed a substantial volume of commerce in the tied-product market, and therefore the tie did not merit per se condemnation. Thus, the Appeals Court affirmed the district court’s order.

ECJ Rules on Excessive Licensing Fees for Copyrights

By Martin Miernicki

On 14 September 2017 the Court of Justice of the European Union (“ECJ”) handed down its decision in AKKA/LAA v. Konkurences padome (C-177/16). The case originated in a fine imposed on the Latvian collective management organization (CMO) AKKA/LAA – which possesses a legal monopoly in Latvia – by the national competition authority. The authority asserted that the CMO had abused its dominant position by charging excessively high license rates. In the following, the Latvian Supreme Court made a reference for a preliminary ruling, asking the ECJ, inter alia,[1]

  1. whether it is appropriate to compare the rates charged by a national CMO to those rates charged by CMOs in neighboring and other member states, adjusted in accordance with the purchasing power parity index (PPP index);
  2. whether that comparison must be made for each segment of users or the average level of fees;
  3. above which threshold the differences between the compared fees indicate abusive conduct; and
  4. how a CMO can demonstrate that its license fees are not excessive.

 

Background

Article 102(a) of the TFEU declares the imposition of “unfair purchase or selling prices” as an abuse of a dominant position. The seminal case for the interpretation of this provision is United Brands v. Commission (case 27/76). Furthermore, the ECJ has repeatedly been asked to gives its opinion on this matter in the context of copyright management services. Relevant case law includes Ministère public v. Tournier (case 395/87), Kanal 5 v. STIM (C-52/07) and OSA v. Léčebné lázně Mariánské Lázně (C‑351/12). In contrast, U.S. antitrust doctrine does not, as a principle, recognize excessive pricing as an antitrust violation.

 

Decision of the court

The ECJ largely referred to the opinion of the Advocate General and confirmed that a comparison of fees charged in other member states, relying on the PPP index, may be used to substantiate the excessive nature of license rates charged by a CMO. However, the reference member states must be selected according to “objective, appropriate and verifiable” criteria (e.g., consumption habits, economic factors and cultural background) and the comparison must be made on a consistent basis (e.g., similar calculation methods). For this purpose, it is, in principle, permissible to refer to a specific segment of users if indicated by the circumstances of the individual case (paras 31-51). With regard to the level license fees, the ECJ ruled that there is no minimum threshold above which a license fee can be considered abusive; yet, the differences between the compared fees must be both significant (not a minor deviation) and persistent (not a temporary deviation). CMOs can justify their rates by reference to objective dissimilarities between the compared member states, such as differing national regulatory regimes (para 52-61).

 

Implications of the decision

The court reconfirmed its approach taken in the former decisions which introduced the comparison of fees charged in different member states as well as the “appreciably higher” standard. In the case at hand, the court further elaborated on this general concept by providing new criteria for the analysis which should assist competition authorities and courts in assessing excessive pricing under the EU competition rules. Clearly, however, it will still be challenging to apply those guidelines in practice. Furthermore, it seems that the ECJ does not consider the method of comparing license fees in other member states to be the only method for the purposes of Article 102(a) of the TFEU (see also paras 43-45 of the AG’s opinion); this might be of special relevance in cases not related to CMOs. In this connection, it is noteworthy that the ECJ expressly permitted authorities to consider the relation between the level of the fee and the amount actually paid to the right holders (hence, the CMO’s administrative costs) (paras 58-60).

Lastly – although the finding of abusive pricing appears to be the exception rather than the rule in European competition law practice – the decision supplements the case law on CMOs which is especially important since the rules of the Collective Management Directive 2014/26/EU (CMD) are relatively sparse in relation to users. Nevertheless, it should be noted that said directive contains additional standards for the CMOs’ fee policies. Article 16(2) states that tariffs shall be “reasonable”, inter alia, in relation to the economic value of the use of the licensed rights in trade and the economic value of the service provided by CMOs. These standards may be, however, overseen by national authorities (CMD article 36) which are not necessarily competition authorities. A coordinated application of the different standards by the competent authorities would be desirable in order to ensure the coherence of the regulatory regime.

[1] Focus is put here on the most important aspects of the decision.