One of the most well-respected competition enforcement agencies in the world, the German Bundeskartellamt (Federal Cartel Office), has dealt a major blow to Nokia's abusive standard-essential patent assertion campaign against Daimler and, by extension, Daimler's global suppliers. As a result, the Mannheim Regional Court has already postponed the ruling it was slated to announce tomorrow (June 23) to August 4, 2020.
On June 18, Joerg Nothdurft, one of the highest-ranking officials of the Federal Cartel Office, sent a 24-page fax to the Mannheim and Munich courts, outlining the antitrust agency's perspective on the question of component-level licensing. In what is comparable to a Statement of Interest by the DOJ in U.S. cases or an amicus curiae brief, the Federal Cartel Office moves to stay Nokia's SEP infringement cases against Daimler and to refer multiple outcome-determinative legal questions to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) in Luxembourg.
The letter notes that two of Daimler's suppliers--Continental and Valeo--drew the office's attention to certain issues.
The Federal Cartel Office proposes to request the CJEU to opine on a set of specific legal questions:
The first question is whether it constitutes an abuse of a dominant position under EU competition law to pursue injunctive relief against an end-product maker while refusing to fully license its suppliers.
The second question relates to whether a SEP holder is "entirely free" to choose the target of an infringement action regardless of its position in the supply chain.
The third question outlines specific cases in which the Federal Cartel Office is inclined to believe that suppliers are entitled to a license.
The fourth and final question raises the issue of whether SEP holders are free to offer a license only to a particular level of the supply chain.
The Federal Cartel Office notes that the European Commission's Directory-General for Competition (DG COMP) has not yet decided whether to open formal investigations, but that its failure to do so does not suggest that Nokia's course of action is in compliance with EU antitrust law.
I interpret the Mannheim Regional Court's postponement of tomorrow's decision on very short notice as a sign that the court originally intended to order a Germany-wide sales ban, but is now forced to give this further thought. I cannot imagine that Judge Dr. Kircher is still going to enjoin Daimler. And if he did so, his injunction would be stayed by the appeals court in no time.
This development is the worst news ever for Nokia and its partners-in-crime (mostly the Avanci gang) in the automotive patent wars. Nokia's and its trolls' (as well as Sharp's) infringement campaign is going to grind to a halt now. The Court of Justice of the EU will decide. DG COMP may or may not launch formal investigations now, but in the event of a referral of those legal questions to Luxembourg, the Commission would most likely await the outcome before taking specific action against Nokia. I suspect that the Federal Cartel Office filed its amicus curiae brief with DG COMP's unofficial blessings.
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