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.
Against this backdrop, Mark Lemley, Douglas Melamed, and Steven Salop penned a high-profile amicus brief supporting the FTC’s stance.
We responded to their brief in a Truth on the Market blog post, and this led to a series of blog exchanges between the amici and ourselves.
This post summarizes these exchanges.
1. Amicus brief supporting the FTC’s stance, and ICLE brief in support of Qualcomm’s position
The starting point of this blog exchange was an Amicus brief written by Mark Lemley, Douglas Melamed, and Steven Salop (“the amici”) , and signed by 40 law and economics scholars.
The amici made two key normative claims:
- Qualcomm’s no license, no chips policy is unlawful under well-established antitrust principles:
“Qualcomm uses the NLNC policy to make it more expensive for OEMs to purchase competitors’ chipsets, and thereby disadvantages rivals and creates artificial barriers to entry and competition in the chipset markets.”
- Qualcomm’s refusal to license chip-set rivals reinforces the no license, no chips policy and violates the antitrust laws:
“Qualcomm’s refusal to license chipmakers is also unlawful, in part because it bolsters the NLNC policy.16 In addition, Qualcomm’s refusal to license chipmakers increases the costs of using rival chipsets, excludes rivals, and raises barriers to entry even if NLNC is not itself illegal.”
It is important to note that ICLE also filed an amicus brief in these proceedings. Contrary to the amici, ICLE’s scholars concluded that Qualcomm’s behavior did not raise any antitrust concerns and was ultimately a matter of contract law and .
2. ICLE response to the Lemley, Melamed and Salop Amicus brief.
We responded to the amici in a first blog post.
The post argued that the amici failed to convincingly show that Qualcomm’s NLNC policy was exclusionary. We notably highlighted two important factors.
- First, Qualcomm could not use its chipset position and NLNC policy to avert the threat of FRAND litigation, thus extracting supracompetitve royalties:
“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).”
- Second, Qualcomm’s behavior did not appear to fall within standard patterns of strategic behavior:
“The amici attempt to overcome this weakness by implicitly framing their argument in terms of exclusivity, strategic entry deterrence, and tying […]. But none of these arguments totally overcomes the flaw in their reasoning.”
3. Amici’s counterargument
The amici wrote a thoughtful response to our post. Their piece rested on two main arguments:
- The Amici underlined that their theory of anticompetitive harm did not imply any form of profit sacrifice on Qualcomm’s part (in the chip segment):
“Manne and Auer seem to think that the concern with the no license/no chips policy is that it enables inflated patent royalties to subsidize a profit sacrifice in chip sales, as if the issue were predatory pricing in chips. But there is no such sacrifice.”
- The deleterious effects of Qualcomm’s behavior were merely a function of its NLNC policy and strong chipset position. In conjunction, these two factors deterred OEMs from pursuing FRAND litigation:
“Qualcomm is able to charge more than $2 for the license only because it uses the power of its chip monopoly to coerce the OEMs to give up the option of negotiating in light of the otherwise applicable constraints on the royalties it can charge.”
4. ICLE rebuttal
We then responded to the amici with the following points:
- We agreed that it would be a problem if Qualcomm could prevent OEMs from negotiating license agreements in the shadow of FRAND litigation:
“The critical question is whether there is a realistic threat of litigation to constrain the royalties commanded by Qualcomm (we believe that Lemley et al. agree with us on this point).”
- However, Qualcomm’s behavior did not preclude OEMs from pursuing this type of strategy:
“We believe the following facts support our assertion:
OEMs have pursued various litigation strategies in order to obtain lower rates on Qualcomm’s IP. […]
For the most part, Qualcomm’s threats to cut off chip supplies were just that: threats. […]
OEMs also wield powerful threats. […]
Qualcomm’s chipsets might no longer be “must-buys” in the future.”
5. Amici’s surrebuttal
The amici sent us a final response (reproduced here in full) :
In their original post, Manne and Auer argued that the antitrust argument against Qualcomm’s no license/no chips policy was based on bad economics and bad law. They now seem to have abandoned that argument and claim instead – contrary to the extensive factual findings of the district court – that, while Qualcomm threatened to cut off chips, it was a paper tiger that OEMs could, and knew they could, ignore. The implication is that the Ninth Circuit should affirm the district court on the no license/ no chips issue unless it sets aside the court’s fact findings. That seems like agreement with the position of our amicus brief.
We will not in this post review the huge factual record. We do note, however, that Manne and Auer cite in support of their factual argument only that 3 industry giants brought and then settled litigation against Qualcomm. But all 3 brought antitrust litigation; their doing so hardly proves that contract litigation or what Manne and Auer call “holdout” were viable options for anyone, much less for smaller OEMs. The fact that Qualcomm found it necessary to actually cut off only one OEM – and then it only took the OEM only 7 days to capitulate – certainly does not prove that Qualcomm’s threats lacked credibility. Notably, Manne and Auer do not claim that any OEMs bought chips from competitors of Qualcomm (although Apple bought some chips from Intel for a short while). No license/no chips appears to have been a successful, coercive policy, not an easily ignored threat.
6. Concluding remarks
First and foremost, we would like to thank the Amici for thoughtfully engaging with us. This is what the law & economics tradition is all about: moving the ball forward by taking part in vigorous, multidisciplinary, debates.
With that said, we do feel compelled to leave readers with two short remarks.
First, contrary to what the amici claim, we believe that our position has remained the same throughout these debates.
Second, and more importantly, we think that everyone agrees that the critical question is whether OEMs were prevented from negotiating licenses in the shadow of FRAND litigation.
We leave it up to Truth on the Market readers to judge which side of this debate is correct.