The Court of Milan says that standard-essential patents may be only “optionally” implemented in compliant products.

This past September the Court of Milan issued an interesting – and so-far unpublished – decision in a patent infringement cahtc-legendse involving smartphones and standard-essential patents. The decision is noteworthy as it addressed (albeit briefly) the dynamics of standard-setting and the concept of essentiality, in partial reversal of previous decisions from the same Court and other Italian Courts.

The facts first. The case involved, on the one side, TLC giant HTC and, on the other, IPCom: a German non-practicing entity. Around 2010 IPCom pressed criminal charges against HTC, claiming that a number of HTC smartphones infringed three of its patents (EP 1 236 368, EP 0 913 979 and EP 1 226 692) that had been declared essential to a number of standards (e.g. WDCMA, SAP and UMTS). In response to this, in September 2010, HTC summoned IPCom before the Court of Milan, looking for a declaration of invalidity and non-infringement of said patents. IPCom counterclaimed for infringement, but only for EP 1 226 692 (hereinafter “EP ‘692“).

A (complex and very lengthy) technical investigation phase followed suit, with the appointment of an independent expert. In particular, it was questioned whether HTC smartphones would have directly or indirectly infringed EP ‘692, which was preliminarily deemed valid by the Court-appointed expert.

In assessing infringement, the experts and the Court had to first come at odds with the fact that EP ‘692 had been declared “essential” to ETSI, a prominent standard-setting organisation, for the UMTS standard. And that HTC smartphones were undisputedly compliant to said technical norm.

IPCom contended that since EP ‘692 was formally declared essential to the UMTS standard, every product that proved to be complaint with said standard would automatically infringe its patent.

The Court of Milan, however, viewed things differently.

In the first place, it held that a declaration of essentiality is a “necessarily unilateral” statement, particularly referring to paragraph 3.2 of the ETSI Guide on IPRs, wherein the Institute specifies that it “cannot confirm, or deny, that the patents/patent applications are, in fact, essential, or potentially essential” (for the latest version of the ESTI Guide on IPRs see here). Therefore, the Court affirmed that it had to assess the infringement on a factual and technical basis, implicitly affirming that it could not presumptively do so, on the basis of the patent’s declaration of essentiality alone.

In the second place, the Court of Milan further reviewed the UMTS technical specification at stake, noting that the execution of the activities covered by the patent (relating to the so-called PDCP layer), although regulated in the standard, were only optional for standard-compliant products. To ascertain this, the Court ordered for tests to be carried out on HTC smartphones, simulating both the network operations and the phones’ connection to the providers. As the test revealed that “the phones communicated to the base station that they cannot do” the particular operations mentioned in the patent and that, in any case, “Italian providers don’t ask them to do” said operations, the Court excluded the occurrence of both a direct and an indirect infringement of IPCom’s EP ‘692 patent.

This passage of the decision highlighted a circumstance that is often disregarded in the SEPs discourse: namely that technically-essential patents may be indeed essential, but in relation to portions of the standard that are only optionally implemented in compliant products.

In light of the above, the Court of Milan seems to have stepped away from a previous case law of 2008, where – in line with the technical report drafted by Court-appointed expert – it established infringement of a standard-essential patent by referring only to its essentiality and to the product’s necessary compliance to the standard: a sort of presumptive assessment of the infringement (see Court of Milan, 8 May 2008, Italtel s.p.a. et al. v. Sisvel s.p.a et al.; similar reasoning were put forward – although in preliminary injunction matters – also by Court of Genoa, 8 May 2004, Koniklijke Philips Electronics N.V. v. Computer Support Italcard s.r.l., in Giur. ann. dir. ind. 2006, 4949; Court of Trieste, 23 August 2011, Telefoaktiebolaget L.M. Ericsson v. ONDA Communication s.p.a. ,in Giur. ann. dir. ind. 2013, 5951).

The approach here suggested by the Court of Milan in determining the infringement of SEPs seems to better take into account the inherent technical and legal nuances of the standard setting dynamics, where the possibility of the so-called “over-disclosure” phenomenon — i.e. claiming essentiality for non-essential patents – is considered to be wide spread, and where specific technical features may often be only “optionally” implemented within standard-compliant products.

