Archives For standard setting

This blog post summarizes the findings of a paper published in Volume 21 of the Federalist Society Review. The paper was co-authored by Dirk Auer, Geoffrey A. Manne, Julian Morris, & Kristian Stout. It uses the analytical framework of law and economics to discuss recent patent law reforms in the US, and their negative ramifications for inventors. The full paper can be found on the Federalist Society’s website, here.

Property rights are a pillar of the free market. As Harold Demsetz famously argued, they spur specialization, investment and competition throughout the economy. And the same holds true for intellectual property rights (IPRs). 

However, despite the many social benefits that have been attributed to intellectual property protection, the past decades have witnessed the birth and growth of an powerful intellectual movement seeking to reduce the legal protections offered to inventors by patent law.

These critics argue that excessive patent protection is holding back western economies. For instance, they posit that the owners of the standard essential patents (“SEPs”) are charging their commercial partners too much for the rights to use their patents (this is referred to as patent holdup and royalty stacking). Furthermore, they argue that so-called patent trolls (“patent-assertion entities” or “PAEs”) are deterring innovation by small startups by employing “extortionate” litigation tactics.

Unfortunately, this movement has led to a deterioration of appropriate remedies in patent disputes.

The many benefits of patent protection

While patents likely play an important role in providing inventors with incentives to innovate, their role in enabling the commercialization of ideas is probably even more important.

By creating a system of clearly defined property rights, patents empower market players to coordinate their efforts in order to collectively produce innovations. In other words, patents greatly reduce the cost of concluding mutually-advantageous deals, whereby firms specialize in various aspects of the innovation process. Critically, these deals occur in the shadow of patent litigation and injunctive relief. The threat of these ensures that all parties have an incentive to take a seat at the negotiating table.

This is arguably nowhere more apparent than in the standardization space. Many of the most high-profile modern technologies are the fruit of large-scale collaboration coordinated through standards developing organizations (SDOs). These include technologies such as Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G, 5G, Blu-Ray, USB-C, and Thunderbolt 3. The coordination necessary to produce technologies of this sort is hard to imagine without some form of enforceable property right in the resulting inventions.

The shift away from injunctive relief

Of the many recent reforms to patent law, the most significant has arguably been a significant limitation of patent holders’ availability to obtain permanent injunctions. This is particularly true in the case of so-called standard essential patents (SEPs). 

However, intellectual property laws are meaningless without the ability to enforce them and remedy breaches. And injunctions are almost certainly the most powerful, and important, of these remedies.

The significance of injunctions is perhaps best understood by highlighting the weakness of damages awards when applied to intangible assets. Indeed, it is often difficult to establish the appropriate size of an award of damages when intangible property—such as invention and innovation in the case of patents—is the core property being protected. This is because these assets are almost always highly idiosyncratic. By blocking all infringing uses of an invention, injunctions thus prevent courts from having to act as price regulators. In doing so, they also ensure that innovators are adequately rewarded for their technological contributions.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s 2006 ruling in eBay Inc. v. MercExchange, LLC significantly narrowed the circumstances under which patent holders could obtain permanent injunctions. This predictably led lower courts to grant fewer permanent injunctions in patent litigation suits. 

But while critics of injunctions had hoped that reducing their availability would spur innovation, empirical evidence suggests that this has not been the case so far. 

Other reforms

And injunctions are not the only area of patent law that have witnessed a gradual shift against the interests of patent holders. Much of the same could be said about damages awards, revised fee shifting standards, and the introduction of Inter Partes Review.

Critically, the intellectual movement to soften patent protection has also had ramifications outside of the judicial sphere. It is notably behind several legislative reforms, particularly the America Invents Act. Moreover, it has led numerous private parties – most notably Standard Developing Organizations (SDOs) – to adopt stances that have advanced the interests of technology implementers at the expense of inventors.

For instance, one of the most noteworthy reforms has been IEEE’s sweeping reforms to its IP policy, in 2015. The new rules notably prevented SEP holders from seeking permanent injunctions against so-called “willing licensees”. They also mandated that royalties pertaining to SEPs should be based upon the value of the smallest saleable component that practices the patented technology. Both of these measures ultimately sought to tilt the bargaining range in license negotiations in favor of implementers.

Concluding remarks

The developments discussed in this article might seem like small details, but they are part of a wider trend whereby U.S. patent law is becoming increasingly inhospitable for inventors. This is particularly true when it comes to the enforcement of SEPs by means of injunction.

While the short-term effect of these various reforms has yet to be quantified, there is a real risk that, by decreasing the value of patents and increasing transaction costs, these changes may ultimately limit the diffusion of innovations and harm incentives to invent.

This likely explains why some legislators have recently put forward bills that seek to reinforce the U.S. patent system (here and here).

Despite these initiatives, the fact remains that there is today a strong undercurrent pushing for weaker or less certain patent protection. If left unchecked, this threatens to undermine the utility of patents in facilitating the efficient allocation of resources for innovation and its commercialization. Policymakers should thus pay careful attention to the changes this trend may bring about and move swiftly to recalibrate the patent system where needed in order to better protect the property rights of inventors and yield more innovation overall.

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.

[This guest post is authored by Mark A. Lemley, Professor of Law and the Director of Program in Law, Science & Technology at Stanford Law School; A. Douglas Melamed, Professor of the Practice of Law at Stanford Law School and Former Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Intel from 2009 to 2014; and Steven Salop, Professor of Economics and Law at Georgetown Law School. It is part of an ongoing debate between the authors, on one side, and Geoffrey Manne and Dirk Auer, on the other, and has been integrated into our ongoing series on the FTC v. Qualcomm case, where all of the posts in this exchange are collected.]

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.

Last week, we posted a piece on TOTM, criticizing the amicus brief written by Mark Lemley, Douglas Melamed and Steven Salop in the ongoing Qualcomm litigation. The authors prepared a thoughtful response to our piece, which we published today on TOTM. 

In this post, we highlight the points where we agree with the amici (or at least we think so), as well as those where we differ.

Negotiating in the shadow of FRAND litigation

Let us imagine a hypothetical world, where an OEM must source one chipset from Qualcomm (i.e. this segment of the market is non-contestable) and one chipset from either Qualcomm or its  rivals (i.e. this segment is contestable). For both of these chipsets, the OEM must also reach a license agreement with Qualcomm.

We use the same number as the amici: 

  • The OEM has a reserve price of $20 for each chip/license combination. 
  • Rivals can produce chips at a cost of $11. 
  • The hypothetical FRAND benchmark is $2 per chip. 

With these numbers in mind, 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). The following table shows the prices that a hypothetical OEM would be willing to pay in both of these scenarios:

Blue cells are segments where QC can increase its profits if the threat of litigation is removed.

When the threat of litigation is present, Qualcomm obtains a total of $20 for the combination of non-contestable chips and IP. Qualcomm can use its chipset position to evade FRAND and charges the combined monopoly price of $20. At a chipset cost of $11, it would thus make $9 worth of profits. However, it earns only $13 for contestable chips ($2 in profits). This is because competition brings the price of chips down to $11 and Qualcomm does not have a chipset advantage to earn more than the FRAND rate for its IP.

When the threat of litigation is taken off the table, all chipsets effectively become non-contestable. Qualcomm still earns $20 for its previously non-contestable chips. But it can now raise its IP rate above the FRAND benchmark in the previously contestable segment (for example, by charging $10 for the IP). This squeezes its chipset competitors.

If our understanding of the amici’s response is correct, they argue that the combination of Qualcomm’s strong chipset position and its “No License, No Chips” policy (“NLNC”) effectively nullifies the threat of 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. 

According to the amici, the market thus moves from a state of imperfect competition (where OEMs would pay $33 for two chips and QC’s license) to a world of monopoly (where they pay the full $40).

We beg to differ. 

Our points of disagreement

From an economic standpoint, the critical question is the extent to which Qualcomm’s chipset position and its NLNC policy deter OEMs from obtaining closer-to-FRAND rates.

While the case record is mixed and contains some ambiguities, we think it strongly suggests that Qualcomm’s chipset position and its NLNC policy do not preclude OEMs from using litigation to obtain rates that are close to the FRAND benchmark. There is thus no reason to believe that it can exclude its chipset rivals.

We believe the following facts support our assertion:

  • OEMs have pursued various litigation strategies in order to obtain lower rates on Qualcomm’s IP. As we mentioned in our previous post, this was notably the case for Apple, Samsung and LG. All three companies ultimately reached settlements with Qualcomm (and these settlements were concluded in the shadow of litigation proceedings — indeed, in Apple’s case, on the second day of trial). If anything, this suggests that court proceedings are an integral part of negotiations between Qualcomm and its OEMs.
  • For the most part, Qualcomm’s threats to cut off chip supplies were just that: threats. In any negotiation, parties will try to convince their counterpart that they have a strong outside option. Qualcomm may have done so by posturing that it would not sell chips to OEMs before they concluded a license agreement. 

