Guest Post By Professor Jorge L. Contreras
For years, developers of standards in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector have committed to license patents that are essential to those standards on terms that are "fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory" (FRAND). This February, I summarized the reasons that these vague but somewhat reassuring commitments have become so prevalent in the industry. Since then, the litigation over FRAND commitments has only intensified. In April, I summarized the major pending lawsuits that revolve around allegations that FRAND commitments have been violated. One of these, Microsoft v. Motorola (W.D. Wash.) is scheduled to go to trial on this issue in November, and Judge Robart has suggested (some would say threatened) that he may define FRAND for the parties if they can't reach agreement before then.
Against this backdrop, regulators in the U.S. and Europe have actively pursued a FRAND clarification program of their own. As I noted in February, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) appears to have persuaded Microsoft, Apple and Google to release a trio of "voluntary" statements describing their interpretations of FRAND. This public display occurred in connection with DOJ's review (and approval) of major patent acquisition transactions by each of these parties. The European Commission, which approved Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility shortly thereafter, also exhibited a keen interest in Google's view of FRAND commitments.
Six months later, there has been another flurry of FRAND clarifications. This time, however, guidance is being offered not by companies, but by the regulators themselves (or, rather, by senior agency officials speaking "on the record" at public events). These include the following speeches by officials of the DOJ, FTC and EC:
- Jon Leibowitz, Chairman of the FTC, at the Georgetown Global Antitrust Enforcement Symposium (September 19),
- Joseph Wayland, Acting Asst. Attorney General in the Antitrust Division of DOJ, at the Fordham Competition Law Institute (September 21),
- Joaquin Almunia, Vice President of the European Commission responsible for Competition Policy, also at Fordham (September 20),
- Fiona Scott-Morton, DOJ Deputy Asst. Attorney General for Economic Analysis, at the National Academies of Science (NAS) Symposium on Management of Intellectual Property in Standard Setting Processes (October 3),
- Howard Shelanski, Director of FTC Bureau of Economics, also at NAS (October 4), and
- Renata Hesse, Deputy Attorney General in the Antitrust Division of DOJ at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Patent Roundtable (October 10)
It is no coincidence that these officials each came forward with comments regarding FRAND within a few weeks of each other. As suggested by Dr. Scott-Morton, this effort was at least loosely coordinated within the three agencies, each of which is actively involved in matters involving the licensing of patents essential to industry standards. For example, the FTC has initiated an investigation of Google/Motorola in relation to its FRAND licensing practices and submitted a public statement to the ITC in Microsoft's case against Motorola (now resolved), the EC has launched FRAND-related investigations of both Google/Motorola and Samsung, and the DOJ is reported to have opened an investigation into Samsung's practices in this area. But despite the clear desire by these three agencies to send a message to the industry regarding FRAND, the scope of that message is not entirely clear. Below is a brief summary of the FTC, DOJ and EC officials' statements regarding FRAND:
Injunctive Relief. If the agency viewpoints share on one thing, it is a strong aversion to injunctions that seek to block the use of a standard after a FRAND commitment has been made. However, even here the extent of agency accord is unclear. For example, Mr. Almunia declares that "the worst-case scenario is when a company willing to take a license for standard-essential patents is hit by an injunction" (Almunia, p.6), yet he does not indicate whether, or on what basis, such an injunction might be limited. The FTC's position on injunctive relief is more restrained, and Chairman Leibowitz only notes that such relief may be "in tension" with the FRAND commitment (Leibowitz, p.7). This statement is consistent with the FTC's earlier comments to the ITC, suggesting that if a patent holder has made a "reasonable royalty offer" that has subsequently been refused by an infringer, relief in the form of an exclusion order might be appropriate. The most steadfast opponent of injunctive relief in the face of a FRAND commitment appears to be DOJ, which tipped its hand back in February when it applauded Apple's and Microsoft's statements "that they will not seek to prevent or exclude rivals' products from the market", while viewing Google's more qualified commitment as "less clear". Mr. Wayland refers to these earlier statements (Wayland, p.7), and to his testimony before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, which held hearings on ITC exclusion orders in September (Wayland, p. 10-11). With respect to ITC exclusion orders he echoes the FTC's position, which has generally disfavored injunctive relief for FRAND-committed patents due to the increased leverage that negotiating in the "shadow" of such an injunction can give to the patent holder (FTC 2011 Report, p.225-26). But like the FTC in its recent public comments to the ITC, he indicates some tolerance for such injunctions when a potential licensee has not negotiated reasonably or is beyond the reach of the U.S. courts (Wayland, p.10-11). However, it is FTC Chairman Leibowitz who makes the boldest statement regarding injunctive relief, suggesting not only that such relief should not be granted in the face of a FRAND commitment, but that even seeking such relief could amount to unfair competition under Section 5 of the FTC Act (Leibowitz, p. 9). He thus warns companies that violating their FRAND commitments could lead to enforcement actions by the agency.
