Why the FTC had to Abandon the Duty to Deal Argument Against Qualcomm

Geoffrey Manne & Ben Sperry —  16 January 2020

On November 22, the FTC filed its answering brief in the FTC v. Qualcomm litigation. As we’ve noted before, it has always seemed a little odd that the current FTC is so vigorously pursuing this case, given some of the precedents it might set and the Commission majority’s apparent views on such issues. But this may also help explain why the FTC has now opted to eschew the district court’s decision and pursue a novel, but ultimately baseless, legal theory in its brief.

The FTC’s decision to abandon the district court’s reasoning constitutes an important admission: contrary to the district court’s finding, there is no legal basis to find an antitrust duty to deal in this case. As Qualcomm stated in its reply brief (p. 12), “the FTC disclaims huge portions of the decision.” In its effort to try to salvage its case, however, the FTC reveals just how bad its arguments have been from the start, and why the case should be tossed out on its ear.

What the FTC now argues

The FTC’s new theory is that SEP holders that fail to honor their FRAND licensing commitments should be held liable under “traditional Section 2 standards,” even though they do not have an antitrust duty to deal with rivals who are members of the same standard-setting organizations (SSOs) under the “heightened” standard laid out by the Supreme Court in Aspen and Trinko:  

To be clear, the FTC does not contend that any breach of a FRAND commitment is a Sherman Act violation. But Section 2 liability is appropriate when, as here, a monopolist SEP holder commits to license its rivals on FRAND terms, and then implements a blanket policy of refusing to license those rivals on any terms, with the effect of substantially contributing to the acquisition or maintenance of monopoly power in the relevant market…. 

The FTC does not argue that Qualcomm had a duty to deal with its rivals under the Aspen/Trinko standard. But that heightened standard does not apply here, because—unlike the defendants in Aspen, Trinko, and the other duty-to-deal precedents on which it relies—Qualcomm entered into a voluntary contractual commitment to deal with its rivals as part of the SSO process, which is itself a derogation from normal market competition. And although the district court applied a different approach, this Court “may affirm on any ground finding support in the record.” Cigna Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Polaris Pictures Corp., 159 F.3d 412, 418-19 (9th Cir. 1998) (internal quotation marks omitted) (emphasis added) (pp.69-70).

In other words, according to the FTC, because Qualcomm engaged in the SSO process—which is itself “a derogation from normal market competition”—its evasion of the constraints of that process (i.e., the obligation to deal with all comers on FRAND terms) is “anticompetitive under traditional Section 2 standards.”

The most significant problem with this new standard is not that it deviates from the basis upon which the district court found Qualcomm liable; it’s that it is entirely made up and has no basis in law.

Absent an antitrust duty to deal, patent law grants patentees the right to exclude rivals from using patented technology

Part of the bundle of rights connected with the property right in patents is the right to exclude, and along with it, the right of a patent holder to decide whether, and on what terms, to sell licenses to rivals. The law curbs that right only in select circumstances. Under antitrust law, such a duty to deal, in the words of the Supreme Court in Trinko, “is at or near the outer boundary of §2 liability.” The district court’s ruling, however, is based on the presumption of harm arising from a SEP holder’s refusal to license, rather than an actual finding of anticompetitive effect under §2. The duty to deal it finds imposes upon patent holders an antitrust obligation to license their patents to competitors. (While, of course, participation in an SSO may contractually obligate an SEP-holder to license its patents to competitors, that is an entirely different issue than whether it operates under a mandatory requirement to do so as a matter of public policy).  

The right of patentees to exclude is well-established, and injunctions enforcing that right are regularly issued by courts. Although the rate of permanent injunctions has decreased since the Supreme Court’s eBay decision, research has found that federal district courts still grant them over 70% of the time after a patent holder prevails on the merits. And for patent litigation involving competitors, the same research finds that injunctions are granted 85% of the time.  In principle, even SEP holders can receive injunctions when infringers do not act in good faith in FRAND negotiations. See Microsoft Corp. v. Motorola, Inc., 795 F.3d 1024, 1049 n.19 (9th Cir. 2015):

