Case Law post CJEU ruling Huawei v ZTE

Huawei v ZTE

16 July 2015 - Case No. C-170/13

A. Facts

The Claimant, Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., holds a patent declared as essential to the practice of the LTE wireless telecommunication standard (Standard Essential Patent, or SEP) developed by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) [1] . In March 2009, the Claimant committed towards ETSI to make the patent in question accessible to users on Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) terms and conditions [2] .

The Defendants, ZTE Corp. and ZTE Deutschland GmbH, hold themselves several SEPs relating to the LTE standard [3] and also market, inter alia in Germany, LTE-compliant products [4] .

Between November 2010 and March 2011, the parties engaged into discussions concerning the licensing of the Claimant’s portfolio of SEPs [4] . The Claimant indicated the amount it considered as a reasonable royalty; the Defendants, on the other hand, sought to conclude a cross-licence [5] . An offer for a licensing agreement was, however, not finalized [5] .

In April 2011, the Claimant brought an action against the Defendants before the District Court (Landgericht) of Düsseldorf (District Court), seeking for injunctive relief, the rendering of accounts for past uses, the recall of products and an award for damages for patent infringement [6] .

The District Court stayed its proceedings and submitted a reference for a preliminary ruling under Article 267 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). In brief, the District Court noted that the German Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof) and the European Commission appeared to have adopted conflicting positions on the question under which conditions an action for a prohibitory injunction brought by a SEP holder against a SEP user constitutes an abuse of dominant position in violation of Article 102 TFEU [7] : In its Orange Book ruling, the German Federal Court of Justice held that, in infringement proceedings concerning SEPs, the defendant is entitled to raise a defence under Article 102 TFEU (and thus avoid an injunction), only and insofar as it submits an unconditional, fair offer to conclude a licence to the patent holder, accounts for past acts of use and also makes a deposit on the royalty payments resulting thereof [8] . The European Commission, on the other hand, in proceedings relating to enforcement actions taken by Samsung against Apple in a number of EU member states, took the view that an action for injunctive relief concerning a SEP may, in principle, infringe Article 102 TFEU to the extent to which the defendant has demonstrated his willingness to negotiate a licence on FRAND terms in accordance with the patent holder’s FRAND commitments [9] .

With the present judgment, the CJEU established the conditions under which a SEP holder can file an action for a prohibitory injunction against a patent user, without violating Article 102 TFEU. In particular, the CJEU ruled that a SEP holder which has given an irrevocable undertaking to make its patents accessible on FRAND terms, does not abuse its dominant position by seeking an injunction and/or the recall of infringing products, as long as – prior to bringing a respective court action – it has

  • firstly, notified the user about the infringement of its patent ‘by designating that patent and specifying the way in which it has been infringed’, and
  • secondly, if the alleged infringer has expressed its willingness to conclude a licensing agreement on FRAND terms, presented to that infringer a specific, written offer for a licence on such terms, specifying, in particular, the royalty and the way in which it is to be calculated[10] .

By contrast, the SEP user may invoke the abusive nature of a patent holder’s action for a prohibitory injunction and/or for the recall of products, only if it responds to SEP holder’s offer without delay [11] . In case that the patent user rejects that offer, it has to

  • submit ‘promptly and in writing, a specific counter-offer that corresponds to FRAND terms’ to the patent holder [12] and
  • if its counter-offer is rejected, provide appropriate security for the use of the patent(s), ‘for example by providing a bank guarantee or by placing the amounts necessary on deposit[13] .

The CJEU made clear that the above framework does not apply to SEP holders’ claims for damages and/or the rendering of accounts in relation to past acts of use; actions concerning these claims cannot infringe Article 102 TFEU, since they have no impact on whether standard compliant products can appear or remain on the market [14] .

B. Court’s Reasoning

The CJEU stressed the need to balance, on the one hand, the effective judicial protection of SEP holders’ fundamental intellectual property rights (IPRs) and, on the other hand, the public interest in free undistorted competition [15] .

Since the parties had not contested that the Claimant held a dominant market position, the Court’s analysis focused on the existence of an ‘abuse’ in terms of Article 102 TFEU [16] . According to the CJEU, the exercise of an IPR cannot ‘in itself’ be abusive, even if it is the act of an undertaking holding a dominant position [17] . Moreover, an action for the enforcement of an IPR can constitute an abuse of dominant position only in “exceptional circumstances[18] .