    However, it seems that only once did Qualcomm apparently follow through with its threats to withhold chips (against Sony). And even then, the supply cutoff lasted only seven days.

    And while many OEMs did take Qualcomm to court in order to obtain more favorable license terms, this never resulted in Qualcomm cutting off their chipset supplies. Other OEMs thus had no reason to believe that litigation would entail disruptions to their chipset supplies.
  • OEMs also wield powerful threats. These include patent holdout, litigation, vertical integration, and purchasing chips from Qualcomm’s rivals. And of course they have aggressively pursued the bringing of this and other litigation around the world by antitrust authorities — even quite possibly manipulating the record to bolster their cases. Here’s how one observer sums up Apple’s activity in this regard:

    “Although we really only managed to get a small glimpse of Qualcomm’s evidence demonstrating the extent of Apple’s coordinated strategy to manipulate the FRAND license rate, that glimpse was particularly enlightening. It demonstrated a decade-long coordinated effort within Apple to systematically engage in what can only fairly be described as manipulation (if not creation of evidence) and classic holdout.

    Qualcomm showed during opening arguments that, dating back to at least 2009, Apple had been laying the foundation for challenging its longstanding relationship with Qualcomm.” (Emphasis added)

    Moreover, the holdout and litigation paths have been strengthened by the eBay case, which significantly reduced the financial risks involved in pursuing a holdout and/or litigation strategy. Given all of this, it is far from obvious that it is Qualcomm who enjoys the stronger bargaining position here.
  • Qualcomm’s chipsets might no longer be “must-buys” in the future. Rivals have gained increasing traction over the past couple of years. And with 5G just around the corner, this momentum could conceivably accelerate. Whether or not one believes that this will ultimately be the case, the trend surely places additional constraints on Qualcomm’s conduct. Aggressive behavior today may spur disgruntled rivals to enter the chipset market or switch suppliers tomorrow.

To summarize, as we understand their response, the delta between supracompetitive and competitive prices is entirely a function of Qualcomm’s ability to charge supra-FRAND prices for its licenses. On this we agree. But, unlike Lemley et al., we do not agree that Qualcomm is in a position to evade its FRAND pledges by using its strong position in the chipset market and its NLNC policy.

Finally, it must be said again: To the extent that that is the problem — the charging of supra-FRAND prices for licenses — the issue is manifestly a contract issue, not an antitrust one. All of the complexity of the case would fall away, and the litigation would be straightforward. But the opponents of Qualcomm’s practices do not really want to ensure that Qualcomm lowers its royalties by this delta; if they did, they would be bringing/supporting FRAND litigation. What the amici and Qualcomm’s contracting partners appear to want is to use antitrust litigation to force Qualcomm to license its technology at even lower rates — to force Qualcomm into a different business model in order to reset the baseline from which FRAND prices are determined (i.e., at the chip level, rather than at the device level). That may be an intelligible business strategy from the perspective of Qualcomm’s competitors, but it certainly isn’t sensible antitrust policy.

[This guest post is authored by Mark A. Lemley, Professor of Law and the Director of Program in Law, Science & Technology at Stanford Law School; A. Douglas Melamed, Professor of the Practice of Law at Stanford Law School and Former Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Intel from 2009 to 2014; and Steven Salop, Professor of Economics and Law at Georgetown Law School. It is a response to the post, “Exclusionary Pricing Without the Exclusion: Unpacking Qualcomm’s No License, No Chips Policy,” by Geoffrey Manne and Dirk Auer, which is itself a response to Lemley, Melamed, and Salop’s amicus brief in FTC v. Qualcomm.]

Geoffrey Manne and Dirk Auer’s defense of Qualcomm’s no license/no chips policy is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how that policy harms competition.  The harm is straightforward in light of facts proven at trial. In a nutshell, OEMs must buy some chips from Qualcomm or else exit the handset business, even if they would also like to buy additional chips from other suppliers. OEMs must also buy a license to Qualcomm’s standard essential patents, whether they use Qualcomm’s chips or other chips implementing the same industry standards. There is a monopoly price for the package of Qualcomm’s chips plus patent license. Assume that the monopoly price is $20. Assume further that, if Qualcomm’s patents were licensed in a standalone transaction, as they would be if they were owned by a firm that did not also make chips, the market price for the patent license would be $2. In that event, the monopoly price for the chip would be $18, and a chip competitor could undersell Qualcomm if Qualcomm charged the monopoly price of $18 and the competitor could profitably sell chips for a lower price. If the competitor’s cost of producing and selling chips was $11, for example, it could easily undersell Qualcomm and force Qualcomm to lower its chip prices below $18, thereby reducing the price for the package to a level below $20.

However, the no license/no chips policy enables Qualcomm to allocate the package price of $20 any way it wishes. Because the OEMs must buy some chips from Qualcomm, Qualcomm is able to coerce the OEMs to accept any such allocation by threatening not to sell them chips if they do not agree to a license at the specified terms. The prices could thus be $18 and $2; or, for example, they could be $10 for the chips and $10 for the license. If Qualcomm sets the license price at $10 and a chip price of $10, it would continue to realize the monopoly package price of $20. But in that case, a competitor could profitably undersell Qualcomm only if its chip cost were less than 10. A competitor with a cost of $11 would then not be able to successfully enter the market, and Qualcomm would not need to lower its chip prices. That is how the no license/no chip policy blocks entry of chip competitors and maintains Qualcomm’s chip monopoly. 

Manne and Auer’s defense of the no license/no chips policy is deeply flawed. In the first place, Manne and Auer mischaracterize the problem as one in which “Qualcomm undercuts [chipset rivals] on chip prices and recoups its losses by charging supracompetitive royalty rates on its IP.” On the basis of this description of the issue, they argue that, if Qualcomm cannot charge more than $2 for the license, it cannot use license revenues to offset the chip price reduction. And if Qualcomm can charge more than $2 for the license, it does not need a chip monopoly in order to make supracompetitive licensing profits. This argument is wrong both factually and conceptually.  

As a factual matter, there are constraints on Qualcomm’s ability to charge more than $2 for the license if the license is sold by itself. If sold by itself, the license would be negotiated in the shadow of infringement litigation and the royalty would be constrained by the value of the technology claimed by the patent, the risk that the patent would be found to be invalid or not infringed, the “reasonable royalty” contemplated by the patent laws, and the contractual commitment to license on FRAND terms. But Qualcomm is able to circumvent those constraints by coercing OEMs to pay a higher price or else lose access to essential Qualcomm chips. In other words, Qualcomm’s ability to charge more than $2 for the license is not exogenous. 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. It is a simple story of bundling with simultaneous recoupment.  

As a conceptual matter, 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. Money is fungible, and Manne and Auer have it backwards. The problem is that the no license/no chips policy enables Qualcomm to make purely nominal changes by allocating some of its monopoly chip price to the license price. Qualcomm offsets that nominal license price increase when the OEM buys chips from it by lowering the chip price by that amount in order to maintain the package price at the monopoly price.  There is no profit sacrifice for Qualcomm because the lower chip price simply offsets the higher license price. Qualcomm offers no such offset when the OEM buys chips from other suppliers. To the contrary, by using its chip monopoly to increase the license price, it increases the cost to OEMs of using competitors’ chips and is thus able to perpetuate its chip monopoly and maintain its monopoly chip prices and profits. Absent this policy, OEMs would buy more chips from third parties; Qualcomm’s prices and profits would fall; and consumers would benefit.

At the end of the day, Manne and Auer rely on the old “single monopoly profit” or “double counting” idea that a monopolist cannot both charge a monopoly price and extract additional consideration as well. But, again, they have it backwards. Manne and Auer describe the issue as whether Qualcomm can leverage its patent position in the technology markets to increase its market power in chips. But that is not the issue. Qualcomm is not trying to increase profits by leveraging monopoly power from one market into a different market in order to gain additional monopoly profits in the second market. Instead, it is using its existing monopoly power in chips to maintain that monopoly power in the first place. Assuming Qualcomm has a chip monopoly, it is true that it earns the same revenue from OEMs regardless of how it allocates the all-in price of $20 to its chips versus its patents. But by allocating more of the all-in price to the patents (i.e., in our example, $10 instead of $2), Qualcomm is able to maintain its monopoly by preventing rival chipmakers from undercutting the $20 monopoly price of the package. That is how competition and consumers are harmed.

