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Saint Lawrence v Vodafone, Regional Court (Landgericht) of Düsseldorf

31 March 2016 - Case No. 4a O 126/14

  1. Facts
    Since 28 August 2014 Claimant, a non-practicing entity, is the proprietor of the European patent EP J, originally granted to applicants “Y” and “C”, and allegedly covering part of the AMR-WB standard. Defendant is a company active in the telecommunications sector and which markets AMR-WB-based devices, inter alia devices produced by the Intervener in this case. After the adoption (“freeze”) of AMR-WB by ETSI on 10 April 2001, Claimant (who was not an ETSI member during the setting of the AMR-WB standard) made, on 29 May 2001, a commitment towards ETSI to grant licenses on FRAND terms inter alia for patent EP J. Claimant and its parent company “O” offer the SEP and all other patents of the same family to third parties by means of a portfolio license. Licensing conditions are accessible on the Internet and various producers in the sector have taken a license under these conditions.
    Prior to the submission of the patent infringement action on 23 July 2014 and to the advance payments on costs on 29 July 2014, Claimant alerted neither Defendant nor the manufacturer of the contested embodiments, who acted as an intervener in the present proceedings and became aware of the lawsuit in August 2014. By e-mails on 31 July and (as a reminder) on 9 December 2014, the first of which included a copy of the statement of claims and reached the defendant before it was formally served with the statement, Claimant notified the alleged patent violation to Defendant. After Defendant’s reply as of 12 January 2015, Claimant presented a draft licensing agreement to Defendant by letter as of 22 April 2015.
    On 9 December 2014, the Intervener declared willingness to take a license, inter alia for the patent-in-suit, provided infringement was found in court. It further declared that it would accept royalties determined by a court or arbitration tribunal. Claimant, in turn, offered a licensing agreement by letters as of 12 January 2015 and 25 March 2015 respectively. In the course of meetings taking place since 23 January 2014, This is the date mentioned by the court although “23 January 2015” may seem more plausible and the date given by the court may result from a scrivener’s error. Claimant offered a license to the Intervener. On 23 February 2015 and on 2 April 2015 respectively, the Intervener made two licensing offers, including third party determination (arbitration panel or English court) of the amount of royalty, for the whole German patent portfolio of Claimant. An additional offer for a licensing agreement, limited to Germany and implementing a royalty of USD 0.0055 per patent by reference to the “WCDMA Patent Pools”, was made by the Intervener on 6 March 2015 and 24 September 2015 respectively, but it was finally refused by Claimant on 4 October 2015. Moreover, the Intervener provided a bank “guarantee of payment” as of 3 September 2015, being modified by letter as of 10 November 2015, and also rendered account of past and prospective sales in Germany since 2011.
  2. Court’s reasoning
    The considerations of the court are almost exactly the same as those in the case LG Düsseldorf, 31 March 2016 – Case No. 4a O 73/14.
    1. Market power and notice of infringement
      The court leaves open the question of whether the SEP conferred market power to Claimant since it did, in any case, find no abuse of such potential market power. [667] The court declared the Huawei rules applicable to claims for the recall of products. [668]
      As regards the Huawei requirement to alert the standard user of the infringement, the decision arrived at various findings of interest: Firstly, the judges found that—in “non-transitional” cases where the lawsuit was brought after the Huawei decision—the infringement notification has to take place before the action is filed, or the latest before the advance payment on costs is made. In transitional cases, such as the present case, a delayed infringement notification, taking place after the advance payment on costs as well as the submission of the court action, but before the statement of claims is served, is admissible. [669] Moreover, an infringement notification could possibly be omitted (in particular) if—as in the present case—the patent user already disposes of all necessary information and lacks willingness to license. [670] In non-transitional cases, however, the court doubts whether it is possible to rectify an omitted infringement notification without withdrawing the action. [671]
      Secondly, the court specified the minimum content of the infringement notification which has to indicate at least the number of the patent, the contested embodiments and the alleged acts of use performed by the standard implementer. The court did not decide whether additional information has to be provided, in particular regarding the interpretation of the patent claims or on which part of the standard the patent reads, but it stated that such additional information is not harmful to the patent proprietor. [672]
      Lastly, the court detailed on the particular situation of the Intervener, being Defendant’s manufacturer and supplier in the present case: Even though a FRAND defense successfully raised by the Intervener would in general also cover subsequent levels of the distribution chain, the Huawei requirements apply only indirectly to suppliers of contested embodiments which have not been sued themselves. Accordingly, the SEP proprietor is not obliged to notify the patent infringement to third parties, but as soon as a request to grant a license on FRAND terms is submitted the (adapted) Huawei procedure applies. [673] In casu, no separate infringement notice vis-à-vis the Intervener was required since the Intervener was, since August 2014, aware of the action having been brought.
