Sunday, October 29, 2017

The EU's definitive defeat: digital tax plans and a declaration of surrender to Silicon Valley

What you're reading here is a highly skeptical take on the EU's innovation policy and economic outlook from an EU citizen who will leave the EU as soon as possible (more on my personal conclusions at the end of this post).

The EU has a huge competitiveness issue already, and due to the eurozone's lack of innovation, especially in its Mediterranean member states, the sovereign-debt crisis is never going to be resolved. The European Central Bank is, in some ways unlawfully, keeping Europe's south afloat and will do so for some more time, but at some point there will be a crisis of unprecedented proportions--either an acute and dramatic crisis or an extended depression from which the eurozone as an economic area won't really recover.

In the 21st century, innovation is the only way that industrialized countries can achieve more than 1% or 2% of year-on-year organic growth--obviously short of an unexpected discovery of natural resources, which is not realistically going to happen in the EU, or wage cuts in underperforming countries that are even less realistic than the existence of huge undiscovered gold mines in France, Spain, and Italy. The Finnish economy, for example, was performing extremely well while Nokia was setting new records all the time, but shrank by about 9% in a single year as a result of the iPhone/Android revolution. And it's shrinking again. Countries like Spain and Italy--and even France--never had a Nokia in the first place. The Mediterranean economies are strong in industries that mostly existed already in ancient Roman times (agriculture, construction, with even textile going to Asia). Tourism is, relatively speaking, the most modern industry that is strong in those countries, and the EU predicts about 5 million more tourists per year, which I don't doubt but it's not going to do much about youth unemployment rates of 46% in Greece, 38% in Spain, 36% in Italy, and more than 20% in France.

The EU wanted to become "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth" by 2010, and failed, as even the then-prime minister of Sweden conceded in 2009. For example, per-capita GDP in the EU was less than $38K last year vs. $57K in the U.S.

By now the EU appears to have given up on its ambitions for the digital economy. Instead, its focus is on a new tax that could lead to a full-blown trade war with the U.S. and would definitely harm European companies and consumers in the end.

I'll write about the tax plan again soon because I'll try to make a contribution to the mobilization of app developers and other European technology companies against that plan. In this post, I'll connect a few dots to show the broader picture.

In a Q&A document on the EU's digital tax plans, the EU recognizes the increasingly important role of digital business to the economy:

"In 2006, only one digital company was among the top 20 firms by market capitalisation, accounting for only 7% of the market capitalisation. In 2017, 9 out of the top 20 companies were technology companies accounting for 54% of the total top 20 market capitalisation. Between 2008 and 2016, the revenues of the top 5 e-commerce retailers grew by 32% on average per year. During the same time period, revenue in the entire EU retail sector grew on average by 1% per year."

The largest companies in the digital economy are U.S. and Chinese companies, plus South Korea's Samsung. As a Wikipedia page shows, no EU company has been among the world's largest 10 companies (from all industries, but with digital businesses now leading) by market capitalization since Royal Dutch Shell in the second quarter of 2014. That's a huge failEUre, and a strategic issue because it means that to the extent Europe has any innovative businesses at all (such as SAP), they're not at the top of the M&A food chain.

While that tax plan Q&A still claims the EU wants its digital startups to succeed, the EU's digital industry commissioner has just given an interview to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in which she says Europe doesn't need a company like Google. How little weight the digital economy has in the EU is reflected by the commissioners assigned to that area of responsibility. Presently, the EU's digital commissioner is Mariya Gabriel, a young Bulgarian politician with an even less impressive track record than her technology-illiterate predecessor, Germany's Guenther Oettinger, who became the laughing stock of many people in the EU tech industry. Mrs. Gabriel said in the aforementioned interview that the EU should focus on fields such as nanorobotics, security chips, and "automotive digitization", where she says EU companies are leading the way. I checked on who the current leaders in nanorobotics are and found more U.S. than EU companies among the top 10, with all of those EU companies being small enough to be acquired sooner or later, and I've previously outlined my thinking on the automotive future.

There are structural reasons for which the EU not only lacks major players like Apple and Google but why it's highly unlikely that any of its startups will, as an independent company, ever reach that level:

  • The U.S. market is the most important single market, followed by China. That's why I decided to focus on the U.S. first (we'll create content for other markets later), just like this blog has more readers in the U.S. than anywhere else, but EU companies usually serve their domestic market first. No matter how often the EU talks about the "Digital Single Market" (DSM), which is also the context of those terrible digital tax plans, it simply won't be a single market like the U.S. market anytime soon. Multilingualism is a major challenge for the EU, but most countries are too proud and too lazy to think for even one second of adopting English as an EU-wide official language. Therefore, startups can't address the EU market as a single market. It's about a lot more than just translating one's product. For example, there's no major tech news website or IT magazine that people read across the EU.

