Thursday, May 19, 2022

Huawei, Nokia antitrust dispute over component-level licensing of automotive suppliers: Dusseldorf complaint over standard-essential patent license withdrawn

In retrospect, Nokia's standard-essential patent (SEP) dispute with Daimler was just a distraction, but its net effect is that car-level SEP licensing has won. In the end, even Daimler simply took an Avanci pool license--a result it could have had sooner and cheaper. Continental is still throwing good money after bad in its U.S. antitrust and contract lawsuits that aren't going anywhere (even if Conti's petition for a rehearing was granted despite the case as a whole being meritless, Conti would still be a far cry from making the slightest headway, after almost three years of suing). "Incompetental" might be a more appropriate name in this context. Thales made the mistake of suing in Munich, a venue where the judges had taken a pretty clear position on the issue already during various infringement proceedings. And as we speak, Ford--which has already been sued by seven Avanci licensors--is defending itself against IP Bridge before the Seventh Civil Chamber (Presiding Judge: Dr. Matthias Zigann) of the Munich I Regional Court. Component-level license deals have been made and will continue to be struck--but in one of the clearest signs that policy makers and competition regulators don't take issue with most SEP holders' preference for granting licenses at the end-product level, the European Commission recently told a Member of the European Parliament that SEP holders should simply sue automakers if they don't get paid--a position that the Commission wouldn't possibly have taken if the licensing level was a hot-potato issue.

There was only one initiative in recent years that might have been a game-changer: Huawei's third-party counterclaim against Nokia. Huawei was one of the intervenors in Nokia v. Daimler. Unlike Continental, which supplied Daimler directly, Huawei was a tier 2 supplier that sold network access devices to the likes of Conti. Huawei wanted to protect its indirect customer Daimler. For example, roughly 85% of all Daimler cars were covered by a component-level license agreement between Huawei and Sharp. Huawei had a cross-license in place with Nokia, but not necessarily one that bailed out Daimler by extension. Huawei wanted legal certainty and brought that Dusseldorf case, with a legal theory that Judge Dr. Thomas Kuehnen ("Kühnen" in German), the Presiding Judge of one of the two patent-specialized divisions of the Dusseldorf Higher Regional Court (regional appeals court) had outlined in an academic article.

Presiding Judge Sabine Klepsch of the lower Dusseldorf court's 4c Civil Chamber severed that antitrust counterclaim from the patent infringement action that gave rise to a referral to the European Court of Justice (which never resulted in a decision as Nokia and Daimler settled). Huawei v. Nokia was assigned case no. 4c O 17/19. The fate of that case was potentially linked to the preliminary reference in Nokia v. Daimler, but after Daimler settled with Nokia, Huawei would still have been free to demand that Nokia make a FRAND offer for an exhaustive component-level license.

I was wondering what ever happened to that case, and contacted the Dusseldorf Regional Court's press office. The court's spokeswoman informed me today of the voluntary dismissal of Huawei's complaint. [Update] I subsequently reached out to Nokia for comment. Nokia informed me that the complaint was withdrawn in late 2021. "Huawei voluntarily withdrew the complaint without any settlement between the parties," Steve Bartholomew (Head of Communications and Marketing for Nokia's licensing business) insists. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean to me that the dismissal wasn't part of some broader arrangement between the parties. But it sure does mean that no agreement on a license covering automotive components was struck. [/Update]

In the end, both Huawei and Nokia are major SEP holders. Huawei has a much larger product business, but is currently--as a result of trade sanctions and the overall chipset shortage--unable to serve customers in the Western hemisphere the way the company otherwise could. If Huawei and Nokia put the Dusseldorf dispute aside, it's a safe assumption they're not going to sue each other over patents anytime soon.

Instead of relying on the preliminary reference in Nokia v. Daimler and the severed Huawei v. Nokia antitrust action, the likes of Thales and Continental could have filed their own Judge Kuehnen-inspired antitrust complaints in Dusseldorf. Instead, as I noted further above, Conti decided to waste huge amounts of money on U.S. lawsuits that lacked substance from the get-go, and Thales sued in Munich, compared to which it would even have made more tactical sense to sue Nokia in its home country of Finland (to its credit, Thales did make a smart and really interesting venue choice for its action against Philips and ETSI, a Paris case that may end up complicating Philips's aggressive patent monetization efforts).

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