We agree with the Federal Circuit that a RAND commitment does not always preclude an injunctive action to enforce the SEP. For example, if an infringer refused to accept an offer on RAND terms, seeking injunctive relief could be consistent with the RAND agreement, even where the commitment limits recourse to litigation. See Apple Inc., 757 F.3d at 1331–32

Aside from the FTC, federal agencies largely agree with this approach to the protection of intellectual property. For instance, the Department of Justice, the US Patent and Trademark Office, and the National Institute for Standards and Technology recently released their 2019 Joint Policy Statement on Remedies for Standards-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments, which clarifies that:

All remedies available under national law, including injunctive relief and adequate damages, should be available for infringement of standards-essential patents subject to a F/RAND commitment, if the facts of a given case warrant them. Consistent with the prevailing law and depending on the facts and forum, the remedies that may apply in a given patent case include injunctive relief, reasonable royalties, lost profits, enhanced damages for willful infringement, and exclusion orders issued by the U.S. International Trade Commission. These remedies are equally available in patent litigation involving standards-essential patents. While the existence of F/RAND or similar commitments, and conduct of the parties, are relevant and may inform the determination of appropriate remedies, the general framework for deciding these issues remains the same as in other patent cases. (emphasis added).

By broadening the antitrust duty to deal well beyond the bounds set by the Supreme Court, the district court opinion (and the FTC’s preferred approach, as well) eviscerates the right to exclude inherent in patent rights. In the words of retired Federal Circuit Judge Paul Michel in an amicus brief in the case: 

finding antitrust liability premised on the exercise of valid patent rights will fundamentally abrogate the patent system and its critical means for promoting and protecting important innovation.

And as we’ve noted elsewhere, this approach would seriously threaten consumer welfare:

Of course Qualcomm conditions the purchase of its chips on the licensing of its intellectual property; how could it be any other way? The alternative would require Qualcomm to actually facilitate the violation of its property rights by forcing it to sell its chips to device makers even if they refuse its patent license terms. In that world, what device maker would ever agree to pay more than a pittance for a patent license? The likely outcome is that Qualcomm charges more for its chips to compensate (or simply stops making them). Great, the FTC says; then competitors can fill the gap and — voila: the market is more competitive, prices will actually fall, and consumers will reap the benefits.

Except it doesn’t work that way. As many economists, including both the current [now former] and a prominent former chief economist of the FTC, have demonstrated, forcing royalty rates lower in such situations is at least as likely to harm competition as to benefit it. There is no sound theoretical or empirical basis for concluding that using antitrust to move royalty rates closer to some theoretical ideal will actually increase consumer welfare. All it does for certain is undermine patent holders’ property rights, virtually ensuring there will be less innovation.

The FTC realizes the district court doesn’t have the evidence to support its duty to deal analysis

Antitrust law does not abrogate the right of a patent holder to exclude and to choose when and how to deal with rivals, unless there is a proper finding of a duty to deal. In order to find a duty to deal, there must be a harm to competition, not just a competitor, which, under the Supreme Court’s Aspen and Trinko cases can be inferred in the duty-to-deal context only where the challenged conduct leads to a “profit sacrifice.” But the record does not support such a finding. As we wrote in our amicus brief:

[T]he Supreme Court has identified only a single scenario from which it may plausibly be inferred that defendant’s refusal to deal with rivals harms consumers: The existence of a prior, profitable course of dealing, and the termination and replacement of that arrangement with an alternative that not only harms rivals, but also is less profitable for defendant. 

A monopolist’s willingness to forego (short-term) profits plausibly permits an inference that conduct is not procompetitive, because harm to a rival caused by an increase in efficiency should lead to higher—not lower—profits for defendant. And “[i]f a firm has been ‘attempting to exclude rivals on some basis other than efficiency,’ it’s fair to characterize its behavior as predatory.” Aspen Skiing, 472 U.S. at 605 (quoting Robert Bork, The Antitrust Paradox 138 (1978)).

In an effort to satisfy this standard, the district court states that “because Qualcomm previously licensed its rivals, but voluntarily stopped licensing rivals even though doing so was profitable, Qualcomm terminated a voluntary and profitable course of dealing.” Slip op. at 137. 