Antitrust and Competition Law Claims. Several of the agency officials suggest that violation of FRAND commitments could, under certain circumstances, constitute violations of antitrust or competition law. Mr. Almunia, for example, while acknowledging that the recent smartphone patent wars are "primarily patent cases, not competition cases", goes on to suggest that "this state of belligerence may encourage a company to use its patents as weapons to harm legitimate competitors" (Almunia, p.5). Ms Hesse of DOJ notes the "risks to competition" that may arise from collaborative standards-setting and so-called "patent hold-up" (Hesse, p.5). And Mr. Wayland unambiguously states that "the [Antitrust] division is ready to enforce the antitrust laws against standard-setting activities that harm competition" (Wayland, p.8). Mr. Almunia likewise indicates that the EC is "willing to provide clarity to the market through our enforcement" (Almunia, p.6).
But perhaps the most interesting comments regarding antitrust remedies are Chairman Leibowitz's statements regarding the "unfair methods of competition" that may result from seeking an injunction in the face of a FRAND commitment (Leibowitz, p.9). As noted above, he suggests that such conduct may run afoul of Section 5 of the FTC Act "which, as all of us in this room understand, Congress intended to extend well beyond the reach of the antitrust laws" (Id.). Chairman Leibowitz thus hedges his bets: even if antitrust doctrines are not sufficient to prosecute FRAND violations, the agency has tools beyond antitrust that it may use to correct such behavior (an argument that, perhaps, arises from the FTC's 2008 reversal by the D.C. Circuit in its antitrust case against Rambus, Inc. for abuse of the standardization process).
Magnitude of FRAND Royalties. Not surprisingly, the agency representatives do not speak much about the complex question of the magnitude of FRAND royalty rates. Historically, the FTC has maintained that appropriate royalties for standards-essential patents should be based on the ex ante value of the patented technology prior to adoption of the standard (FTC 2011 Report, p.22-23). Obviously, determining such a royalty in hindsight can be challenging, and perhaps Judge Robart's upcoming judicial intervention in Seattle may shed light on how best to conduct this analysis. Another nettlesome question regarding the magnitude of FRAND royalties arises from the comparative value of the many different patents that may cover the same standard (sometimes ranging in the thousands). In this regard, Chairman Leibowitz offers an interesting observation, possibly alluding to the pending disputes over Motorola's proposed royalty: "When the allegedly infringing component is, say, only one of 15,000 patents used in a smart phone or a tablet, is it fair to demand two percent of the entire sales price? To ask that question is to answer it."
SDO-Based Solutions. Unlike the FTC and EC representatives, the DOJ officials strongly encourage SDOs to implement policies that are likely to alleviate some of the risks and uncertainty currently associated with FRAND commitments. Both Mr. Wayland and Ms. Hesse reflect favorably on DOJ's 2007/2008 Business Review Letters approving the "ex ante" licensing disclosure policies proposed by VITA and IEEE (Wayland, p.8-9, Hesse, p.7-8). Such policies permit (in the case of IEEE) and require (in the case of VITA) that patent holders disclose their "most restrictive" licensing terms (including royalty rates) before adoption of a standard. Ms. Hesse notes that "[w]e saw then, and continue to see now, the potential benefits to competition from the implementation of such an approach" (Hesse, p.8). In addition to ex ante licensing disclosure, Mr. Wayland, Ms. Hesse and Dr. Scott-Morgan of DOJ all suggest concrete steps that SDOs should consider in relation to FRAND (Wayland, p.9; Hesse p.9-10; Scott-Morgan, p.1-4). These are summarized below (based primarily on Ms. Hesse's presentation, which is the most detailed and occurred latest in time).
The "inherent ambiguity" of FRAND commitments (Hesse, p.6) undoubtedly requires clarification, either by the parties making such commitments or, lacking that, by courts and regulatory agencies. The recent statements by agency officials at the DOJ, FTC and EC represent a good first step toward such clarification. At this point, there appears to be a developing consensus among private industry and the agencies that FRAND commitments should "travel with the patents" after they are sold, and that injunctive relief should be limited after a FRAND commitment is made. In other areas, however, there does not appear to be a high degree of consensus among the agencies and additional work by all stakeholders (SDOs, patent holders, product vendors and regulators) will be required before a common understanding of FRAND is finally developed. I agree with the DOJ commenters that SDO-based solutions are the most likely avenues toward widespread alleviation of FRAND uncertainty, and have proposed a slightly different set of recommendations for SDO policy reform. Barring this, however, the decision will be left to the courts.