  • That EU tax document refers to something that is a huge factor indeed: network effects. It's not just that large U.S. companies benefit from network effects. In a way, the U.S. tech industry as a whole has the equivalent of network effects because it attracts and funds many of the world's most talented technologists. There's a virtuous circle involving business angels (many of whom made a fortune through stock and stock options in previous-generation tech startups) and institutional investors of the kind the EU won't have.

  • Investor mentality also plays a role. In the EU, investors generally prefer niche businesses, while in the U.S., there is more of a willingness to "think big" and place bets on what EU investors would consider unrealistic long shots.

  • Partly as a result of unselective migration, in many cases combined with dumbing-down educational policies, the eurozone's population is, on average, becoming weaker and weaker in math according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Non-eurozone industrialized countries take fairly high percentages of their 12-year-old students to the top performance level (Singapore: 50%; South Korea: 40%; Northern Ireland: 27%; Russia: 20%; United States and Kazakhstan: 14%), while the largest eurozone countries perform worse each time the study is repeated. Germany, for instance, dropped by 10 ranks between 2007 and 2012 and is now at 5%, which makes it the one-eyed among the blind among major eurozone economies (Italy 4%, Spain 3%, France 2%). The French number is an unbelievable disaster. If you looked at an average class of 30 students in Northern Ireland, eight of them would reach the top level, while in France you'd need two classes of that size to find just one such student. But to address the root causes of that problem would require French politicians to say and do highly unpopular, politically-incorrect things. That's why no one's talking about the big elephant in the room.

Contrary to what the EU says, its tax plans won't make any EU company more competitive. Also, it doesn't make sense that U.S. and other digital businesses "can take full advantage of the networks, infrastructure and rule of law institutions available in EU Member States, without paying any tax in that country." Seriously, how many lawsuits have Apple's App Store or Google's Play Store given rise to in the entire EU? Few and far between I would guess. Do they use such infrastructure as roads and bridges? Not really. It just comes down to cheap electrical and optical signals going over the networks, and the network traffic caused by the download of an app is typically less than a couple of minutes of even a low-quality video stream.

Unfortunately, the Commission's tax initiative has drawn support even from normally libertarian, free-market and fiscally conservative parties such as Germany's FDP, whose secretary-general said last week that she wants to impose higher taxes on the likes of "Apple, Google, and Facebook."

There is some resistance from such countries as Ireland, and unanimity would be required for an EU-wide rule, but something bad could come out of this. Ideally, the EU would like to address the issue at an even higher international level (OECD). If not, the Commission will make a proposal for the EU to act unilaterally. And then, if some countries tried to block the plan, the largest EU member states such as Germany and France might just go ahead without the rest of the EU--and once that threat becomes real, an EU-level agreement might materialize.

Whatever may or may not happen in the end, it's already clear that the EU's dubious "state-aid case" against Apple was just an attempt by the Commission's competition enforcement arm to position itself as the vanguard of the EU's tax crusade against the digital economy's winners. This is just the behavior of sore losers.

I wouldn't have been against a small EU consisting of quality countries in economic and educational terms, with everyone giving up national sovereignty for a greater good. But an unselective and expansive EU that consistently puts the cart before the horse (common currency for disparate economies without a common economic and fiscal policy; internally open borders without effective external controls) was a bad idea.

A few days ago, the European Central Bank announced that, after spending (literally) trillions of euros buying government debt mostly from the likes of Italy and Spain, it was now going to reduce the extent of that program to 30 billion euros a month. By comparison, that is about 10% more than Germany's federal budget. Also, the ECB already owes Germany approximately 800 billion euros through its Target 2 system (with Italy and Spain being the primary net lenders, and even Greece being a significant net recipient). The only way that those countries could ever repay their debts would be sustainable, organic, rapid economic growth. The ECB says that the need for growth is why its "quantitative easing" must continue, and mainstream media in Europe largely parrot that pretext (and even those who criticize the ECB don't tell the whole truth about the mess). But quantitative easing and zero interest rates don't change the fundamental problems I mentioned above. It certainly won't hone anybody's math skills or prevent European tech companies from being bought by U.S. and Chinese acquirers. Instead of spurring growth, the ECB simply enables southern European governments to avoid hard and unpopular decisions. As their excessive borrowing continues, the mess gets bigger until the system implodes.

