Case Law post CJEU ruling Huawei v ZTE

Sisvel v Haier, Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof)

5 May 2020 - Case No. KZR 36/17

http://caselaw.4ipcouncil.com/german-court-decisions/federal-court-of-justice-bgh/sisvel-v-haier-federal-court-justice-bundesgerichtshof

A. Facts

The claimant, Sisvel, holds patents declared as (potentially) essential to the practice of several wireless telecommunications standards (Standard Essential Patents, or SEPs).

The defendants are a German and a French subsidiary of the Haier group (Haier) which has its headquarters in China. The Haier group produces and markets -among other things- electronic devices complying with the GPRS standard.

On 20 December 2012, Sisvel informed the parent company of the Haier group (Haier China) about the infringing use of Sisvel's SEPs. Sisvel provided a list of approx. 450 patents included in its portfolio and informed Haier that Sisvel offers licences for its SEPs.

On 10 April 2013, Sisvel made a commitment towards the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) to make SEPs accessible to standards users on Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) terms and conditions.

In August and November 2013, Sisvel sent further letters with information about its licensing program to Haier China. Haier China replied to Sisvel only in December 2013. It expressed the hope to have 'a formal negotiation' with Sisvel and asked for information regarding potential discounts mentioned by Sisvel in previous communications.

In August 2014, Sisvel made a licensing offer to Haier, which was rejected in September 2014. Shortly after that, Sisvel filed an infringement action against Haier before the District Court of Duesseldorf (District Court) based on a SEP covering data transmission technology under the GPRS standard (patent in suit). As a reaction to this step, Haier filed a nullity action against the patent in suit before the German Federal Patent Court in March 2015.

On 3 November 2015, the District Court granted an injunction against Haier [1] . The District Court also ordered the recall and destruction of infringing products. It further recognised Haier's liability for damages on the merits and ordered Haier to render full and detailed account of the sales of infringing products to Sisvel.

Haier appealed this decision and also requested the Higher District Court of Duesseldorf (Appeal Court) to order a stay in the enforcement of the injunction granted by the District Court. In January 2016, the Appeal Court rendered a respective order [2] .

In the appeal proceedings, Haier argued –among other things– that the District Court had not adequately taken into account the conduct requirements imposed on SEP holders by the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) in the matter Huawei v ZTE in a decision rendered in July 2015 (Huawei judgment), that is after Sisvel had filed the infringement action [3] . During the course of the proceedings before the Appeal Court, on 16 January 2016, Haier further declared that is was willing to take a FRAND licence from Sisvel, however, only in case that the German courts would finally confirm the validity and infringement of the patent in suit. On 23 March 2016, Haier sent another letter to Sisvel, stating that their position remained unchanged. Moreover, Haier requested claim charts with respect to all of Sisvel's patents as well as further information about the royalty calculation. In December 2016, Sisvel made a further licensing offer to Haier, which was also rejected.

By judgment dated 30 March 2017, the Appeal Court partially granted Haier's appeal [4] . It confirmed Haier's liability for damages on the merits as well as its obligation to render accounts. However, the Appeal Court held that Haier was under no obligation to recall and destroy infringing products, because Sisvel had not complied with its obligations under the Huawei judgment, especially by failing to make a FRAND licensing offer to Haier. The Appeal Court did not have to decide about the claim for injunctive relief, because the parties had agreed to settle the matter in this regard. Reason for that was that the patent in suit had expired in September 2016. Sisvel appealed the decision of the Appeal Court.

In October 2017, the Federal Patent Court narrowed certain claims of the patent in suit and, otherwise, confirmed its validity [5] . In March 2020, the Federal Court of Justice (FCJ or Court), basically, confirmed this decision in second instance [6] .

With the present judgment dated 5 May 2020 [7] , the FCJ reversed the judgment of the Appeal Court. The ruling of the District Court in first instance was confirmed with respect to Sisvel's damage claims and claims for information and rendering of accounts. Sisvel's claims for the recall and destruction of infringing products were limited to products that were in the possession of Haier or had been produced or delivered until the expiration of the patent in suit in September 2016. Sisvel's claim for injunctive relief was not subject to the Court's ruling, since this claim was withdrawn in the course of the preceding proceedings before the Appeal Court after the patent in suit had lapsed.

