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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.

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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.

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.

Apple and Qualcomm Proceeding

By Nicole Daniel

In January 2017 Apple filed suit against Qualcomm over its allegedly abusive licensing practices regarding wireless patents.

Apple filed patent, antitrust and breach of contract claims against Qualcomm; this could result in damages of billions of dollars. Apple’s suit comes after recent legal challenges against Qualcomm filed by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in federal court and a class action by smartphone buyers. Furthermore, Korean authorities levied their own $854 million penalty and China’s National Development and Reform Commission extracted a penalty amounting to nearly $1 billion in 2015. Also in 2015 the European Commission sent statements of objections to Qualcomm.

Apple alleges that Qualcomm abused its monopoly in baseband processors that power both the iPad and the iPhone and broke its promise to license its standard essential patents at FRAND, i.e. fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory, rates. Qualcomm breached its FRAND obligations by selling chipsets powering smartphones and tablets and separately licensing standard-essential patents. Apple further alleges that Qualcomm refused to sell chipsets to customers unless they first licensed their standard-essential patents. This allegation is central to the Federal Trade Commission’s case too as well as Apple’s allegation that Qualcomm does not licence its standard-essential patents to competing chipset manufacturers. Tying the chipsets and licenses to cellular technology illegally strengthened Qualcomm’s monopoly and eliminated competition. Another allegation by Apple is that Qualcomm threatened customers who purchased chipsets from competitors with less favorable license and royaltyi terms.

Not only did Qualcomm charge inflated royalties for its patents but it also engaged in allegedly intimidating business practices. For example, Qualcomm allegedly tried to force Apple to lie to the South Korean antitrust enforcer in exchange for $1 billion which Qualcomm was obliged to pay anyway. Apple further states that because it provided evidence in antitrust investigations against Qualcomm in the U.S. and Korea, Qualcomm, as retribution, withheld $1 billion that it owed to Apple. Apple now wants damages for having been overcharged billions of dollars, enjoin Qualcomm from engaging in further violations of the law and declaratory relief holding that Apple does not infringe on a number of patents owned by Qualcomm. Apple also asks the court to determine the proper FRAND rates.

Qualcomm countered by calling Apple’s allegations “baseless” and accusing its opponent of encouraging the regulatory “attacks” on Qualcomm. Also the antitrust claims are driven by commercial disputes and Qualcomm will continue to defend its business model.

Furthermore, Qualcomm learned in January 2017 that an Apple subsidiary filed two complaints against Qualcomm in the Chinese intellectual property court. The first complaint regards inter alia violations of Chinese anti-monopoly law by offering excessive royalty terms on patents and chipsets whereas the second complaint regards a refusal to provide to Apple a royalty offer for cellular standard essential patents consistent with FRAND terms.

In April 2017 Qualcomm filed an answer and counterclaims in California federal court. In its filing Qualcomm detailed the value of the technologies it has invented and alleged that Apple failed to engage in good faith negotiations for licensing 3G and 4G essential patents on FRAND terms. The filing further outlines that Apple allegedly breached and mischaracterized both agreements and negotiations. Apple further encouraged regulatory attacks in various jurisdictions and did not utilize the full performance of Qualcomm’s modern chips in the iPhone 7. Apple allegedly also misrepresented the disparity in performance between iPhones using competitor-supplied modems and Qualcomm modems. Qualcomm was even threatened by Apple to prevent it from making any public comparisons about the superior performance of iPhones powered by Qualcomm.

Also in April 2017 Apple published a written statement stating that it has chosen to withhold patent royalties owed to Qualcomm by its contract manufacturers because over the course of the last five years Qualcomm has refused to negotiate fair terms.

It remains to be seen how the proceedings in this case continue.

Tenth Circuit holds IPRs defense available to rebut a refusal to deal antitrust claim

By Valerio Cosimo Romano

On 31 October 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit (the “Court of Appeals”) held that the invocation of IPRs is a presumptively valid business justification sufficient to rebut a refusal to deal claim.

