Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Dusseldorf court stays two Nokia v. OPPO patent cases pending validity determinations by Federal Patent Court--same patents are being asserted against OnePlus in other cities

After four injunctions in a row (two in Mannheim (1, 2) and two in Munich), the Dusseldorf Regional Court's 4c Civil chamber under Presiding Judge Sabine Klepsch today stayed two Nokia v. OPPO cases, as a spokesman for the court just confirmed to me.

This means the court deems it very likely that the Federal Patent Court will not uphold those patents in their granted form. It also means that the court wasn't convinced of there being no infringement; otherwise it would have rejected the complaints.

The patents-in-suit are

  • EP1741183 on a "front-end topology for multiband multimode communication engines", targeting OPPO devices in Dusseldorf (case no. 4c O 40/21) while OnePlus devices are being accused in a Mannheim action; and

  • EP1728352 on "secure data transfer", targeting OPPO devices in Dusseldorf (case no. 4c O 35/21) while OnePlus devices are being accused in a Munich action.

Neither of these patents is standard-essential, so even if Nokia had prevailed, we wouldn't have learned today about how the Dusseldorf court views the parties' conduct in licensing negotiations.

The Federal Patent Court will probably not conduct a hearing in those nullity actions before the second half of next year. At some point closer to the hearings, the Federal Patent Court will communicate a preliminary assessment.

The Dusseldorf court's assessment that the patents are rather likely to be invalidated is not binding in any way on the courts in Munich and Mannheim, so legally there still is a possibility of those patents getting enforced in Germany against OnePlus even before the Federal Patent Court has spoken. It seems that the court hasn't provided any specific reasoning for those stays.

Each patent is different. Just because the Dusseldorf court stayed two Nokia v. OPPO cases after Mannheim and Munich each ruled twice in Nokia's favor doesn't mean that Dusseldorf is generally a less plaintiff-friendly venue. Also, it is remarkable that all three courts were similarly swift. It wasn't always that way.

That said, it is remarkable that Dusseldorf once again proves to be the venue in which things aren't going as smoothly for Nokia as in the two southern venues. In the dispute with Daimler, it was the same division of the Dusseldorf Regional Court that referred the question of component-level standard-essential patent licensing to the European Court of Justice (where it never got resolved as the parties settled along the way). Shortly after the referral decision, Nokia withdrew two other Dusseldorf cases (almost literally on the eve of a trial), which were actually pending before another division (under Presiding Judge Dr. Daniel Voss ("Voß" in German)), only to refile them in Munich. Again, each case is different, and this here is still a small statistical sample. Also, let's see how Ericsson's Dusseldorf cases against Apple will fare--the patent litigation community will be watching closely.

At the moment, OPPO and OnePlus can't sell their smartphones in Germany because of Nokia's patent enforcement. OPPO has issued a press release to clarify that it remains committed to the German market and hopes that the current situation is only temporary:

"As an owner of many 5G patents, OPPO highly values the role of intellectual property in innovation. We have a history of establishing cross-licensing agreements with many leading companies and are committed to promoting a healthy intellectual property ecosystem. The day after OPPO and Nokia's 4G contract expired, Nokia immediately went to court after asking for an unreasonably high renewal fee.

"Our long-term commitment to the German market remains the same and we are proactively working with relevant parties to resolve the ongoing matter. Aside from sales and marketing of relevant products being put on hold over OPPO-owned channels, OPPO will continue operations in Germany. In the meantime, users can continue using OPPO products, access after-sales services, receive future OS updates, and more."

What OPPO's statement doesn't say is that the temporary withdrawal of its smartphones from the German market displays decisiveness. Not all companies of that size would be able to do that. Without naming them, I could think of some others (not Apple, obviously) who'd already have caved. This course of action may ultimately save OPPO more money than the short-term sales opportunities it is losing. Let's not forget that Nokia is not the only SEP holder to be suing OPPO and OnePlus in Germany as we speak. At least two other litigation campaigns (by licensing firms InterDigital and VoiceAge EVS) are known, and even that list may not be exhaustive. That also makes it hard to predict when OPPO will determine that Germany is again a country in which it can operate without having to fear the next patent injunction.

These days the German sales ban made headline news even on the website of Bild, the country's #1 tabloid paper.

There are currently two countries in the world in which various smartphones are unavailable as a result of SEP enforcement: the other is Colombia, where a court yesterday threw out--except for a mere request for clarification--a constitutional emergency motion by Apple against Ericsson.