FTC v. Qualcomm

Last week the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) and twelve noted law and economics scholars filed an amicus brief in the Ninth Circuit in FTC v. Qualcomm, in support of appellant (Qualcomm) and urging reversal of the district court’s decision. The brief was authored by Geoffrey A. Manne, President & founder of ICLE, and Ben Sperry, Associate Director, Legal Research of ICLE. Jarod M. Bona and Aaron R. Gott of Bona Law PC collaborated in drafting the brief and they and their team provided invaluable pro bono legal assistance, for which we are enormously grateful. Signatories on the brief are listed at the end of this post.

We’ve written about the case several times on Truth on the Market, as have a number of guest bloggers, in our ongoing blog series on the case here.   

The ICLE amicus brief focuses on the ways that the district court exceeded the “error cost” guardrails erected by the Supreme Court to minimize the risk and cost of mistaken antitrust decisions, particularly those that wrongly condemn procompetitive behavior. As the brief notes at the outset:

The district court’s decision is disconnected from the underlying economics of the case. It improperly applied antitrust doctrine to the facts, and the result subverts the economic rationale guiding monopolization jurisprudence. The decision—if it stands—will undercut the competitive values antitrust law was designed to protect.  

The antitrust error cost framework was most famously elaborated by Frank Easterbrook in his seminal article, The Limits of Antitrust (1984). It has since been squarely adopted by the Supreme Court—most significantly in Brooke Group (1986), Trinko (2003), and linkLine (2009).  

In essence, the Court’s monopolization case law implements the error cost framework by (among other things) obliging courts to operate under certain decision rules that limit the use of inferences about the consequences of a defendant’s conduct except when the circumstances create what game theorists call a “separating equilibrium.” A separating equilibrium is a 

solution to a game in which players of different types adopt different strategies and thereby allow an uninformed player to draw inferences about an informed player’s type from that player’s actions.

Baird, Gertner & Picker, Game Theory and the Law

The key problem in antitrust is that while the consequence of complained-of conduct for competition (i.e., consumers) is often ambiguous, its deleterious effect on competitors is typically quite evident—whether it is actually anticompetitive or not. The question is whether (and when) it is appropriate to infer anticompetitive effect from discernible harm to competitors. 

Except in the narrowly circumscribed (by Trinko) instance of a unilateral refusal to deal, anticompetitive harm under the rule of reason must be proven. It may not be inferred from harm to competitors, because such an inference is too likely to be mistaken—and “mistaken inferences are especially costly, because they chill the very conduct the antitrust laws are designed to protect.” (Brooke Group (quoting yet another key Supreme Court antitrust error cost case, Matsushita (1986)). 

Yet, as the brief discusses, in finding Qualcomm liable the district court did not demand or find proof of harm to competition. Instead, the court’s opinion relies on impermissible inferences from ambiguous evidence to find that Qualcomm had (and violated) an antitrust duty to deal with rival chip makers and that its conduct resulted in anticompetitive foreclosure of competition. 

We urge you to read the brief (it’s pretty short—maybe the length of three blogs posts) to get the whole argument. Below we draw attention to a few points we make in the brief that are especially significant. 

The district court bases its approach entirely on Microsoft — which it misinterprets in clear contravention of Supreme Court case law

The district court doesn’t stay within the strictures of the Supreme Court’s monopolization case law. In fact, although it obligingly recites some of the error cost language from Trinko, it quickly moves away from Supreme Court precedent and bases its approach entirely on its reading of the D.C. Circuit’s Microsoft (2001) decision. 

Unfortunately, the district court’s reading of Microsoft is mistaken and impermissible under Supreme Court precedent. Indeed, both the Supreme Court and the D.C. Circuit make clear that a finding of illegal monopolization may not rest on an inference of anticompetitive harm.

The district court cites Microsoft for the proposition that

Where a government agency seeks injunctive relief, the Court need only conclude that Qualcomm’s conduct made a “significant contribution” to Qualcomm’s maintenance of monopoly power. The plaintiff is not required to “present direct proof that a defendant’s continued monopoly power is precisely attributable to its anticompetitive conduct.”

It’s true Microsoft held that, in government actions seeking injunctions, “courts [may] infer ‘causation’ from the fact that a defendant has engaged in anticompetitive conduct that ‘reasonably appears capable of making a significant contribution to maintaining monopoly power.’” (Emphasis added). 

But Microsoft never suggested that anticompetitiveness itself may be inferred.

“Causation” and “anticompetitive effect” are not the same thing. Indeed, Microsoft addresses “anticompetitive conduct” and “causation” in separate sections of its decision. And whereas Microsoft allows that courts may infer “causation” in certain government actions, it makes no such allowance with respect to “anticompetitive effect.” In fact, it explicitly rules it out:

[T]he plaintiff… must demonstrate that the monopolist’s conduct indeed has the requisite anticompetitive effect…; no less in a case brought by the Government, it must demonstrate that the monopolist’s conduct harmed competition, not just a competitor.”

The D.C. Circuit subsequently reinforced this clear conclusion of its holding in Microsoft in Rambus

Deceptive conduct—like any other kind—must have an anticompetitive effect in order to form the basis of a monopolization claim…. In Microsoft… [t]he focus of our antitrust scrutiny was properly placed on the resulting harms to competition.

Finding causation entails connecting evidentiary dots, while finding anticompetitive effect requires an economic assessment. Without such analysis it’s impossible to distinguish procompetitive from anticompetitive conduct, and basing liability on such an inference effectively writes “anticompetitive” out of the law.

Thus, the district court is correct when it holds that it “need not conclude that Qualcomm’s conduct is the sole reason for its rivals’ exits or impaired status.” But it is simply wrong to hold—in the same sentence—that it can thus “conclude that Qualcomm’s practices harmed competition and consumers.” The former claim is consistent with Microsoft; the latter is emphatically not.

Under Trinko and Aspen Skiing the district court’s finding of an antitrust duty to deal is impermissible 

Because finding that a company operates under a duty to deal essentially permits a court to infer anticompetitive harm without proof, such a finding “comes dangerously close to being a form of ‘no-fault’ monopolization,” as Herbert Hovenkamp has written. It is also thus seriously disfavored by the Court’s error cost jurisprudence.

In Trinko the Supreme Court interprets its holding in Aspen Skiing to identify essentially a single scenario from which it may plausibly be inferred that a monopolist’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 the monopolist.

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.”

But it’s 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. In a word, what the Court requires is that the defendant exhibit behavior that, but-for the expectation of future, anticompetitive returns, is irrational.

It should be noted, as John Lopatka (here) and Alan Meese (here) (both of whom joined the amicus brief) have written, that even the Supreme Court’s approach is likely insufficient to permit a court to distinguish between procompetitive and anticompetitive conduct. 

But what is certain is that the district court’s approach in no way permits such an inference.

“Evasion of a competitive constraint” is not an antitrust-relevant refusal to deal

In order to infer anticompetitive effect, it’s not enough that a firm may have a “duty” to deal, as that term is colloquially used, based on some obligation other than an antitrust duty, because it can in no way be inferred from the evasion of that obligation that conduct is anticompetitive.

The district court bases its determination that Qualcomm’s conduct is anticompetitive on the fact that it enables the company to avoid patent exhaustion, FRAND commitments, and thus price competition in the chip market. But this conclusion is directly precluded by the Supreme Court’s holding in NYNEX

Indeed, in Rambus, 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.”

As Josh Wright has noted:

[T]he objection to the “evasion” of any constraint approach is… that it opens the door to enforcement actions applied to business conduct that is not likely to harm competition and might be welfare increasing.

Thus NYNEX and Rambus (and linkLine) reinforce the Court’s repeated holding that an inference of harm to competition is permissible only where conduct points clearly to anticompetitive effect—and, bad as they may be, evading obligations under other laws or violating norms of “business morality” do not suffice.

The district court’s elaborate theory of harm rests fundamentally on the claim that Qualcomm injures rivals—and the record is devoid of evidence demonstrating actual harm to competition. Instead, the court infers it from what it labels “unreasonably high” royalty rates, enabled by Qualcomm’s evasion of competition from rivals. In turn, the court finds that that evasion of competition can be the source of liability if what Qualcomm evaded was an antitrust duty to deal. And, in impermissibly circular fashion, the court finds that Qualcomm indeed evaded an antitrust duty to deal—because its conduct allowed it to sustain “unreasonably high” prices. 

The Court’s antitrust error cost jurisprudence—from Brooke Group to NYNEX to Trinko & linkLine—stands for the proposition that no such circular inferences are permitted.

The district court’s foreclosure analysis also improperly relies on inferences in lieu of economic evidence

Because the district court doesn’t perform a competitive effects analysis, it fails to demonstrate the requisite “substantial” foreclosure of competition required to sustain a claim of anticompetitive exclusion. Instead the court once again infers anticompetitive harm from harm to competitors. 

