Wednesday, October 11, 2023

License-based settlements of SEP disputes in jeopardy: Karlsruhe Higher Regional Court heard Deutsche Telekom's 'antitrust' appeal against IPCom, anticipates review by Federal Court of Justice

I just attended a two-hour appellate hearing in the German city of Karlsruhe. The Karlsruhe Higher Regional Court is the appeals court that hears all appeals from the Mannheim Regional Court. In this case, the June 2022 decision to throw out Deutsche Telekom's long-shot antitrust lawsuit against standard-essential patent (SEP) licensing firm IPCom.

Given what's at stake, I was surprised to be the only independent person in the audience. Besides the three-judge panel of the Sixth Civil Senate (Presiding Judge Andreas Voss ("Voß" in German), Judge (and rapporteur) Professor Gloeckner ("Glöckner" in German), and Judge Professor Singer) and yours truly, everyone else was counsel for one of the parties (with a multiplicity of intervenors supporting IPCom). One lawyer who represented IPCom in infringement litigation many years back also attended on an informal basis.

From the beginning, I have considered Deutsche Telekom's complaint facially absurd. They want IPCom to repay all or at least most of a 220 million euro amount plus another 60 million (interest and possibly expenses) because their rivals did not license IPCom's patents, which Deutsche Telekom calls "discrimination." But the license agreement contains a clause (clause 8.2) that specifically says IPCom was under no obligation to get other telecommunications network operators to take licenses to its portfolio.

The fact that Judge Voss had to get Deutsche Telekom to resolve a discrepancy of several million euros between two references to the amount in dispute in an amended appellate filing they made about a month ago is just an embarrassment for a company that tries to bully a small patent holder. Given how much they are spending (and risking, given the German "loser pays" rule), one would think that they can at least get their act together without the court having to ask them at the hearing to reconcile their numbers.

That should not distract us from the real issue. My hunch was right that this appellate hearing was worth attending not because of Deutsche Telekom being likely to win (Judge Voss appeared rather skeptical, though he steered clear of stating a preliminary position on any aspect of the case), but because they try to create massive legal uncertainty for SEP holders of all sorts and sizes with a view to past and future settleements. Deutsche Telekom could lose, but there could be some holding--maybe just a dictum--that could have serious repercussions.

Toward the end, when making a routine check on whether some sort of settlement was achievable, Judge Voss--who personally presided over various of IPCom's infringement actions while he was sitting on the lower court--noted that "this dispute has the potential to be heard by the Federal Court of Justice." Earlier this year, that same court--in practical terms. Germany's top court for patent disputes--shocked the SEP licensing community by expanding the concept of patent exhaustion to covenants to sue last. That's why I believe there should be a lot more interest in that case, and it's astounding that I was the only one to go there. (It was, by the way, the last German court session I got to attend as a resident of Germany at least for the foreseeable future, given that I'll formally leave the country in a little over a week.)

With a view to that contract clause 8.2, Deutsche Telekom reiterated the argument that had failed in Mannheim: they said that private parties cannot enter into a valid and enforceable agreement that goes against antitrust law. What they want is a legal holding according to which (if one thinks it through) any SEP licensee could bring antitrust claims against licensors on the grounds of discrimination just based on their licensing activity that follows the settlement in question. Here, Deutsche Telekom argues that IPCom caused market distortion by not succeeding in getting Deutsche Telekom's German rivals to take a license. In other cases, the argument might as well be about the amount, and Deutsche Telekom's lead counsel specifically said that if IPCom had extended a license to Vodafone for 10 million euros (as compared to the 200-million-euro deal with his client), that would be a clear case of discrimination (Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom have similar market share in Germany).

I struggle with that approach. The practical reality is that patent disputes (not only but also SEP disputes) are always settled on a probabilistic basis: things could go better or worse for a given party if litigation continued. And if some key patents are invalidated, a portfolio may be devalued, possibly become impossible to license to anyone.

In this case, it's even worse: Deutsche Telekom even signed an agreement under which IPCom's subsequent conduct vis-à-vis other telcos wouldn't count. Deutsche Telekom argues that the clause merely does not impose on IPCom a contractual obligation to enforce. They say IPCom could still be liable for failing to enforce if the result is discrimination: unequal treatment without justification. Judge Voss made a good point: Deutsche Telekom's position comes down to requiring a SEP holder to become the "curator" of the downstream market (here, the market for cellular telecommunications networks).

Deutsche Telekom's counsel said that regardless of clause 8.2, IPCom could have avoided or otherwise addressed the alleged discrimination issue: by obtaining injunctive relief against unwilling licensees; by concluding FRAND license agreements with Deutsche Telekom's rivals; or by (proactively!) lowering its royalties when discrimination became apparent.

Those positions are very aggressive. The appeals court will make a decision (which could also just be a scheduling order) later today, and the parties will be able to find out about the outcome tomorrow morning. This is something to watch. If even despite that clause 8.2 Deutsche Telekom succeeded, even if not on the bottom line but in the form of some dictum, that could result in a flood of German antitrust complaints over the terms of SEP license agreements. The impact would far exceed that of the patent exhaustion ruling by the Federal Court of Justice. And maybe one or two aspects of this case will even be referred to the European Court of Justice...