On January 11, 2019, the U.S. DOJ Antitrust Division (Division) filed a Notice of Intent to File a Statement of Interest in a lawsuit filed by u-blox against Interdigital in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California to obtain a license consistent with Interdigital’s voluntary commitment to license its 2G, 3G and 4G telephony Standard Essential Patents (SEPs) on fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) terms. Simultaneous with the filing of its Complaint, u-blox filed a Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction to prevent Interdigital from further interfering with u-blox’s customer relationships. The Division argued that the Court would benefit from hearing its views on granting a TRO based on u-blox’s claim that Interdigital monopolized the 2G, 3G and 4G cellular technology markets. Intervening in a District Court case is highly unusual and is yet another clear signal that the Division has reversed the Obama Antitrust Division’s antitrust treatment of FRAND violations, despite the disparity between the Division’s current position and numerous well-reasoned U.S. court decisions that have carefully considered these issues and come to precisely the opposite conclusions.
By way of background, standard setting involves competitors and potential competitors, operating under the auspices of Standard Setting Organizations (SSOs), agreeing on a common standard and incorporating patented technology. Patents that are incorporated into a standard become much more valuable once a standard becomes established and commercially deployed on a widespread level, and it becomes impossible for companies manufacturing devices that incorporate standardized technology to switch to alternative technologies. In these circumstances, patent holders may gain market power and the ability to extract higher royalties than would have been possible before the standard was set. This type of opportunistic conduct is referred to as “patent hold-up.” To address the risk of patent hold-up, many SSOs require patent holders to commit to license their SEPs on FRAND terms. FRAND commitments reduce the risk that SEP holders will exercise market power by extracting exorbitant licensing fees or imposing other more onerous licensing terms. One way to address patent hold-up is through breach of contract and antitrust suits against holders of FRAND-encumbered SEPs.
The Obama Antitrust Division advocated the position that, under appropriate circumstances, the antitrust laws may reach violations of FRAND commitments. This position was, and remains, consistent with applicable legal precedent. For example, in 2007 the Third Circuit recognized in Broadcom v. Qualcomm, 501 F.3d 297, that a SEP-holder’s breach of a FRAND commitment can constitute a violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act where the SEP-holder makes a false FRAND promise to induce an SSO to include its patents in the standard and later, after companies making devices that incorporate the standard are locked in, demands exorbitant royalties in violation of the FRAND commitment. Numerous other cases similarly stand for the proposition that it is appropriate to apply competition law to the realm of FRAND-encumbered SEPs. See, e.g., Research in Motion v. Motorola, 644 F. Supp. 2d 788 (N.D. Tex. 2008); Microsoft Mobile v. Interdigital, 2016 WL 1464545 (D. Del. Apr. 13, 2016).
The Obama Antitrust Division also took the position that in most cases it is inappropriate to seek injunctive relief in a judicial proceeding or an exclusion order in the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) as a remedy for the alleged infringement of a FRAND-encumbered SEP. Injunctions and exclusion orders (or the threat of one) are generally incompatible with a FRAND commitment and unfairly shift bargaining power to the patent holders. In the Obama Antitrust Division’s view, money damages, rather than injunctive or exclusionary relief, are generally the more appropriate remedy. Again, the Obama Antitrust Division’s policy reflected case law recognizing the same principles. See, e.g., Apple v. Motorola, 757 F.3d 1286 (Fed. Cir. 2014).
The Obama Antitrust Division articulated its views on the use of exclusion orders against the infringing use of SEPs in a joint statement issued by the Department of Justice and the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office on January 8, 2013 entitled “Policy Statement on Remedies for Standards-Essential Patents Subject to Voluntary F/RAND Commitments” (Joint Policy Statement). The Joint Policy Statement urged the ITC to consider that “the public interest may preclude issuance of an exclusion order in cases where the infringer is acting within the scope of the patent holder’s F/RAND commitment and is able, and has not refused, to license on F/RAND terms.”
New Madison Approach
The Division is now of the view that the Obama Antitrust Division’s focus on patent implementers and its concerns with hold-up were misplaced, even though many courts and other regulatory bodies around the world have noted the significance of the hold-up problem. The Division currently does not believe that hold-up is an antitrust problem. According to the Division, the more serious risk to competition and innovation is the “hold-out” problem. The hold-out problem arises when companies making products that innovate upon and incorporate the standard threaten to under-invest in the implementation of a standard, or threaten not to take a license at all, until their royalty demands are met. The Division further has questioned the role of antitrust law in regulating the FRAND commitment, even though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – and numerous other competition agencies around the world – has engaged in enforcement efforts to curb allegedly anticompetitive SEP licensing practices, many of which are directed at Qualcomm (which is the subject of an ongoing trial between the FTC and Qualcomm in Federal District Court in California).
Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim coined the term the “New Madison Approach” to describe his approach to the application of antitrust law to patent rights. The four premises of the New Madison Approach are:
- The antitrust laws should not be used as a tool to police FRAND commitments that patent holders make to SSOs.
- To ensure maximum incentives to innovate, SSOs should focus on implementer hold-out, rather than focus on patent hold-up.
- SSOs and courts should not restrict the right of a patent holder to seek or obtain an injunction or exclusion order.
- A unilateral and unconditional refusal to license a patent should be considered per se legal.
The Division has taken at least three concrete steps to implement the New Madison Approach. First, it has opened several investigations of potential anticompetitive conduct in SSOs by implementers, for example to exclude alternative technologies. Second, in a December 7, 2018 speech in Palo Alto, California, AAG Delrahim announced that DOJ was withdrawing its support of the Joint Policy Statement. According to AAG Delrahim, the Joint Policy Statement created confusion to the extent it suggests a FRAND commitment creates a compulsory licensing scheme and suggests exclusion orders may not be appropriate in cases of FRAND-encumbered patents. AAG Delrahim noted he would engage with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office to draft a new statement. Finally, the Division intervened in the u-blox case.
u-blox v. Interdigital
u-blox presents a fact pattern that commonly arises in FRAND cases. Since 2011, u-blox has licensed Interdigital patents that had been declared essential to the 2G, 3G and 4G standards. U-blox relied on Interdigital’s FRAND commitments, and its devices are now allegedly locked into 2G, 3G and 4G cellular technology. u-blox alleges that in its most recent round of negotiations, Interdigital is demanding supra-competitive royalty rates. Among its various claims, u-blox alleges Interdigital breached its contractual obligation to offer its SEPs on FRAND terms and has monopolized the 2G, 3G and 4G technology markets in violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act. u-blox also alleges that Interdigital threatened its customers to force u-blox to pay excessive, non-FRAND royalties. u-box has asked the court to set a FRAND rate and filed a TRO to prevent Interdigital from interfering with its contractual relationships.
On January 11, 2019, the Division filed its Notice of Intent to explain its views concerning u-blox’s monopolization cause of action. The Division further explained that due to the partial government shutdown, it was unable to submit a brief before the TRO hearing scheduled for January 31, 2019, and asked that the TRO hearing be delayed until after DOJ appropriations have been restored, or in the alternative, to order DOJ to respond. Although not stated in the Notice of Intent, the Division can be expected to argue that it would be improper to grant a TRO based on a claim of monopolization because the antitrust laws should play no role in policing Interdigital’s FRAND commitment where contract or common law remedies are adequate. On January 14, 2019, u-blox responded that it would withdraw reliance on its monopolization claim to support its request for a TRO and instead rely on its breach of contract and other claims.
Implications of the Division’s Intervention in the u-blox Case
The Division’s filing of a Notice of Interest in the u-blox case is highly unusual. The Division rarely intervenes in district court cases, and it may be unprecedented for the Division to intervene at the TRO stage. It is also difficult to explain why the Division chose to intervene on this motion. While u-blox was relying on its antitrust claim, among several other claims, to support its TRO request, u-blox was only seeking an order to prevent Interdigital from interfering with its customer relationships while the court adjudicated its request for a FRAND rate. It is also notable that the Division put its thumb on the scale in the aid of Interdigital, a company that often finds itself in FRAND litigation.
The Division appears to be attempting to aggressively implement the New Madison Approach that the antitrust laws should protect innovators. The Division’s decision to withdraw its assent to the Joint Policy Statement appears to have been a clear signal to the ITC that it is free to grant an exclusion order in SEP cases. The Division’s intervention in the u-blox case is a clear signal that it is willing to intervene at the district court level to advance its view that the antitrust laws are not an appropriate vehicle to enforce FRAND commitments where there are adequate remedies sounding in contract or other common law theories.
To date, the Division has used speeches to make policy arguments that the antitrust laws should not be used to enforce FRAND commitments. If the Division ever gets the opportunity to present its views to a district court, watch to see what legal arguments it can marshal to support its policy position. Also watch to see whether the Division attempts to participate in other FRAND cases.
 Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim coined the phrase in his March 16, 2018 speech at the University of Pennsylvania entitled “The ‘New Madison’ Approach to Antitrust and Intellectual Property Law” based on the initial understanding of patent rights held by Thomas Jefferson, the first patent examiner of the U.S. (and a former president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence). AAG Delrahim describes the retro-Jefferson view of patents as conferring too much power on patent holders at the expense of patent implementers and that such power should be constrained by the antitrust laws or Standard Setting Organizations.
 The term “New Madison Approach” is based on the understanding of intellectual property rights held by James Madison, the principal drafter of the U.S. Constitution. Madison believed strong IP protections were necessary to encourage innovation and technological progress.