To the uninitiated, Qualcomm’s licensing practices in China must appear confusing. Since paying a fine of 975 million USD to NDRC – about 50,000 times average patent damages according to the CIELA database for its Standards Essential Patent licensing practices, Qualcomm has entered into approximately 100 licensing settlements with Chinese companies. How can the weak become so successful, so soon?
According to press accounts, Qualcomm has settled with the major cell phone manufacturers in China, most recently with Chinese cell phone companies Vivo and Oppo. Both deals came after Qualcomm decided to bring law suits against cell phone manufacturer Meizu in the Beijing and Shanghai intellectual property courts for damages that reportedly total about 520 million RMB. The first law suit was filed by Qualcomm around June 23 at the Beijing Intellectual Property Court. The complaint essentially sought to enforce an NDRC rectification plan imposed on Qualcomm against other infringers/potential licensees. The original complaint, according to Qualcomm’s press release “requests rulings that the terms of a patent license offered by Qualcomm to Meizu comply with China’s Anti-Monopoly Law, and Qualcomm’s fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory licensing obligations. The complaint also seeks a ruling that the offered patent license terms should form the basis for a patent license with Meizu for Qualcomm’s fundamental technologies patented in China for use in mobile devices, including those relating to 3G (WCDMA and CDMA2000) and 4G (LTE) wireless communications standards.” Since that filing, Qualcomm filed 17 new complaints were filed in Beijing and Shanghai.
Given the risks to Qualcomm posed by seeking injunctive relief for standards essential patents, Qualcomm appears to have initially launched its litigation campaign against Meizu by enforcing the NDRC approved licensing terms against one hold out company who might thereafter be left with an unfair competitive advantage. Qualcomm appears to be reducing its antitrust risks by first getting “immunized” by NDRC, and then enforcing the terms of the NDRC “rectification plan” and couching its patent infringement litigation in terms of promoting fair competition. This in effect has turned the tables on recalcitrant licensees who have previously relied on Qualcomm’s FRAND commitments to reduce the risk of being sued by Qualcomm by threatening an antitrust counterclaim. What remains to be seen, however, is the legal status the court affords the rectification plan given the often unclear relationships between judicial and administrative decision making.
Qualcomm’s GC, Don Rosenberg said Qualcomm is taking legal action out of a sense of fairness to other companies that are paying what they owe. In addition, the case represents a vote of confidence by Qualcomm in the court system. As Don Rosenberg noted “”We’re putting our faith in the court system there and we wouldn’t do that if we didn’t think we were in capable hands.” Qualcomm may no doubt have been inspired by the success of its licensing program as well as the perfect or near perfect win rate in the sixty five infringement cases filed by foreigners in 2015 in the Beijing IP court. As I have noted repeatedly on this blog, foreigners do win IP cases in China.
In China’s current legal environment, where licensing is burdened by seemingly contradictory norms – e.g., where the Chinese government sets prices for license transactions in antitrust cases, restricts the freedom to negotiate of foreigners, provides tax incentives for licensing in to China for high tech enterprises, sets national goals for licensing transactions, and where the courts seem to have difficulty imposing damages based on actual or implied royalties, Qualcomm appears to be turning the 975 million dollars of “lemons” of the NDRC fine, into a vat of lemonade.
Qualcomm’s vote of confidence in the courts in a high stakes case may also help set an important model for other foreign and Chinese rightsholders, potentially by highlighting such important issues as: Yes, foreigners win cases in China, the importance of actual or explicit license agreements for determining damages (already being tried in some jurisdictions, see: 江苏固丰管桩集团有限公司 vs 宿迁华顺建筑预制构件有限公司 (Jiangsu, 2015), and the respective roles of patent law, antitrust law, the courts and administrative agencies, in obtaining SEP licenses in China.
Qualcomm and China both have a lot at stake in the handling of SEP issues. A recent report by Thomson Reuters (The Evolving Landscape of Standard Essential Patents: Keeping What is Essential, Sawant and Oak), showed that Qualcomm owns 17% of the patent declarations before the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, followed by Nokia, Huawei, and InterDigital. Decisions in Europe such as Huawei vs. ZTE may also have underscored the importance of looking at whether a putative licensee/infringer is in fact negotiating in good faith with a FRAND encumbered licensor.
Judges such as Zhu Li of the SPC have noted some of these changes publicly. As Zhu Li said in a recent blog:
[T]he owner of standard essential patent FRAND commitment that is made voluntarily does not give up under all circumstances the choice of seeking injunctive relief. Furthermore, it does not mean seeking injunctive relief must produce anti-competitive effects. Therefore, when a holder of a FRAND encumbered SEP seeks injunctive relief, the anti-competitive effects still need specific analysis and judgment。
The evolving practice appears to be that the evidentiary burden to demonstrate that the infringers have refused to pay a license fee is on the licensor and, as Zhu Li noted, a monopoly is not necessarily constituted when an injunction is requested by SEP owners.
The State Council’s recent opinion on how China should become a “strong” IP country, also highlighted how China needs to draft rules on standard essential patents that are based on FRAND licensing and “stopping infringement” (Art. 38) (with the involvement of AQSIQ, SIPO, MIIT, and the Supreme People’s Court) and that encouraging standardization of Chinese patents also remains a priority (Arts. 61, 71).
As I indicated elsewhere, a key question for China is “What circumstances exist to suggest that a prospective licensee is engaged in patent hold-out, i.e., refusing to license in good faith which might suspend the licensor’s F/RAND obligation…” Hopefully China is beginning to ask the better questions that are suitable for its licensing environment and its efforts to become a “strong” IP economy.
What are you observing in this hot area? Please post your comments and corrections!
The preceding is the author’s personal opinion only.