    2. The SEP owner’s licensing offer
      Since the patent user did not express its willingness to conclude a licensing agreement in due time, the court found Claimant to comply with the Huawei requirement to submit a licensing offer on FRAND terms even though the offer was made in the course of the ongoing litigation. For transitional cases, as the present one, this holds true even if infringement notification and court action take place at the same time. [674]
      Besides, the court analyzed under which circumstances licensing conditions can be considered as FRAND according to Huawei. In the opinion of the judges, the more licensing agreements implementing comparable terms the SEP proprietor has already concluded, the stronger is the presumption that these conditions are FRAND, unless factual reasons—which are to be demonstrated by the patent user—justify modified terms. Recognized commercial practice in the relevant sector has to be considered when defining the admissible scope of the licensing agreement. If patent portfolios are usually covered by group or worldwide licenses in the relevant market, a (worldwide) portfolio license will be FRAND unless the circumstances of the specific case, e.g. the SEP proprietor’s market activity being limited to one geographic market, require a modification. [675] Accordingly, Claimant’s (worldwide) licensing offer to Defendant for the whole AMR-WB pool, demanding royalties of USD 0.26 per mobile device that implemented the standard and was produced or marketed in countries in which the SEP was in force, and complying with Claimants existing licensing practice (accessible on the Internet and already implemented in 12 licensing agreements) was declared FRAND. While the court considered that comparable licensing agreements “represent an important indicator of the adequacy of the license terms offered” it clarified that the significance of a patent pool as an indication of FRAND conformity is “limited”. Defendant and the Intervener failed to show that the portfolio comprised (non-used) non-SEPs as well. Ibid, para. 225 et seq. On the relevance of the SIPRO-pool royalty rates, cf. LG Düsseldorf, 31 March 2016 – Ibid, para. 245-248. On the facts indicating that a worldwide license was appropriate LG Düsseldorf, 31 March 2016 – Ibid, para. 249-255. They further failed to show that the pre-concluded licensing agreements provided no valid basis for comparison as they were concluded under the threat of pending litigation. [677]
      In order to fulfill the Huawei obligation of specifying the calculation of royalties, the SEP proprietor only has to provide the information necessary to determine the amount of royalties to be paid, e.g. the royalty per unit and the products covered by the license. While the court left undecided whether additional indications, e.g. concerning the FRAND character of the licensing offer, are necessary to comply with Huawei, it found that the SEP proprietor’s duty to inform should not be interpreted too strictly as FRAND does regularly encompass a range of values that will be fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory. [678]
      Claimant’s licensing offer presented to the Intervener was considered as being FRAND for the same reasons. Furthermore, the court emphasized that the contractual clause allowing for judicial review of the royalties offered could be a possible way to avoid abusive practices and to ensure that licensing offers correspond to FRAND terms. [679]
    3. The standard implementer’s reaction
      The court found that the more details the infringement notification contains, the less time remains for the standard user to examine the patent(s) at issue and to express its willingness to conclude a licensing agreement on FRAND terms. In the present case, Defendant did not comply with Huawei because it took more than five months to react and then only asked for proof of the alleged infringement. Given this excessive delay, the court did not decide whether Defendant’s reaction satisfied the Huawei requirements in terms of content. It denied the possibility to remedy a belated reaction by a subsequent declaration of willingness to license. On the contrary, and as a consequence of the patent user’s non-compliance, the SEP proprietor may continue the infringement action without violating Article 102 TFEU, but it still has to grant licenses on FRAND terms. [680] Whether the Intervener satisfied the ECJ criteria was left undecided. [681]
      The court made some further remarks of interest as to the Huawei requirements concerning the standard implementer: Firstly, it left undecided whether the obligation of the patent user to diligently respond is caused also by a (potentially) non-FRAND licensing offer. [682] Secondly, a standard user who has taken a license is not prevented from challenging validity and essentiality of the SEP afterwards, nor is the SEP proprietor entitled to terminate the license if such a challenge takes place. However, the standard implementer may not delay the (unconditional) conclusion of the licensing agreement until a final court decision on these issues has been rendered. While validity and standard-essentiality is litigated, the licensee remains obliged to pay royalties and it cannot request to insert into the licensing contract a clause entitling it to reclaim paid royalties in case of its success in court. [683] Thirdly, as, in the present case, no specific counter-offers satisfying FRAND terms were submitted and Defendant could not establish that Claimant had waived this requirement the court did not decide on whether a SEP proprietor is obliged to negotiate further although itself and the patent user have submitted FRAND offers. [684]
