Thursday, October 5, 2023

Proposed EU SEP Regulation gets pushback from influential European People's Party MEP: draft opinion of Committee on International Trade (INTA)

Finally, the proposed EU regulation on standard-essential patents (SEPs) has been formally criticized--in the form of a draft committee report--within the European Parliament (EP). Not just from within the EP, but also from within the EPP: that's one more P and stands for European People's Party. The EPP is the largest group in the EP, though with 25% of the votes it's not as powerful anymore as it used to be at its peak where it needed only one other (and reasonably large) political group to form a majority (reasonably consistent voting along party lines provided).

There are many rapporteurs on a dossier (legislative or other matter) in the EP, which made it hard to get anything done against the EPP.

So I have to start with the proceudral context. The EP determines a lead committee on a given dossier. In this case, that's the Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI). One member of the lead committee becomes the entire EP's rapporteur. Every other political groups selects a shadow rapporteur, who is also a member of the lead committee. Sometimes shadow rapporteurs disagree fundamentally with the Parliament's rapporteur, whose positions may even be controversial within the same political group.

Here, the EP's rapporteur on the EU SEP Reg is Marion Walsmann, a (German) member of the EPP who started her political career as a parliamentary supporter of the East German communist dictatorship, which is my way to state a simple fact that is mentioned on the German but not the English Wikipedia page. The Christian Democratic Party of the German "Democratic" Republic was not an opposition party: it was part of an effort to pretend pluralism, and its politicians such as Mrs. Walsmann at the time enjoyed privileges for applauding the ruling communist party as it oppressed the true democrats in the country. There were opportunistic reasons for which all major West German parties except the Greens (there simply was no faux Green party in the GDR as the Green movement started toward the end of the GDR's infamous history) merged with their nominal East German counterparts right after reunification: it was mostly about money, and to some extent also about inheriting some existing structures. I'll leave that story for another day.

Mrs. Walsmann is deemed to be in favor of the proposal, or even of amendments that would cause further harm to SEP holders, but that is clearly not a consensus position, not even within her own political group. If one or more other committees are designated to provide an opinion, every such committee also has a rapporteur (and then there are shadow rapporteurs at the committee level). For the Committee on International Trade (INTA), the rapporteur is also a member of the EPP: Polish MEP (and former EU commissioner for regional policy) Danuta Hübner.

On Monday, Professor Hübner submitted her draft opinion: an 82-page document that contains a long list of amendments, the bottom line of all of whic his that SEP enforcement should not be restricted, complicated, obstructed, or delayed in any way, and particularly not the enforcement of non-EU SEPs.

Professor Hübner proposes

  • to drop the part about aggregate royalty determinations (for all SEPs related to a given standard) entirely, which is consistent with a proposal by one of the researchers who were commissioned by the EC's Directorate-General for the Internal Market in this context;

  • to limit bilateral everything else (which is not the case for bilateral FRAND determinations under the Commission proposal) to patents valid in the EU, which makes particular sense for a trade committee to propose but is equally common sense;

  • to define reasonably clearly the scope of the regulation and not to delegate excessive powers to the Commission, an aspect on which she is particularly qualified to opine as a former chair of the EP's Constitutional Affairs Committee;

  • to steer clear of disproportionate restrictions of patent holders' rights to enforce their IP, which actually raises international trade (as many patents valid in the EU are held by non-EU companies) and constitutional (fundamental rights) issues at the time; and

  • to put more specific and elaborate measures in place to assist SMEs with a view to their participation in standardization as well as with a view to assisting them in their inbound licensing efforts.

The draft committee report coherently and consistently seeks to codify those objectives and to straighten out some other flaws, such as a weak definition of the term "patent family." Professor Hübner's proposal is certainly of a far higher quality than the Commission proposal, which in this case is, however, not a significant threshold.

There are some details I disagree with. In particular, the rationale provided for some proposed amendments is that removal of a patent from the envisioned EU SEP Register would render it unenforceable, but one could even argue that such a patent becomes even more enforceable: national courts or the Unified Patent Court (UPC) could still deem it essential, but it would not fall under the rules of the proposed regulation, and even if courts did not deem it enforceable, it might be a formidable non-SEP. The only respect in which the removal of a declared SEP from the register is certain to adversely affect its owner is that the company's essentiality ratio for the purposes of EU FRAND determinations will go down. Whether national courts will be swayed at all by those EUIPO-led determinations by anonymous "evaluators" is impossible to tell right now. As a litigation watcher, I could easily see lots of situations in which an infringement court would deem a patent essential notwithstanding an EUIPO-led negative determination. If some national courts--as I've just seen in the dispute between Nokia and OPPO--arrive at different conclusions on comparable questions than courts in another EU Member State, why wouldn't they also just use their own judgment instead of adopting the outcome of an opaque and generally low-credibility process?

But let's not get lost in details. A month ago I already said that the EC proposal "is a hot mess that lawmakers can dilute but not fix due to structural issues, fudnamental rights, and international obligations." Looking at it from that angle, I think the most straightforward proposal for Professor Hübner to make would actually have been to propose only one deleting amendment. Strike the whole thing because it's crap. It's easy to see, though, why she didn't do that: while perfectly warranted, it would be viewed by many as not being constructive.

What would the net effect of those amendments be? Dilution and delay (the latter because she'd extend the initial implementation period from 24 to 36 months).

Would the proposal--regardless of the proposed INTA position being consistent and coherent--serve any purpose? No, with just one exception: the part about helping SMEs might make sense, though that one is so small that it wouldn't warrant an entire legislative measure in its own right. There wouldn't be much else left. The aggregate royalty determinations would be thrown out; the bilateral process would be voluntary, and while there are strong reasons for limiting the scope of the regulation to SEPs valid in the EU, global licensing disputes result in global license agreements, so it is doubtful that the FRAND determination process would play much of a practical role.

I hope that some political group(s) will ultimately propose an amendment that enables MEPs to vote down the proposal as a whole. But at this stage, all that people can do is propose countless amendments. This is still an early stage of the process.

The EP votes on each amendment separately, though the non-binding voting lists provided to MEPs seek to ensure consistency. If just some of Professor Hübner's amendments got support in the further process (be it a parliamentary vote or a so-called trilogue where representatives of the EP, the EU Council, and the EC try to broker a deal that an EP majority typically rubberstamps), the regulation could become toothless. It can't be reduced to absurdity because it already is absurd, but something absurd that may not even benefit implementers as much as some of them hope might be defanged.

The intellectually most honest and generally most rational outcome would be for the EU not to pass anything into law based on the current proposal. They should send the EC back to the drawing board, and maybe there would never be a second proposal. But it could be that some people just want to have some outcome so they will (rightly or not) claim victory as they seek a nomination for reelection or audition for higher office or whatever.

It would be a waste of time, money (particularly taxpayers' money), and energy. Sadly, the EU's economic policy initiatives don't work very often, yet there are always politicians who put their weight behind them and hope for political gain from them. Maybe that's the inevitable fate of this proposal, but I'm not ready to give up yet. Rationality could still prevail, and Professor Hübner's draft opinion is, by and large, a silver lining.