How Should Standard-Essential Patents Be Licensed?
from the that's-not-fair dept
Patents are intellectual monopolies, designed to give the patent-holder control over an invention by excluding others from using it without permission. That’s a problem when standards include patented elements. Anyone who wants to implement that standard must use the invention, which gives the patent-holder the ability, in theory, to demand and obtain any licensing deal it might propose. To limit that power, holders of these standard-essential patents are often required to agree to offer licensing terms on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms.
Of course, that leaves open the rather important question of what exactly FRAND means in practice, and an interesting case before the Court of Justice of the European Union aims to obtain some guidance on this issue. The court itself has not yet handed down its judgment, but as usual, an Advocate General has offered his own thoughts as preliminary guidance (pdf). Here’s the background to the case:
Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications company, holds a European patent regarded as ‘essential’ to the ‘Long Term Evolution’ (LTE) standard developed by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). The LTE standard relates to next generation — that is to say, fourth generation — mobile phone communications. Anyone complying with the standard inevitably uses the patent owned by Huawei, which is why that patent is categorised as ‘essential’. Huawei is a member of ETSI and notified the patent to that institute. Huawei also made a commitment to ETSI to grant licences to third parties on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms.
However, when another Chinese company, ZTE, sought a license from Huawei, they were unable to agree on the terms, so Huawei brought an action for infringement against ZTE. According to ZTE, Huawei’s attempt to obtain an injunction against it constituted an abuse of its dominant position, since ZTE was willing to negotiate a license.
Here’s the key part of the Advocate General’s opinion. After making the alleged infringer aware of its infringement, the standard-essential patent-holder must also:
Present the alleged infringer with a written offer of a licence on FRAND terms and that offer must contain all the terms normally included in a licence in the sector in question, including the precise amount of the royalty and the way in which that amount is calculated.
The infringer must respond to that offer in a diligent and serious manner. If it does not accept the SEP holder?s offer, it must promptly present the latter with a reasonable counter-offer, in writing, in relation to the clauses with which it disagrees.
The rest of the opinion then goes on to fill out details of what is reasonable and unreasonable as the negotiations continue, and as recourse is made to the courts. In many ways, it’s an attempt to flesh out what that problematic “fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory” means. But a far better solution would be to stipulate that all standard-essential patents must be licensed on an RF — royalty-free, also known as requirement-free — basis. That’s precisely what the leading web standards body, the W3C, specifies in its patent policy:
In order to promote the widest adoption of Web standards, W3C seeks to issue Recommendations that can be implemented on a Royalty-Free (RF) basis. Subject to the conditions of this policy, W3C will not approve a Recommendation if it is aware that Essential Claims exist which are not available on Royalty-Free terms.
To this end, Working Group charters will include a reference to this policy and a requirement that specifications produced by the Working Group will be implementable on an RF basis, to the best ability of the Working Group and the Consortium.
It’s quite reasonable to expect holders of standard-essential patents to agree to RF licensing since the inclusion of their invention in a standard is, in itself, an important benefit: it places the patent-holder at the center of the standard, and enhances its influence over the field it refers to. It also helps it avoid the need for costly and pointless lawsuits like the one between Huawei and ZTE.