Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Deutsche Telekomedy in Mannheim: court informally dismisses antitrust claims against IPCom but urges global settlement including infringement action against Sprint in Texas

This Tuesday, the Mannheim Regional Court gave short shrift to Deutsche Telekom v. IPCom, an "antitrust case" in which the mobile network operator is seeking roughly $300 million in restitution (recovery of past royalty payments plus interest). The court's public hearing list described the cause of action in case no. 2 O 130/20 as "anticompetitive discrimination involving standard-essential patents in connection with patent license agreement dated June 7, 2013." Some other claim(s) had already been voluntarily dismissed by the plaintiff ahead of trial. The remainder was stayed at the end of the trial, but on a basis that allows either party anytime to ask the court to resume the proceedings, which would result in a swift ruling that could have only one outcome: a formal dismissal of the case as clearly meritless. As part of its hold-out strategy, Deutsche Telekom even stipulated to that kind of revocable stay, while IPCom would have preferred a decision. Typically, defendants are happy to just put a case against them on hold, but I'll get to the parties' motives later (here's a shortcut to that part of the post)--and they have a lot do with an IPCom v. Sprint case pending before Judge Rodney Gilstrap in the Eastern District of Texas and slated to go to trial next spring.

If I wanted to go into detail on everything that is deficient about Deutsche Telekom's Mannheim complaint, I'd have to write an even longer post, every single paragraph of which would have to start with "Let that sink in" or "Lo and behold," which would get a bit repetitive. Let's focus on the forest rather than get lost in a multitude of trees--and please take any references to Deutsche Telekom's outlandish theories and allegations as if "Let that sink in" had been put in front of a parenthetical expression in a mathematical formula.

What Deutsche Telekom has been trying to do would--if it worked, which it never will--make it practically impossible for parties to enter into reliably stable settlement agreements that put standard-essential patent (SEP) cases to rest. The licensee could always come back later and relitigate settled issues. And even if--as here--a clause specifically and incontrovertibly ruled that behavior out, the licensee would argue--as Clifford Chance "of counsel" Dr. Joachim Schuetze ("Schütze" in German) did on Deutsche Telekom's behalf--that parties cannot dispose of antitrust law no matter what they put into an agreement.

Deutsche Telekom argues that IPCom acted in a discriminatory manner by--well, the court noted it's not even clear what particular action other than not rescinding the 2013 license agreement Deutsche Telekom is complaining of. Deutsche Telekom says it has been discriminated against because no other carrier besides them has so far taken a license from IPCom. Is that IPCom's fault? Deutsche Telekom alleges that IPCom didn't make enough of an effort to force its rivals to take a license. IPCom's lead counsel, Quinn Emanuel's Jérôme Kommer, stated for the record toward the end of the trial that this is not even factually correct, as there are infringement actions (such as against Vodafone in the UK), but the discussion between the court and the parties didn't even get to facts like that because the case necessarily fails as a matter of law.

What would it really mean--talking about the forest, not just the trees--if Deutsche Telekom, in an alternative universe, could prevail? If they could get out of a license agreement because others engaged in holdout for years on end? Let me give you a couple of examples from the automotive industry, where patent infringement is rampant. Almost five years ago, BMW became the first publicly-announced licensee of the Avanci platform (a pool that contains dozens of cellular SEP portfolios--by coincidence it even includes some Deutsche Telekom patents--and represents a one-stop solution for car makers). Earlier this month, Avanci announced its latest license deals and stated that roughly 25 million connected vehicles had been licensed. An all-time licensing volume of 25 million cars is not a lot given that approximately 70 million passenger cars are sold every year, and infringement is even more widespread when considering that most Volkswagen cars have a license only up to 3G while actually coming with 4G connectivity. So, BMW could have turned around after Avanci's recent announcement like Deutsche Telekom did against IPCom. If Deutsche Telekom got its way, BMW could bring claims against Avanci or every one of its licensors (except maybe Qualcomm, whose de facto licensing rate is higher as its chips are in a lot of cars) that the actual licensing rate is very low and BMW has costs that others have so far avoided by means of holdout. "Discrimination. Avanci's licensors aren't suing Toyota, Volkswagen, you name them."

What if Daimler tried to get out of this year's settlement with Nokia, arguing that the patent holder hasn't been licensing other car manufacturers at a pace that the Mercedes maker would deem non-discriminatory?

Those analogies even fall far short of an accurate characterization of the absurdity of Deutsche Telekom's non-case. I don't know the language of BMW's agreement with Avanci, but it wasn't a settlement of pending litigation. By contrast, antitrust issues had actually been raised by Deutsche Telekom in its multi-year litigation with IPCom, but when Deutsche Telekom--not under duress but purely for the convenience of its then-outgoing CEO--wanted to settle, IPCom negotiated a Section 8.2 of the 2013 agreement that Presiding Judge Dr. Holger Kircher of the Mannheim court's Second Civil Chamber read out during the Tuesday trial. That clause explicitly stated that IPCom was under no obligation whatsoever to conclude license agreements (much less on a particular set of terms) with Deutsche Telekom's competitors. Deutsche Telekom originally demanded that the very opposite be put into the agreement (whether an obligation to sue third parties would have been enforceable is another question), but the final contract stated otherwise. It's not hard to imagine that IPCom saw what Deutsche Telekom was preparing for, and wasn't going to fall into that trap.

