Exclusionary Pricing Without the Exclusion: Unpacking Qualcomm’s No License, No Chips Policy

Geoffrey Manne & Dirk Auer —  17 January 2020

Qualcomm is currently in the midst of a high-profile antitrust case against the FTC. At the heart of these proceedings lies Qualcomm’s so-called “No License, No Chips” (NLNC) policy, whereby it purportedly refuses to sell chips to OEMs that have not concluded a license agreement covering its underlying intellectual property. According to the FTC and Qualcomm’s opponents, this ultimately thwarts competition in the chipset market.

But Qualcomm’s critics fail to convincingly explain how NLNC averts competition — a failing that is particularly evident in the short hypothetical put forward in the amicus brief penned by Mark Lemley, Douglas Melamed, and Steven Salop. This blog post responds to their brief. 

The amici’s hypothetical

In order to highlight the most salient features of the case against Qualcomm, the brief’s authors offer the following stylized example:

A hypothetical example can illustrate how Qualcomm’s strategy increases the royalties it is able to charge OEMs. Suppose that the reasonable royalty Qualcomm could charge OEMs if it licensed the patents separately from its chipsets is $2, and that the monopoly price of Qualcomm’s chips is $18 for an all-in monopoly cost to OEMs of $20. Suppose that a new chipmaker entrant is able to manufacture chipsets of comparable quality at a cost of $11 each. In that case, the rival chipmaker entrant could sell its chips to OEMs for slightly more than $11. An OEM’s all-in cost of buying from the new entrant would be slightly above $13 (i.e., the Qualcomm reasonable license royalty of $2 plus the entrant chipmaker’s price of slightly more than $11). This entry into the chipset market would induce price competition for chips. Qualcomm would still be entitled to its patent royalties of $2, but it would no longer be able to charge the monopoly all-in price of $20. The competition would force Qualcomm to reduce its chipset prices from $18 down to something closer to $11 and its all-in price from $20 down to something closer to $13.

Qualcomm’s NLNC policy prevents this competition. To illustrate, suppose instead that Qualcomm implements the NLNC policy, raising its patent royalty to $10 and cutting the chip price to $10. The all-in cost to an OEM that buys Qualcomm chips will be maintained at the monopoly level of $20. But the OEM’s cost of using the rival entrant’s chipsets now will increase to a level above $21 (i.e., the slightly higher than $11 price for the entrant’s chipset plus the $10 royalty that the OEM pays to Qualcomm of $10). Because the cost of using the entrant’s chipsets will exceed Qualcomm’s all-in monopoly price, Qualcomm will face no competitive pressure to reduce its chipset or all-in prices.

A close inspection reveals that this hypothetical is deeply flawed

There appear to be five steps in the amici’s reasoning:

  1. Chips and IP are complementary goods that are bought in fixed proportions. So buyers have a single reserve price for both; 
  2. Because of its FRAND pledges, Qualcomm is unable to directly charge a monopoly price for its IP;
  3. But, according to the amici, Qualcomm can obtain these monopoly profits by keeping competitors out of the chipset market [this would give Qualcomm a chipset monopoly and, theoretically at least, enable it to charge the combined (IP + chips) monopoly price for its chips alone, thus effectively evading its FRAND pledges]; 
  4. To keep rivals out of the chipset market, Qualcomm undercuts them on chip prices and recoups its losses by charging supracompetitive royalty rates on its IP.
  5. This is allegedly made possible by the “No License, No Chips” policy, which forces firms to obtain a license from Qualcomm, even when they purchase chips from rivals.

While points 1 and 3 of the amici’s reasoning are uncontroversial, points 2 and 4 are mutually exclusive. This flaw ultimately undermines their entire argument, notably point 5. 

The contradiction between points 2 and 4 is evident. The amici argue (using hypothetical but representative numbers) that its FRAND pledges should prevent Qualcomm from charging more than $2 in royalties per chip (“the reasonable royalty Qualcomm could charge OEMs if it licensed the patents separately from its chipsets is $2”), and that Qualcomm deters entry in the chip market by charging $10 in royalties per chip sold (“raising its patent royalty to $10 and cutting the chip price to $10”).

