Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Qualcomm's corporate structure and overseas patents: key issues in answer to FTC complaint

A couple of weeks ago, Judge Lucy Koh of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California denied Qualcomm's motion to dismiss the FTC's antitrust complaint. My theory is that Qualcomm was trying to necessitate an amended FTC complaint, ideally (from Qualcomm's point of view, not mine) to the effect that a FRAND rate-setting determination would have become necessary, in which case Qualcomm could have tried again to consolidate the FTC's case with Apple's case in the Southern District of California since I doubt that two federal courts (here, even in the same state) would have wanted to make duplicative and most likely inconsistent FRAND determinations. But Judge Koh was FRAND-friendlier than I would have thought, so Qualcomm had to file an answer to the FTC's complaint (almost six months after the filing of the competition authority's complaint).

As I said (in different words) in my commentary on Judge Koh's denial order, she went beyond the call of duty and explained her view of the law and many of the alleged facts beyond what would have been strictly necessary to deny a motion to dismiss. The noose is tightening for Qualcomm, and any FTC officials and commissioner(s) supportive of this case have already made so much headway--and the FTC's case has received such broadbased industry support in the form of amicus briefs and an open letter to President Trump--that I remain optimistic (not without caution, though) about the Administration's determination to fix the issue(s).

For the most part, Qualcomm's answer to the complaint is boilerplate. It's the usual deny-everything-that-is-not-110%-undeniable thing, but I'll highlight two aspects that I believe are going to be interesting as the case unfolds (this post continues below the document):

17-07-10 Qualcomm Answer to FTC Complaint by Florian Mueller on Scribd

In paragraph 17 of its complaint, the FTC described (in addition to stating Qualcomm's legal domicile and some financials) Qualcomm's corporate structure as follows:

"Qualcomm's principal businesses are the development, design, and sale of baseband processors and other semiconductor devices used in cell phones and other mobile consumer products (collectively, 'handsets'), and the licensing of intellectual property related to cellular technology. Qualcomm sells cellular baseband processors through a business unit called 'Qualcomm CDMA Technologies' or 'QCT.' Qualcomm licenses its intellectual property rights through a business unit called 'Qualcomm Technology Licensing' or 'QTL.'"

Normally, one would think that there's no reason Qualcomm would feel forced to deny the above. It's just so basic and, at first sight, nonjudgmental. Isn't Qualcomm selling baseband processors? Isn't it licensing patents? Isn't it doing the former through QCT and the latter through QTL? What's incorrect here? But Qualcomm denies the FTC's portrayal of its corporate structure and offers its own version instead:

"(ii) Qualcomm's businesses involve the development and commercialization of digital communications technologies; (iii) Qualcomm conducts business through reportable segments including Qualcomm CDMA Technologies ('QCT'), which develops and supplies integrated circuits and system software for use primarily in voice and data communications, and Qualcomm Technology Licensing ('QTL'), which grants licenses or otherwise provides rights to use portions of Qualcomm's intellectual property portfolio[.]"

I believe Qualcomm is trying to nuance its corporate structure here because it will try to somehow argue (which is going to be a tall order and I doubt it will persuade Judge Koh) that the Supreme Court's recent Lexmark ruling on patent exhaustion wouldn't apply to Qualcomm's situation.

Most of Qualcomm's nine defenses (stated at the end of the document) are legal theories that are identical or related to what didn't persuade Judge Koh in connection with the motion to dismiss, plus theories according to which whatever may appear anticompetitive is actually good for consumers (or, conversely, whatever remedy might appear procompetitive would ultimately harm consumers). Considering how much I, as a consumer, believe to have indirectly paid to Qualcomm over the years (vs. what other patent holders presumably collected), I disagree. In particular, the consumer-friendliest remedy would be to enforce Qualcomm's "to all comers" FRAND licensing obligation so that Intel, Samsung and others could sell baseband chips to device makers that come with a license to Qualcomm's standard-essential patents.

The defense that I think will raise the most interesting discussions is the ninth (and last) one:

"Any requested relief that would apply to the licensing of patents issued by a jurisdiction other than the United States would be barred as beyond the reach of the U.S. antitrust laws, including the FTC Act, and/or as an improper application of those laws due to principles of international comity."

Patents issued by other jurisdictions do raise special issues, but aren't necessarily "beyond [...] reach." For example, the Ninth Circuit upheld Judge Robart's antisuit injunction against Motorola Mobility. Presumably the FTC will explain its theories with respect to ex-U.S. patents in its reply.

Let's assume, just hypothetically (it really doesn't mean an agreement or disagreement with Qualcomm's ninth defense), a scenario in which Qualcomm would lose the wider war but win the foreign-patents battle. In the single most lucrative market for most companies in this industry, Qualcomm would then, for example, have to grant patent licenses to rival chipset makers. In the rest of the world, it could still deny a license to the likes of Intel, but only if antitrust authorities and courts in those other jurisdictions let Qualcomm get away with that behavior when the country in which Qualcomm is headquartered doesn't. It would likely be hard for Qualcomm to convince competition enforcers in places like China and the EU that they should accept behavior that was deemed anticompetitive and harmful to consumers in the United States.

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