The district court makes no effort to establish the quantity of competition foreclosed as required by the Supreme Court. Nor does the court demonstrate that the alleged foreclosure harms competition, as opposed to just rivals. Foreclosure per se is not impermissible and may be perfectly consistent with procompetitive conduct.

Again citing Microsoft, the district court asserts that a quantitative finding is not required. Yet, as the court’s citation to Microsoft should have made clear, in its stead a court must find actual anticompetitive effect; it may not simply assert it. As Microsoft held: 

It is clear that in all cases the plaintiff must… prove the degree of foreclosure. This is a prudential requirement; exclusivity provisions in contracts may serve many useful purposes. 

The court essentially infers substantiality from the fact that Qualcomm entered into exclusive deals with Apple (actually, volume discounts), from which the court concludes that Qualcomm foreclosed rivals’ access to a key customer. But its inference that this led to substantial foreclosure is based on internal business statements—so-called “hot docs”—characterizing the importance of Apple as a customer. Yet, as Geoffrey Manne and Marc Williamson explain, such documentary evidence is unreliable as a guide to economic significance or legal effect: 

Business people will often characterize information from a business perspective, and these characterizations may seem to have economic implications. However, business actors are subject to numerous forces that influence the rhetoric they use and the conclusions they draw….

There are perfectly good reasons to expect to see “bad” documents in business settings when there is no antitrust violation lurking behind them.

Assuming such language has the requisite economic or legal significance is unsupportable—especially when, as here, the requisite standard demands a particular quantitative significance.

Moreover, the court’s “surcharge” theory of exclusionary harm rests on assumptions regarding the mechanism by which the alleged surcharge excludes rivals and harms consumers. But the court incorrectly asserts that only one mechanism operates—and it makes no effort to quantify it. 

The court cites “basic economics” via Mankiw’s Principles of Microeconomics text for its conclusion:

The surcharge affects demand for rivals’ chips because as a matter of basic economics, regardless of whether a surcharge is imposed on OEMs or directly on Qualcomm’s rivals, “the price paid by buyers rises, and the price received by sellers falls.” Thus, the surcharge “places a wedge between the price that buyers pay and the price that sellers receive,” and demand for such transactions decreases. Rivals see lower sales volumes and lower margins, and consumers see less advanced features as competition decreases.

But even assuming the court is correct that Qualcomm’s conduct entails such a surcharge, basic economics does not hold that decreased demand for rivals’ chips is the only possible outcome. 

In actuality, an increase in the cost of an input for OEMs can have three possible effects:

  1. OEMs can pass all or some of the cost increase on to consumers in the form of higher phone prices. Assuming some elasticity of demand, this would mean fewer phone sales and thus less demand by OEMs for chips, as the court asserts. But the extent of that effect would depend on consumers’ demand elasticity and the magnitude of the cost increase as a percentage of the phone price. If demand is highly inelastic at this price (i.e., relatively insensitive to the relevant price change), it may have a tiny effect on the number of phones sold and thus the number of chips purchased—approaching zero as price insensitivity increases.
  2. OEMs can absorb the cost increase and realize lower profits but continue to sell the same number of phones and purchase the same number of chips. This would not directly affect demand for chips or their prices.
  3. OEMs can respond to a price increase by purchasing fewer chips from rivals and more chips from Qualcomm. While this would affect rivals’ chip sales, it would not necessarily affect consumer prices, the total number of phones sold, or OEMs’ margins—that result would depend on whether Qualcomm’s chips cost more or less than its rivals’. If the latter, it would even increase OEMs’ margins and/or lower consumer prices and increase output.

Alternatively, of course, the effect could be some combination of these.

Whether any of these outcomes would substantially exclude rivals is inherently uncertain to begin with. But demonstrating a reduction in rivals’ chip sales is a necessary but not sufficient condition for proving anticompetitive foreclosure. The FTC didn’t even demonstrate that rivals were substantially harmed, let alone that there was any effect on consumers—nor did the district court make such findings. 

Doing so would entail consideration of whether decreased demand for rivals’ chips flows from reduced consumer demand or OEMs’ switching to Qualcomm for supply, how consumer demand elasticity affects rivals’ chip sales, and whether Qualcomm’s chips were actually less or more expensive than rivals’. Yet the court determined none of these. 

Conclusion

Contrary to established Supreme Court precedent, the district court’s decision relies on mere inferences to establish anticompetitive effect. The decision, if it stands, would render a wide range of potentially procompetitive conduct presumptively illegal and thus harm consumer welfare. It should be reversed by the Ninth Circuit.

Joining ICLE on the brief are:

  • Donald J. Boudreaux, Professor of Economics, George Mason University
  • Kenneth G. Elzinga, Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics, University of Virginia
  • Janice Hauge, Professor of Economics, University of North Texas
  • Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, Associate Professor of Law, University of Nebraska College of Law; Director of Law & Economics Programs, ICLE
  • Thomas A. Lambert, Wall Chair in Corporate Law and Governance, University of Missouri Law School
  • John E. Lopatka, A. Robert Noll Distinguished Professor of Law, Penn State University Law School
  • Daniel Lyons, Professor of Law, Boston College Law School
  • Geoffrey A. Manne, President and Founder, International Center for Law & Economics; Distinguished Fellow, Northwestern University Center on Law, Business & Economics
  • Alan J. Meese, Ball Professor of Law, William & Mary Law School
  • Paul H. Rubin, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Economics Emeritus, Emory University
  • Vernon L. Smith, George L. Argyros Endowed Chair in Finance and Economics, Chapman University School of Business; Nobel Laureate in Economics, 2002
  • Michael Sykuta, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Missouri


[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.

[TOTM: The following is the first in a series of posts by TOTM guests and authors on the FTC v. Qualcomm case, currently awaiting decision by Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California. The entire series of posts is available here. This post originally appeared on the Federalist Society Blog.]

Just days before leaving office, the outgoing Obama FTC left what should have been an unwelcome parting gift for the incoming Commission: an antitrust suit against Qualcomm. This week the FTC — under a new Chairman and with an entirely new set of Commissioners — finished unwrapping its present, and rested its case in the trial begun earlier this month in FTC v Qualcomm.

This complex case is about an overreaching federal agency seeking to set prices and dictate the business model of one of the world’s most innovative technology companies. As soon-to-be Acting FTC Chairwoman, Maureen Ohlhausen, noted in her dissent from the FTC’s decision to bring the case, it is “an enforcement action based on a flawed legal theory… that lacks economic and evidentiary support…, and that, by its mere issuance, will undermine U.S. intellectual property rights… worldwide.”

Implicit in the FTC’s case is the assumption that Qualcomm charges smartphone makers “too much” for its wireless communications patents — patents that are essential to many smartphones. But, as former FTC and DOJ chief economist, Luke Froeb, puts it, “[n]othing is more alien to antitrust than enquiring into the reasonableness of prices.” Even if Qualcomm’s royalty rates could somehow be deemed “too high” (according to whom?), excessive pricing on its own is not an antitrust violation under U.S. law.

Knowing this, the FTC “dances around that essential element” (in Ohlhausen’s words) and offers instead a convoluted argument that Qualcomm’s business model is anticompetitive. Qualcomm both sells wireless communications chipsets used in mobile phones, as well as licenses the technology on which those chips rely. According to the complaint, by licensing its patents only to end-users (mobile device makers) instead of to chip makers further up the supply chain, Qualcomm is able to threaten to withhold the supply of its chipsets to its licensees and thereby extract onerous terms in its patent license agreements.

There are numerous problems with the FTC’s case. Most fundamental among them is the “no duh” problem: 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 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.

In fact, given this inescapable reality, it is unclear why the current Commission is continuing to pursue the case at all. The bottom line is that, if it wins the case, the current FTC will have done more to undermine intellectual property rights than any other administration’s Commission has been able to accomplish.

It is not difficult to identify the frailties of the case that would readily support the agency backing away from pursuing it further. To begin with, the claim that device makers cannot refuse Qualcomm’s terms because the company effectively controls the market’s supply of mobile broadband modem chips is fanciful. While it’s true that Qualcomm is the largest supplier of these chipsets, it’s an absurdity to claim that device makers have no alternatives. In fact, Qualcomm has faced stiff competition from some of the world’s other most successful companies since well before the FTC brought its case. Samsung — the largest maker of Android phones — developed its own chip to replace Qualcomm’s in 2015, for example. More recently, Intel has provided Apple with all of the chips for its 2018 iPhones, and Apple is rumored to be developing its own 5G cellular chips in-house. In any case, the fact that most device makers have preferred to use Qualcomm’s chips in the past says nothing about the ability of other firms to take business from it.