It is that clause 8.2 that Judge Kircher noted in his initial discussion of the case which is unusual and single-handedly dispositive, obviating the need to reach any of the other questions, of which there are many and the court appeared very unconvinced of Deutsche Telekom's ability to meet any of a plurality of other criteria for the refund (plus interest) the carrier is seeking. Let me give just some examples: it's unclear what particular conduct on IPCom's part constituted discriminatory behavior; Deutsche Telekom contradicts itself by alleging an abuse of market power without ever recognizing the essentiality of a single one of IPCom's patents to any industry standard; and even if Deutsche Telekom inexplicably prevailed somehow, the refund might be offset by a damages award for past infringement. The latter is an interesting aplication of the Latin rule of dolo agit qui petit quod statim redditurus est ("he who has to immediately return what he is seeking brings a bad-faith claim"): normally that concept benefits implementers of standards because they can avert a SEP injunction if they're entitled to a license (and if their behavior meets certain requirements to benefit from that affirmative defense). The injunction would then be enforced in bad faith as a license agreement would resolve the issue. Here, it cuts in the other direction: if Deutsche Telekom managed to extricate from the license agreement, it would retroactively become a multi-year infringer and owe damages (which, by the way, could even be supra-FRAND).

Similarly, the 2013 license agreement comes with a saving clause, so even if a clause was deemed anticompetitive, it would merely have to be replaced with the closest enforceable alternative.

Judge Kircher acknowledged that Deutsche Telekom's complaint raises legal questions of first impression, and the parties could not cite to any applicable precedent. But if you ask me, the case is simply an idiocy of unprecedented proportions in connection with SEP licenses and patent settlements. In any event, Judge Kircher noted that the court would never reach those novel questions because of that clause 8.2.

I admire Deutsche Telekom's lead counsel for arguing with a straight face that the decision the court described as inevitable (a dismissal of the complaint) "would allow non-practicing entities to impose a license agreement on one party and then save the costs of enforcing their patents against others." It doesn't make sense because either the patents are weak, in which case the first licensee in an industry doesn't have to take a license anyway, or they can be enforced, in which case it's always going to make economic sense to sue others--not all of them at the same time, but sooner or later a patent holder will collect back-royalties or sue for past-infringement damages even if the patents had expired.

The court debunked Deutsche Telekom's argument that settlement agreements cannot override, or disable, antitrust law. Obviously parties cannot enter into valid and enforceable agreements in a way that would harm the competitive process. But they can enter into agreements--especially settlement agreements--under which they dispose of individual claims, such as the right to seek a refund under specified circumstances. Neither the court nor IPCom's counsel said so, but my view is this: if Deutsche Telekom wanted to do so, it could complain about IPCom's post-contractual conduct to the Bundeskartellamt (Federal Cartel Office of Germany). The contract wouldn't preclude them from that--no valid and enforceable contract ever could. As Judge Kircher explained on behalf of the court (based on his prior internal discussion with Judge Boettcher, who is the rapporteur on this case, and Judge Elter), Deutsche Telekom was full well aware of a scnario in which its rivals might not take licenses from IPCom on similar terms. That's why they originally wanted a clause 8.2 in the agreement that would have stated the very opposite. They ultimately contended themselves with an agreement that leaves no room for the kind of refund claim they're pursing now. They made their bed and have to lie in it.

Judge Kircher said toward the end (when he urged IPCom to stipulate to a revocable stay so the court might never have to hand down a judgment in this case) that everyone in the room (including yours truly) heard from the court in no uncertain terms that IPCom would win. Also, in his introductory discussion of the case, Judge Kircher noted that besides the legal questions he addressed (and none of which the court appeared inclined to answer in Deutsche Telekom's favor), there were several others, all of which he described as predictable--but he wouldn't even get to them.

So why is Deutsche Telekom pursuing that kind of losing case in the first place?

There are three versions of the story. The simple, obvious, and not reasonably deniable truth is that Deutsche Telekom is being a bully (ab)using some of its vast resources against a small German licensing firm, and the chronology of events shows that this complaint was brought a few months after IPCom sued Sprint, which had meanwhile become a Deutsche Telekom subsidiary, in the Eastern District of Texas. There had been some negotiations between the parties over whether Sprint was or was not licensed under that 2013 agreement (which presumably has some "affiliate entities" type of clause), and if so, on what terms Sprint might get licensed. Deutsche Telekom's lead counsel said that it was during those licensing talks last year that Deutsche Telekom became aware of the fact that no other carrier had taken a license from IPCom (which, again, is why IPCom is suing some of them, and no one can seriously expect them to sue the whole world at the same time). Therefore, the semi-retired Clifford Chance lawyer said Deutsche Telekom's C-level executives identified a need to obtain legal clarification of whether this constituted discrimination.

