Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Nokia's choice of software patents asserted against Daimler exposes pretext for refusing to license automotive suppliers

PaRR's EU antitrust reporter Khushita Vasant received information from two sources according to which a third round of mediation talks--after the first two, held in January and February, failed--might take place between Nokia and Daimler as well as many (though not all) of its suppliers of telematics control units (TCUs). Knowing how these things work, I guess the situation is now simply one in which the European Commission remains hesitant, for purely political reasons, to take action, and is playing for time, as is Nokia, whose patent portfolio is going down the tubes with every month that passes.

Commissioner Margrethe Vestager is even way tougher than her famous predecessor in office "Steelie Neelie" was when it comes to enforcement against U.S. companies, but (so far, so bad) soft as a jellyfish on Nokia. She and Nokia might just hope that the patent infringement ruling scheduled by the Munich I Regional Court for April 9, 2020 would scare Daimler into a settlement. It's hardly a coincidence that the rumored new round of mediation talks has the same target date...

Regardless of that latest disgraceful development, I was taking a closer look at Nokia's ten patents-in-suit against Daimler from the perspective of whether there is a scintilla of doubt about Nokia acting abusively by refusing to license Daimler's TCU suppliers. There is not.

As Daimler's lead counsel in the German infringement cases accurately noted last fall, cellular standard-essential patents (SEPs) cover techniques that are essentially embodied in the baseband chip. From a car maker's vantage point at the bottom of the supply chain, that's a tier 3 product, which gets incorporated into a (tier 2) network access device (NAD; one might also call this a connectivity module, which in turn resides in a TCU (tier 1). In other words, TCUs already contain a whole lot more hardware than is actually needed to exhaust the patentee's rights by licensing the upstream.

The European Commission employs an elite of public servants. There's no way the Commission's experts wouldn't have figured out during all of that time since Daimler's 2018 (!) complaint that Nokia's allegation of a TCU not actually practicing the standard is, euphemistically so as to avoid an analogy to bovine excrements, a pretext.

The Golden Rule of patent law: the name of the game is the claim. "Claim" in the sense of a patent claim, not a claim in terms of a (mis)representation.

The patent claims determine the scope of protection a patent enjoys. When looking at the claims of Nokia's patents-in-suit, and even when looking at the specifications (whose sole purpose in litigation is to help interpret the claims), it becomes clear that Nokia's patents don't cover end products such as a car (quite often, the Nokia-Daimler dispute is misleadingly referred to as a "connected vehicle" dispute, though none of Nokia's wireless SEPs have anything to do with what sets cars apart from phones).

In fact, seven (70%) out of Nokia's ten patents-in-suit against Daimler are even officially declared to be software patents (which the remaining three are as well, as I'll explain in a moment). That is so because they come with computer program claims--patent claims covering software without any hardware being required to infringe. As a former anti-software-patent campaigner, I'm particularly sensitive to this, and I believe the European Patent Office granted those claims in violation of the European Patent Convention, but they do come in handy now as they belie Nokia's anti-antitrust-enforcement narrative. You can find the claims toward the end of each patent specification, and I'll give an example of one program (in terms of software) claim per patent:

  • claim 5 of EP2797239 on "a method and a telecommunication device for selecting a number of code channels and an associated spreading factor for a CDMA transmission"

  • claim 15 of EP2087626 on "additional modulation information signaling for high speed downlink packet access"

  • claim 15 of EP2981103 on an "allocation of preamble sequences"

  • claim 7 of EP2286629 on a "method and apparatus to link modulating and coding scheme to amount of resources"

  • claim 8 ("computer-readable storage medium comprising software instructions" is a computer program by any other name) of EP2145404 on a "method and apparatus for providing control chanels for broadcast and paging services"

  • claim 31 of EP1929826 on an "apparatus, method and computer program product to request data rate increase based on ability to transmit at least one more selected data unit"

  • claim 22 of EP2087629 on "a method of transmitting data within a telecommunications system"

The software that controls data transfers over a cellular model resides in a baseband chip. That's the mastermind of the whole operation. It determines what is sent out via the antenna, and it interprets what is received.

All ten of Nokia's patents-in-suit against Daimler could also be called "protocol patents": they describe how two ends of a wireless connection communicate--what A has to tell B to cause B to do something, or vice versa. It's like I say "hello, how are you?" and you respond "fine, how are you?"

That kind of communication is, of course, implemented in software (it already has been for a very long time).

There's nothing in those Nokia's patents that has to do with superior hardware. I ran full-text searches over the patent specifications, and looked closely at the device (or "apparatus") claims to identify any references to the types of hardware components that Nokia claims aren't part of TCUs:

  • Eight (80%) out of the ten patents-in-suit contain not a single occurrence of at least one the following words: antenna, microphone, loudspeaker, power.

  • EP'626 refers to "antenna weights" and mentions the presence of an electrical power source (without claiming to invent anything new relating to electrical power supply). The patent covers bits (zeroes or ones) that are sent and received, and the apparatus claims don't require any specific hardware but merely refer to "means for interpreting ... bit[s]" and "means for coding." That, too, is a typical software patent.

  • DE'446 (the German equivalent of EP'234) only mentions "power" in the sense of "power control" as a numerical parameter. Here, again, it's instructive to look at the apparatus claims, which as opposed to claiming specific hardware relate to a "medium access control layer configured to encapsulate packets."

  • The means-plus-function structure found in EP'626 and EP'234/DE'446 is also found in the other patents. Nokia's patent attorneys obviously optimized those claims for scope, and that's why they don't claim specific hardware elements such as an antenna, but instead focus on functionality. However, as long as there isn't a need for some very specific (and inventive!) hardware, but it merely suffices that something be around to do a certain job, the baseband chip as the controller of the data transfer operation is where the claimed inventive steps are implemented.

Those ten patents are the ones Nokia's litigators--among the very, very best in the industry--selected from the company's huge portfolio because they thought they'd be their strongest weapons. We could look at dozens or even at hundreds of additional cellular SEPs owned by Nokia or other companies, and the findings would be materially consistent with this sample of ten Nokia "star" patents.

It's time to get real. There's no justification for not licensing automotive suppliers, especially not under the CJEU's Huawei v. ZTE case law.

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