The possibility (and actuality) of entry from competitors like Intel ensures that sophisticated purchasers like Apple have bargaining leverage. Yet, ironically, the FTC points to Apple’s claimthat Qualcomm “forced” it to use Intel modems in its latest iPhones as evidence of Qualcomm’s dominance. Think about that: Qualcomm “forced” a company worth many times its own value to use a competitor’s chips in its new iPhones — and that shows Qualcomm has a stranglehold on the market?

The FTC implies that Qualcomm’s refusal to license its patents to competing chip makers means that competitors cannot reliably supply the market. Yet Qualcomm has never asserted its patents against a competing chip maker, every one of which uses Qualcomm’s technology without paying any royalties to do so. The FTC nevertheless paints the decision to license only to device makers as the aberrant choice of an exploitative, dominant firm. The reality, however, is that device-level licensing is the norm practiced by every company in the industry — and has been since the 1980s.

Not only that, but Qualcomm has not altered its licensing terms or practices since it was decidedly an upstart challenger in the market — indeed, since before it even started producing chips, and thus before it even had the supposed means to leverage its chip sales to extract anticompetitive licensing terms. It would be a remarkable coincidence if precisely the same licensing structure and the exact same royalty rate served the company’s interests both as a struggling startup and as an alleged rapacious monopolist. Yet that is the implication of the FTC’s theory.

When Qualcomm introduced CDMA technology to the mobile phone industry in 1989, it was a promising but unproven new technology in an industry dominated by different standards. Qualcomm happily encouraged chip makers to promote the standard by enabling them to produce compliant components without paying any royalties; and it willingly licensed its patents to device makers based on a percentage of sales of the handsets that incorporated CDMA chips. Qualcomm thus shared both the financial benefits and the financial risk associated with the development and sales of devices implementing its new technology.

Qualcomm’s favorable (to handset makers) licensing terms may have helped CDMA become one of the industry standards for 2G and 3G devices. But it’s an unsupportable assertion to say that those identical terms are suddenly the source of anticompetitive power, particularly as 2G and 3G are rapidly disappearing from the market and as competing patent holders gain prominence with each successive cellular technology standard.

To be sure, successful handset makers like Apple that sell their devices at a significant premium would prefer to share less of their revenue with Qualcomm. But their success was built in large part on Qualcomm’s technology. They may regret the terms of the deal that propelled CDMA technology to prominence, but Apple’s regret is not the basis of a sound antitrust case.

And although it’s unsurprising that manufacturers of premium handsets would like to use antitrust law to extract better terms from their negotiations with standard-essential patent holders, it is astonishing that the current FTC is carrying on the Obama FTC’s willingness to do it for them.

None of this means that Qualcomm is free to charge an unlimited price: standard-essential patents must be licensed on “FRAND” terms, meaning they must be fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory. It is difficult to asses what constitutes FRAND, but the most restrictive method is to estimate what negotiated terms would look like before a patent was incorporated into a standard. “[R]oyalties that are or would be negotiated ex ante with full information are a market bench-mark reflecting legitimate return to innovation,” writes Carl Shapiro, the FTC’s own economic expert in the case.

And that is precisely what happened here: We don’t have to guess what the pre-standard terms of trade would look like; we know them, because they are the same terms that Qualcomm offers now.

We don’t know exactly what the consequence would be for consumers, device makers, and competitors if Qualcomm were forced to accede to the FTC’s benighted vision of how the market should operate. But we do know that the market we actually have is thriving, with new entry at every level, enormous investment in R&D, and continuous technological advance. These aren’t generally the characteristics of a typical monopoly market. While the FTC’s effort to “fix” the market may help Apple and Samsung reap a larger share of the benefits, it will undoubtedly end up only hurting consumers.

An important but unheralded announcement was made on October 10, 2018: The European Committee for Standardization (CEN) and the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC) released a draft CEN CENELAC Workshop Agreement (CWA) on the licensing of Standard Essential Patents (SEPs) for 5G/Internet of Things (IoT) applications. The final agreement, due to be published in early 2019, is likely to have significant implications for the development and roll-out of both 5G and IoT applications.

CEN and CENELAC, which along with the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) are the officially recognized standard setting bodies in Europe, are private international non profit organizations with a widespread network consisting of technical experts from industry, public administrations, associations, academia and societal organizations. This first Workshop brought together representatives of the 5G/Internet of Things (IoT) technology user and provider communities to discuss licensing best practices and recommendations for a code of conduct for licensing of SEPs. The aim was to produce a CWA that reflects and balances the needs of both communities.

The final consensus outcome of the Workshop will be published as a CEN-CENELEC Workshop Agreement (CWA). The draft, which is available for public comments, comprises principles and guidelines that prepare a foundation for future licensing of standard essential patents for fifth generation (5G) technologies. The draft also contains a section on Q&A to help aid new implementers and patent holders.

The IoT ecosystem is likely to have over 20 billion interconnected devices by 2020 and represent a market of $17 trillion (about the same as the current GDP of the U.S.). The data collected by one device, such as a smart thermostat that learns what time the consumer is likely to be at home, can be used to increase the performance of another connected device, such as a smart fridge. Cellular technologies are a core component of the IoT ecosystem, alongside applications, devices, software etc., as they provide connectivity within the IoT system. 5G technology, in particular, is expected to play a key role in complex IoT deployments, which will transcend the usage of cellular networks from smart phones to smart home appliances, autonomous vehicles, health care facilities etc. in what has been aptly described as the fourth industrial revolution.

Indeed, the role of 5G to IoT is so significant that the proposed $117 billion takeover bid for U.S. tech giant Qualcomm by Singapore-based Broadcom was blocked by President Trump, citing national security concerns. (A letter sent by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US suggested that Broadcom might starve Qualcomm of investment, preventing it from competing effectively against foreign competitors–implicitly those in China.)

While commercial roll-out of 5G technology has not yet fully begun, several efforts are being made by innovator companies, standard setting bodies and governments to maximize the benefits from such deployment.

The draft CWA Guidelines (hereinafter “the guidelines”) are consistent with some of the recent jurisprudence on SEPs on various issues. While there is relatively less guidance specifically in relation to 5G SEPs, it provides clarifications on several aspects of SEP licensing which will be useful, particularly, the negotiating process and conduct of both parties.

The guidelines contain 6 principles followed by some questions pertaining to SEP licensing. The principles deal with:

  1. The obligation of SEP holders to license the SEPs on Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) terms;
  2. The obligation on both parties to conduct negotiations in good faith;
  3. The obligation of both parties to provide necessary information (subject to confidentiality) to facilitate timely conclusion of the licensing negotiation;
  4. Compensation that is “fair and reasonable” and achieves the right balance between incentives to contribute technology and the cost of accessing that technology;
  5. A non-discriminatory obligation on the SEP holder for similarly situated licensees even though they don’t need to be identical; and
  6. Recourse to a third party FRAND determination either by court or arbitration if the negotiations fail to conclude in a timely manner.

There are 22 questions and answers, as well, which define basic terms and touch on issues such as: what amounts as good faith conduct of negotiating parties, global portfolio licensing, FRAND royalty rates, patent pooling, dispute resolution, injunctions, and other issues relevant to FRAND licensing policy in general.

Below are some significant contributions that the draft report makes on issues such as the supply chain level at which licensing is best done, treatment of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), non disclosure agreements, good faith negotiations and alternative dispute resolution.

Typically in the IoT ecosystem, many technologies will be adopted of which several will be standardized. The guidelines offer help to product and service developers in this regard and suggest that one may need to obtain licenses from SEP owners for product or services incorporating communications technology like 3G UMTS, 4G LTE, Wi-Fi, NB-IoT, 31 Cat-M or video codecs such as H.264. The guidelines, however, clarify that with the deployment of IoT, licenses for several other standards may be needed and developers should be mindful of these complexities when starting out in order to avoid potential infringements.

Notably, the guidelines suggest that in order to simplify licensing, reduce costs for all parties and maintain a level playing field between licensees, SEP holders should license at one level. While this may vary between different industries, for communications technology, the licensing point is often at the end-user equipment level. There has been a fair bit of debate on this issue and the recent order by Judge Koh granting FTC’s partial summary motion deals with some of this.

In the judgment delivered on November 6, Judge Koh relied primarily on the 9th circuit decisions in Microsoft v Motorola (2012 and 2015)  to rule on the core issue of the scope of the FRAND commitments–specifically on the question of whether licensing extends to all levels or is confined to the end device level. The court interpreted the pro- competitive principles behind the non-discrimination requirement to mean that such commitments are “sweeping” and essentially that an SEP holder has to license to anyone willing to offer a FRAND rate globally. It also cited Ericsson v D-Link, where the Federal Circuit held that “compliant devices necessarily infringe certain claims in patents that cover technology incorporated into the standard and so practice of the standard is impossible without licenses to all incorporated SEP technology.”

