Friday, February 21, 2020

French court may hold ETSI FRAND declarations to be binding contracts to the benefit of third parties: cross-jurisdictional ramifications

Two weeks ago, the Tribunal judiciaire de Paris (TJP), which was known as the Tribunal de Grande Instance (TGI) until the turn of the year, handed down an order in TCL v. Philips & ETSI, a case that has the potential to affect cellular standard-essential patent (SEP) jurisprudence throughout and beyond the rest of Europe. That's because the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) is based in Sophia Antipolis in the south of France, and the FRAND licensing pledges made by participants in cellular standard-setting to ETSI must be interpreted under French law wherever on this planet a party invokes an ETSI FRAND declaration by a patent holder.

I don't see a potential impact on how U.S. courts adjudicate cellular SEP licensing disputes as they have consistently recognized third-party beneficiary rights in connection with FRAND licensing pledges. However, on the other end of the spectrum there are those extremely biased German courts that have for many years stopped at pretty much nothing in their quest to favor patent holders over implementers, and as part of that have denied third-party beneficiary rights. Continuing to deny the existence of third-party beneficiary rights in connection with ETSI FRAND pledges will be quite problematic (to say the least) if and when the French court to which all French patent disputes are assigned has provided clarification with respect to a FRAND declaration that indisputably must be interpreted under French law. For implementers of standards it would definitely be a positive to be able to rely not only on antitrust law (abuse of dominant market position) but, additionally, on contract law (as defendants to U.S. SEP cases do all the time).

Once again, China's TCL, a company that expanded from TV sets into other segments of the consumer electronics market (though I can't remember ever having seen any of their products in a store, neither in the U.S. nor in Germany), is party to an important SEP case. A couple of months ago, the Federal Circuit vacated in part, reversed in part and remanded TCL v. Ericsson to the Central District of California. What the Federal Circuit took issue with is that Ericsson was denied a jury trial regarding a release payment (past infringement damages by any other name) for past unlicensed sales.

The dispute between Philips--an aggressive SEP enforcer that miserably failed in the mobile handset business just like Ericsson and Nokia--and TCL didn't originally appear to be remarkable in any way. TCL refused to bow to Philips's royalty demands (as had others before TCL), so Philips sued TCL in the UK for infringement of two select SEPs (in 2018). But then came the French connection: almost exactly a year ago, TCL brought a complaint under contract law against Philips and ETSI in France--ETSI's legal domicile.

The objective is to get Philips to make a FRAND licensing offer to TCL, which would be reviewed or, if Philips fails to make an offer, simply be determined by the French judiciary. ETSI itself does not hold patents, but TCL wants ETSI to make a contribution to the process. That sounds vague (as Philips's attorneys accurately note). It's easy to see why ETSI--or any other standard-setting organization--wouldn't want to be drawn into that kind of dispute.

The decision that came down in Paris earlier this month is basically the equivalent of a U.S. court order denying a motion to dismiss (this post continues below the document):

20-02-06 TJP Order in TCL v... by Florian Mueller on Scribd

Philips wanted to get rid of the French case and instead just have any FRAND licensing matters resolved, to the extent this would obviously be necessary before an injunction could come down, by the England & Wales High Court. But pointing to the fact that the UK case is the earlier-filed one wasn't enough.

What crystallized at this early stage of proceeding is that TCL and Philips have divergent views on the legal significance of the ETSI FRAND licensing pledge signed by the participants in its standards-development processes. Philips described it as merely a precontractual matter, while TCL insisted that it constitutes what is called a "stipulation pour autrui"--a covenant benefitting a third party, i.e., a contract that can be enforced by anyone implementing a standard such as 3G/UMTS or 4G/LTE (thus also by non-ETSI members).

TCL's related prayer for relief is "juger que les déclarations d’essentialité faites par les sociétés PHILIPS à l’ETSI constituent une promesse de concéder une licence à des conditions FRAND aux sociétés membres du groupe TCL, portant sur l’ensemble des brevets des sociétés PHILIPS déclarés essentiels pour les normes UMTS et LTE." My unofficial translation: "declare that the essentiality declarations made by the Philips entities to ETSI constitute a covenant to grant a license on FRAND terms to TCL entities, covering the entire portfolio of patents declared by the Philips entities to be essential to the UMTS and LTE standards"

At this stage, the court has not entered (declaratory) judgment yet. However, it has denied Philips's request for dismissal in its entirety and allowed the case to go forward (with a caveat I'll explain in a moment). It's slightly--but legitimately--speculative to say that the case would probably have been dismissed if Philips had succeeded in persuading the court that TCL didn't have a hard contract case.