But these statements cannot both be true. Qualcomm either can or it cannot charge more than $2 in royalties per chip. 

There is, however, one important exception (discussed below): parties can mutually agree to depart from FRAND pricing. But let us momentarily ignore this limitation, and discuss two baseline scenarios: One where Qualcomm can evade its FRAND pledges and one where it cannot. Comparing these two settings reveals that Qualcomm cannot magically increase its profits by shifting revenue from chips to IP.

For a start, if Qualcomm cannot raise the price of its IP beyond the hypothetical FRAND benchmark ($2, in the amici’s hypo), then it cannot use its standard essential technology to compensate for foregone revenue in the chipset market. Any supracompetitive profits that it earns must thus result from its competitive position in the chipset market.

Conversely, if it can raise its IP revenue above the $2 benchmark, then it does not require a strong chipset position to earn supracompetitive profits. 

It is worth unpacking this second point. If Qualcomm can indeed evade its FRAND pledges and charge royalties of $10 per chip, then it need not exclude chipset rivals to obtain supracompetitive profits. 

Take the amici’s hypothetical numbers and assume further that Qualcomm has the same cost as its chipsets rivals (i.e. $11), and that there are 100 potential buyers with a uniform reserve price of $20 (the reserve price assumed by the amici). 

As the amici point out, Qualcomm can earn the full monopoly profits by charging $10 for IP and $10 for chips. Qualcomm would thus pocket a total of $900 in profits ((10+10-11)*100). What the amici brief fails to acknowledge is that Qualcomm could also earn the exact same profits by staying out of the chipset market. Qualcomm could let its rivals charge $11 per chip (their cost), and demand $9 for its IP. It would thus earn the same $900 of profits (9*100). 

In this hypothetical, the only reason for Qualcomm to enter the chip market is if it is a more efficient chipset producer than its chipset rivals, or if it can out-compete them with better chipsets. For instance, if Qualcomm’s costs are only $10 per chip, Qualcomm could earn a total of $1000 in profits by driving out these rivals ((10+10-10)*100). Or, if it can produce better chips, though at higher cost and price (say, $12 per chip), it could earn the same $1000 in profits ((10+12-12)*100). Both of the situations would benefit purchasers, of course. Conversely, at a higher production cost of $12 per chip, but without any quality improvement, Qualcomm would earn only $800 in profits ((10+10-12)*100) and would thus do better to exit the chipset market.

Let us recap:

  • If Qualcomm can easily evade its FRAND pledges, then it need not enter the chipset market to earn supracompetitive profits; 
  • If it cannot evade these FRAND obligations, then it will be hard-pressed to leverage its IP bottleneck so as to dominate chipsets. 

The upshot is that Qualcomm would need to benefit from exceptional circumstances in order to improperly leverage its FRAND-encumbered IP and impose anticompetitive harm by excluding its rivals in the chipset market

The NLNC policy

According to the amici, that exceptional circumstance is the NLNC policy. In their own words:

The competitive harm is a result of the royalty being higher than it would be absent the NLNC policy.

This is best understood by adding an important caveat to our previous hypothetical: The $2 FRAND benchmark of the amici’s hypothetical is only a fallback option that can be obtained via litigation. Parties are thus free to agree upon a higher rate, for instance $10. This could, notably, be the case if Qualcomm offsetted the IP increase by reducing its chipset price, such that OEMs who purchase both chipsets and IP from Qualcomm were indifferent between contracts with either of the two royalty rates.

At first sight, this caveat may appear to significantly improve the FTC’s case against Qualcomm — it raises the specter of Qualcomm charging predatory prices on its chips and then recouping its losses on IP. But further examination suggests that this is an unlikely scenario.