The guidelines speak about the importance of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in such licensing agreements given that some of the information exchanged between parties during negotiation, such as claim charts etc., may be sensitive and confidential. Therefore, an undue delay in agreeing to an NDA, without well-founded reasons, might be taken as evidence of a lack of good faith in negotiations rendering such a licensee as unwilling.

They also provide quite a boost for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in licensing negotiations by addressing the duty of SEP owners to be mindful of SMEs that may be less experienced and therefore lack information from which to draw assurance that proposed terms are FRAND. The guidelines provide that SEP owners should provide whatever information they can under NDA to help the negotiation process. Equally, the same obligation applies on a licensee who is more experienced in dealing with a SEP owner who is an SME.

There is some clarity on time frames for negotiations and the guidelines provide a maximum time that parties should take to respond to offers and counter offers, which could extend up to several months in complex cases involving hundreds of patents. The guidelines also prescribe conduct of potential licensees on receiving an offer and how to make counter-offers in a timely manner.

Furthermore, the guidelines lay down the various ways in which royalty rates may be structured and clarify that there is no one fixed way in which this may be done. Similarly, they offer myriad ways in which potential licensees may be able to determine for themselves if the rates offered to them are fair and reasonable, such as third party patent landscape reports, public announcements, expert advice etc.

Finally, in the case that a negotiation reaches an impasse, the guidelines endorse an alternative dispute mechanism such as mediation or arbitration for the parties to resolve the issue. Bodies such as International Chamber of Commerce and World Intellectual Property Organization may provide useful platforms in this regard.

Almost 20 years have passed since technology pioneer Kevin Ashton first coined the phrase Internet of Things. While companies are gearing up to participate in the market of IoT, regulation and policy in the IoT world seems far from a predictable framework to follow. There are a lot of guesses about how rules and standards are likely to shape up, with little or no guidance for companies on how to prepare themselves for what faces them very soon. Therefore concrete efforts such as these are rather welcome. The draft guidelines do attempt to offer some much needed clarity and are now open for public comments due by December 13. It will be good to see what the final CWA report on licensing of SEPs for 5G and IoT looks like.

 

Last week, the UK Court of Appeal upheld the findings of the High Court in an important case regarding standard essential patents (SEPs). Of particular significance, the Court of Appeal upheld the finding that the defendant, an implementer of SEPs, could have the sale of its products enjoined in the UK unless it enters into a global licensing deal on terms deemed by the court to be fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND). The case is noteworthy not least because the threat of an injunction of this sort has become increasingly rare in other jurisdictions, arguably resulting in an imbalance in bargaining power between patent holders and implementers.

The case concerned patents held by Unwired Planet (most of which had been purchased from Ericsson) that it had declared to be essential to the operation of various telecommunications standards. Chinese telecom giant Huawei had incorporated these patented technologies in its products but disputed the legitimacy of Unwired Planet’s (UP) patents and refused to license them on the terms that were offered.

By way of a background to the case, in March 2014, UP resorted to suing Huawei, Samsung and Google and claiming an injunction when it found it hard to secure licenses. After the commencement of proceedings, UP made licence offers to the defendants. It made offers in April and July 2014 respectively and during the proceedings, including a worldwide SEP portfolio licence, a UK SEP portfolio licence and per-patent licences for any of the SEPs in suit. The defendants argued that the offers were not FRAND. Huawei and Samsung also contended that the offers were in breach of European competition law. UP  settled with Google. Three technical trials of the patents began and UP was able to show that at least two of the patents sued upon were valid and essential and had been infringed. Subsequently, Samsung secured a settlement (at a rate below the market rate) and the FRAND trial went ahead with just Huawei.

Judge Birss delivered the High Court order on April 5, 2017. He held that UP’s patents were valid and infringed and it did not abuse its dominant position by requesting an injunction. He ordered a FRAND injunction that was stayed pending appeal against the two patents that had been infringed. The injunction was subject to a number of conditions which are applied because the case was dealing with patents subject to a FRAND undertaking. It will cease to have effect if Huawei enters into the FRAND license determined by the Court. He also observed that the parties can return for further determination when such license expires. Furthermore, it was held that there was one set of FRAND terms and that the scope of this FRAND was world wide.

The UK Court of Appeal (the bench consisting of Lord Justice Kitchin, Lord Justice Floyd, Lady Justice Asplin) in handing down a 291 paragraph, 66 page judgment dealing with Huawei’s appeal, upheld Birss’ findings. The centrality of Huawei’s appeal focused on the global nature of the FRAND license and the non-discrimination undertaking of UP’s FRAND commitments. Some significant findings of the Court of Appeal are briefly provided below.

The Court of Appeal in upholding Birss’ decision noted that it was unfair to say that UP is using the threat of an injunction to leverage Huawei into taking a global license, and that Huawei had the option to take the global license or submit to an injunction in the UK. Drawing attention to the potential complexities in a FRAND negotiation, the Court observed:

..The owner of a SEP may still use the threat of an injunction to try to secure the payment of excessive licence fees and so engage in hold-up activities. Conversely, the infringer may refuse to engage constructively or behave unreasonably in the negotiation process and so avoid paying the licence fees to which the SEP owner is properly entitled, a process known as “hold-out”.

Furthermore, Huawei argues that imposition of a global license on terms set by a national court based on a national finding of infringement is wrong in principle. It also states that there is currently an ongoing patent litigation in both Germany and China and that there are some countries where UP holds “no relevant” patents at all.

In response to these contentions, the Court of Appeal has held that it may be highly impractical for a SEP owner to seek to negotiate a license of its patent rights in each country and rejected the submission made by Huawei that the approach adopted by Birss in these proceedings is out of line with the territorial nature of patent litigations. It clarified that Birss did not adjudicate on issues of infringement or validity concerning foreign SEPs and did not usurp the rights of foreign courts. It further observed that such an approach of Birss  is consistent with the Council and the European Economic and Social Committee dated 29 November 2017 (COM (2017) 712 final) (“the November 2017 EU Communication”) which notes in section 2.4:

For products with a global circulation, SEP licences granted on a worldwide basis may contribute to a more efficient approach and therefore can be compatible with FRAND.

The Court of Appeal however disagreed with Birss on the issue that there was only one set of FRAND terms. This view of the bench certainly comes as a relief since it seems to appropriately reflect the practical realities of a FRAND negotiation. The Court held:

Patent licences are complex and, having regard to the commercial priorities of the participating undertakings and the experience and preferences of the individuals involved, may be structured in different ways in terms of, for example, the particular contracting parties, the rights to be included in the licence, the geographical scope of the licence, the products to be licensed, royalty rates and how they are to be assessed, and payment terms. Further, concepts such as fairness and reasonableness do not sit easily with such a rigid approach.

Similarly, on the non- discrimination prong of FRAND, the Court of Appeal agreed with Birss that it was not “hard-edged” and the test is whether such difference in rates distorts competition between the licensees. It also noted that the “hard-edged” interpretation would be “akin to the re-insertion of a “most favoured licensee” clause in the FRAND undertaking” which does not seem to be what the standards body, European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) had in mind when it formulated its policies. The Court also held :

We consider that a non-discrimination rule has the potential to harm the technological development of standards if it has the effect of compelling the SEP owner to accept a level of compensation for the use of its invention which does not reflect the value of the licensed technology.

Finally, the Court of Appeal held that UP did not abuse its dominant position just because it failed to strictly comply with the safe harbor framework laid down by Court of Justice of the European Union in Huawei v. ZTE. The only requirement that must be satisfied before proceedings are commenced by the SEP holder is that the SEP holder give sufficient notice to or consult with the implementer.

The Court of Appeal’s decision offers some significant guidance to the emerging policy debate on FRAND. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the decision is significant particularly for the reason that UP is one of a total of two cases in the last two years, where an injunctive relief has been granted in instances involving standard essential patents. Such reliefs have been rarely granted in years in the first place. The second such instance of a grant of injunction pertains to Huawei v. Samsung where the Shenzhen Court in China held earlier this year that Huawei met the FRAND obligation while Samsung did not (negotiations were dragged on for 6 years). An injunction was granted against Samsung for infringing two of Huawei’s Chinese patents which are counterparts of two U.S. asserted patents (however Judge Orrick of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California enjoined Huawei from enforcing the injunction).

Current jurisprudence on injunctive relief with respect to FRAND encumbered SEPs is that there is no per se ban on these reliefs. However, courts have been very reluctant to actually grant them. While injunctions are statutory remedies, and granted automatically in most cases when a patent is found to be infringed, administrative agencies and courts have held a position that shows that FRAND commitments certainly limit this premise.