Even Judge Kircher cautiously put the German action into the context of the Texas case and suggested--in other words--that Deutsche Telekom thought an offense was a necessary part of a good defense. He noted that this German case was about having an action with the reverse caption: Deutsche Telekom v. IPCom in Mannheim as opposed to IPCom v. Sprint (a Deutsche Telekom subsidiary) in Texas. The whole reason the judge urged the parties to stipulate to a revocable stay (with the promise to reach a swift decision if a party changed mind) was that he thought it might make sense for them to also settle the Texas case, which according to his representation involves a $70  million damages claim. Assuming that IPCom is seeking willfullness enhancemenets (aka "treble damages"), that would be more like $210 million, and Deutsche Telekom's behavior does appear unusually reckless. So Judge Kircher would like them to take a break from litigation and talk. They spent about an hour outside the courtroom (quite a long interruption--the court originally gave them 20 minutes). But when they returned to the courtroom, IPCom doubted Deutsche Telekom's sincere intentions to settle. Still, based on Judge Kircher promising that, if need be, the court can resume the proceedings and reach a decision in the very short term, IPCom accepted that the case would be stayed--for now.

Deutsche Telekom's counsel actually considered it offensive that Judge Kircher made it sound like they had brought a meritless case in Germany only in retaliation for a patent infringement action in the United States. Actually, if it worked the other way round, a U.S. federal judge would just tell it like it is. I've heard U.S. judges dismiss complaints or appeals as "frivolous", or saying that a party is pursuing some other goals and using the court as a pawn in a global chess game. In Germany, judges have to be more careful: if they speculate on a party's motives while dismissing the merits of a case, it can give rise to motions of censure, seeking (though typically unsuccessfully) the recusal of a judge because of bias. Such complaints can go up all the way to the country's Federal Constitutional Court. Judge Kircher carefully nuanced his remarks, and acknowledged that Deutsche Telekom is in its right to bring novel claims. While I can't read his mind, I know he's got Deutsche Telekom all figured out. But again, a German judge has to tread carefully in a delicate situation like that, and knowing that the plaintiff will leave no stone unturned because money doesn't matter, and seeing that the Clifford Chance firm appears to be more concerned with pleasing a long-standing blue-chip client than with maintaining its reputation in antitrust law.

Whatever I say or write here won't reach the Federal Constitutional Court, so I'll be blunt: Deutsche Telekom's case is nonsensical crap. It's an insult to human intelligence. At all three layers of the law (policy, law, facts), it's a downright insanity. I had a logistically convenient chance to attend the trial, and I went there because I expected I'd have a lot to laugh--and Judge Kircher is always very interesting and often entertaining to listen to. It was a sitcom, not a serious litigation. I had the gut feeling that if Deutsche Telekom had insisted on a ruling, Judge Kircher and his colleagues might even have ruled straight from the bench.

In my opinion, it is not fair that IPCom has to wait until it can recover from Deutsche Telekom its attorneys' fees under the German "loser pays" rule. I also think IPCom is reasonably entitled to a German ruling ahead of the U.S. trial. Judge Kircher is right that normally a defendant has no interest in a case like that going forward. But when a case is this crazy, when it's easily discernible as an attempt to drive up litigation costs in Germany, and considering that it's uncomfortable to stare down the barrel of a gun even if you know it's not loaded, then it is in the interest of justice to throw out a case (though Deutsche Telekom would obviously exhaust all appeals).

What's even more important is to discourage other SEP licensees from turning around many years later just because they can afford it and because a firm like Clifford Chance may gladly do anything to please them. Just the fact that this case even went to trial (because defendants to German complaints--unlike in U.S. litigation--can't bring motions to dismiss, motions for judgment on the pleading, or motions for summary judgments) is now going to lead many patent holders to ensure that license agreements come with a clause like that Section 8.2 of the IPCom-Deutsche Telekom license agreement. What appeared to be an abundance of caution on IPCom's side at the time is now probably going to become a standard clause of SEP settlement contracts, as a result of Deutsche Telekom's action and this trial report, but I owe it to my readership, which includes many (actually, practically all) of the technology industry's top licensing executives to explain what can happen when someone like Deutsche Telekom acts in bad faith further down the road.

The sad reality is that some settlement negotiations will now take longer, or in a worst-case scenario, might even fail when parties find it hard to agree on a "Deutsche Telekom-IPCom" clause. The bottom line could be even more--and more protracted--litigation, courtesy of a deep-pocketed and utterly unreasonable German carrier. The case is a comedy, even a travesty, but the potential impact of Deutsche Telekom's outrageous behavior on global SEP licensing negotiations is more of a tragedy.

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