Archives For patent holdout

[TOTM: The following is the seventh 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.]

This post is authored by Gerard Lloblet, Professor of Economics at CEMFI, and Jorge Padilla, Senior Managing Director at Compass Lexecon. Both have advised SEP holders, and to a lesser extent licensees, in royalty negotiations and antitrust disputes.]

Over the last few years competition authorities in the US and elsewhere have repeatedly warned about the risk of patent hold-up in the licensing of Standard Essential Patents (SEPs). Concerns about such risks were front and center in the recent FTC case against Qualcomm, where the Court ultimately concluded that Qualcomm had used a series of anticompetitive practices to extract unreasonable royalties from implementers. This post evaluates the evidence for such a risk, as well as the countervailing risk of patent hold-out.

In general, hold up may arise when firms negotiate trading terms after they have made costly, relation-specific investments. Since the costs of these investments are sunk when trading terms are negotiated, they are not factored into the agreed terms. As a result, depending on the relative bargaining power of the firms, the investments made by the weaker party may be undercompensated (Williamson, 1979). 

In the context of SEPs, patent hold-up would arise if SEP owners were able to take advantage of the essentiality of their patents to charge excessive royalties to manufacturers of products reading on those patents that made irreversible investments in the standard (see Lemley and Shapiro (2007)). Similarly, in the recent FTC v. Qualcomm ruling, trial judge Lucy Koh concluded that firms may also use commercial strategies (in this case, Qualcomm’s “no license, no chips” policy, refusing to deal with certain parties and demanding exclusivity from others) to extract royalties that depart from the FRAND benchmark.

After years of heated debate, however, there is no consensus about whether patent hold-up actually exists. Some argue that there is no evidence of hold-up in practice. If patent hold-up were a significant problem, manufacturers would anticipate that their investments would be expropriated and would thus decide not to invest in the first place. But end-product manufacturers have invested considerable amounts in standardized technologies (Galetovic et al, 2015). Others claim that while investment is indeed observed, actual investment levels are “necessarily” below those that would be observed in the absence of hold-up. They allege that, since that counterfactual scenario is not observable, it is not surprising that more than fifteen years after the patent hold-up hypothesis was first proposed, empirical evidence of its existence is lacking.

Meanwhile, innovators are concerned about a risk in the opposite direction, the risk of patent hold-out. As Epstein and Noroozi (2018) explain,

By “patent holdout” we mean the converse problem, i.e., that an implementer refuses to negotiate in good faith with an innovator for a license to valid patent(s) that the implementer infringes, and instead forces the innovator to either undertake significant litigation costs and time delays to extract a licensing payment through court order, or else to simply drop the matter because the licensing game is no longer worth the candle.

Patent hold-out, also known as “efficient infringement,” is especially relevant in the standardization context for two reasons. First, SEP owners are oftentimes required to license their patents under Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) conditions. Particularly when, as occurs in some jurisdictions, innovators are not allowed to request an injunction, they have little or no leverage in trying to require licensees to accept a licensing deal. Secondly, SEP owners typically possess many complementary patents and, therefore, seek to license their portfolio of SEPs at once, since that minimizes transaction costs. Yet, some manufacturers de facto refuse to negotiate in this way and choose to challenge the validity of the SEP portfolio patent-by-patent and/or jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction. This strategy involves large litigation costs and is therefore inefficient. SEP holders claim that this practice is anticompetitive and it also leads to royalties that are too low.

While the concerns of SEP holders seem to have attracted the attention of the leadership of the US DOJ (see, for example, here), some authors have dismissed them as theoretically groundless, empirically immaterial and irrelevant from an antitrust perspective (see here). 

Evidence of patent hold-out from litigation

In an ongoing work, Llobet and Padilla (forthcoming), we analyze the effects of the sequential litigation strategy adopted by some manufacturers and compare its consequences with the simultaneous litigation of the whole portfolio. We show that sequential litigation results in lower royalty payments than simultaneous litigation and may result in under-compensation of innovation and the dissipation of social surplus when litigation costs are high.

The model relies on two basic and realistic assumptions. First, in sequential lawsuits, the result of a trial affects the probability that each party wins the following one. That is, if the manufacturer wins the first trial, it has a higher probability of winning the second, as a first victory may uncover information about the validity of other patents that relate to the same type of innovation, which will be less likely to be upheld in court. Second, the impact of a validity challenge on royalty payments is asymmetric: they are reduced to zero if the patent is found to be invalid but are not increased if it is found valid (and infringed).

Our results indicate that these features of the legal system can be strategically used by the manufacturer. The intuition is as follows. Suppose that the innovator sets a royalty rate for each patent for which, in the simultaneous trial case, the manufacturer would be indifferent between settling and litigating. Under sequential litigation, however, the manufacturer might be willing to challenge a patent because of the gain in a future trial. This is due to the asymmetric effects that winning or losing the second trial has on the royalty rate that this firm will have to pay. In particular, if the manufacturer wins the first trial, so that the first patent is invalidated, its probability of winning the second one increases, which means that the innovator is likely to settle for a lower royalty rate for the second patent or see both patents invalidated in court. In the opposite case, if the innovator wins the first trial, so that the second is also likely to be unfavorable to the manufacturer, the latter always has the option to pay up the original royalty rate and avoid the second trial. In other words, the possibility for the manufacturer to negotiate the royalty rate downwards after a victory, without the risk of it being increased in case of a defeat, fosters sequential litigation and results in lower royalties than the simultaneous litigation of all patents would produce. 

This mechanism, while being applicable to any portfolio that includes patents the validity of which is related, becomes more significant in the context of SEPs for two reasons. The first is the difficulty of innovators to adjust their royalties upwards after the first successful trial, as it might be considered a breach of their FRAND commitments. The second is that, following recent competition law litigation in the EU and other jurisdictions, SEP owners are restricted in their ability to seek (preliminary) injunctions even in the case of willful infringement. Our analysis demonstrates that the threat of injunction mitigates, though it is unlikely to eliminate completely, the incentive to litigate sequentially and, therefore, excessively (i.e. even when such litigation reduces social welfare).

We also find a second motivation for excessive litigation: business stealing. Manufacturers litigate excessively in order to avoid payment and thus achieve a valuable cost advantage over their competitors. They prefer to litigate even when litigation costs are so large that it would be preferable for society to avoid litigation because their royalty burden is reduced both in absolute terms and relative to the royalty burden for its rivals (while it does not go up if the patents are found valid). This business stealing incentive will result in the under-compensation of innovators, as above, but importantly it may also result in the anticompetitive foreclosure of more efficient competitors.

Consider, for example, a scenario in which a large firm with the ability to fund protracted litigation efforts competes in a downstream market with a competitive fringe, comprising small firms for which litigation is not an option. In this scenario, the large manufacturer may choose to litigate to force the innovator to settle on a low royalty. The large manufacturer exploits the asymmetry with its defenseless small rivals to reduce its IP costs. In some jurisdictions it may also exploit yet another asymmetry in the legal system to achieve an even larger cost advantage. If both the large manufacturer and the innovator choose to litigate and the former wins, the patent is invalidated, and the large manufacturer avoids paying royalties altogether. Whether this confers a comparative advantage on the large manufacturer depends on whether the invalidation results in the immediate termination of all other existing licenses or not.

Our work thus shows that patent hold-out concerns are both theoretically cogent and have non-trivial antitrust implications. Whether such concerns merit intervention is an empirical matter. While reviewing that evidence is outside the scope of our work, our own litigation experience suggests that patent hold-out should be taken seriously.

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.