B. Court's reasoning

The Court found that the patent in suit was essential to the GPRS standard and infringed [8] .

Furthermore, the Court held that by initiating infringement proceedings against Haier, Sisvel had not abused a dominant market position in violation of Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) [9] .

In the Court's eyes, Sisvel met its obligation under the Huawei judgment to notify Haier about the infringing use of its SEPs prior to filing the infringement action. On the other hand, Haier had failed to comply with its Huawei obligation to adequately express its willingness to enter into a licensing agreement with Sisvel. Although this fact was no longer decisive for the present case, the Court also expressed the view that Sisvel had made a FRAND licensing offer to Haier in line with the respective Huawei requirement.

Dominant market position

The Court held that Sisvel had a dominant market position within the meaning of Article 102 TFEU [10] .

The FCJ explained that a dominant market position does not arise alone from the exclusivity rights granted by a patent [11] . For this, several factors need to be considered [12] . One key factor is the relevant market. When a patent is technically essential for complying with a standard developed by a standardisation body (or a de facto standard) and technical alternatives to the standard are not available for products brought on a downstream market, relevant for the assessment of dominance is the (distinct) market, in which licences for the patent in question are offered [13] .

On this basis, the Court found that Sisvel was in a dominant market position: The patent in suit was essential to the practice of the GPRS standard and non GPRS compliant mobile phones could not compete in the (downstream) market, since neither the previous not subsequent standards generations allowed the same features [14] .

In this context, the FCJ was not convinced by Sisvel's argument that SEP holders' market dominance is restricted by the fact that standards implementers – compared to buyers in markets for goods and services – often have a stronger standing in negotiations [15] . The Court saw that –unlike buyers of goods and services– standards implementers are in the favourable position to be able to access protected technology needed for producing standard compliant products, even without an agreement with the patent holder [16] . According to the Court, however, this fact does not suffice to rule out market dominance. The extent of SEP holders' bargaining power towards individual implementers in licensing negotiations is not relevant [17] . A dominant market position is conferred by the patent holder's structural superior market power arising from the legal ability to exclude any implementer from the market by enforcing exclusivity rights [18] .

Similarly, the Court pointed out that the limitations imposed by the Huawei judgment with respect to the enforcement of SEPs likewise do not impair market dominance [19] . The Court noted that these limitations significantly weaken the bargaining position of the SEP holder, since the lever needed for negotiations on an equal footing is not available to the latter to the full extent [19] . Nevertheless, this does not suffice to question the dominant position of the patent holder, even in cases in which the implementer might engage in 'hold-out' by delaying negotiations until the patent expires [19] .

Having said that, the Court pointed out that Sisvel's dominant market position ended, when the patent in suit expired [20] . An SEP holder is no longer dominant, if the legal power to exclude infringing products from entering a (downstream) market is no longer given [20] .

Abuse of market dominance

Looking at the parties' conduct, the Court found – in contrast to the Appeal Court – that Sisvel did not abuse its dominant market position [21] .

The Court made clear that SEP holders are not per se prevented from enforcing the exclusivity rights arising from their patents [22] . The fact that a patent is standard essential does not mean that the patent holder is obliged to tolerate the use of its technology, unless it has allowed such use or was under an obligation to allow such use, as a consequence of holding a dominant market position [22] . According to the FCJ, an obligation to allow the use of SEPs does, however, not exist, when the implementer is not willing to obtain a licence on FRAND terms. A patent holder –even with a dominant market position– is not obliged to 'impose' a licence to any standards user, not least because it has no legal claim to request the signing of a licensing agreement [23] .