But it is not enough merely that the prior arrangement was profitable. Rather, Trinko and Aspen Skiing hold that when a monopolist ends a profitable relationship with a rival, anticompetitive exclusion may be inferred only when it also refuses to engage in an ongoing arrangement that, in the short run, is more profitable than no relationship at all. The key is the relative value to the monopolist of the current options on offer, not the value to the monopolist of the terminated arrangement. See Trinko, 540 U.S. at 409 (“a willingness to forsake short-term profits”); Aspen Skiing, 472 U.S. at 610–11 (“it was willing to sacrifice short-run benefits”)…

The record here uniformly indicates Qualcomm expected to maximize its royalties by dealing with OEMs rather than rival chip makers; it neither anticipated nor endured short-term loss. As the district court itself concluded, Qualcomm’s licensing practices avoided patent exhaustion and earned it “humongously more lucrative” royalties. Slip op. at 1243–254. That Qualcomm anticipated greater profits from its conduct precludes an inference of anticompetitive harm.

Moreover, Qualcomm didn’t refuse to allow rivals to use its patents; it simply didn’t sell them explicit licenses to do so. As discussed in several places by the district court:

According to Andrew Hong (Legal Counsel at Samsung Intellectual Property Center), during license negotiations, Qualcomm made it clear to Samsung that “Qualcomm’s standard business practice was not to provide licenses to chip manufacturers.” Hong Depo. 161:16-19. Instead, Qualcomm had an “unwritten policy of not going after chip manufacturers.” Id. at 161:24-25… (p.123)

* * *

Alex Rogers (QTL President) testified at trial that as part of the 2018 Settlement Agreement between Samsung and Qualcomm, Qualcomm did not license Samsung, but instead promised only that Qualcomm would offer Samsung a FRAND license before suing Samsung: “Qualcomm gave Samsung an assurance that should Qualcomm ever seek to assert its cellular SEPs against that component business, against those components, we would first make Samsung an offer on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory terms.” Tr. at 1989:5-10. (p.124)

This is an important distinction. Qualcomm allows rivals to use its patented technology by not asserting its patent rights against them—which is to say: instead of licensing its technology for a fee, Qualcomm allows rivals to use its technology to develop their own chips royalty-free (and recoups its investment by licensing the technology to OEMs that choose to implement the technology in their devices). 

The irony of this analysis, of course, is that the district court effectively suggests that Qualcomm must charge rivals a positive, explicit price in exchange for a license in order to facilitate competition, while allowing rivals to use its patented technology for free (or at the “cost” of some small reduction in legal certainty, perhaps) is anticompetitive.

Nonetheless, the district court’s factual finding that Qualcomm’s licensing scheme was “humongously” profitable shows there was no profit sacrifice as required for a duty to deal finding. The general presumption that patent holders can exclude rivals is not subject to an antitrust duty to deal where there is no profit sacrifice by the patent holder. Here, however, Qualcomm did not sacrifice profits by adopting the challenged licensing scheme. 

It is perhaps unsurprising that the FTC chose not to support the district court’s duty-to-deal argument, even though its holding was in the FTC’s favor. But, while the FTC was correct not to countenance the district court’s flawed arguments, the FTC’s alternative argument in its reply brief is even worse.

The FTC’s novel theory of harm is unsupported and weak

As noted, the FTC’s alternative theory is that Qualcomm violated Section 2 simply by failing to live up to its contractual SSO obligations. For the FTC, because Qualcomm joined an SSO, it is no longer in a position to refuse to deal legally. Moreover, there is no need to engage in an Aspen/Trinko analysis in order to find liability. Instead, according to the FTC’s brief, liability arises because the evasion of an exogenous pricing constraint (such as an SSO’s FRAND obligation) constitutes an antitrust harm:

Of course, a breach of contract, “standing alone,” does not “give rise to antitrust liability.” City of Vernon v. S. Cal. Edison Co., 955 F.2d 1361, 1368 (9th Cir. 1992); cf. Br. 52 n.6. Instead, a monopolist’s conduct that breaches such a contractual commitment is anticompetitive only when it satisfies traditional Section 2 standards—that is, only when it “tends to impair the opportunities of rivals and either does not further competition on the merits or does so in an unnecessarily restrictive way.” Cascade Health, 515 F.3d at 894. The district court’s factual findings demonstrate that Qualcomm’s breach of its SSO commitments satisfies both elements of that traditional test. (emphasis added)

To begin, it must be noted that the operative language quoted by the FTC from Cascade Health is attributed in Cascade Health to Aspen Skiing. In other words, even Cascade Health recognizes that Aspen Skiing represents the Supreme Court’s interpretation of that language in the duty-to-deal context. And in that case—in contrast to the FTC’s argument in its brief—the Court required demonstration of such a standard to mean that a defendant “was not motivated by efficiency concerns and that it was willing to sacrifice short-run benefits and consumer goodwill in exchange for a perceived long-run impact on its… rival.” (Aspen Skiing at 610-11) (emphasis added).

