Monday, September 18, 2023

Avanci 5G doubles number of licensees, quadruples number of licensed brands as BMW signs up: Volkswagen/Audi next?

The Avanci 5G automotive standard-essential patent (SEP) pool revealed Mercedes-Benz as its first licensee last month. Today the licensing program announced that BMW has joined as well, which takes the number of licensed brands from one to four: Mercedes, BMW, MINI, and Rolls-Royce. Today's press release also indicates that the number of licensors has increased from 58 to 61.

By now, almost the entire automotive industry has an Avanci 4G license. But back in 2017, BMW became Avanci's first 4G licensee. It took a while for that pool to be widely adopted. Things appear to be going significantly faster with Avanci 5G now.

In retrospect, BMW's decision made business sense unless one believes in the illegal concept of group boycott: Mercedes (then named Daimler) and Volkswagen did not save money by opposing the Avanci model. They ended up choosing the pool license over bilateral licensing negotiations and disputes, but unlike BMW they incurred litigation expenses (in Volkswagen's case, the dispute was short-lived and due to the fact they licensed only 3G patents for most of the cars the group makes). BMW saved money, time, and energy. They stayed above the fray.

While I have not yet seen a German SEP infringement case targeting BMW, they are clearly not a soft target for non-SEP holders. Typically represented by Bardehle Pagenberg's Professor Tilman Mueller-Stoy ("Müller-Stoy in German), BMW is known to defend itself vigorously against patent infringement assertions, though most of the time the outcome is, obviously, a license agreement. If such a company takes a license without litigation, it must have concluded that the licensed patents are valuable.

Germany's remaining three automotive brands are Volkswagen, Audi, and Porsche, all of which belong to Volkswagen Group. Audi and Porsche clearly compete in some of the same market segments as BMW and Mercedes. It would make a lot of sense for VW to join the pool now. Sooner or later, some 5G SEP holders will start to enforce their rights against unwilling licensees. Just like German judges pressed Mercedes (then named Daimler) to explain why a license that had been taken by their closest (and equally German) competitors: BMW and Audi. I doubt that Audi would want to have to justify--particularly in front of the same judges who heard Nokia v. Daimler--a refusal to take a license that Mercedes and BMW deem to make economic sense.

Just like actions speak louder than words, real-world license deals are way more meaningful than spin doctoring and political propaganda. Mercedes-Benz told the EU that the proposed SEP regulation (or something even more lopsided) was badly needed, yet became the first Avanci 5G licensee because they deemed it prudent. Similarly, BMW Group is now an early adopter of the Avanci 5G license, yet it is a member of the Fair Standards Alliance and of certain automotive industry organizations that take similar positions.

There's nothing difficult to understand: every company would like to bring any cost category--here, cellular SEP license fees--down, even if such costs are already fair and reasonable. Automakers are no different. That is unrelated to the merits of Avanci providing a one-stop solution that Mercedes and BMW have twice (4G and now 5G) considered superior over dozens and dozens of bilateral deals. And opportunism by some car makers certainly doesn't make the EU proposal any less misguided. Case in point, a single Nokia v. OPPO decision in Sweden (which went in the defendant's favor) showcases at least four of the countless flaws of that bill.

Accurate and holistic analysis needs to look at what those companies say and what they do. License deals that are concluded in the absence of litigation--and presumably even without the slightest threat of litigation other than the fact that any infringement may sooner or later become the subject of enforcement action.

Europe's and particularly Germany's automotive industry is facing undeniably large problems. Cellular SEP licensing is none of them, though. Even if those costs were reduced through political intervention (which I don't see happening, though it is some people's agenda), that wouldn't help to address any of the fundamental challenges facing the European auto sector, particularly because there's no comparative advantage for companies selling cars in a given target market in which certain patents must be licensed.

Today's Avanci-BMW announcement is good news for those who argue that the market can and will find solutions, as are other recent license deals such as Huawei's recent agreement with Xiaomi.

Patent pools exist to simplify licensing--which must have been the reason why BMW entered into one agreement rather than 60+ bilateral deals--while some EU officials and politicians are trying to complicate the process and mistakenly view pools as part of the problem, not part of the solution.