Though firms may nominally be paying $10 for Qualcomm’s IP and $10 for its chips, there is no escaping the fact that buyers have an outside option in both the IP and chip segments (respectively, litigation to obtain FRAND rates, and buying chips from rivals). As a result, Qualcomm will be unable to charge a total price that is significantly above the price of rivals’ chips, plus the FRAND rate for its IP (and expected litigation costs).

This is where the amici’s hypothetical is most flawed. 

It is one thing to argue that Qualcomm can charge $10 per chipset and $10 per license to firms that purchase all of their chips and IP from it (or, as the amici point out, charge a single price of $20 for the bundle). It is another matter entirely to argue — as the amici do — that Qualcomm can charge $10 for its IP to firms that receive little or no offset in the chip market because they purchase few or no chips from Qualcomm, and who have the option of suing Qualcomm, thus obtaining a license at $2 per chip (if that is, indeed, the maximum FRAND rate). Firms would have to be foolish to ignore this possibility and to acquiesce to contracts at substantially higher rates. 

Indeed, two of the largest and most powerful OEMs — Apple and Samsung — have entered into such contracts with Qualcomm. Given their ability (and, indeed, willingness) to sue for FRAND violations and to produce their own chips or assist other manufacturers in doing so, it is difficult to conclude that they have assented to supracompetitive terms. (The fact that they would prefer even lower rates, and have supported this and other antitrust suits against Qualcomm doesn’t, change this conclusion; it just means they see antitrust as a tool to reduce their costs. And the fact that Apple settled its own FRAND and antitrust suit against Qualcomm (and paid Qualcomm $4.5 billion and entered into a global licensing agreement with it) after just one day of trial further supports this conclusion).

Double counting

The amici attempt to overcome this weakness by implicitly framing their argument in terms of exclusivity, strategic entry deterrence, and tying:

An OEM cannot respond to Qualcomm’s NLNC policy by purchasing chipsets only from a rival chipset manufacturer and obtaining a license at the reasonable royalty level (i.e., $2 in the example). As the district court found, OEMs needed to procure at least some 3G CDMA and 4G LTE chipsets from Qualcomm.

* * *

The surcharge burdens rivals, leads to anticompetitive effects in the chipset markets, deters entry, and impedes follow-on innovation. 

* * *

As an economic matter, Qualcomm’s NLNC policy is analogous to the use of a tying arrangement to maintain monopoly power in the market for the tying product (here, chipsets).

But none of these arguments totally overcomes the flaw in their reasoning. Indeed, as Aldous Huxley once pointed out, “several excuses are always less convincing than one”.

For a start, the amici argue that Qualcomm uses its strong chipset position to force buyers into accepting its supracompetitive IP rates, even in those instances where they purchase chipsets from rivals. 

In making this point, the amici fall prey to the “double counting fallacy” that Robert Bork famously warned about in The Antitrust Paradox: Monopolists cannot simultaneously charge a monopoly price AND purchase exclusivity (or other contractual restrictions) from their buyers/suppliers.

The amici fail to recognize the important sacrifices that Qualcomm would have to make in order for the above strategy to be viable. In simple terms, Qualcomm would have to offset every dollar it charges above the FRAND benchmark in the IP segment with an equivalent price reduction in the chipset segment.

This has important ramifications for the FTC’s case.

Qualcomm would have to charge lower — not higher — IP fees to OEMs who purchased a large share of their chips from third party chipmakers. Otherwise, there would be no carrot to offset its greater-than-FRAND license fees, and these OEMs would have significant incentives to sue (especially in a post-eBay world where the threat of injunctions is reduced if they happen to lose). 

And yet, this is the exact opposite of what the FTC alleged:

Qualcomm sometimes expressly charged higher royalties on phones that used rivals’ chips. And even when it did not, its provision of incentive funds to offset its license fees when OEMs bought its chips effectively resulted in a discriminatory surcharge. (emphasis added)

The infeasibility of alternative explanations

One theoretical workaround would be for Qualcomm to purchase exclusivity from its OEMs, in an attempt to foreclose chipset rivals. 

