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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.

On Tuesday, August 28, 2018, Truth on the Market and the International Center for Law and Economics presented a blog symposium — Is Amazon’s Appetite Bottomless? The Whole Foods Merger After One Year — that looked at the concerns surrounding the closing of the Amazon-Whole Foods merger, and how those concerns had played out over the last year.

The difficulty presented by the merger was, in some ways, its lack of difficulty: Even critics, while hearkening back to the Brandeisian fear of large firms, had little by way of legal objection to offer against the merger. Despite the acknowledged lack of an obvious legal basis for challenging the merger, most critics nevertheless expressed a somewhat inchoate and generalized concern that the merger would hasten the death of brick-and-mortar retail and imperil competition in the grocery industry. Critics further pointed to particular, related issues largely outside the scope of modern antitrust law — issues relating to the presumed effects of the merger on “localism” (i.e., small, local competitors), retail workers, startups with ancillary businesses (e.g., delivery services), data collection and use, and the like.

Steven Horwitz opened the symposium with an insightful and highly recommended post detailing the development of the grocery industry from its inception. Tracing through that history, Horwitz was optimistic that

Viewed from the long history of the evolution of the grocery store, the Amazon-Whole Foods merger made sense as the start of the next stage of that historical process. The combination of increased wealth that is driving the demand for upscale grocery stores, and the corresponding increase in the value of people’s time that is driving the demand for one-stop shopping and various forms of pick-up and delivery, makes clear the potential benefits of this merger.

Others in the symposium similarly acknowledged the potential transformation of the industry brought on by the merger, but challenged the critics’ despairing characterization of that transformation (Auer, Manne & Stout, Rinehart, Fruits, Atkinson).

At the most basic level, it was noted that, in the immediate aftermath of the merger, Whole Foods dropped prices across a number of categories as it sought to shore up its competitive position (Auer). Further, under relevant antitrust metrics — e.g., market share, ease of competitive entry, potential for exclusionary conduct — the merger was completely unobjectionable under existing doctrine (Fruits).

To critics’ claims that Amazon in general, and the merger in particular, was decimating the retail industry, several posts discussed the updated evidence suggesting that retail is not actually on the decline (although some individual retailers are certainly struggling to compete) (Auer, Manne & Stout). Moreover, and following from Horwitz’s account of the evolution of the grocery industry, it appears that the actual trajectory of the industry is not an either/or between online and offline, but instead a movement toward integrating both models into a single retail experience (Manne & Stout). Further, the post-merger flurry of business model innovation, venture capital investment, and new startup activity demonstrates that, confronted with entrepreneurial competitors like Walmart, Kroger, Aldi, and Instacart, Amazon’s impressive position online has not translated into an automatic domination of the traditional grocery industry (Manne & Stout).  

Symposium participants more circumspect about the merger suggested that Amazon’s behavior may be laying the groundwork for an eventual monopsony case (Sagers). Further, it was suggested, a future Section 2 case, difficult under prevailing antitrust orthodoxy, could be brought with a creative approach to market definition in light of Amazon’s conduct with its marketplace participants, its aggressive ebook contracting practices, and its development and roll-out of its own private label brands (Sagers).

Skeptics also picked up on early critics’ concerns about the aggregation of large amounts of consumer data, and worried that the merger could be part of a pattern representing a real, long-term threat to consumers that antitrust does not take seriously enough (Bona & Levitsky). Sounding a further alarm, Hal Singer noted that Amazon’s interest in pushing into new markets with data generated by, for example, devices like its Echo line could bolster its ability to exclude competitors.

More fundamentally, these contributors echoed the merger critics’ concerns that antitrust does not adequately take account of other values such as “promoting local, community-based, organic food production or ‘small firms’ in general.” (Bona & Levitsky; Singer).

