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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.

UPDATE: I’ve been reliably informed that Vint Cerf coined the term “permissionless innovation,” and, thus, that he did so with the sorts of private impediments discussed below in mind rather than government regulation. So consider the title of this post changed to “Permissionless innovation SHOULD not mean ‘no contracts required,'” and I’ll happily accept that my version is the “bastardized” version of the term. Which just means that the original conception was wrong and thank god for disruptive innovation in policy memes!

Can we dispense with the bastardization of the “permissionless innovation” concept (best developed by Adam Thierer) to mean “no contracts required”? I’ve been seeing this more and more, but it’s been around for a while. Some examples from among the innumerable ones out there:

Vint Cerf on net neutrality in 2009:

We believe that the vast numbers of innovative Internet applications over the last decade are a direct consequence of an open and freely accessible Internet. Many now-successful companies have deployed their services on the Internet without the need to negotiate special arrangements with Internet Service Providers, and it’s crucial that future innovators have the same opportunity. We are advocates for “permissionless innovation” that does not impede entrepreneurial enterprise.

Net neutrality is replete with this sort of idea — that any impediment to edge providers (not networks, of course) doing whatever they want to do at a zero price is a threat to innovation.

Chet Kanojia (Aereo CEO) following the Aereo decision:

It is troubling that the Court states in its decision that, ‘to the extent commercial actors or other interested entities may be concerned with the relationship between the development and use of such technologies and the Copyright Act, they are of course free to seek action from Congress.’ (Majority, page 17)That begs the question: Are we moving towards a permission-based system for technology innovation?

At least he puts it in the context of the Court’s suggestion that Congress pass a law, but what he really wants is to not have to ask “permission” of content providers to use their content.

Mike Masnick on copyright in 2010:

But, of course, the problem with all of this is that it goes back to creating permission culture, rather than a culture where people freely create. You won’t be able to use these popular or useful tools to build on the works of others — which, contrary to the claims of today’s copyright defenders, is a key component in almost all creativity you see out there — without first getting permission.

Fair use is, by definition, supposed to be “permissionless.” But the concept is hardly limited to fair use, is used to justify unlimited expansion of fair use, and is extended by advocates to nearly all of copyright (see, e.g., Mike Masnick again), which otherwise requires those pernicious licenses (i.e., permission) from others.

The point is, when we talk about permissionless innovation for Tesla, Uber, Airbnb, commercial drones, online data and the like, we’re talking (or should be) about ex ante government restrictions on these things — the “permission” at issue is permission from the government, it’s the “permission” required to get around regulatory roadblocks imposed via rent-seeking and baseless paternalism. As Gordon Crovitz writes, quoting Thierer:

“The central fault line in technology policy debates today can be thought of as ‘the permission question,'” Mr. Thierer writes. “Must the creators of new technologies seek the blessing of public officials before they develop and deploy their innovations?”

But it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about private contracts.

Just about all human (commercial) activity requires interaction with others, and that means contracts and licenses. You don’t see anyone complaining about the “permission” required to rent space from a landlord. But that some form of “permission” may be required to use someone else’s creative works or other property (including broadband networks) is no different. And, in fact, it is these sorts of contracts (and, yes, the revenue that may come with them) that facilitates people engaging with other commercial actors to produce things of value in the first place. The same can’t be said of government permission.

Don’t get me wrong – there may be some net welfare-enhancing regulatory limits that might require forms of government permission. But the real concern is the pervasive abuse of these limits, imposed without anything approaching a rigorous welfare determination. There might even be instances where private permission, imposed, say, by a true monopolist, might be problematic.

But this idea that any contractual obligation amounts to a problematic impediment to innovation is absurd, and, in fact, precisely backward. Which is why net neutrality is so misguided. Instead of identifying actual, problematic impediments to innovation, it simply assumes that networks threaten edge innovation, without any corresponding benefit and with such certainty (although no actual evidence) that ex ante common carrier regulations are required.

“Permissionless innovation” is a great phrase and, well developed (as Adam Thierer has done), a useful concept. But its bastardization to justify interference with private contracts is unsupported and pernicious.