In FTC v. Qualcomm, Judge Koh Gets Lost in the Weeds

Dirk Auer —  28 August 2019 — 1 Comment

[TOTM: The following is the eighth in a series of posts by TOTM guests and authors on the FTC v. Qualcomm case recently decided by Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California. Other posts in this series are here. The blog post is based on a forthcoming paper regarding patent holdup, co-authored by Dirk Auer and Julian Morris.]

Samsung SGH-F480V – controller board – Qualcomm MSM6280

In his latest book, Tyler Cowen calls big business an “American anti-hero”. Cowen argues that the growing animosity towards successful technology firms is to a large extent unwarranted. After all, these companies have generated tremendous prosperity and jobs.

Though it is less known to the public than its Silicon Valley counterparts, Qualcomm perfectly fits the anti-hero mold. Despite being a key contributor to the communications standards that enabled the proliferation of smartphones around the globe – an estimated 5 Billion people currently own a device – Qualcomm has been on the receiving end of considerable regulatory scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic (including two in the EU; see here and here). 

In the US, Judge Lucy Koh recently ruled that a combination of anticompetitive practices had enabled Qualcomm to charge “unreasonably high royalty rates” for its CDMA and LTE cellular communications technology. Chief among these practices was Qualcomm’s so-called “no license, no chips” policy, whereby the firm refuses to sell baseband processors to implementers that have not taken out a license for its communications technology. Other grievances included Qualcomm’s purported refusal to license its patents to rival chipmakers, and allegations that it attempted to extract exclusivity obligations from large handset manufacturers, such as Apple. According to Judge Koh, these practices resulted in “unreasonably high” royalty rates that failed to comply with Qualcomm’s FRAND obligations.

Judge Koh’s ruling offers an unfortunate example of the numerous pitfalls that decisionmakers face when they second-guess the distributional outcomes achieved through market forces. This is particularly true in the complex standardization space.

The elephant in the room

The first striking feature of Judge Koh’s ruling is what it omits. Throughout the more than two-hundred-page long document, there is not a single reference to the concepts of holdup or holdout (crucial terms of art for a ruling that grapples with the prices charged by an SEP holder). 

At first sight, this might seem like a semantic quibble. But words are important. Patent holdup (along with the “unreasonable” royalties to which it arguably gives rise) is possible only when a number of cumulative conditions are met. Most importantly, the foundational literature on economic opportunism (here and here) shows that holdup (and holdout) mostly occur when parties have made asset-specific sunk investments. This focus on asset-specific investments is echoed by even the staunchest critics of the standardization status quo (here).

Though such investments may well have been present in the case at hand, there is no evidence that they played any part in the court’s decision. This is not without consequences. If parties did not make sunk relationship-specific investments, then the antitrust case against Qualcomm should have turned upon the alleged exclusion of competitors, not the level of Qualcomm’s royalties. The DOJ said this much in its statement of interest concerning Qualcomm’s motion for partial stay of injunction pending appeal. Conversely, if these investments existed, then patent holdout (whereby implementers refuse to license key pieces of intellectual property) was just as much of a risk as patent holdup (here and here). And yet the court completely overlooked this possibility.

The misguided push for component level pricing

The court also erred by objecting to Qualcomm’s practice of basing license fees on the value of handsets, rather than that of modem chips. In simplified terms, implementers paid Qualcomm a percentage of their devices’ resale price. The court found that this was against Federal Circuit law. Instead, it argued that royalties should be based on the value the smallest salable patent-practicing component (in this case, baseband chips). This conclusion is dubious both as a matter of law and of policy.

From a legal standpoint, the question of the appropriate royalty base seems far less clear-cut than Judge Koh’s ruling might suggest. For instance, Gregory Sidak observes that in TCL v. Ericsson Judge Selna used a device’s net selling price as a basis upon which to calculate FRAND royalties. Likewise, in CSIRO v. Cisco, the Court also declined to use the “smallest saleable practicing component” as a royalty base. And finally, as Jonathan Barnett observes, the Circuit Laser Dynamics case law cited  by Judge Koh relates to the calculation of damages in patent infringement suits. There is no legal reason to believe that its findings should hold any sway outside of that narrow context. It is one thing for courts to decide upon the methodology that they will use to calculate damages in infringement cases – even if it is a contested one. It is a whole other matter to shoehorn private parties into adopting this narrow methodology in their private dealings. 

More importantly, from a policy standpoint, there are important advantages to basing royalty rates on the price of an end-product, rather than that of an intermediate component. This type of pricing notably enables parties to better allocate the risk that is inherent in launching a new product. In simplified terms: implementers want to avoid paying large (fixed) license fees for failed devices; and patent holders want to share in the benefits of successful devices that rely on their inventions. The solution, as Alain Bousquet and his co-authors explain, is to agree on royalty payments that are contingent on success in the market:

Because the demand for a new product is uncertain and/or the potential cost reduction of a new technology is not perfectly known, both seller and buyer may be better off if the payment for the right to use an innovation includes a state-contingent royalty (rather than consisting of just a fixed fee). The inventor wants to benefit from a growing demand for a new product, and the licensee wishes to avoid high payments in case of disappointing sales.

While this explains why parties might opt for royalty-based payments over fixed fees, it does not entirely elucidate the practice of basing royalties on the price of an end device. One explanation is that a technology’s value will often stem from its combination with other goods or technologies. Basing royalties on the value of an end-device enables patent holders to more effectively capture the social benefits that flow from these complementarities.

Imagine the price of the smallest saleable component is identical across all industries, despite it being incorporated into highly heterogeneous devices. For instance, the same modem chip could be incorporated into smartphones (of various price ranges), tablets, vehicles, and other connected devices. The Bousquet line of reasoning (above) suggests that it is efficient for the patent holder to earn higher royalties (from the IP that underpins the modem chips) in those segments where market demand is strongest (i.e. where there are stronger complementarities between the modem chip and the end device).