Just like the ECB's quantitative easing doesn't benefit innovative businesses, the kind of digital tax the EU has in mind would just benefit governments in the short term.

Finally, the kind of disclosure I promised further above. I must admit that I was totally against the 1992 Maastricht Treaty (the treaty that converted the European Community into the European Union and laid the foundation for the euro currency) and now, 25 years later, everything that could have gone wrong with the euro currency and free movement (and that experts had warned against before those fatal decisions were taken) has indeed gone wrong. In 2004-2007 I opposed various EU policy initiatives and consistently got along very well with the "Brexiteers" in the European Parliament. I do sometimes support EU competition cases if they involve genuine antitrust and merger control issues, but not if they're "total political crap".

I don't want to be a resident of the dysfunctional EU anymore. I'm on my way out of the EU as we speak. After years of development, I'm finally about to launch my app, which has already been approved by Apple for App Store distribution, in the U.S. market. I haven't announced the name of the product and of my company on this blog or on Twitter yet, but I will soon. All that I have said so far is that it's going to revolutionize the trivia game market. And it will.

Once my app generates a certain level of revenues, which I'm sure it will soon (just don't know exactly how much and how soon), I'll be in a position to relocate to the U.S. on a permanent basis. That step is actually overdue. As a matter of fact, this blog has widely been perceived as a U.S. tech/IP law/policy blog (even by the Library of Congress). I've always considered, despite its challenges, the United States the greatest country on Earth, and I've traveled a lot more in the U.S. than in Europe already. Now it's not just about personal preferences or the greater opportunities I see in the U.S.--I'm really deeply convinced that the eurozone is on the completely wrong track without any hope that things could somehow work out in the end. The overindebted economies of the Mediterranean region won't recover, and Germany isn't strong enough to support them forever. For example, Italy technically owes Germany (through the ECB) many hundreds of billions of euros, but Germany's trade surplus over Italy is just on the order of 10 billion euros a year. The numbers just don't make sense. Once Germany's pension system becomes unsustainable due to the demographic gap (by the 2030s at the latest), it will be game over for the eurozone, if not before.

Should the EU levy a special tax on digital businesses, its innovation problem would only exacerbate. It's worse than merely rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

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Monday, October 23, 2017

Samsung never quits, finally gets design patent damages retrial in long-running Apple case

If one thought it appropriate to label a company's in-house and outside counsel, collectively, a "Comeback Kid," the term would surely apply to Samsung's IP litigation group and Quinn Emanuel. Yesterday (Sunday), Judge Lucy Koh of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California determined that a new Apple v. Samsung trial on design patent damages, which Samsung had been fighting for in courts on both coasts of the United States since the 2012 verdict, is indeed going to happen. You can read her decision (as always, perfectly-structured and clear, whether one agrees or not) right below or, if you lack the time, my Reader's Digest version further below:

17-10-22 Order Requiring New Apple v. Samsung Trial on Design Patent Damages by Florian Mueller on Scribd

Samsung had originally asked Judge Koh for a retrial (in vain at the time), then the Federal Circuit (in vain), then requested an en banc (in vain), then petitioned for a writ of certiorari (successfully), then convinced the Supreme Court that the standard to design patent damages that had originally been applied was incorrect, then dissuaded the Federal Circuit from affirming the original ruling after the SCOTUS opinion, and, just last summer, persuaded Judge Koh that it had not waived its "article of manufacture" argument. But theoretically the retrial could still have been denied: Judge Koh explained that the test for the relevant article of manufacture (with respect to which Apple would be entitled to an otherwise-unapportioned disgorgement of infringer's profits) had to be determined first. The result could have been one under which Judge Koh would have held that, as a matter of law, the original approach of treating Samsung's entire products (certain smartphones) as the relevant article of manufacture had been undoubtedly correct, in which case the original jury instruction would probably have been deemed not to have been prejudicial to Samsung. Right for the wrong reasons, sort of.

Samsung has also taken this final pre-retrial hurdle, and no matter what the ultimate outcome of this case (which may even be ripe for a settlement now) may be, this is a heroic achievement by Samsung and Quinn Emanuel.

