Apple’s legal team will be relieved that “you reap what you sow” is just a proverb. After a long-running antitrust battle against Qualcomm unsurprisingly ended in failure, Apple now faces antitrust accusations of its own (most notably from Epic Games). Somewhat paradoxically, this turn of events might cause Apple to see its previous defeat in a new light. Indeed, the well-established antitrust principles that scuppered Apple’s challenge against Qualcomm will now be the rock upon which it builds its legal defense.
But while Apple’s reversal of fortunes might seem anecdotal, it neatly illustrates a fundamental – and often overlooked – principle of antitrust policy: Antitrust law is about maximizing consumer welfare. Accordingly, the allocation of surplus between two companies is only incidentally relevant to antitrust proceedings, and it certainly is not a goal in and of itself. In other words, antitrust law is not about protecting David from Goliath.
Jockeying over the distribution of surplus
Or at least that is the theory. In practice, however, most antitrust cases are but small parts of much wider battles where corporations use courts and regulators in order to jockey for market position and/or tilt the distribution of surplus in their favor. The Microsoft competition suits brought by the DOJ and the European commission (in the EU and US) partly originated from complaints, and lobbying, by Sun Microsystems, Novell, and Netscape. Likewise, the European Commission’s case against Google was prompted by accusations from Microsoft and Oracle, among others. The European Intel case was initiated following a complaint by AMD. The list goes on.
The last couple of years have witnessed a proliferation of antitrust suits that are emblematic of this type of power tussle. For instance, Apple has been notoriously industrious in using the court system to lower the royalties that it pays to Qualcomm for LTE chips. One of the focal points of Apple’s discontent was Qualcomm’s policy of basing royalties on the end-price of devices (Qualcomm charged iPhone manufacturers a 5% royalty rate on their handset sales – and Apple received further rebates):
“The whole idea of a percentage of the cost of the phone didn’t make sense to us,” [Apple COO Jeff Williams] said. “It struck at our very core of fairness. At the time we were making something really really different.”
This pricing dispute not only gave rise to high-profile court cases, it also led Apple to lobby Standard Developing Organizations (“SDOs”) in a partly successful attempt to make them amend their patent policies, so as to prevent this type of pricing.
However, in a highly ironic turn of events, Apple now finds itself on the receiving end of strikingly similar allegations. At issue is the 30% commission that Apple charges for in app purchases on the iPhone and iPad. These “high” commissions led several companies to lodge complaints with competition authorities (Spotify and Facebook, in the EU) and file antitrust suits against Apple (Epic Games, in the US).
Of course, these complaints are couched in more sophisticated, and antitrust-relevant, reasoning. But that doesn’t alter the fact that these disputes are ultimately driven by firms trying to tilt the allocation of surplus in their favor (for a more detailed explanation, see Apple and Qualcomm).
Pushback from courts: The Qualcomm case
Against this backdrop, a string of recent cases sends a clear message to would-be plaintiffs: antitrust courts will not be drawn into rent allocation disputes that have no bearing on consumer welfare.
The best example of this judicial trend is Qualcomm’s victory before the United States Court of Appeal for the 9th Circuit. The case centered on the royalties that Qualcomm charged to OEMs for its Standard Essential Patents (SEPs). Both the district court and the FTC found that Qualcomm had deployed a series of tactics (rebates, refusals to deal, etc) that enabled it to circumvent its FRAND pledges.
However, the Court of Appeal was not convinced. It failed to find any consumer harm, or recognizable antitrust infringement. Instead, it held that the dispute at hand was essentially a matter of contract law:
To the extent Qualcomm has breached any of its FRAND commitments, a conclusion we need not and do not reach, the remedy for such a breach lies in contract and patent law.
This is not surprising. From the outset, numerous critics pointed that the case lied well beyond the narrow confines of antitrust law. The scathing dissenting statement written by Commissioner Maureen Olhaussen is revealing:
[I]n the Commission’s 2-1 decision to sue Qualcomm, I face an extraordinary situation: an enforcement action based on a flawed legal theory (including a standalone Section 5 count) that lacks economic and evidentiary support, that was brought on the eve of a new presidential administration, and that, by its mere issuance, will undermine U.S. intellectual property rights in Asia and worldwide. These extreme circumstances compel me to voice my objections.
In reaching its conclusion, the Court notably rejected the notion that SEP royalties should be systematically based upon the “Smallest Saleable Patent Practicing Unit” (or SSPPU):
Even if we accept that the modem chip in a cellphone is the cellphone’s SSPPU, the district court’s analysis is still fundamentally flawed. No court has held that the SSPPU concept is a per se rule for “reasonable royalty” calculations; instead, the concept is used as a tool in jury cases to minimize potential jury confusion when the jury is weighing complex expert testimony about patent damages.
Similarly, it saw no objection to Qualcomm licensing its technology at the OEM level (rather than the component level):
Qualcomm’s rationale for “switching” to OEM-level licensing was not “to sacrifice short-term benefits in order to obtain higher profits in the long run from the exclusion of competition,” the second element of the Aspen Skiing exception. Aerotec Int’l, 836 F.3d at 1184 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Instead, Qualcomm responded to the change in patent-exhaustion law by choosing the path that was “far more lucrative,” both in the short term and the long term, regardless of any impacts on competition.
