With multiple simultaneous filings dated July 6, 2020, Sharp partially withdrew its German standard-essential patent (SEP) infringement actions against Daimler as the Foxconn-owned Japanese electronics maker has concluded an automotive component-level license agreements with Huawei. The infringement actions are continuing with respect to Daimler cars that do not come with a Huawei baseband chipset, telematics module, or telematics control unit (TCU).
In terms of the economic significance of the remaining claims, it's a safe assumption that well over half of the dispute between Sharp and Daimler has been amicably resolved by virtue of patent exhaustion. But this breakthrough agreement far transcends that particular set of cases. It divides the Avanci gang led by patent abusers and formed for the purpose of dissuading blue-chip SEP holders such as Sharp from granting component-level licenses, while exposing Nokia's dogged denial of the feasibility and fairness of component-level SEP licenses as purely pretextual. Sharp's partial withdrawals conclusively prove that it is possible to differentiate at the end-product level based on upstream suppliers.
I applaud Sharp--which owns a large SEP portfolio and has proven its will to enforce its rights in court--for showing the way forward for licensing cellular SEPs to the automotive industry, which has traditionally required its suppliers to secure the prerequisite patent licenses; I congratulate Huawei on having convinced Sharp of the benefits of such an agreement at the negotiating table; and I'm happy to see Daimler--as a beneficiary of its indirect customer relationship with Huawei, which is known to provide connectivity modules to Daimler's tier 1 suppliers such as Continental and Harman--being relieved from a significant part of the litigation pressures it has been facing for a while. In practical terms, the Sharp-Daimler cases are now merely about past damages with respect to cars that came without Huawei components. Injunctive relief is a practical non-issue as Daimler could presumably equip 100% of its products with components supplied by Huawei or coming with Huawei chips and modules.
It bears recalling that Huawei is suing Nokia in Dusseldorf for an exhaustive component-level SEP license on FRAND terms. That antitrust trial will go forward in early September. Meanwhile, Nokia's infringement claims against Daimler are falling apart.
The Sharp-Huawei license deal further validates the positions taken by the Bundeskartellamt (Federal Cartel Office of Germany) in its interventions in multiple German Nokia v. Daimler cases, advocating the referral of a set of component-level licensing questions to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU).
The groundbreaking agreement won't go unnoticed in Brussels, where the European Commission is dealing with SEP licensing issues at the policy as well as competition enforcement levels.
The fact that Sharp agreed to license not only tier 2 (connectivity modules) and tier 1 (TCUs) products, but also baseband chipsets (tier 3 from a car maker's perspective), means that this license agreement is bound to be referenced by smartphone makers in some of their disputes. Apple, in particular, has been advocating chipset-level SEP licensing for a long time. Sharp's parent company, Foxconn, is the largest one of Apple's contract manufacturers.
There can't be the slightest doubt that we'll see more and more agreements of this nature and stature now. Some of them will come into being on a consensual basis, such as the one I learned about today, while others will simply result from regulatory action and judicial decisions. One way or the other, the likes of Nokia, Ericsson, and Qualcomm won't be able to deny component-level licenses for too much longer.
IoT startups stand to benefit from this trend. They are far too small to be in a strong position vis-à-vis certain abusive and anti-innovative SEP holders (and the trolls they feed with patents). IoT innovators depend on their suppliers being licensed. The European Commission has failed the IoT industry so far, siding with yesterday's losers rather than tomorrow's winners, but as a result of negotiations (such as Sharp-Huawei), private lawsuits (such as Huawei v. Nokia), and regulatory interventions (such as the Federal Cartel Office's submissions in Nokia v. Daimler), change is coming.
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