One way to make royalties more contingent on market success is to use the price of the modem (which is presumably identical across all segments) as a royalty base and negotiate a separate royalty rate for each end device (charging a higher rate for devices that will presumably benefit from stronger consumer demand). But this has important drawbacks. For a start, identifying those segments (or devices) that are most likely to be successful is informationally cumbersome for the inventor. Moreover, this practice could land the patent holder in hot water. Antitrust authorities might naïvely conclude that these varying royalty rates violate the “non-discriminatory” part of FRAND.

A much simpler solution is to apply a single royalty rate (or at least attempt to do so) but use the price of the end device as a royalty base. This ensures that the patent holder’s rewards are not just contingent on the number of devices sold, but also on their value. Royalties will thus more closely track the end-device’s success in the marketplace.   

In short, basing royalties on the value of an end-device is an informationally light way for the inventor to capture some of the unforeseen value that might stem from the inclusion of its technology in an end device. Mandating that royalty rates be based on the value of the smallest saleable component ignores this complex reality.

Prices are almost impossible to reconstruct

Judge Koh was similarly imperceptive when assessing Qualcomm’s contribution to the value of key standards, such as LTE and CDMA. 

For a start, she reasoned that Qualcomm’s royalties were large compared to the number of patents it had contributed to these technologies:

Moreover, Qualcomm’s own documents also show that Qualcomm is not the top standards contributor, which confirms Qualcomm’s own statements that QCT’s monopoly chip market share rather than the value of QTL’s patents sustain QTL’s unreasonably high royalty rates.

Given the tremendous heterogeneity that usually exists between the different technologies that make up a standard, simply counting each firm’s contributions is a crude and misleading way to gauge the value of their patent portfolios. Accordingly, Qualcomm argued that it had made pioneering contributions to technologies such as CDMA, and 4G/5G. Though the value of Qualcomm’s technologies is ultimately an empirical question, the court’s crude patent counting  was unlikely to provide a satisfying answer.

Just as problematically, the court also concluded that Qualcomm’s royalties were unreasonably high because “modem chips do not drive handset value.” In its own words:

Qualcomm’s intellectual property is for communication, and Qualcomm does not own intellectual property on color TFT LCD panel, mega-pixel DSC module, user storage memory, decoration, and mechanical parts. The costs of these non-communication-related components have become more expensive and now contribute 60-70% of the phone value. The phone is not just for communication, but also for computing, movie-playing, video-taking, and data storage.

As Luke Froeb and his co-authors have also observed, the court’s reasoning on this point is particularly unfortunate. Though it is clearly true that superior LCD panels, cameras, and storage increase a handset’s value – regardless of the modem chip that is associated with them – it is equally obvious that improvements to these components are far more valuable to consumers when they are also associated with high-performance communications technology.

For example, though there is undoubtedly standalone value in being able to take improved pictures on a smartphone, this value is multiplied by the ability to instantly share these pictures with friends, and automatically back them up on the cloud. Likewise, improving a smartphone’s LCD panel is more valuable if the device is also equipped with a cutting edge modem (both are necessary for consumers to enjoy high-definition media online).

In more technical terms, the court fails to acknowledge that, in the presence of perfect complements, each good makes an incremental contribution of 100% to the value of the whole. A smartphone’s components would be far less valuable to consumers if they were not associated with a high-performance modem, and vice versa. The fallacy to which the court falls prey is perfectly encapsulated by a quote it cites from Apple’s COO:

Apple invests heavily in the handset’s physical design and enclosures to add value, and those physical handset features clearly have nothing to do with Qualcomm’s cellular patents, it is unfair for Qualcomm to receive royalty revenue on that added value.

The question the court should be asking, however, is whether Apple would have gone to the same lengths to improve its devices were it not for Qualcomm’s complementary communications technology. By ignoring this question, Judge Koh all but guaranteed that her assessment of Qualcomm’s royalty rates would be wide of the mark.

Concluding remarks

In short, the FTC v. Qualcomm case shows that courts will often struggle when they try to act as makeshift price regulators. It thus lends further credence to Gergory Werden and Luke Froeb’s conclusion that:

Nothing is more alien to antitrust than enquiring into the reasonableness of prices. 

This is especially true in complex industries, such as the standardization space. The colossal number of parameters that affect the price for a technology are almost impossible to reproduce in a top-down fashion, as the court attempted to do in the Qualcomm case. As a result, courts will routinely draw poor inferences from factors such as the royalty base agreed upon by parties, the number of patents contributed by a firm, and the complex manner in which an individual technology may contribute to the value of an end-product. Antitrust authorities and courts would thus do well to recall the wise words of Friedrich Hayek:

If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them. We cannot expect that this problem will be solved by first communicating all this knowledge to a central board which, after integrating all knowledge, issues its orders. We must solve it by some form of decentralization.

Dirk Auer

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Dirk Auer is a research fellow the Liege Competition and Innovation Institute. He is currently finishing a PhD that focuses on the “Innovation Defense” in European competition law and US antitrust law. Prior to joining the LCII, Dirk completed LLMs at the University of Chicago Law School (2014) and at the University of Liège (2011). He also worked in the competition practices of two international law firms.

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  1. Blog O Blogs August - Competition Policy International - August 30, 2019

    […] regarding tools, stages and expected final outcome…Enrique Bravo-García (Linklaters)In FTC v. Qualcomm, Judge Koh Gets Lost in the WeedsIn his latestbook, Tyler Cowen calls big business an “American anti-hero”. Cowen argues that the […]

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