The case involved a dispute between a software company and the developer of aviation terminal charts (which provide pilots with the information necessary to navigate and land at a specific airport). The developer holds copyrights for portions of its charts, which use a proprietary format. The parties negotiated and executed a license and cooperation agreement under which the developer would waive its standard licensing fee and grant the software company access to proprietary products that facilitate the integration of the developer’s terminal charts into third-party systems. In exchange, the software company would create a data management reader that works in conjunction with an e-book viewer. After the execution of the agreement, the software company registered with Apple as a software application developer and requested the necessary toolkit from the developer to develop an app. The developer did not provide the toolkit. Rather, it announced it had created its own app, offered to its customers at no additional cost beyond their terminal chart subscription fee.

The software development company sued the developer. The district court granted summary judgment for developer on the antitrust claims but denied summary judgment on the remaining claims for loss of profits, awarding more than $43 million in damages. The developer appealed, challenging only the district court’s ruling related to the loss of profits. The software company cross-appealed, challenging the dismissal of its antitrust claims, alleging a single anticompetitive conduct consisting in a refusal to deal, in violation of § 2 of the Sherman Act.

To determine whether a refusal to deal violates § 2, the Court of Appeals first looked at market power in the relevant market, in which the court assumed that the developer enjoyed monopoly power. Second, the Court of Appeals looked at the use of the product, and concluded that the assertion of IPRs is a presumptively rational business justification for a unilateral refusal to deal. In its legal reasoning, the Court of Appeals relied on the approach taken by both the First and Federal Circuits in Data General and Xerox, respectively. In Data General, the First Circuit held that while exclusionary conduct can be pursued by refusing to license a copyright, an author’s desire to exclude others from use of its copyrighted work is a presumptively valid business justification for any immediate harm to consumers. In Xerox, a Federal Circuit declined to examine the defendant’s motivation in asserting its right to exclude under the copyright laws, absent any evidence that the copyrights were obtained by unlawful means or used to gain monopoly power beyond what provided for by the law. Quoting Novell and Trinko, the Court of Appeals also recognized the existence of a limited exception, available only where the plaintiff can establish the parties had a preexisting, voluntary, and presumably profitable business relationship, and its discontinuation suggests a willingness to forsake short-term profits to achieve anti-competitive ends. On this last point, the Court of Appeals held that the software developer did not present any evidence.

Therefore, it concluded that the developer did not have an independent antitrust duty to share its intellectual property with the software company. Consequently, it reversed and vacated the jury’s award of lost profits, but affirmed the partial summary judgment on software company’s antitrust claims.

Partial victory for BMI: Federal judge rules against full-work licensing requirement

By Martin Miernicki

On 16 September 2016, Judge Stanton issued an opinion interpreting the BMI Consent Decree. He concluded that the decree does not require BMI to issue “full-work” licenses.

 

Background

On 4 August 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) published a closing statement concluding its review of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees. It stated that said decrees prohibited ASCAP and BMI from issuing fractional licenses and required them to offer full-work licenses.[1]  Both ASCAP and BMI immediately announced to fight the opinion, the latter seeking a declaratory judgement, asking the “rate court” for its opinion.[2]

 

The court’s opinion

In its declaratory judgement, the court rejected the DOJ’s interpretation of the BMI Consent Decrees, ruling that “nothing in the Consent Decree gives support to the [Antitrust] Division’s view.” It held that the issue of full-work licensing remained unregulated by the Consent Decree; rather, this question should be analyzed under other applicable laws, like copyright or contract law. In conclusion, the court explained that the decree “neither bars fractional licensing nor requires full-work licensing.” The court furthermore distinguished the question at hand from its decision in BMI v. Pandora,[3] where it struck down attempts by major publishers to partially withdraw rights from BMI’s collective licensing regime.

 

The way forward

The court’s opinion is a clear success for BMI, but also for ASCAP, since it can be expected that Judge Stanton’s ruling will be influential in analogous questions regarding the ASCAP Consent Decree. However, this success is not final. BMI reported that the DOJ appealed the decision on 11 November 2016. It is hence up to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to clarify the meaning of the decree.

[1] Under a full-work license, a user obtains the right to publicly perform the entire work, even if not all co-owners are members of the organization issuing the license. Conversely, a fractional license only covers the rights held by the licensing organization.

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

[3] BMI v. Pandora, Inc., No. 13 Civ. 4037 (LLS), 2018 WL 6697788 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 19, 2013).