Once again, Bork’s double counting argument suggests that this would be particularly onerous. By accepting exclusivity-type requirements, OEMs would not only be reducing potential competition in the chipset market, they would also be contributing to an outcome where Qualcomm could evade its FRAND pledges in the IP segment of the market. This is particularly true for pivotal OEMs (such as Apple and Samsung), who may single-handedly affect the market’s long-term trajectory. 

The amici completely overlook this possibility, while the FTC argues that this may explain the rebates that Qulacomm gave to Apple. 

But even if the rebates Qualcomm gave Apple amounted to de facto exclusivity, there are still important objections. Authorities would notably need to prove that Qualcomm could recoup its initial losses (i.e. that the rebate maximized Qualcomm’s long-term profits). If this was not the case, then the rebates may simply be due to either efficiency considerations or Apple’s significant bargaining power (Apple is routinely cited as a potential source of patent holdout; see, e.g., here and here). 

Another alternative would be for Qualcomm to evict its chipset rivals through strategic entry deterrence or limit pricing (see here and here, respectively). But while the economic literature suggests that incumbents may indeed forgo short-term profits in order to deter rivals from entering the market, these theories generally rest on assumptions of imperfect information and/or strategic commitments. Neither of these factors was alleged in the case at hand.

In particular, there is no sense that Qualcomm’s purported decision to shift royalties from chips to IP somehow harms its short-term profits, or that it is merely a strategic device used to deter the entry of rivals. As the amici themselves seem to acknowledge, the pricing structure maximizes Qualcomm’s short term revenue (even ignoring potential efficiency considerations). 

Note that this is not just a matter of economic policy. The case law relating to unilateral conduct infringements — be it Brooke Group, Alcoa, or Aspen Skiing — almost systematically requires some form of profit sacrifice on the part of the monopolist. (For a legal analysis of this issue in the Qualcomm case, see ICLE’s Amicus brief, and yesterday’s blog post on the topic).

The amici are thus left with the argument that Qualcomm could structure its prices differently, so as to maximize the profits of its rivals. Why it would choose to do so, or should indeed be forced to, is a whole other matter.

Finally, the amici refer to the strategic tying literature (here), typically associated with the Microsoft case and the so-called “platform threat”. But this analogy is highly problematic. 

Unlike Microsoft and its Internet Explorer browser, Qualcomm’s IP is de facto — and necessarily — tied to the chips that practice its technology. This is not a bug, it is a feature of the patent system. Qualcomm is entitled to royalties, whether it manufactures chips itself or leaves that task to rival manufacturers. In other words, there is no counterfactual world where OEMs could obtain Qualcomm-based chips without entering into some form of license agreement (whether directly or indirectly) with Qualcomm. The fact that OEMs must acquire a license that covers Qualcomm’s IP — even when they purchase chips from rivals — is part and parcel of the IP system.

In any case, there is little reason to believe that Qualcomm’s decision to license its IP at the OEM level is somehow exclusionary. The gist of the strategic tying literature is that incumbents may use their market power in a primary market to thwart entry in the market for a complementary good (and ultimately prevent rivals from using their newfound position in the complementary market in order to overthrow the incumbent in the primary market; Carlton & Waldman, 2002). But this is not the case here.

Qualcomm does not appear to be using what little power it might have in the IP segment in order to dominate its rivals in the chip market. As has already been explained above, doing so would imply some profit sacrifice in the IP segment in order to encourage OEMs to accept its IP/chipset bundle, rather than rivals’ offerings. This is the exact opposite of what the FTC and amici allege in the case at hand. The facts thus cut against a conjecture of strategic tying.

Conclusion

So where does this leave the amici and their brief? 

Absent further evidence, their conclusion that Qualcomm injured competition is untenable. There is no evidence that Qualcomm’s pricing structure — enacted through the NLNC policy — significantly harmed competition to the detriment of consumers. 

When all is done and dusted, the amici’s brief ultimately amounts to an assertion that Qualcomm should be made to license its intellectual property at a rate that — in their estimation — is closer to the FRAND benchmark. That judgment is a matter of contract law, not antitrust.