Cases, in which SEPs are involved, distinguish themselves from other IPR-related cases: First, the fact that the patent has obtained SEP status means that the patent holder can ‘prevent products manufactured by competitors from appearing or remaining on the market and, thereby, reserve to itself the manufacture of the products in question[19] . Besides that, by making a FRAND commitment, the patent holder has created ‘legitimate expectations’ to third parties implementing the standard that the SEP will be accessible on FRAND terms [19] . Having regard to the ‘legitimate expectations’ created, the patent user sued in infringement proceedings can, in principle, defend himself by invoking Article 102 TFEU, in case that the SEP holder refused to grant him a FRAND licence [20] .

Although the SEP holder cannot be deprived of its rights to have recourse to legal proceedings for the protection of its IPRs, the CJEU found that the FRAND undertaking justifies the imposition of an obligation on the SEP holder to comply with specific requirements, when seeking for injunctive relief [21] . In particular, in order to avoid a violation of Article 102 TFEU, the SEP holder should meet the following conditions: (a) prior to the filing of an action for a prohibitory injunction, it must notify the user about the infringement ‘by designating that SEP and specifying the way in which it has been infringed[22] , and (b) submit a specific written offer for a licence on FRAND terms to the user, particularly specifying ‘the royalty and the way in which it is to be calculated’, if the latter has expressed its willingness to enter into such a licence [23] . In this context, the CJEU observed that the SEP holder can be expected to make such an offer, since it is ‘better placed to check whether its offer complies with the condition of non-discrimination than is the alleged infringer’, because, as a rule, no public standard licensing agreement exists and the terms of existing agreements entered by the SEP holder with third parties are not made public [24] .

On the other hand, the (alleged) infringer must diligently respond to the SEP holder’s offer, ‘in accordance with recognised commercial practices in the field and in good faith’ [11] . Whether this is the case must be established on the basis of ‘objective factors’, which implies, in particular, that there are no ‘delaying tactics[11] .

In case that the infringer finds the proposed terms as falling short of the patent holder’s FRAND commitment and chooses to reject the SEP holder’s licensing offer, it must submit a specific written counter-offer on FRAND terms to the SEP holder [12] . If the counter-offer is rejected and the (alleged) infringer already used the SEP in question without a licence, it is obliged to provide ‘appropriate security, in accordance with recognised commercial practices in the field, for example by providing a bank guarantee or by placing the amounts necessary on deposit[13] . The calculation of that security must include, inter alia, ‘the number of the past acts of use of the SEP’, and the alleged infringer must be able to render accounts in respect of those acts of use [13] .

When no agreement is reached following the counter-offer by the (alleged) infringer, the CJEU pointed out that the parties have the option, to request ‘by common agreement’ that the amount of the royalty be determined ‘by an independent third party, by decision without delay[25] .

Finally, the CJEU made clear that the (alleged) infringer is allowed to challenge the validity and/or the essentiality and/or the actual use of SEP holder’s patents in parallel to the licensing negotiations, or to reserve the right to do so in the future [26] .

  • [1] Huawei v ZTE, Court of Justice of the European Union, judgment dated 6 July 2015, para. 22.
  • [2] Ibid, para. 22.
  • [3] Ibid, para. 40.
  • [4] Ibid, para. 24.
  • [5] Ibid, para. 25.
  • [6] Ibid, para. 27.
  • [7] Ibid, paras. 29 et seqq.
  • [8] Ibid, paras. 30 et seqq
  • [9] Ibid, paras. 34 et seqq
  • [10] Ibid, para. 77.
  • [11] Ibid, para. 65.
  • [12] Ibid, para. 66.
  • [13] Ibid, para. 67.
  • [14] Ibid, paras. 72 et seqq
  • [15] Ibid, para. 42.
  • [16] Ibid, para. 43.
  • [17] Ibid, para. 46.
  • [18] Ibid, para. 47.
  • [19] Ibid, para. 53.
  • [20] Ibid, paras. 53 et seqq
  • [21] Ibid, paras. 58 et seqq
  • [22] Ibid, para. 61.
  • [23] Ibid, para. 63.
  • [24] Ibid, para. 64.
  • [25] Ibid, para. 68.
  • [26] Ibid, para. 69.