Since the Supreme Court had merely tossed the original approach but not (yet) established a new test, Judge Koh had three alternative proposed tests before her to choose from (short of coming up with her own):

Judge Koh has adopted the DoJ's approach, as had the United States District Court for the Southern District in a different case. This was a safe choice for her in some respects, especially since counsel for both parties had expressed that it viewed the DoJ proposal far less negatively than that of the respective adversary. Based on what Judge Koh quoted, Apple merely said it thought it "could live with" the DoJ test, while Samsung's counsel even said it "has a lot of merit." So I guess neither party is downbeat right now, but presumably the folks at Samsung and Quinn Emanuel are a bit happier.

These are the winning factors:

  • "[T]he scope of the design claimed in the plaintiff's patent, including the drawing and written description";

  • "[T]he relative prominence of the design within the product as a whole";

  • "[W]hether the design is conceptually distinct from the product as a whole"; and

  • "[T]he physical relationship between the patented design and the rest of the product," including whether "the design pertains to a component that a user or seller can physically separate from the product as a whole," and whether "the design is embodied in a component that is manufactured separately from the rest of the product, or if the component can be sold separately."

This test presents challenges and opportunities for either party when arguing to the jury. Apple will have the benefit of a local jury, and all in all the wordings of the adopted test appear more favorable to Apple than to Samsung, but Samsung will still have plenty of opportunity to persuade the jury that the outcome would be absurd and devastating if a disgorgement of profits made with entire smartphones was awarded. Anything's possible, but there's a relatively high likelihood that Samsung will manage to bring the award down, even though the jury will be picked from Apple's backyard.

After adopting this test, which makes it possible (though far from certain) that disgorgement will relate to something other than the end product, the retrial was inevitable.

The question of the burden of proof has now been resolved as well. Apple will have to persuade the jury that those entire Galaxy phones are the appropriate articles of manufacture, while Samsung will have to prove an alternative article and any deductions. On this one, Samsung clearly got a rather favorable outcome.

The parties now have until October 25 to propose a case schedule and retrial date. There's enough money at stake that the retrial may indeed happen, but I believe there is at least a 30% chance that they will settle before. They're both fine with the DoJ test, they've both shown to the world (including Qualcomm and its increasingly-impatient shareholders, who shouldn't necessarily share Qualcomm's CEO's optimism about a favorable settlement in the forseeable future) that they're prepared to see this kind of litigation through over the course of many years, and they have bigger issues (again, Qualcomm) to focus on. Plus, since they work together so closely (on the iPhone X, for example), they can structure this settlement in a way that whatever Samsung might pay would just be compensated somewhere else. I would recommend to them that Samsung pay, for the design patent-related part per se, less than half of the $400 million portion of the award that is in dispute now, given that Apple's risk of the award being reduced to a relatively small amount is greater than Samsung's risk of Apple being awarded more than half of the original award next time. But right now they'd probably both disagree, and if they need a mediator, they'll find someone more qualified than a blogging app developer.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Decision by Taiwanese antitrust authority: huge setback for Qualcomm, breakthrough for industry

The Taiwan Fair Trade Commission's decision to impose a record fine of more than $700 million on Qualcomm and to demand a departure from some of Qualcomm's longstanding, problematic practices is really huge. If I didn't believe so, I wouldn't be writing this blog post about two hours after receiving approval from Apple to publish my iOS game, after three years of development. We're initially making the game available in 24 countries now and will do our U.S. launch (after a bit more fine-tuning) next month, at which time I'll be more specific about category, name, features, everything.

Taiwan is such a strategic region in the context of Qualcomm's dual-monopoly strategy involving standard-essential patents as well as chipsets. In Taiwan you have three types of key industry stakeholders suffering under what Qualcomm has been doing for a long time:

With a view to pending lawsuits, the biggest impact will be in the Southern District (contract manufacturers) and the Northern (FTC) District of California.

The Taiwan Fair Trade Commission has now joined the Korea Fair Trade Commission, the FTC, and the European Commission, and who knows what trouble Qualcomm may still face in the People's Republic of China, considering that there is speculation about Huawei having ceased to make royalty payments to Qualcomm.

As one would have expected, Qualcomm is fighting the decision. The Bloomberg story I linked to further above says Qualcomm will seek a stay and appeal. It was recently denied a stay in South Korea, by the way.

This has been a very eventful ten months for Qualcomm in antitrust terms. It's hard to identify the tipping point, but my prediction is Qualcomm will have to fundamentally change its patent licensing and other business practices in the not too distant future, and when that happens, today's Taiwanese decision will be considered to have been among the more important events in that regard.