European Commission publishes a preliminary report on the e-commerce sector inquiry

By Nikolaos Theodorakis

On 6 May 2015, the European Commission launched a sector inquiry into e-commerce within the context of the Digital Single Market strategy, and in connection with Article 17 of Regulation 1/2003. In March 2016, the Commission published its initial findings on geo-blocking, which refers to business practices whereby retailers and service providers prevent the smooth access of consumers to the digital single market. In doing so, geo-blocking usually has three dimensions: (i) it prevents a consumer from accessing a website because of his IP address; (ii) it allows the consumer to add an item to his online shopping basket, but it cannot be shipped to his location and (iii) it redirects the consumer to another local website to complete his order.

As part of the sector inquiry, the Commission requested information from various actors in e-commerce throughout the EU, both related to online sales of consumer goods (e.g. electronics and clothing) as well as the online distribution of digital content. For that purpose, the Commission gathered evidence from nearly 1,800 companies operating in e-commerce and analyzed around 8,000 distribution contracts. The inquiry wished to look into the main market trends and gather evidence on potential barriers to competition linked to the growth of e-commerce.

E-commerce has been growing rapidly over the past years, and the EU is the largest e-commerce market in the world. As a result, any barrier in online trade may have severe consequences and distort healthy competition. In September 2016, the Commission published a preliminary report with certain findings. It identified issues arising from distribution agreements, which pertain to trade in goods, and licensing agreements, which pertain to trade in services.

 

Issues arising from distribution agreements

Distribution agreements may create geo-blocking restrictions, both from the manufacturers’ and the retailers’ side.

Manufacturers have adjusted to the increasing popularity of e-commerce by adopting a number of business practices that help them control the distribution of their products and the positioning in the market. These practices are not by default illegitimate, however under specific conditions, they can be.

For instance, manufacturers use selective distribution systems in which products can only be sold by pre-selected authorized sellers online. They also use contractual sales restrictions that may make cross-border shopping or online shopping more difficult and ultimately harm consumers since they prevent them from benefiting from greater choice of products and lower prices. The reasoning behind selective distribution systems is to control the quality of the product and safeguard brand consistency. This, nonetheless could classify as a vertical restraint and could be considered discordant with the principles of EU competition law.

Retailers use geo-blocking to restrict cross-border sales. Several retailers collect data on the location of their customers with a view to applying geo-blocking measures. This most commonly takes the form of refusal to deliver and refusal to accept payment from cards issued in other countries.

 

Issues arising from licensing agreements

With respect to digital content, the availability of licenses from the holders of copyrights in content is essential for digital content providers and a key determinant of competition in the market. The Preliminary Report finds that copyright licensing agreements can be complex and exclusive. The agreements provide for the territories, technologies and digital content that providers can use. As such, the Commission is expected to assess on a case-by-case basis whether certain licensing practices are unaccounted for and restrict competition.

In fact, one of the key determinants of competition in digital content markets is the scope of licensing agreements that determine online transmission. These agreements, between sellers of rights, use complicated definitions to define the reach of the service, creating differences in technological, temporal and territorial level. These contractual restrictions are practically the norm, whereas access to exclusive content increases the attractiveness of the offer of digital content providers.

A striking 70% of digital content providers restrict access to their digital content for users from other EU Member States. Further, the 60% of digital content providers are contractually required by rightsholders to geo-block. This practice is more prevalent in agreements for films, sports and TV series. Licensing agreements enable rightsholders to monitor that content providers comply with territorial restrictions, otherwise they ask for compensation. These agreements usually have a very long duration and they may make it more difficult for new online business services to emerge and try to win a stake in the market.

Additional questions arise when online rights are sold exclusively on a per Member State basis, or bundled with rights in other transmission technologies and then are not used. This might signal a semi perfect price discrimination policy depending on how much money each Member State is willing to pay, and a consequent further balkanization of the digital single market.

 

Next Steps

After publishing the preliminary report, the Commission is soliciting views and comments of interested stakeholders until 18 November 2016. The final report of the sector inquiry is expected in the first quarter of 2017. As a follow-up to the sector inquiry, the Commission may further explore if certain practices are compatibility with the EU competition rules and launch investigations against specific distributors and/or resellers on matters of both goods and digital content.

Finally, the results of the sector inquiry provide useful information for the debate on Commission initiatives relating to copyright and the proposed geo-blocking regulation.