Against this background, the Court identified two cases, in which the assertion of exclusivity rights (claims for injunctive relief and/or the recall and destruction of infringing products) by an SEP holder can amount to an abuse of market dominance:

1. The implementer has made an unconditional licensing offer on terms which the patent holder cannot reject, without abusing its dominance or violating its non-discrimination obligation (insofar the Court repeated its previous ruling in 'Orange-Book-Standard'; judgment dated 6 May 2009 – Case No KZR 39/06) [24] ;

2. the implementer is, basically, willing to take a licence, but the SEP holder has not made 'sufficient efforts' to facilitate the signing of an agreement in line with the 'particular responsibility' attached to its dominant position [25] .

Notification of infringement

Consequently, the Court took the view that the SEP holder has an obligation to notify the implementer about the infringing use of the patent in suit prior to filing an infringement action [26] . The FCJ seems to suggest that this obligation arises, only when the implementer is not already aware of the infringement [27] .

The Court explained that technology implementers are, in principle, obliged to make sure that no third party rights are infringed, before assuming the manufacturing or sales of products [28] . However, this task is often significantly challenging, especially in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector, in which a product might be affected by numerous patent rights [29] . The patent holder, who will regularly have already examined infringement, should, therefore, inform the implementer about the use of the patent before initiating court proceedings, allowing the latter to assess the need to obtain a licence on FRAND terms and, consequently, avoid an injunction [30] .

In the eyes of the Court, it will usually be sufficient to address a respective notification of infringement to the parent company within a group of companies [31] . In terms of content, the notification must name the patent(s) infringed and describe the specific infringing use and the attacked embodiments [32] . A detailed technical and legal analysis of the infringement is not required: the implementer should only be placed in a position to evaluate the infringement allegation, eventually by taking recourse to expert and/or legal advice [32] . As a rule, presenting claim charts, as it is often the case in practice, will be sufficient (but not mandatory) [32] .

Furthermore, the FCJ added that a patent holder which has provided information about the patent infringed and the standard affected can expect that the implementer will indicate within a short period of time that the information received is not sufficient for the assessment of infringement [33] . This applies also to cases, in which a number of patents and standards are involved [33] .

Taking the above into consideration, the Court found that Sisvel had given proper notification of infringement to Haier. The letter dated 20 December 2012 and the following correspondence met the relevant requirements [34] .

Willingness

Considering Haier's conduct, on the other hand, the Court found that Haier did not act as a licensee willing to obtain a FRAND licence from Sisvel [35] . In this respect, the FCJ disagreed with the respective assessment of the Appeal Court which had reached the opposite conclusion.

The Court observed that the first response of Haier China to Sisvel's notification was belated, since Haier had waited for almost one year (December 2012 – December 2013) to react [36] . An implementer taking several months to respond to a notification of infringement typically sends a signal that there is no interest in taking a licence [36] . The fact that Sisvel made a FRAND commitment towards ETSI covering the patent in suit only after the first notification to Haier in December 2012 did not change anything in the assessment of timeliness: in its letter dated 20 December 2012, Sisvel had already declared that it is prepared to offer a FRAND licence to Haier [36] . The question, whether a late response made prior to the start of infringement proceedings (as it was the case with Haier's response from December 2013) shall, nevertheless, be taken into account, when assessing parties' compliance with the Huawei judgment (as the Appeal Court had assumed) was left undecided by the FCJ [37] . In the present case, this question was not relevant, since –in terms of content – none of Haier's responses could be seen as a sufficient declaration of willingness to obtain a licence [38] .

In the Court's eyes, the implementer has to 'clearly' and 'unambiguously' declare that it is willing to sign a licence with the SEP holder 'on whatever terms are in fact FRAND' (citing High Court of Justice of England and Wales, judgment dated 5 April 2017, [2017] EWHC 711(Pat) - Unwired Planet v Huawei) [39] . The implementer is, subsequently, obliged to engage in licensing negotiations in a 'target-oriented' manner [39] . On the contrary, it is not sufficient, in response to a notification of infringement, to just demonstrate willingness to consider signing a licensing agreement or to enter into negotiations about whether and under which conditions taking a licence comes into question [39] .