Following the eBay decision in the U.S., defendants in infringement claims involving SEPs have argued that permanent injunctions should not be available for FRAND-encumbered SEPs and were upheld in cases such as Apple v. Motorola in 2014 (where Judge Randall Radar also makes a sound case for evidence of a hold out by Apple in his dissenting order). However, in an institutional bargaining framework of FRAND, which is based on a mutuality of considerations, such a recourse is misplaced and likely to inevitably disturb this balance. The current narrative on FRAND that dominates policymaking and jurisprudence is incomplete in its unilateral focus of avoiding the possible problem of a patent hold up in the absence of concrete evidence indicating its probability. In Ericsson v D-Links Judge Davis of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit underscored this point when he observed that “if an accused infringer wants an instruction on patent hold-up and royalty stacking [to be given to the jury], it must provide evidence on the record of patent hold-up and royalty stacking.”

Remedies emanating from a one sided perspective tilt the bargaining dynamic in favour of implementers and if the worst penalty a SEP infringer has to pay is the FRAND royalty it would have otherwise paid beforehand, then a hold out or a reverse hold up by implementers becomes a very profitable strategy. Remedies for patent infringement cannot be ignored because they are also core to the framework for licensing negotiations and ensuring compliance by licensees. A disproportionate reliance on liability rules over property rights is likely to exacerbate the countervailing problem of hold out and detrimentally impact incentives to innovate, ultimately undermining the welfare goals that such enforcement seeks to achieve.

The Court of Appeal has therefore given valuable guidance in its decision when it noted:

Just as implementers need protection, so too do the SEP owners. They are entitled to an appropriate reward for carrying out their research and development activities and for engaging with the standardization process, and they must be able to prevent technology users from free-riding on their innovations. It is therefore important that implementers engage constructively in any FRAND negotiation and, where necessary, agree to submit to the outcome of an appropriate FRAND determination.

Hopefully this order brings with it some balance in FRAND negotiations as well as a shift in the perspective of courts in how they adjudicate on these litigations. It underscores an oft forgotten principle that is core to the FRAND framework- that FRAND is a two-way street, as was observed in the celebrated case of Huawei v. ZTE in 2015.

On Monday, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Qualcomm reportedly requested a 30 day delay to a preliminary ruling in their ongoing dispute over the terms of Qualcomm’s licensing agreements–indicating that they may seek a settlement. The dispute raises important issues regarding the scope of so-called FRAND (“fair reasonable and non-discriminatory”) commitments in the context of standards setting bodies and whether these obligations extend to component level licensing in the absence of an express agreement to do so.

At issue is the FTC’s allegation that Qualcomm has been engaging in “exclusionary conduct” that harms its competitors. Underpinning this allegation is the FTC’s claim that Qualcomm’s voluntary contracts with two American standards bodies imply that Qualcomm is obliged to license on the same terms to rival chip makers. In this post, we examine the allegation and the claim upon which it rests.

The recently requested delay relates to a motion for partial summary judgment filed by the FTC on August 30, 2018–about which more below. But the dispute itself stretches back to January 17, 2017, when the FTC filed for a permanent injunction against Qualcomm Inc. for engaging in unfair methods of competition in violation of Section 5(a) of the FTC Act. FTC’s major claims against Qualcomm were as follows:

  • It has been engaging in “exclusionary conduct”  that taxes its competitors’ baseband processor sales, reduces competitors’ ability and incentives to innovate, and raises the prices to be paid by end consumers for cellphones and tablets.  
  • Qualcomm is causing considerable harm to competition and consumers through its “no license, no chips” policy; its refusal to license to its chipset-maker rivals; and its exclusive deals with Apple.
  • The above practices allow Qualcomm to abuse its dominant position in the supply of CDMA and premium LTE modem chips.
  • Given that Qualcomm has made a commitment to standard setting bodies to license these patents on FRAND terms, such behaviour qualifies as a breach of FRAND.

The complaint was filed on the eve of the new presidential administration, when only three of the five commissioners were in place. Moreover, the Commissioners were not unanimous. Commissioner Ohlhausen delivered a dissenting statement in which she argued:

[T]here is no robust economic evidence of exclusion and anticompetitive effects, either as to the complaint’s core “taxation” theory or to associated allegations like exclusive dealing. Instead the Commission speaks about a possibility that less than supports a vague standalone action under a Section 5 FTC claim.

Qualcomm filed a motion to dismiss on April 3, 2017. This was denied by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The court  found that the FTC has adequately alleged that Qualcomm’s conduct violates § 1 and § 2 of the Sherman Act and that it had entered into exclusive dealing arrangements with Apple. Thus, the court asserted, the FTC has adequately stated a claim under § 5 of the FTCA.

It is important to note that the core of the FTC’s arguments regarding Qualcomm’s abuse of dominant position rests on how it adopts the “no license, no chip” policy and thus breaches its FRAND obligations. However, it falls short of proving how the royalties charged by Qualcomm to OEMs exceeds the FRAND rates actually amounting to a breach, and qualifies as what FTC defines as a “tax” under the price squeeze theory that it puts forth.

(The Court did not go into whether there was a violation of § 5 of the FTC independent of a Sherman Act violation. Had it done so, this would have added more clarity to Section 5 claims, which are increasingly being invoked in antitrust cases even though its scope remains quite amorphous.)

On August 30, the FTC filed a partial summary judgement motion in relation to claims on the applicability of local California contract laws. This would leave antitrust issues to be decided in the subsequent hearing, which is set for January next year.

In a well-reasoned submission, the FTC asserts that Qualcomm is bound by voluntary agreements that it signed with two U.S. based standards development organisations (SDOs):

  1. The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) and
  2. The Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS).

These agreements extend to Qualcomm’s standard essential patents (SEPs) on CDMA, UMTS and LTE wireless technologies. Under these contracts, Qualcomm is obligated to license its SEPs to all applicants implementing these standards on FRAND terms.

The FTC asserts that this obligation should be interpreted to extend to Qualcomm’s rival modem chip manufacturers and sellers. It requests the Court to therefore grant a summary judgment since there are no disputed facts on such obligation. It submits that this should “streamline the trial by obviating the need for  extrinsic evidence regarding the meaning of Qualcomm’s commitments on the requirement to license to competitors, to ETSI, a third SDO.”

A review of a heavily redacted filing by FTC and a subsequent response by Qualcomm indicates that questions of fact and law continue to remain as regards Qualcomm’s licensing commitments and their scope. Thus, contrary to the FTC’s assertions, extrinsic evidence is still needed for resolution to some of the questions raised by the parties.

Indeed, the evidence produced by both parties points towards the need for resolution of ambiguities in the contractual agreements that Qualcomm has signed with ATIS and TIA. The scope and purpose of these licensing obligations lie at the core of the motion.

The IP licensing policies of the two SDOs provide for licensing of relevant patents to all applicants who implement these standards on FRAND terms. However, the key issues are whether components such as modem chips can be said to implement standards and whether component level licensing falls within this ambit. Yet, the resolution to these key issues, is unclear.

Qualcomm explains that commitments to ATIS and TIA do not require licenses to be made available for modem chips because modem chips do not implement or practice cellular standards and that standards do not define the operation of modem chips.

In contrast, the complaint by FTC raises the question of whether FRAND commitments extend to licensing at all levels. Different components needed for a device come together to facilitate the adoption and implementation of a standard. However, it does not logically follow that each individual component of the device separately practices or implements that standard even though it contributes to the implementation. While a single component may fully implement a standard, this need not always be the case.

These distinctions are significant from the point of interpreting the scope of the FRAND promise, which is commonly understood to extend to licensing of technologies incorporated in a standard to potential users of the standard. Understanding the meaning of a “user” becomes critical here and Qualcomm’s submission draws attention to this.

An important factor in the determination of a “user” of a particular standard is the extent to which the standard is practiced or implemented therein. Some standards development organisations (SDOs) have addressed this in their policies by clarifying that FRAND obligations extend to those “wholly compliant” or “fully conforming” to the specific standards. Clause 6.1 of the ETSI IPR Policy, clarifies that a patent holder’s obligation to make licenses available is limited to “methods” and “equipments”. It defines an equipment as “a system or device fully conforming to a standard.” And methods as “any method or operation fully conforming to a standard.”

It is noteworthy that the American National Standards Institute’s (ANSI) Executive Standards Council Appeals Panel in a decision has said that there is no agreement on the definition of the phrase “wholly compliant implementation.”  

Device level licensing is the prevailing industry wide practice by companies like Ericsson, InterDigital, Nokia and others. In November 2017, the European Commission issued guidelines on licensing of SEPs and took a balanced approach on this issue by not prescribing component level licensing in its guidelines.

The former director general of ETSI, Karl Rosenbrock, adopts a contrary view, explaining ETSI’s policy, “allows every company that requests a license to obtain one, regardless of where the prospective licensee is in the chain of production and regardless of whether the prospective licensee is active upstream or downstream.”