Rob Atkinson, however, pointed out that these values are idiosyncratic and not likely shared by the vast majority of the population — and that antitrust law shouldn’t have anything to do with them:

In short, most of the opposition to Amazon/Whole Foods merger had little or nothing to do with economics and consumer welfare. It had everything to do with a competing vision for the kind of society we want to live in. The neo-Brandesian opponents, who Lind and I term “progressive localists”, seek an alternative economy predominantly made up of small firms, supported by big government and protected from global competition.

And Dirk Auer noted that early critics’ prophecies of foreclosure of competition through “data leveraging” and below-cost pricing hadn’t remotely come to pass, thus far.

Meanwhile, other contributors noted the paucity of evidence supporting many of these assertions, and pointed out the manifest value the merger seemed to be creating by pressuring competitors to adapt and better respond to consumers’ preferences (Horwitz, Rinehart, Auer, Fruits, Manne & Stout) — in the process shoring up, rather than killing, even smaller retailers that are willing and able to evolve with changing technology and shifting consumer preferences. “For all the talk of retail dying, the stores that are actually dying are the ones that fail to cater to their customers, not the ones that happen to be offline” (Manne & Stout).

At the same time, not all merger skeptics were moved by the Neo-Brandeisian assertions. Chris Sagers, for example, finds much of the populist antitrust objection more public relations than substance. He suggested perhaps not taking these ideas and their promoters so seriously, and instead focusing on antitrust advocates with “real ideas” (like Sagers himself, of course).

Coming from a different angle, Will Rinehart also suggested not taking the criticisms too seriously, pointing to the evolving and complicated effects of the merger as Exhibit A for the need for regulatory humility:

Finally, this deal reiterates the need for regulatory humility. Almost immediately after the Amazon-Whole Foods merger was closed, prices at the store dropped and competitors struck a flurry of deals. Investments continue and many in the grocery retail space are bracing for a wave of enhancement to take hold. Even some of the most fierce critics of deal will have to admit there is a lot of uncertainty. It is unclear what business model will make the most sense in the long run, how these technologies will ultimately become embedded into production processes, and how consumers will benefit. Combined, these features underscore the difficulty, but the necessity, in implementing dynamic insights into antitrust institutions.

Offering generous praise for this symposium (thanks, Will!) and echoing the points made by other participants regarding the dynamic and unknowable course of competition (Auer, Horwitz, Manne & Stout, Fruits), Rinehart concludes:

Retrospectives like this symposium offer a chance to understand what the discussion missed at the time and what is needed to better understand innovation and competition in markets. While it might be too soon to close the book on this case, the impact can already be felt in the positions others are taking in response. In the end, the deal probably won’t be remembered for extending Amazon’s dominance into another market because that is a phantom concern. Rather, it will probably be best remembered as the spark that drove traditional retail outlets to modernize their logistics and fulfillment efforts.  

For a complete rundown of the arguments both for and against, the full archive of symposium posts from our outstanding and diverse group of scholars, practitioners, and other experts is available at this link, and individual posts can be easily accessed by clicking on the authors’ names below.

We’d like to thank all of the participants for their excellent contributions!

 

What actually happened in the year following the merger is nearly the opposite: Competition among grocery stores has been more fierce than ever. “Offline” retailers are expanding — and innovating — to meet Amazon’s challenge, and many of them are booming. Disruption is never neat and tidy, but, in addition to saving Whole Foods from potential oblivion, the merger seems to have lit a fire under the rest of the industry.
This result should not be surprising to anyone who understands the nature of the competitive process. But it does highlight an important lesson: competition often comes from unexpected quarters and evolves in unpredictable ways, emerging precisely out of the kinds of adversity opponents of the merger bemoaned.