On this basis, the Court found that Haier's response in December 2013, in which only the hope to have a 'formal negotiation' was expressed, was not a sufficient declaration of willingness: This declaration was neither clear not unambiguous in the above sense [40] .

Similarly, Haier's letter dated 16 January 2016 did not contain a sufficient declaration of willingness, since Haier had made the signing of a licence subject to the prior confirmation of the validity and infringement of the patent in suit by German courts [41] . Although the implementer is, in principle, allowed to preserve the right to contest the validity of a licensed patent after conclusion of a licensing agreement, the Court held that a declaration of willingness cannot be placed under a respective condition [41] .

Furthermore, the FCJ found that Haier did not sufficiently express its willingness by the letter dated 23 March 2016 either. Apart from the fact that Haier had not withdrawn the above unacceptable condition, the Court took the view that requesting the production of claim charts for all of Sisvel's patents almost three years after the receipt of the notification of infringement was an indication that Haier was only interested in delaying the negotiations until the expiration of the patent in suit [42] .

Since no adequate declaration of willingness by Haier was in place, the Court did not answer the question, whether it is possible for the implementer to fulfil this obligation after infringement proceedings have been initiated [43] .

  • [1] Sisvel v Haier, District Court of Duesseldorf, judgment dated 3 November 2015, Case No. 4a O 93/14.
  • [2] Sisvel v Haier, Higher District Court of Duesseldorf, judgment dated 13 January 2016, Case No. I-15 U 66/15.
  • [3] Huawei v ZTE, Court of Justice of the EU, judgment dated 16 July 2015, Case No. C-170/13.
  • [4] Sisvel v Haier, Higher District Court of Duesseldorf, judgment dated 30 March 2017, Case No. I-15 U 66/15.
  • [5] Federal Patent Court, judgment dated 6 October 2017, Case No. 6 Ni 10/15 (EP).
  • [6] Federal Court of Justice, judgment dated 10 March 2020, Case No. X ZR 44/18.
  • [7] Sisvel v Haier, Federal Court of Justice, judgment dated 5 May 2020, Case No. KZR 36/17.
  • [8] Ibid, paras. 9 et seqq. and 59.
  • [9] Ibid, para. 52.
  • [10] Ibid, para. 54.
  • [11] Ibid, para. 56.
  • [12] Ibid, paras. 57 et seqq.
  • [13] Ibid, para. 58.
  • [14] Ibid, paras. 59 et seq.
  • [15] Ibid, para. 61.
  • [16] Ibid, para. 63.
  • [17] Ibid, para. 62.
  • [18] Ibid, paras. 61 et seqq. According to the FCJ, market entry barriers are created already by the fact that the respective legal obstacles make it unreasonable for any company to enter a market, without having taken a licence before, see para. 63.
  • [19] Ibid, para. 64.
  • [20] Ibid, para. 65.
  • [21] Ibid, paras. 67 et seqq.
  • [22] Ibid, para. 69.
  • [23] Ibid, para. 70.
  • [24] Ibid, para. 71.
  • [25] Ibid, para. 72.
  • [26] Ibid, paras. 73 et seqq.
  • [27] Ibid, para. 73. According to the Court, the patent holder has to notify the standards user about the infringement of the patent, if the latter 'is not aware of the fact' that by implementing the standard the teaching of the patent is used without permission.
  • [28]  Ibid, para. 74.
  • [29] Ibid, para. 74.
  • [30] Ibid, para. 74 and 85.
  • [31] Ibid, para. 89.
  • [32] Ibid, para. 85.
  • [33] Ibid, para. 87.
  • [34] Ibid, paras. 86 et seqq.
  • [35] Ibid, paras. 91 et seqq.
  • [36] Ibid, para. 92.
  • [37] Ibid, paras. 93 et seq.
  • [38] Ibid, para. 94.
  • [39] Ibid, para. 83.
  • [40] Ibid, para. 95.
  • [41] Ibid, para. 96.
  • [42] Ibid, para. 98.
  • [43] Ibid, para. 97.