Thursday, October 29, 2020

The lemmings of patent injunction reform: Microsoft, BMW, Deutsche Telekom joined ip2innovate during German reform process

Political decision-making processes tend to be so complex that it's often very difficult to identify a clear causation between what went wrong and why. In connection with Germany's patent reform, which has been carefully crafted by the country's government to change almost nothing at all (see my initial reaction to yesterday's official legislative proposal), one can infer from publicly-accessible documents that the Brussels-based ip2innovate lobby group (Google, Daimler, SAP etc.) committed the colossal blunder that most likely condemns the reform effort to fail. "Be careful what you wish for." IP2I advocated the term "Einzelfall" that is now the central term that will render the reform ineffectual because the government's official legislative rationale clearly defines it as "hardly ever happens." Now the losers are trapped in a no-through one-way street as they can't lobby against their own proposal. They dug their own reform's grave.

Germany's leading information & communications technology news site, Heise online, quotes my analysis in an article on yesterday's legislative proposal, including my criticism of IP2I's lack of strategic sophistication. For what I know, however, chip makers Nvidia and Intel, while they're longstanding IP2I members, can't be blamed for the "Einzelfall" crap.

Were IP2I only a fringe group of the patent reform movement, the others could still combat that "Einzelfall" term effectively. But birds of a feather flock together, and lemmings famously follow other lemmings. With the sole exception of Volkswagen (the whole group including subsidiaries like Audi and Porsche), IP2I's membership directory lists practically every large German organization that demands injunction reform.

Over the course of this year, the misguided IP policy groups of three large organizations--two of them among Germany's largest corporations--joined IP2I:

  • Microsoft,

  • BMW, and

  • Deutsche Telekom.

Deutsche Telekom's IP department habitually hurts the company's interests. They even contributed their cellular standard-essential patents (SEPs) to the abusive Avanci pool. They might have found it convenient, and maybe they thought it was "cool" to join some large patent holders in a pool, but Avanci is all about driving up licensing costs, which runs counter to Deutsche Telekom's interests. Also, Deutsche Telekom is still the only company known to have made a huge royalty payment to patent troll IPCom. They could have avoided it by simply insulating their then-outgoing CEO from the potential fallout from IPCom's patent assertions against him. Instead, they paid hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when Nokia and HTC were actually defending themselves very successfully against that same patent portfolio. Deutsche Telekom also has a reputation for having caved to other patent holders in situations in which many others wouldn't have done so.

As I already noted yesterday, Deutsche Telekom might benefit to some degree from the fact that the reform bill makes harm to third parties a factor. In Dusseldorf that might help; in Munich and even in Mannheim, it most likely won't. Those courts will tell them to take a license. If patent holders seek injunctions that threaten to shut down Deutsche Telekom's network, it's just a means to an end. The end is a costly license deal; leverage from an injunction is the means. So those patent holders will make a licensing offer, and the courts will then tell Deutsche Telekom that the harm they suffer isn't irreparable: they don't have to switch off their network infrastructure as they can take a license. I already explained based on the January draft bill how this would work.

The world's top three smartphone makers--Apple, Samsung, and Huawei--are notably absent from IP2I's membership directory. They have to defend themselves against German patent infringement complaints all the time. In order for them to be in a better position, the hurdle for a useful injunction reform statute would be considerably higher than for Deutsche Telekom (which can at least argue that third parties depend on access to its network) and German car makers, which have substantial manufacturing operations that would be susceptible to a German injunction. Again, I believe even Deutsche Telekom and those automotive companies will ultimately just be coerced into taking licenses on unreasonable terms. But at least they have far more of a hardship argument than foreign companies that export their smartphones and similar devices to Germany.

As foreign companies with limited head counts in Germany, those three would have found it difficult to make much of an impact. If Huawei had joined, it could even have been counterproductive, considering that those opposing reform (such as Nokia) would presumably have tried to politicize the debate.

Whether Apple and Samsung should have done more, in quantitative as well as qualitative terms, is a question those companies will answer for themselves when this reform process is over. Where the process stands today, the most likely outcome is that they'll just spend more money on proportionality arguments (lawyers, experts) but those suing them will have basically the same leverage in negotiations as today. There's an asymmetry here: patent trolls, or companies that practically behave like trolls by suing companies they're not competing with, only stand something to gain, and nothing to lose. They typically wield portfolios, not individual patents, and they can sue in three or more different German venues as they need leverage in only one of them.

This is frustrating to watch. It must be far more frustrating for companies to find themselves on the receiving end of those lawsuits. I warned many of them a year ago, and earlier this year. I told them what was going wrong, and how they'd have had to fix it. There was some hope last month because the previous draft looked like the government had made concessions on the statute and simply hadn't updated the legislative rationale yet. Now that the legislative rationale suggests it's easier to spot a pink elephant in your garden than a German patent case in which an injunction would be denied over proportionality considerations, and with most reform advocates being bound to IP2I's misguided March 2020 submission proposing "Einzelfall," it's extremely hard to imagine a turnaround.

Besides IP2I, there's only one other major industry group pushing for reform, and that's the VDA (German automotive industry association). They have members such as Bosch that prevent them from taking really strong positions, and they lack IP policy expertise at the staff level. So it would be a surprise if they could solve the problem IP2I has created.

I'm quite sure I'll point to yesterday's posts as well as this one many times in the coming years whenever some high-profile German patent injunctions come down or the possibility of such injunctions forces companies into license agreements. I'll be looking out for that pink elephant, and maybe I'll spot one once every while, but I won't blame the judges for what is the only reasonable interpretation of this statute in light of the official commentary: you normally don't even have to conduct a full-blown proportionality analysis because defendants will fail to distinguish their situation from that of any other defendant who has the choice of simply taking a license.

Before the Bundestag (Federal Parliament) formally receives the bill, the Bundesrat (Federal Council) will analyze the proposal and make an official statement that is going to influence the parliamentary process. Chances are that the Federal Council will either say that even this reform proposal goes too far or that it's acceptable but will warn against seriously restricting access to patent injunctions. Some conservative politicians in the Federal Parliament will almost certainly prevent any impactful reform from being passed into law, and time is on their side as the end of the legislative term is approaching (and COVID complicates everything).

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