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So why this deal, in this symposium, and why now? The best substantive reason I could think of is admittedly one that I personally find important. As I said, I think we should take it much more seriously as a general matter, especially in highly dynamic contexts like Silicon Valley. There has been a history of arguably pre-emptive, market-occupying vertical and conglomerate acquisitions, by big firms of smaller ones that are technologically or otherwise disruptive. The idea is that the big firms sit back and wait as some new market develops in some adjacent sector. When that new market ripens to the point of real promise, the big firm buys some significant incumbent player. The aim is not. just to facilitate its own benevolent, wholesome entry, but to set up hopefully prohibitive challenges to other de novo entrants. Love it or leave it, that theory plausibly characterizes lots and lots of acquisitions in recent decades that secured easy antitrust approval, precisely because they weren’t obviously, presently horizontal. Many people think that is true of some of Amazon’s many acquisitions, like its notoriously aggressive, near-hostile takeover of Diapers.com.

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Amazon offers Prime discounts to Whole Food customers and offers free delivery for Prime members. Those are certainly consumer benefits. But with those comes a cost, which may or may not be significant. By bundling its products with collective discounts, Amazon makes it more attractive for shoppers to shift their buying practices from local stores to the internet giant. Will this eventually mean that local stores will become more inefficient, based on lower volume, and will eventually close? Do most Americans care about the potential loss of local supermarkets and specialty grocers? No one, including antitrust enforcers, seems to have asked them.

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The gist of these arguments is simple. The Amazon / Whole Foods merger would lead to the exclusion of competitors, with Amazon leveraging its swaths of data and pricing below costs. All of this begs a simple question: have these prophecies come to pass?

The problem with antitrust populism is not just that it leads to unfounded predictions regarding the negative effects of a given business practice. It also ignores the significant gains which consumers may reap from these practices. The Amazon / Whole foods offers a case in point.

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Even with these caveats, it’s still worth looking at the recent trends. Whole Foods’s sales since 2015 have been flat, with only low single-digit growth, according to data from Second Measure. This suggests Whole Foods is not yet getting a lift from the relationship. However, the percentage of Whole Foods’ new customers who are Prime Members increased post-merger, from 34 percent in June 2017 to 41 percent in June 2018. This suggests that Amazon’s platform is delivering customers to Whole Foods.

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The negativity that surrounded the deal at its announcement made Whole Foods seem like an innocent player, but it is important to recall that they were hemorrhaging and were looking to exit. Throughout the 2010s, the company lost its market leading edge as others began to offer the same kinds of services and products. Still, the company was able to sell near the top of its value to Amazon because it was able to court so many suitors. Given all of these features, Whole Foods could have been using the exit as a mechanism to appropriate another firm’s rent.

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Brandeis is back, with today’s neo-Brandeisians reflexively opposing virtually all mergers involving large firms. For them, industry concentration has grown to crisis proportions and breaking up big companies should be the animating goal not just of antitrust policy but of U.S. economic policy generally. The key to understanding the neo-Brandeisian opposition to the Whole Foods/Amazon mergers is that it has nothing to do with consumer welfare, and everything to do with a large firm animus. Sabeel Rahman, a Roosevelt Institute scholar, concedes that big firms give us higher productivity, and hence lower prices, but he dismisses the value of that. He writes, “If consumer prices are our only concern, it is hard to see how Amazon, Comcast, and companies such as Uber need regulation.” And this gets to the key point regarding most of the opposition to the merger: it had nothing to do with concerns about monopolistic effects on economic efficiency or consumer prices.  It had everything to do with opposition to big firm for the sole reason that they are big.

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Carl Shapiro, the government’s economics expert opposing the AT&T-Time Warner merger, seems skeptical of much of the antitrust populists’ Amazon rhetoric: “Simply saying that Amazon has grown like a weed, charges very low prices, and has driven many smaller retailers out of business is not sufficient. Where is the consumer harm?”

On its face, there was nothing about the Amazon/Whole Foods merger that should have raised any antitrust concerns. While one year is too soon to fully judge the competitive impacts of the Amazon-Whole Foods merger, nevertheless, it appears that much of the populist antitrust movement’s speculation that the merger would destroy competition and competitors and impoverish workers has failed to materialize.

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