Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Retired UK judge: ETSI FRAND pledge requires component-level licensing of cellular standard-essential patents

Today's IPKat/LSE Joint Event was entitled "The CJEU's billion-dollar questions -- who gets a SEP license and when should an injunction be granted?" One of Europe's most famous patent judges, recently-retired Lord Justice Sir Christopher Floyd, gave a clear answer to the first question: in his interpretation, ETSI's standard-essential patent (SEP) licensing pledge entitles every maker of equipment, including suppliers of components, to a license on FRAND terms.

That conclusion didn't surprise me. The ETSI agreement must be interpreted under French law, and at my Brussels conference on component-level SEP licensing in November 2019, French law professor Philippe Stoffel-Munck took the same position. What made the judge's position today particularly noteworthy is that he previously criticized the ETSI FRAND pledge for containing only about half the clarity that he'd like to see in it. He provide one example of such a shortcoming: the pledge doesn't specify in what forum any disputes over licensing terms should be resolved.

While some major cellular SEP holders--such as InterDigital, whose licensing chief Eeva Hakoranta also spoke today--argue that licensing at the end-product level is the standard in their industry, two industry representatives at today's webinar--though it's important to note they all expressed only their personal opinions--explained why component-level licensing is key to the ability of standardization to serve its purpose. Intel's IP policy chief Dr. Rebekka Porath mentioned that Intel, a member of approximately 300 standard-setting organizations, does grant SEP licenses at the component level. Last summer, a component-level SEP license deal between Huawei and Sharp became known (neither Huawei nor Sharp spoke today). Automotive supplier Continental's IP chief Dr. Roman Bonn explained the supply chain for connected cars, where cellular standards are implemented in the baseband chipset. What corroborates this view is what WilmerHale's patent and antitrust attorney Tim Syrett explained: he's litigated various SEP cases in the U.S. involving SEPs, and the infringement analysis always focused on the source code of the baseband chip. (This is a structural difference between SEP litigation in the U.S. and Germany; in the latter country, infringement allegations are typically based on the specification of a standard, not on what the accused products actually do.)

With respect to industry practice, SEP litigants, particularly Nokia, frequently point to the Avanci patent pool, which licenses end-product makers (and to the extent it has anything to offer to tier 1 suppliers, i.e. car makers' direct suppliers, that's not a full and exhaustive license). In today's IPKat/LSE webinar, Mrs. Hakaronta from InterDigital mentioned that 20 automotive brands had taken an Avanci license (while complaining in no uncertain terms about the attitude of other auto makers to SEP licensing, with a particular emphasis on Daimler).

The number of 20 (Avanci-licensee brands) is an overstatement because some of them have licenses that don't cover 4G (just up to 3G). Volkswagen's chief patent counsel Uwe Wiesner was among the speakers of yesterday's patent pools webinar, organized by the European Commission's DG GROW. His presentation quoted an October 2020 paper according to which "[t]he automakers that have taken a license represented approximately 12% of the total worldwide vehicle production in 2019." Volkswagen's high-volume brands apparently don't have a 4G license from Avanci.

Mr. Wiesner's Avanci "case study" painted anything but a rosy picture. He criticized Avanci's rule of licensing only car makers for not meeting the needs of potential customers. To put it differently, Mr. Wiesner didn't quite sound like a perfectly happy customer: at least it's fair to say he sees a lot of room for improvement, and isn't fully sold yet on Avanci's terms, despite being generally sympathetic to pools.

The Dusseldorf Regional Court's preliminary reference of access to component-level licenses to the European Court of Justice won't be decided in webinars. But such events shed light on the underlying facts and on industry realities. Plus, today a fomer high-profile judge took a crystal clear position on access to component-level SEP licenses based on the ETSI FRAND pledge.

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