The language quoted by the FTC cannot simultaneously justify an appeal to an entirely different legal standard separate from that laid out in Aspen Skiing. As such, rather than dispensing with the duty to deal requirements laid out in that case, Cascade Health actually reinforces them.

Second, to support its argument the FTC points to Broadcom v. Qualcomm, 501 F.3d 297 (3rd Cir. 2007) as an example of a court upholding an antitrust claim based on a defendant’s violation of FRAND terms. 

In Broadcom, relying on the FTC’s enforcement action against Rambus before it was overturned by the D.C. Circuit, the Third Circuit found that there was an actionable issue when Qualcomm deceived other members of an SSO by promising to

include its proprietary technology in the… standard by falsely agreeing to abide by the [FRAND policies], but then breached those agreements by licensing its technology on non-FRAND terms. The intentional acquisition of monopoly power through deception… violates antitrust law. (emphasis added)

Even assuming Broadcom were good law post-Rambus, the case is inapposite. In Broadcom the court found that Qualcomm could be held to violate antitrust law by deceiving the SSO (by falsely promising to abide by FRAND terms) in order to induce it to accept Qualcomm’s patent in the standard. The court’s concern was that, by falsely inducing the SSO to adopt its technology, Qualcomm deceptively acquired monopoly power and limited access to competing technology:

When a patented technology is incorporated in a standard, adoption of the standard eliminates alternatives to the patented technology…. Firms may become locked in to a standard requiring the use of a competitor’s patented technology. 

Key to the court’s finding was that the alleged deception induced the SSO to adopt the technology in its standard:

We hold that (1) in a consensus-oriented private standard-setting environment, (2) a patent holder’s intentionally false promise to license essential proprietary technology on FRAND terms, (3) coupled with an SDO’s reliance on that promise when including the technology in a standard, and (4) the patent holder’s subsequent breach of that promise, is actionable conduct. (emphasis added)

Here, the claim is different. There is no allegation that Qualcomm engaged in deceptive conduct that affected the incorporation of its technology into the relevant standard. Indeed, there is no allegation that Qualcomm’s alleged monopoly power arises from its challenged practices; only that it abused its lawful monopoly power to extract supracompetitive prices. Even if an SEP holder may be found liable for falsely promising not to evade a commitment to deal with rivals in order to acquire monopoly power from its inclusion in a technological standard under Broadcom, that does not mean that it can be held liable for evading a commitment to deal with rivals unrelated to its inclusion in a standard, nor that such a refusal to deal should be evaluated under any standard other than that laid out in Aspen Skiing.

Moreover, the FTC nowhere mentions the DC Circuit’s subsequent Rambus decision overturning the FTC and calling the holding in Broadcom into question, nor does it discuss the Supreme Court’s NYNEX decision in any depth. Yet these cases stand clearly for the opposite proposition: a court cannot infer competitive harm from a company’s evasion of a FRAND pricing constraint. As we wrote in our amicus brief

In Rambus Inc. v. FTC, 522 F.3d 456 (D.C. Cir. 2008), the D.C. Circuit, citing NYNEX, rejected the FTC’s contention that it may infer anticompetitive effect from defendant’s evasion of a constraint on its monopoly power in an analogous SEP-licensing case: “But again, as in NYNEX, an otherwise lawful monopolist’s end-run around price constraints, even when deceptive or fraudulent, does not alone present a harm to competition.” Id. at 466 (citation omitted). NYNEX and Rambus reinforce the Court’s repeated holding that an inference is permissible only where it points clearly to anticompetitive effect—and, bad as they may be, evading obligations under other laws or violating norms of “business morality” do not permit a court to undermine “[t]he freedom to switch suppliers [which] lies close to the heart of the competitive process that the antitrust laws seek to encourage. . . . Thus, this Court has refused to apply per se reasoning in cases involving that kind of activity.” NYNEX, 525 U.S. at 137 (citations omitted).