Dr. Bertram Huber, a legal expert who personally participated in the drafting of the IPR policy of ETSI, wrote a response to Rosenbrock, in which he explains that ETSI’s IPR policies required licensing obligations for systems “fully conforming” to the standard:

[O]nce a commitment is given to license on FRAND terms, it does not necessarily extend to chipsets and other electronic components of standards-compliant end-devices. He highlights how, in adopting its IPR Policy, ETSI intended to safeguard access to the cellular standards without changing the prevailing industry practice of manufacturers of complete end-devices concluding licenses to the standard essential patents practiced in those end-devices.

Both ATIS and TIA are organizational partners of a collaboration called 3rd Generation Partnership Project along with ETSI and four other SDOs who work on development of cellular technologies. TIA and ATIS are both accredited by ANSI. Therefore, these SDOs are likely to impact one another with the policies each one adopts. In the absence of definitive guidance on interpretation of the IPR policy and contractual terms within the institutional mechanism of ATIS and TIA, at the very least, clarity is needed on the ambit of these policies with respect to component level licensing.

The non-discrimination obligation, which as per FTC, mandates Qualcomm to license to its competitors who manufacture and sell chips, would be limited by the scope of the IPR policy and contractual agreements that bind Qualcomm and depends upon the specific SDO’s policy.  As discussed, the policies of ATIS and TIA are unclear on this.

In conclusion, FTC’s filing does not obviate the need to hear extrinsic evidence on what Qualcomm’s commitments to the ETSI mean. Given the ambiguities in the policies and agreements of ATIS and TIA on whether they include component level licensing or whether the modem chips in their entirety can be said to practice the standard, it would be incorrect to say that there is no genuine dispute of fact (and law) in this instance.

According to Cory Doctorow over at Boing Boing, Tim Wu has written an open letter to W3C Chairman Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, expressing concern about a proposal to include Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) as part of the W3C standards. W3C has a helpful description of EME:

Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) is currently a draft specification… [for] an Application Programming Interface (API) that enables Web applications to interact with content protection systems to allow playback of encrypted audio and video on the Web. The EME specification enables communication between Web browsers and digital rights management (DRM) agent software to allow HTML5 video play back of DRM-wrapped content such as streaming video services without third-party media plugins. This specification does not create nor impose a content protection or Digital Rights Management system. Rather, it defines a common API that may be used to discover, select and interact with such systems as well as with simpler content encryption systems.

Wu’s letter expresses his concern about hardwiring DRM into the technical standards supporting an open internet. He writes:

I wanted to write to you and respectfully ask you to seriously consider extending a protective covenant to legitimate circumventers who have cause to bypass EME, should it emerge as a W3C standard.

Wu asserts that this “protective covenant” is needed because, without it, EME will confer too much power on internet “chokepoints”:

The question is whether the W3C standard with an embedded DRM standard, EME, becomes a tool for suppressing competition in ways not expected…. Control of chokepoints has always and will always be a fundamental challenge facing the Internet as we both know… It is not hard to recall how close Microsoft came, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, to gaining de facto control over the future of the web (and, frankly, the future) in its effort to gain an unsupervised monopoly over the browser market.”

But conflating the Microsoft case with a relatively simple browser feature meant to enable all content providers to use any third-party DRM to secure their content — in other words, to enhance interoperability — is beyond the pale. If we take the Microsoft case as Wu would like, it was about one firm controlling, far and away, the largest share of desktop computing installations, a position that Wu and his fellow travelers believed gave Microsoft an unreasonable leg up in forcing usage of Internet Explorer to the exclusion of Netscape. With EME, the W3C is not maneuvering the standard so that a single DRM provider comes to protect all content on the web, or could even hope to do so. EME enables content distributors to stream content through browsers using their own DRM backend. There is simply nothing in that standard that enables a firm to dominate content distribution or control huge swaths of the Internet to the exclusion of competitors.

Unless, of course, you just don’t like DRM and you think that any technology that enables content producers to impose restrictions on consumption of media creates a “chokepoint.” But, again, this position is borderline nonsense. Such a “chokepoint” is no more restrictive than just going to Netflix’s app (or Hulu’s, or HBO’s, or Xfinity’s, or…) and relying on its technology. And while it is no more onerous than visiting Netflix’s app, it creates greater security on the open web such that copyright owners don’t need to resort to proprietary technologies and apps for distribution. And, more fundamentally, Wu’s position ignores the role that access and usage controls are playing in creating online markets through diversified product offerings

Wu appears to believe, or would have his readers believe, that W3C is considering the adoption of a mandatory standard that would modify core aspects of the network architecture, and that therefore presents novel challenges to the operation of the internet. But this is wrong in two key respects:

  1. Except in the extremely limited manner as described below by the W3C, the EME extension does not contain mandates, and is designed only to simplify the user experience in accessing content that would otherwise require plug-ins; and
  2. These extensions are already incorporated into the major browsers. And of course, most importantly for present purposes, the standard in no way defines or harmonizes the use of DRM.

The W3C has clearly and succinctly explained the operation of the proposed extension:

The W3C is not creating DRM policies and it is not requiring that HTML use DRM. Organizations choose whether or not to have DRM on their content. The EME API can facilitate communication between browsers and DRM providers but the only mandate is not DRM but a form of key encryption (Clear Key). EME allows a method of playback of encrypted content on the Web but W3C does not make the DRM technology nor require it. EME is an extension. It is not required for HTML nor HMTL5 video.

Like many internet commentators, Tim Wu fundamentally doesn’t like DRM, and his position here would appear to reflect his aversion to DRM rather than a response to the specific issues before the W3C. Interestingly, in arguing against DRM nearly a decade ago, Wu wrote:

Finally, a successful locking strategy also requires intense cooperation between many actors – if you protect a song with “superlock,” and my CD player doesn’t understand that, you’ve just created a dead product. (Emphasis added)

In other words, he understood the need for agreements in vertical distribution chains in order to properly implement protection schemes — integration that he opposes here (not to suggest that he supported them then, but only to highlight the disconnect between recognizing the need for coordination and simultaneously trying to prevent it).

Vint Cerf (himself no great fan of DRM — see here, for example) has offered a number of thoughtful responses to those, like Wu, who have objected to the proposed standard. Cerf writes on the ISOC listserv:

EMEi is plainly very general. It can be used to limit access to virtually any digital content, regardless of IPR status. But, in some sense, anyone wishing to restrict access to some service/content is free to do so (there are other means such as login access control, end/end encryption such as TLS or IPSEC or QUIC). EME is yet another method for doing that. Just because some content is public domain does not mean that every use of it must be unprotected, does it?

And later in the thread he writes:

Just because something is public domain does not mean someone can’t lock it up. Presumably there will be other sources that are not locked. I can lock up my copy of Gulliver’s Travels and deny you access except by some payment, but if it is public domain someone else may have a copy you can get. In any case, you can’t deny others the use of the content IF THEY HAVE IT. You don’t have to share your copy of public domain with anyone if you don’t want to.

Just so. It’s pretty hard to see the competition problems that could arise from facilitating more content providers making content available on the open web.

In short, Wu wants the W3C to develop limitations on rules when there are no relevant rules to modify. His dislike of DRM obscures his vision of the limited nature of the EME proposal which would largely track, rather than lead, the actions already being undertaken by the principal commercial actors on the internet, and which merely creates a structure for facilitating voluntary commercial transactions in ways that enhance the user experience.

The W3C process will not, as Wu intimates, introduce some pernicious, default protection system that would inadvertently lock down content; rather, it would encourage the development of digital markets on the open net rather than (or in addition to) through the proprietary, vertical markets where they are increasingly found today. Wu obscures reality rather than illuminating it through his poorly considered suggestion that EME will somehow lead to a new set of defaults that threaten core freedoms.

Finally, we can’t help but comment on Wu’s observation that

My larger point is that I think the history of the anti-circumvention laws suggests is (sic) hard to predict how [freedom would be affected]– no one quite predicted the inkjet market would be affected. But given the power of those laws, the potential for anti-competitive consequences certainly exists.

Let’s put aside the fact that W3C is not debating the laws surrounding circumvention, nor, as noted, developing usage rules. It remains troubling that Wu’s belief there are sometimes unintended consequences of actions (and therefore a potential for harm) would be sufficient to lead him to oppose a change to the status quo — as if any future, potential risk necessarily outweighs present, known harms. This is the Precautionary Principle on steroids. The EME proposal grew out of a desire to address impediments that prevent the viability and growth of online markets that sufficiently ameliorate the non-hypothetical harms of unauthorized uses. The EME proposal is a modest step towards addressing a known universe. A small step, but something to celebrate, not bemoan.