Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The most lucrative patent shakedown strategy against German corporations: sue their CEOs

According to conventional wisdom, the way to extract patent royalties from German corporations is the pursuit of injunctive relief. While a reform process is underway, the corridor for any "reform" (a misnomer, thus in quotes) is so very narrow that it won't have any impact on negotiation dynamics. The pro-reform camp missed the opportunity: instead of acting like piranhas that smell blood in the water and then kill their prey, they kept making the kinds of modest political demands (only ultra-rare exceptions for extreme cases of egregiously abusive conduct) with which they got the reform process started, and they continued to limit themselves by operating only within the framework of associations (a recipe for failure). Now it's too late to move into a higher gear, and the German patent injunction regime is here to stay.

But most patent assertion entities have failed to identify and seize what would likely result in even higher royalty payments by German (and to some extent other European) companies, even though proof of concept was delivered more than six years ago. Admittedly, I didn't know either, though I could have found out as early as in the second half of 2013, but (in my defense) that's because I focus primarily on disputes between large operating companies rather than on patent troll cases.

In the summer of 2013, Reuters reported: "IPCom lands cash bonanza from D[eutsche] Telekom settlement." The deal settled all 20 cases between Fortress-funded IPCom (which was asserting former Bosch patents) and Deutsche Telekom. The financial terms weren't disclosed but two sources told Reuters that IPCom was going to receive "a low-to-medium triple-digit million euro" amount. (This blog, too, reported on the settlement.)

I remember overhearing a conversation between lawyers in Mannheim (just before some other trial) who defended other parties, such as HTC, against IPCom. Nokia and HTC defended themselves against IPCom for many years, and numerous parties intervened in various IPCom cases, particularly the cases against carriers. So there were a lot of patent litigators in Germany who had knowledge of where those cases stood, and they weren't impressed with the headway IPCom had made at the given time. Against that backdrop, they were all puzzled as to why Deutsche Telekom would, without an injunction looming large, cough up a rumored amount of hundreds of millions of euros.

The answer: a "CEO suit" strategy played out perfectly for the patent assertion entity. One might also call it the "sleepless nights" strategy.

Deutsche Telekom's 2012 Annual Report (PDF, in German) contained the following passage on patent-related risks (page 163; click on the image to enlarge; this post continues below the image):

The passage I underlined in that screenshot states that IPCom sued not only Deutsche Telekom but also "individual members of its executive board" (in the U.S., one would colloquially call them "C-level execs").

One of those individual defendants was then-CEO René Obermann, who served from late 2006 until the end of 2013. So the settlement fell into place a few months before Mr. Obermann would no longer have been covered by Deutsche Telekom's D&O (directors & officers liability insurance). If IPCom had prevailed after he left Deutsche Telekom, he'd have ended up with a potentially ruinous financial liability. He'd have gone from being a multi-millionaire to personal bankruptcy in an instant.

When the end of his term was approaching, he increasingly got nervous about the fact that the dispute with IPCom hadn't been settled yet. IPCom capitalized on this factor, big-time.

Most likely, this was by far and away the biggest license deal IPCom ever struck, despite the fact that there was no realistic chance that IPCom would have obtained and enforced an injunction anytime soon.

Under German patent law, members of the executive board are personally liable, a fact that patent holders can exploit. However, it works only against executives who live in Germany or at least some other EU member state. Otherwise, cross-border enforcement is unlikely to succeed. Hypothetically speaking, enforcement against a U.S.-based CEO would probably work only if he flew to Germany on a private jet that could be confiscated. The managing directors of local subsidiaries can be sued, but only if their entities actually sell products--not if they are merely marketing agencies within a global group structure.

Germany- and EU-based C-level executives can also be scared into settlements by threatening with criminal action. Willful patent infringements are a punishable crime in Germany (and the pseudo-reform that is in the making won't change a thing about that either), though the hurdle is reasonably high.

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