Giovanni Trabucco

Court of Milan, IP division, decision of 21 September 2016, No. 10288

Competition law’s application to patent settlement agreements: the first UK decision

When a pharmaceutical patent expires, the patent owner will normally face the competition of ‘generic‘ versions of the patented drug, which often means a dramatic fall in the originator product’s prices as well as an impending revenue cliff.

GlaxoSmithKline (hereinafter “GSK”) faced such a situation with regard to its patented anti-depressant product, Seroxat®, one of its best selling medications during the 2001-2004 time period. In 2001, a number of generics producers were taking steps to enter the market with their own versions of the product. GSK responded to the threat by commencing proceedings against two generics producers, Alpharma Limited (Alpharma) and Generics (UK) Limited (GUK), for breaching its patents.

Rather than taking the matter to trial, the parties proceeded to settle the case. The settlement terms included GSK paying certain sums to the generics producers and appointing them as its distributors of Seroxat®. In return, the generics producers agreed not to launch their own products into the UK market.

On the 12th of February 2016, the Competition and Markets Authority (former Office of Fair Trading) ran out an investigation against GSK and the generic companies finding that they had entered into anti-competitive reverse-payment settlements agreements for breaches of Chapter I of the Competition Act 1998 and Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) (ex-Article 81 of the Treaty Establishing the European Community, TEC) (see the CMA press release at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cma-fines-pharma-companies-45-millionfull, text of the decision yet to be published). The CMA found that the agreements effectively prevented the generic competitors from entering the paroxetine market and deprived the National Health Service of price falls averaging 70 per cent. Therefore it characterised the arrangements as a cartel and as an abuse of dominance by GSK.

The decision culminates in total fines of just under £50 million including a fine of £37.6 million against GSK. The size of the fine is itself significant: it is the second largest to have been imposed on an individual company by the UK competition authorities.

This is the first UK decision to consider the application of competition law to patent settlement agreements. However, the pharmaceuticals sector is not new to the attention of the competition authorities.

In the U.S., the FTC’s efforts to combat harmful reverse-payment settlement agreements resulted in the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in FTC v. Actavis, Inc., 133 S. Ct. 2223 (June 17, 2013), which held that these settlements are subject to antitrust scrutiny.

At the EU level, patent settlement were thoroughly reviewed in the Pharmaceutical Sector Inquiry, a report of the European Commission published on 8 July 2009 and followed by yearly Monitoring Reports (full texts here http://ec.europa.eu/competition/sectors/pharmaceuticals/inquiry/).

In 2013, the EU Commission fined Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck €93.8 million and its generic competitors €52.2 million following an investigation which found that Lundbeck had concluded deals with them to unlawfully prevent the market entry of competing generic versions of its branded citalopram, a blockbuster antidepressant, following the expiry of its patents (full text here http://ec.europa.eu/competition/antitrust/cases/dec_docs/39226/39226_8310_11.pdf).

Essentially, the Commission considered that Lundbeck had paid substantial sums to the generic competitors in return for a delay in launching generic products onto the market. Now Lundbeck is appealing against the Commission decision and a judgment is expected later this year.

In 2014, the European Commission fined the French pharmaceutical company Servier and five generics companies a total of 427.7 million (EUR). In that case, Servier implemented a strategy to exclude competitors and delay the entry of cheaper generic versions of its bestselling blood pressure medicine, perindopril. Since its patent protection came to an end generics companies started developing their own products, Servier challenged them and subsequently settled the cases, paying the generics companies to stay out of the market. Also Servier’s appeal against the Commission’s findings is currently before the European General Court.

Waiting for the outcomes of these rulings, the case at stake seems to fall squarely within the territory that the EU consistently considers as giving rise to an “object” or automatic infringement of EU and EU national competition law (cf. Guidelines on the application of article 101 TFEU (ex Article 81 TEC) to technology transfer agreements, 2014/C 89/03 of 28.3.2014). Indeed, the misuse of the patent settlements to restrict competition emerges clearly looking at the direction of the transfer of value. In genuine patent litigation settlement, any payment will tipically flow from the alleged infringer to the patentee. Here, on the contrary, it is the patentee which provides compensation to the infringer. This deal is a straight horizontal agreement in restraint of competition, which would be equally unlawful if it had been stipulated by two producers of generics. As Prof. Ghidini outlines in Profili evolutivi del diritto industriale, 2015, 426, the deal is unlawful not because it concerns a patent, but due to the payment for delaying the product’s entry in the market (cfr. Abbott A.F., Michel S.T., The right balance of competition policy and intellectual property: A perspective on settlement of pharmaceutical patent litigation, IDEA, 2006, 46).