Finally, the Court concluded that a firm breaching its FRAND pledges did not automatically amount to anticompetitive conduct:
We decline to adopt a theory of antitrust liability that would presume anticompetitive conduct any time a company could not prove that the “fair value” of its SEP portfolios corresponds to the prices the market appears willing to pay for those SEPs in the form of licensing royalty rates.
Taken together, these findings paint a very clear picture. The Qualcomm Court repeatedly rejected the radical idea that US antitrust law should concern itself with the prices charged by monopolists — as opposed to practices that allow firms to illegally acquire or maintain a monopoly position. The words of Learned Hand and those of Antonin Scalia (respectively, below) loom large:
The successful competitor, having been urged to compete, must not be turned upon when he wins.
To safeguard the incentive to innovate, the possession of monopoly power will not be found unlawful unless it is accompanied by an element of anticompetitive conduct.
Other courts (both in the US and abroad) have reached similar conclusions
For instance, a district court in Texas dismissed a suit brought by Continental Automotive Systems (which supplies electronic systems to the automotive industry) against a group of SEP holders.
Continental challenged the patent holders’ decision to license their technology at the vehicle rather than component level (the allegation is very similar to the FTC’s complaint that Qualcomm licensed its SEPs at the OEM, rather than chipset level). However, following a forceful intervention by the DOJ, the Court ultimately held that the facts alleged by Continental were not indicative of antitrust injury. It thus dismissed the case.
Likewise, within weeks of the Qualcomm and Continental decisions, the UK Supreme court also ruled in favor of SEP holders. In its Unwired Planet ruling, the Court concluded that discriminatory licenses did not automatically infringe competition law (even though they might breach a firm’s contractual obligations):
[I]t cannot be said that there is any general presumption that differential pricing for licensees is problematic in terms of the public or private interests at stake.
In reaching this conclusion, the UK Supreme Court emphasized that the determination of whether licenses were FRAND, or not, was first and foremost a matter of contract law. In the case at hand, the most important guide to making this determination were the internal rules of the relevant SDO (as opposed to competition case law):
Since price discrimination is the norm as a matter of licensing practice and may promote objectives which the ETSI regime is intended to promote (such as innovation and consumer welfare), it would have required far clearer language in the ETSI FRAND undertaking to indicate an intention to impose the more strict, “hard-edged” non-discrimination obligation for which Huawei contends. Further, in view of the prevalence of competition laws in the major economies around the world, it is to be expected that any anti-competitive effects from differential pricing would be most appropriately addressed by those laws.
All of this ultimately led the Court to rule in favor of Unwired Planet, thus dismissing Huawei’s claims that it had infringed competition law by breaching its FRAND pledges.
In short, courts and antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic have repeatedly, and unambiguously, concluded that pricing disputes (albeit in the specific context of technological standards) are generally a matter of contract law. Antitrust/competition law intercedes only when unfair/excessive/discriminatory prices are both caused by anticompetitive behavior and result in anticompetitive injury.
Apple’s Loss is… Apple’s gain.
Readers might wonder how the above cases relate to Apple’s app store. But, on closer inspection the parallels are numerous. As explained above, courts have repeatedly stressed that antitrust enforcement should not concern itself with the allocation of surplus between commercial partners. Yet that is precisely what Epic Game’s suit against Apple is all about.
Indeed, Epic’s central claim is not that it is somehow foreclosed from Apple’s App Store (for example, because Apple might have agreed to exclusively distribute the games of one of Epic’s rivals). Instead, all of its objections are down to the fact that it would like to access Apple’s store under more favorable terms:
Apple’s conduct denies developers the choice of how best to distribute their apps. Developers are barred from reaching over one billion iOS users unless they go through Apple’s App Store, and on Apple’s terms. […]
Thus, developers are dependent on Apple’s noblesse oblige, as Apple may deny access to the App Store, change the terms of access, or alter the tax it imposes on developers, all in its sole discretion and on the commercially devastating threat of the developer losing access to the entire iOS userbase. […]
By imposing its 30% tax, Apple necessarily forces developers to suffer lower profits, reduce the quantity or quality of their apps, raise prices to consumers, or some combination of the three.
And the parallels with the Qualcomm litigation do not stop there. Epic is effectively asking courts to make Apple monetize its platform at a different level than the one that it chose to maximize its profits (no more monetization at the app store level). Similarly, Epic Games omits any suggestion of profit sacrifice on the part of Apple — even though it is a critical element of most unilateral conduct theories of harm. Finally, Epic is challenging conduct that is both the industry norm and emerged in a highly competitive setting.
In short, all of Epic’s allegations are about monopoly prices, not monopoly maintenance or monopolization. Accordingly, just as the SEP cases discussed above were plainly beyond the outer bounds of antitrust enforcement (something that the DOJ repeatedly stressed with regard to the Qualcomm case), so too is the current wave of antitrust litigation against Apple. When all is said and done, Apple might thus be relieved that Qualcomm was victorious in their antitrust confrontation. Indeed, the legal principles that caused its demise against Qualcomm are precisely the ones that will, likely, enable it to prevail against Epic Games.