I've seen at least one commentary, by a group of three French lawyers, who interpret the order as "the first time that a French court rules that the promise made by the owner of SEPs as per ETSI's IPR Policy governed by French law constitutes a 'stipulation pour autrui'." But my reading of the decision is more conservative. Outside the sections in which the court summarizes the parties' pleadings without stating its own opinion, it mentions the key term "stipulation por autrui" only once (the bottommost paragraph on page 10):

"Si les fondements juridiques des demandes dirigées contre l'ETSI et les sociétés PHILIPS sont différents (les premières sont fondées sur le contrat d’association qui régit les rapports entre l'ETSI et ses membres et les secondes sur la stipulation pour autrui par laquelle les sociétés PHILIPS se sont engagées à consentir des licences à des conditions FRAND issues des règles de fonctionnement de l'ETSI), il ne s'agit pas d'un obstacle à la reconnaissance d'une identité de situation de droit, ainsi que l'a jugé la Cour, ce d'autant moins qu'en l'occurrence les demandes sont toutes expressément soumises à la loi française ainsi que le prévoient les règles de procédure élaborées par l'ETSI." (emphasis added)

The highlighted part means "the covenant to the benefit of a third party by which the Philips Entities have promised to grant licenses on FRAND terms further to ETSI's by-laws." I can see why some would read this as a holding by the court that the relevant passage of the ETSI FRAND declaration (Article 6.1) indeed constitutes a contract to the benefit of a third party. There would be a grammatical argument here: the court could have used "seraient" instead of "sont" in order to distance itself, by means of indirect speech, from TCL's assertion. Imagine "seraient" as being the same as "sont," but with the equivalent of "allegedly" before it. I am sensitive to that grammatical difference because there was a time when I did a whole lot of work on EU policy matters, and when French, Belgian or Luxembourgian politicians gave speeches, the grammatical form indicated whether they stated a fact or merely restated someone else's account. But in this case I'm still hesitant to view this as a judicial conclusion. The reason for my conservative approach is the context. Not only is the wider context an order on a motion to dismiss, but the highlighted passage merely appears in parentheses in a conditional subclause ("Si" = "If").

The order is not a declaratory judgment, but a denial of a motion to dismiss, so it would be a dictum at best. But for the reasons stated above, I believe the context calls into question that the grammatical form alone indicates a judicial holding regarding third-party beneficiary rights.

While Philips's motion to dismiss has failed for the time being, ETSI's still requires further analysis. The court will hold a hearing in June on the question of whether ETSI is properly named as a defendant. Further briefing will be provided by the parties in the meantime.

Now there's a tricky procedural aspect. In order for the French court to find that the French contract case can go forward despite the UK patent infringement case having been filed earlier, there had to be a close connection between the claims against Philips (which is neither a French nor a UK party) and ETSI (a French organization). The court found that ETSI's role in monitoring the implementation of its licensing rules would be sufficiently closely related to Philips's obligation (at least as alleged by TCL) to extend a FRAND license to TCL. Such a close relationship is sufficient to establish French jurisdiction as ETSI is a French defendant. But what if the further proceedings resulted in a holding that there are no justiciable claims here against ETSI?

I can't predict whether French procedures would result in a dismissal of the case against Philips, too, given that suing ETSI was key to TCL's theory for French jurisdiction. But, at a minimum, such a holding would raise the bar for other parties who may bring French contract cases in the future against holders of patents declared essential to ETSI standards.

At this stage, the court has merely found that ETSI may be properly named as a defendant. But the actual decision on whether ETSI remains in the case will be made later this year. And thereafter we may see a declaratory judgment on the ETSI declaration, a prospect that makes this a case worth watching as it has the potential to provide much-needed clarification (which in some less conservative people's eyes it already has!).

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