      None of the counter-offers of the Intervener were FRAND in terms of content. They were either inadmissibly limited to Germany, contained no precise royalty, were not submitted “promptly” because the standard user had waited until the oral pleadings in the parallel procedure, or they proposed royalties per device which the court considered as too low. [685] While it was therefore held to be irrelevant whether, in the first place, the Intervener duly declared its willingness to license, the court emphasized that the Intervener’s readiness to take a license only after the SEP infringement was determined in court did not satisfy the Huawei standard of conduct. [686]
      Moreover, the obligation imposed by Huawei to provide appropriate security and to render account was not fulfilled. While Defendant refrained from taking any of these actions, the Intervener waited several months after the counter-offers were refused in order to submit its bank “guarantee of payment”, which was not recognized as “appropriate security” due to its amount and its limitation to acts of use in Germany. [687] Neither was the Intervener’s initial proposal to have the security—if requested by Claimant—determined by an arbitration tribunal or by an English court accepted as an appropriate way to provide security. [688]
  3. Other important issues
    According to the court, the Huawei requirements apply to both non-practicing entities and other market participants. [689]
    Suing a network operator instead of the undertakings producing devices operating in the network constitutes (at least under the circumstances of this case and absent selective enforcement) no violation of competition law even though this strategy might aim at using the action against the network operator as a “lever” to obtain licensing commitments from the device suppliers. On the other hand, device manufacturers are entitled to a FRAND license as well and can raise the FRAND defense if such a license is not granted. In consequence, the court perceives a fair balance of interests as the SEP proprietor can choose on which level of the chain of production to sue while the undertakings in the chain of production can choose on which level to take a license. [690]
    Furthermore, no patent ambush-defense based on § 242 BGB could be raised because, firstly, Defendant and the Intervener could not substantiate the alleged patent ambush by “Y” and “C”, being the original SEP proprietors; secondly, they could not show that a different patent declaration conduct would have resulted in a different version of the standard excluding the patent-in-suit; thirdly, the alleged patent ambush would, arguably, have resulted only in a FRAND-licensing obligation and, fourthly, Claimant had declared its willingness to grant a license on FRAND terms anyway. [691]
  • [666] This is the date mentioned by the court although “23 January 2015” may seem more plausible and the date given by the court may result from a scrivener’s error.
  • [667] Ibid, para. 184
  • [668] Ibid, para. 187
  • [669] Ibid, para. 195 et seq.
  • [670] Ibid, para. 208-210
  • [671] Case No. 4a O 126/14, para. IV, 3, a, bb, 2, c
  • [672] Case No. 4a O 73/14, para. 193
  • [673] Ibid, para. 270 et seq.
  • [674] Ibid, para. 222 et seq.
  • [675] Ibid, para. 225 et seq.
  • [676] Ibid, para. 225 et seq. On the relevance of the SIPRO-pool royalty rates, cf. LG Düsseldorf, 31 March 2016 – Ibid, para. 245-248. On the facts indicating that a worldwide license was appropriate LG Düsseldorf, 31 March 2016 – Ibid, para. 249-255.
  • [677] Ibid, para. 234-242. The court argued that it is questionable in principle how much the threat of a claim for injunctive relief can (inadmissibly) affect license agreement negotiations, since the Orange Book case law of the BGH (German Federal Court of Justice), the Motorola decision of the European Commission, and now the CJEU judgment in the Huawei Technologies/ZTE Case could be and can be invoked against inappropriate demands that are in breach of antitrust law.
  • [678] Ibid, para. 256 et seq.
  • [679] Ibid, para. 279 et seq.
  • [680] Ibid, para. 214-220
  • [681] Ibid, para. 214-220; 278
  • [682] Ibid, para. 266
  • [683] Ibid, para. 185 et seq.; 262 et seq.
  • [684] Ibid, para. 264.
  • [685] Ibid, para. 291 et seq.
  • [686] Ibid, para. 278
  • [687] Ibid, para. 267 et seq.; 299 et seq.
  • [688] Ibid, para. 304
  • [689] Ibid, para. 189
  • [690] Ibid, para. 309-313
  • [691] Ibid, para. 317 et seq.