Essentially, the FTC’s brief alleges that Qualcomm’s conduct amounts to an evasion of the constraint imposed by FRAND terms—without which the SSO process itself is presumptively anticompetitive. Indeed, according to the FTC, it is only the FRAND obligation that saves the SSO agreement from being inherently anticompetitive. 

In fact, when a firm has made FRAND commitments to an SSO, requiring the firm to comply with its commitments mitigates the risk that the collaborative standard-setting process will harm competition. Product standards—implicit “agreement[s] not to manufacture, distribute, or purchase certain types of products”—“have a serious potential for anticompetitive harm.” Allied Tube, 486 U.S. at 500 (citation and footnote omitted). Accordingly, private SSOs “have traditionally been objects of antitrust scrutiny,” and the antitrust laws tolerate private standard-setting “only on the understanding that it will be conducted in a nonpartisan manner offering procompetitive benefits,” and in the presence of “meaningful safeguards” that prevent the standard-setting process from falling prey to “members with economic interests in stifling product competition.” Id. at 500- 01, 506-07; see Broadcom, 501 F.3d at 310, 314-15 (collecting cases). 

FRAND commitments are among the “meaningful safeguards” that SSOs have adopted to mitigate this serious risk to competition…. 

Courts have therefore recognized that conduct that breaches or otherwise “side-steps” these safeguards is appropriately subject to conventional Sherman Act scrutiny, not the heightened Aspen/Trinko standard… (p.83-84)

In defense of the proposition that courts apply “traditional antitrust standards to breaches of voluntary commitments made to mitigate antitrust concerns,” the FTC’s brief cites not only Broadcom, but also two other cases:

While this Court has long afforded firms latitude to “deal or refuse to deal with whomever [they] please[] without fear of violating the antitrust laws,” FountWip, Inc. v. Reddi-Wip, Inc., 568 F.2d 1296, 1300 (9th Cir. 1978) (citing Colgate, 250 U.S. at 307), it, too, has applied traditional antitrust standards to breaches of voluntary commitments made to mitigate antitrust concerns. In Mount Hood Stages, Inc. v. Greyhound Corp., 555 F.2d 687 (9th Cir. 1977), this Court upheld a judgment holding that Greyhound violated Section 2 by refusing to interchange bus traffic with a competing bus line after voluntarily committing to do so in order to secure antitrust approval from the Interstate Commerce Commission for proposed acquisitions. Id. at 69723; see also, e.g., Biovail Corp. Int’l v. Hoechst Aktiengesellschaft, 49 F. Supp. 2d 750, 759 (D.N.J. 1999) (breach of commitment to deal in violation of FTC merger consent decree exclusionary under Section 2). (p.85-86)

The cases the FTC cites to justify the proposition all deal with companies sidestepping obligations in order to falsely acquire monopoly power. The two cases cited above both involve companies making promises to government agencies to win merger approval and then failing to follow through. And, as noted, Broadcom deals with the acquisition of monopoly power by making false promises to an SSO to induce the choice of proprietary technology in a standard. While such conduct in the acquisition of monopoly power may be actionable under Broadcom (though this is highly dubious post-Rambus), none of these cases supports the FTC’s claim that an SEP holder violates antitrust law any time it evades an SSO obligation to license its technology to rivals. 

Conclusion

Put simply, the district court’s opinion in FTC v. Qualcomm runs headlong into the Supreme Court’s Aspen decision and founders there. This is why the FTC is trying to avoid analyzing the case under Aspen and subsequent duty-to-deal jurisprudence (including Trinko, the 9th Circuit’s MetroNet decision, and the 10th Circuit’s Novell decision): because it knows that if the appellate court applies those standards, the district court’s duty-to-deal analysis will fail. The FTC’s basis for applying a different standard is unsupportable, however. And even if its logic for applying a different standard were valid, the FTC’s proffered alternative theory is groundless in light of Rambus and NYNEX. The Ninth Circuit should vacate the district court’s finding of liability.