Sunday, January 12, 2020

BREAKING NEWS: Nokia makes antitrust mediation with Daimler and automotive suppliers over standard-essential patent licensing fail


Nokia wanted to keep its EU antitrust mediation with Daimler and various automotive suppliers strictly confidential. Nice try, but I've been able to obtain reliable and mutually-corroborating information from more than one source. (I obviously protect my sources.)

On Friday (January 10) and Saturday (January 11), Nokia--represented by Bird & Bird's Richard Vary (formerly head of litigation at Nokia) and Roschier's Niklas Östman--met with Daimler and various suppliers (Bosch, BURY Technologies, Continental, Harman, Peiker, and TomTom) at a recently-opened Munich hotel. But nothing came out of a whole series of meetings moderated by a British mediator and two British lawyers appointed by the International Chamber of Commerce. The mediator will communicate with the parties by telephone in the days ahead and make a procedural decision. Theoretically, there could be another series of meetings on the 22nd and the 23rd. However, based on how these past two days went, it would be a total waste of time to reconvene.

In practical terms, it's already clear that mediation is pointless for two reasons that made the Munich meetings fail, neither of which comes as a surprise:

  • Mediation would only have made sense if Nokia had departed from its dogged refusal to extend a true and exhaustive standard-essential patent (SEP) license to Daimler's tier 1 (= direct) suppliers. Continental had made Nokia a binding offer to take such a license before mediation began, but Nokia remains unwilling to grant any such thing as a true license to component makers. It proposes a "have made" right, which is just an extended-workbench type of arrangement as opposed to a component-level license.

  • Furthermore, the meetings inevitably proved unproductive because Nokia refused to make it existing cellular SEP licensing agreements (such as the one with Huawei) available to the other parties. Nokia's excuse was that those agreements allegedly weren't relevant (not only U.S. courts but even some--if not all--German courts would disagree). Therefore, Nokia's counterparts would have had to negotiate without having the slightest idea of what Nokia's existing licensees actually pay for those SEPs.

    At best, Nokia is willing to disclose an obscure and highly atypical license agreement with a car maker who apparently accepted--but only for a transitional period and with the right to terminate as per the end of 2019--a "have made" right. That same car maker is likely to sign an Avanci pool license in the near term based on what I heard.

The information I've obtained suggests that Nokia has not been constructive, neither structurally (exhaustive license vs. "have made" right) nor procedurally (disclosure of existing SEP license agreements). If Nokia had agreed to grant component-level licenses (real licenses, not "have made" rights), and if it had then presented its existing SEP licensing agreements, mediation could have worked in theory. But no one could seriously have expected it to happen, which is why I predicted the failure of this mediation effort before. By now it's failed for all practical purposes, whether or not the mediator will order another series of meetings later this month.

EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager said last month that she expected an update on mediation by mid-February. She's not going to get any good news out of mediation, that's for sure.

What I've found out about the way the talks were structured is that the first day consisted of bilateral talks between Nokia and each of Daimler's suppliers. The suppliers invited to mediation included the ones intervening in the German infringement cases, plus Samsung subsidiary Harman, but not Huawei, which wanted to join but Nokia wasn't willing.

On the second day, Nokia might have hoped to drive a wedge between Daimler and its suppliers. Daimler met separately with each supplier (for antitrust reasons, they couldn't just all sit at the same table and discuss numbers), but neither Daimler nor the suppliers were prepared to agree with Nokia that the problem could simply be solved by Daimler reaching an agreement with each supplier on how to split the outrageous, supra-FRAND royalties Nokia demands.

The European Commission's Directorate-General for Competition (DG COMP) will have to make a decision. They hoped to avoid it, but it was clear that there's a binary, structural question at issue. Either the suppliers get a license and can make components they are free to sell not only to Daimler but also to others (in case they end up sitting on some excess quantities, for instance), or it's not a license.

The next Nokia v. Daimler SEP infringement trial is scheduled for January 21 and will take place in Mannheim unless the court decides to push the trial date back. Another Mannheim trial, originally scheduled for December, was postponed on short notice, but I heard from more than one source that the patent-in-suit in that one was so ridiculously weak that the court likely wouldn't have reached the FRAND defense anyway...

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