It remains to be seen what further repercussions GSK may face from this case. It is possible that the Department of Health and any other customers of the product could consider to launch a claim for recovering loss they may have suffered because of the amount Seroxat® was overpriced as a result of GSK’s conduct.

Jacopo Ciani

 

UK Competition and Market Authority, 12 February 2016, CMA v. GlaxoSmithKline plc  and others, CE/9531-11

Huawei v. ZTE: Enforcing standard-essential patents as abuse of dominance

Following the request for a preliminary ruling issued by the Landgericht of Düsseldorf (Germany), on July 16th 2015, the European Court of Justice addressed the question whether or not, and at what conditions, the firm holding a standard-essential patent (SEP: namely, a patent essential to produce manufactures in compliance with a particular standard), which has committed to grant a license to third parties on FRAND terms, abuses its dominant position by seeking injunctions against alleged infringers (decision available here).

The long-awaited judgment of the Court confirms the general approach adopted by the Commission in both Motorola and Samsung cases (available here and here). However, while the Commission had merely stated that enforcing a SEP in court can constitute an abuse of dominance under certain circumstances, the ECJ decision goes further, clarifying what those circumstances are. In particular, the Court held that seeking an injunction against an alleged infringer does not violate competition law when the following conditions are met:

  1. prior to bringing the action, the SEP holder has informed the alleged infringer of the violation of its intellectual property right, specifying the mode of infringement;
  2. the SEP holder has presented a written offer for a license on FRAND terms to the “infringer” (which has previously expressed its intention to conclude a license agreement). The offer must include all the relevant conditions of the agreement, in particular the royalty rate applied and the way it is calculated;
  3. the potential licensee has not “diligently responded to [patent owner’s] offer in accordance with recognized commercial practices in the field and in good faith”, and has continued to use the protected technology.

The decision of the Court of Justice seems to subordinate the finding of abuse to the “bad faith” of both SEP owners and producers of standard-based products. On the one hand, the formers have to concretely fulfill the obligation to the standardization bodies consisting in giving a license on FRAND conditions to third parties. Indeed, a patent cannot obtain the SEP status unless the legitimate holder undertakes to grant a FRAND license to anyone who may require it, in order to prevent the SEP holder from “reserv[ing] to itself the manufacture of the products in question”. Thus, it is not surprising that, according to the ECJ, the patent owner may incur in an abuse of dominance if it seeks an infringement injunction without even submitting a licensing agreement to the alleged infringer.

On the other hand, the ECJ imposes the obligation of good faith also to the potential licensee, which – having decided not to accept the offer submitted by the patent owner – “may rely on the abusive nature of an action for a prohibitory injunction or for the recall of products only if it has submitted to the proprietor of the SEP in question, promptly and in writing, a specific counter-offer that corresponds to FRAND terms”.

The ECJ judgment has definitely the merit of striking a reasonable balance between the interests at stake: those of the potential (and willing) licensees, which supposedly made specific investments relying on the FRAND license promised by the SEP holder; and those of the SEP holder itself, which should be granted the right to effectively protect its intellectual property rights from free-riders.

Nonetheless, the intervention of European judges leaves some issues unsolved. Firstly, the decision does not explain when a license can be considered FRAND. Secondly, it does not answer the question whether holding a SEP implies, per se, a dominant position on the market (actually, the referring court had not asked about the finding of dominance). At first glance, there seems to be the glimmer of an opening for such a conclusion. A passage of the sentence, in fact, reads as follows: “[…] the patent at issue is essential to a standard established by a standardization body, rendering its use indispensable to all competitors which envisage manufacturing products that comply with the standard to which it is linked. That features distinguishes SEPs from patents that are non essential to a standard and which normally allow third parties to manufacture competing products without recourse to the patent concerned and without compromising the essential functions of the product in question” (emphasis added). This appears quite close to an irrebuttable presumption of dominance. A debatable position: in my view, the presumption should be rebuttable (as suggested by the Advocate General Whatalet in his opinion, available here), hence the judges should continue assessing, case-by-case, a situation of actual, effective dominance.

Piera Francesca Piserà

CJEU, 16 July 2015, case C-170/2013, Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. v. ZTE Deutschland GmbH.