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Monday, October 9, 2017

Qualcomm forced to offer commitments in order to obtain EU clearance of NXP deal

There have been strong indications that the European Commission's Directorate-General for Competition (DG COMP) has serious concerns about the potentially anti-competitive effects of Qualcomm's proposed acquisition of NXP Semiconductors. By now, there can be no doubt about that: the Commission's website states that Qualcomm submitted commitments four days ago. No one offers commitments if unconditional clearance is achievable.

Typically, companies discuss such proposed commitments with the Commission beforehand. If the Commission believes the commitments might be useful, it puts them to a market test, giving stakeholders an opportunity to comment. Here, there is no official confirmation--just rumors--of an ongoing market test.

As I've said earlier in the process, the only meaningful remedy here would be an obligation for Qualcomm to extend licenses (obviously on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms) to rival chipset makers. That would help Qualcomm's competitors and customers alike. With the licensed product being a chipset, the royalty base alone makes it very hard, if not practically impossible, for Qualcomm to charge anywhere near the license fees it appears to demand from device makers. But it would have been out of character for Qualcomm to propose such a commitment. I guess Qualcomm would rather walk out on the NXP deal, but I wish I turned out to have been wrong on the effectiveness of its proposed commitments, though merger remedies (other than a divestment of certain assets) are rarely helpful--in most cases they just look like they would ensure fair competition while they actually don't, either because they don't go far enough or because they lack specificity.

No matter whether Qualcomm's proposed merger remedies are helpful, the fact that Qualcomm apparently felt forced to offer any commitments in order to obtain clearance is the latest indication that regulators in different parts of the world are concerned about some aspects of Qualcomm's business model and practices.

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Thursday, October 5, 2017

DoJ backs Apple, says Supreme Court should deny Samsung's most recent cert petition

Just this week, the Wall Street Journal reported on the high-volume business Apple is doing with Samsung, a key supplier of components for various products including the new flagship iPhone, the iPhone X, on which Samsung will reportedly make $110 per unit. But as device makers, the two remain fierce competitors--and adversaries in court.

A few months after the Supreme Court of the United States requested the Trump Administration's perspective on Samsung's most recent petition for writ of certiorari, the Solicitor General of the United States, Noel Francisco, has expressed the views of the U.S. federal government (this post continues below the document):

16-1102 Views of the United States by Florian Mueller on Scribd

The short version is this: the DoJ tells the Supreme Court to deny all three parts of Samsung's petition, but it's not a ringing endorsement of the Federal Circuit's controversial en banc decision. Not at all. It's completely based on procedural and standard-of-review considerations.

The following passages show that the DoJ doesn't necessarily agree with the Fed. Cir. majority:

"The sufficiency-of-the-evidence question presented on appeal was a close one, and the court of appeals may have erred in concluding that substantial evidence supported aspects of the jury's verdict."

"If the Federal Circuit continues to develop and enforce rigid rules for demonstrating obviousness, this Court's review may ultimately be warranted. This case, however, would be an unsuitable vehicle for addressing that issue. Because petitioners did not preserve any objection that the jury instructions [...]"

"Although the phrase 'some connection' may be infelicitous, [...]"

In the famous design patents case, the DoJ agreed with Samsung on the key legal question (article of manufacture). It additionally brought up a procedural question that could have enabled Apple to defend the original damages award. Now, with respect to the more recent petition relating to invalidity, injunctive relief, and infringement, the DoJ cautiously distances itself from the en banc opinion and indicates only between the lines that it may disagree, to some extent, from a policy perspective ("rigid rules for demonstrating obviousness" etc.). It would have been nice if the DoJ had been clearer about the implications of this for U.S. tech companies and for the work of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which is supposed to protect real technological progress, which is hard to do if even weak evidence of non-obviousness gets a lot of weight. The DoJ could have expressed more clearly a concern over what this means for patent quality, but unfortunately it didn't.

So what does this mean for the prospects of Samsung's cert petition?

The George Mason Law Review published an empirical analysis of cert procedures (PDF), according to which the Supreme Court became more likely to grant certiorari in a case where the Solicitor General was invited to file a brief regardless of whether the SG recommended cert or not. It's a fact that the Supreme Court grants more petitions following a Call for Views of the Solicitor General than the SG recommends should be granted.

Of course, it's too early to have statistics on how the Supreme Court views Solicitor General Francisco's recommendations. But it's not like it's over for Samsung. It's a setback for them and, conversely, a significant intermediate victory for Apple, but the Supreme Court can still decide either way.

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