Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Huawei, Qualcomm, InterDigital agree that licensing level must not serve as pretext for driving down standard-essential patent royalties: IAM Connect 2022 panel

IAM just hosted the last one of its IAM Connect 2022 panels. It was chaired by Paul Lin, Xiaomi's long-time head of IP who founded Eagle Forest LLC, an IP-specialized consulting firm. The panelists were Huawei's Head of IP Alan Fan, Qualcomm's Senior VP and General Manager (for the licensing division named QTL) John Han, and InterDigital's chief licensing officer Eeva Hakoranta.

It was a great panel that easily met and arguably exceeded expectations, which were obviously high given the background of the panelists. I've seen webinars with several times more listeners that weren't even half as good.

The focus was on what were the key developments in IP licensing in the telecommunications sector this year, and what may be the key trends and issues in 2023. Huawei and Qualcomm agreed that renewing existing licenses in the smartphone market and upgrading them to 5G is less likely to require enforcement action than when some implementers took licenses for the first time.

To a greater extent than envisioned, the debate was about the licensing level, where the three companies agreed that

  • one can license chipset and module makers (Huawei explicitly said so; Qualcomm said so with respect to IoT modules; and InterDigital did not appear to disagree), but

  • an alleged obligation to extend component-level licenses (Qualcomm and InterDigital dispute that there is such a duty under the ETSI FRAND pledge, while Huawei doesn't rule it out) must not be a vehicle for bringing down standard-essential patent (SEP) royalties under a smallest salable patent-practicing unit (SSPPU) valuation approach.

Huawei's Chief IP Officer Alan Fan made an argument about consistent pricing across the supply chain that is not only in the interest of licensors but equally of licensees: the ND (non-discrimination) part of FRAND. It is true that a device maker A with a supplier X could be at a competitive disadvantage if its competitor B benefited from a lower royalty rate because of a deal between a given patent holder and its supplier Y.

It is a legitimate objective in its own right to oppose price erosion, but with the ND-part-of-FRAND argument, one simply stands on higher ground and takes a position that is in the public interest.

Qualcomm's John Han very much emphasized use-based pricing. Mr. Han rejected an SSPPU royalty base and stressed a key distinction:

Price differentiation isn't price discrimination.

More than three years ago I organized a Brussels conference on component-level licensing (I haven't organized a conference ever since and have no intentions of doing so, though that one was clearly a success as I'm sure any participant--including officials from four directorates-general of the European Commission--could confirm). At that conference, an economist with otherwise very implementer-friendly positions also acknowledged that use-based pricing is economically reasonable. There was, however, a little bit of a misunderstanding because he called "price discrimination" what Qualcomm's panelist today sought to distinguish from "price differentiation." Semantics matters here because one is a potential antitrust violation while the other is the very opposite: it is recognized, not only but especially in the EU, that applying the same price to different transactions may constitute discrimination.

The three companies from which today's panelists hailed have distinct business models. InterDigital is, as Mrs. Hakoranta acknowledges, a research firm that generates the entirety of its revenues from licensing; Qualcomm has a licensing arm (Mr. Han's division) as well as a chipset business; and when the moderator said that it would have been nice to hear the views of an implementer, Huawei's Mr. Fan was quick to point out in no uncertain terms that Huawei is a major implementer and large-scale licensee. Mr. Fan jokingly said that if Mr. Lin wanted him to talk about the topic from a licensee's perspective, he'd be happy to do so anytime.

Huawei's mix of licensor and licensee interests gives that company a very balanced perspective. They need licenses for their own products, but they also know what it feels like when a patent holder faces hold-out tactics by an unwilling licensee. Case in point, tomorrow morning the Munich I Regional Court's Seventh Civil Chamber--which until recently was chaired by Presiding Judge Dr. Matthias Zigann, who has since been promoted to the appeals court--will hold a Huawei v. AVM FRAND hearing. AVM is a German WiFi router maker and competes with Netgear, a U.S. company against which Huawei has already obtained a default judgment in Germany.

Shortly after Huawei's landmark patent cross-license agreement with OPPO was announced last week, it also became known that Huawei recently renewed its license agreement with Samsung, which is now a 5G license. A few years ago, Huawei and Samsung settled litigation and signed a 4G license agreement. This time around, no litigation proved necessary.

Interestingly, it has now been discovered that Samsung transferred certain U.S. patents to Huawei.

Mr. Fan's statements today were balanced and principled. InterDigital's positions are also very consistent, though their license deals are obviously one-way streets.

Qualcomm made a number of good points. However, one need not "buy" Qualcomm's distinction of smartphone patent licensing (where they license only at the end-product level) from other categories where Qualcomm is prepared to license module makers. What makes sense for Qualcomm to do--and I'm not taking a position here on whether it raises antitrust concerns--is unique to that company with its particular business model and competitive strategy. While Qualcomm does at this point prefer to license four major IoT module makers over dealing directly with myriad small device makers, Qualcomm stressed again today that licensing at the component level is a voluntary choice. What if Qualcomm decides to compete aggressively in the narrowband IoT chipset market? There is no guarantee that they will still license module makers.

For now, however, Qualcomm has those four IoT module makers under license, and Mr. Han specifically mentioned Quectel.

Mr. Fan explained from Huawei's perspective that apart from FRAND considerations, it is simply efficient for a patent holder to license a company that knocks at its doors requesting a license. At the same time he made it clear that a licensing offer that does not allow audits could not be considered FRAND because some control is needed to avoid double-dipping.

The overall growth of 5G (now more than half of all cellular gadgets) and component-level licensing were not the only topics of discussion. Another topic that the panelists touched on was whether there could be a smartphone patent pool. By coincidence, Sisvel had announced a 5G multimode pool for consumer electronics devices (smartphones etc.) earlier today. Qualcomm essentially argued that there are only a few major handset makers, and if a company already has a bilateral relationship with a handset maker (and given that they hold SEPs of their own and like to cross-license, plus they like to license implementation patents that I believe Mr. Han meant to imply aren't implemented at the chipset level anyway), it will now just negotiate a renewal that upgrades that license to 5G. In my opinion, that does not apply to those cellular SEP holders who do rely on pools in order to reduce transaction costs--such as the ones that have joined and may in the near future join Sisvel's 5G MM licensing program.

My takeaway is that in 2023 we're going to see a diversity of approaches to the licensing level (with Huawei being extremely flexible and Qualcomm making different choices depending on industry segment characteristics); and the kinds of companies who were represented on the panel will license bilaterally, while others will benefit from their participation in pools.