Patent licensing: 5G & the Internet of Things

The next telecommunications standard, 5G, and the nascent Internet of Things (IoT), promise a world of high-speed interconnectivity. We’re already accustomed to people talking to smart devices to ask them to play music, or to order a taxi or takeaway. The technology for truly smart homes and even smart cities is following closely (see here for examples of how the IoT is already being used).

Standardisation will be essential to maximising the benefits of both the IoT and 5G. After all, there’s no point in having a smart thermostat that can be adjusted remotely if you can’t connect to it whilst out of the house because your phone is made by a different manufacturer. Standardisation will ensure that 5G/IoT devices and systems can connect and work together.

There will be thousands of patents essential to the operation of the standards developed. As the IoT grows and 5G is rolled out, the issue of how these patents are licensed will become increasingly important. Standard essential patents (SEPs) have to be licensed on a FRAND basis, but determining a FRAND royalty rate is a challenging task.

The Commission’s Roadmap

Following two studies on SEPs published at the end of last year (see here), on 10 April 2017, the Commission released a Roadmap that sets out its plan to publish a ‘Communication on Standard Essential Patents for a European digitalised economy’ later this year, possibly as early as May or June. The Communication (which will not have the binding force of a Directive or Regulation) is intended to complement the Commission’s Digital Single Market project, and to help work towards the goal of having 5G rolled out across the EU by 2025. 

The Roadmap identifies three main issues that the Commission will seek to address in its Communication to ensure a balanced, flexible framework for SEP licensing:

  • Opaque information about SEP exposure: the lack of effective tools for potential licensees too identify which patents they need to take licences for in order to implement relevant standardised technologies.
  • Unclear valuation of patented technologies: the difficulties in assessing the value of new technology (for both licensors and licensees), including the lack of any widely accepted methodology.
  • Risks of uncertainty in enforcement: the general framework provided by the CJEU in Huawei v ZTE is a starting point for agreeing a FRAND royalty rate, but it does not provide complete guidance. There are many technical issues that aren’t addressed, such as how portfolio licensing, related damages claims, and ADR mechanisms should be dealt with. (NB: some of these issues have been recently addressed in the UK case Unwired Planet v Huawei, see our initial thoughts on that case here.)

It is unclear if the Communication will address other issues with standardisation and SEP licensing, such as over-declaration, hold-up, hold-out, the appropriate royalty base (a particularly difficult challenge in the diverse world of the IoT) or whether a total aggregate royalty burden is appropriate.

Use-based licensing?

The Roadmap does not offer any specific details as to how the Commission intends to solve the issues it identifies. However, according to MLex (here – subscription required), an outline of the Commission’s Communication seen in February suggested that the Commission was considering a licensing model that would enable licensors to offer licensees different royalty rates depending on how the relevant technology is used. This could extend to allowing licensors to refuse to offer a licence if the final use of the technology cannot be identified and tracked.

This suggestion has caused concern amongst a number of companies. ACT | The App Association, an organisation sponsored by Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, PayPal & others which represents more than 5,000 small technology firms, has written to the Commission claiming that such a licensing model poses a substantial threat to innovation. It argues that in order for suppliers to obtain licences under this model, they might be required to monitor their customers’ business practices and potentially to charge different customers different prices depending on how they use the technology. It also claims that this model could appropriate the value created by new innovators. If a company succeeds in developing a new use for a particular sensor by incorporating it into a health app for example, it might find itself being charged higher royalties for this new use of the sensor.   

We have reported before on how new licensing models may be required to make best use of the IoT. Qualcomm, Ericsson and Royal KPN (among others) have backed a new licensing platform called Avanci. This is designed to remove the need for lengthy bi-lateral licence negotiations by making flat rate FRAND licences available for particular patent portfolios. However, it is now over six months since Avanci launched and there have been no reports yet of it successfully concluding any licence agreements.

The proper royalty base for patent licences has been a controversial topic for a number of years now. There has been considerable debate over whether licences should be based upon the price of the smallest component in which the patent is implemented, or the final price of the end product. This issue has been addressed by the courts on occasion, particularly in the US (see our post on CSIRO v Cisco here for example).

The new Communication is intended to provide best practice guidance on SEP licensing. If the Commission does opt for a use-based licensing model, this would be a controversial choice. However, whatever the Commission decides, given the number of conflicting interests and amounts of money at state, it is unlikely to satisfy everyone. 

Unwired Planet v Huawei: Is FRAND now a competition law free zone? Not so fast…

It has been two weeks since Mr Justice Birss handed down his latest judgment in Unwired Planet v Huawei (see here for a summary), which is almost long enough to get to grips with the 150 or so pages. There has already been a huge amount of discussion as to what this judgment means in practice and we have even overheard some suggest that, when it comes to FRAND in the future, we can simply ignore competition law altogether. This week we were invited by our friends at the renowned IP law blog, IPKat, to have our say on this. You can check out our thoughts on the IPKat blog here.

Unwired Planet v Huawei: UK High Court determines FRAND licence rate

Mr Justice Birss has just handed down the first decision by a UK court on the ever controversial topic of what constitutes a FRAND royalty rate.  At well over 150 pages, the judgment covers a lot of ground: a lot of ink is likely to be spilled about it over the coming weeks and months.  From what we’ve seen so far, the judge has not been afraid to make findings that will have a considerable impact on licensing negotiations in the TMT sector. 

We’ve summarised the headline conclusions below, but also keep an eye out for future posts in which we’ll analyse some of the judge’s findings and reasoning in more detail.

Background

In March 2014, Unwired Planet (“UP”) sued Huawei, Samsung and Google for the infringement of 6 of its UK patents.  Five of these were standard essential patents (“SEPs”) that UP had acquired from Ericsson.  They related to various telecommunications standards (2G GSM, 3G UMTS, and 4G LTE) for mobile phone technology. 

Five technical trials, numbered A-E, were listed on the validity and infringement of the patents at issue.  These were to be followed by a non-technical trial on competition law and FRAND issues.  UP’s patents were found valid and infringed in both trial A and trial C, but two were held invalid for obviousness in trial B. Trials D and E were then stayed, and as Google and Samsung had settled with UP during the proceedings, this just left Huawei and UP involved in the 7 week non-technical trial, for which judgment has just been given. 

Judgment

There’s a lot to unpack in this judgment, but here is a short list of what we think are the most important findings:

General principles:
  • There is only one set of FRAND terms in a given set of circumstances.  Note the contrast between this and the comments of the Hague District Court in the Netherlands in Archos v Philips (here, in Dutch) which seem to interpret the CJEU decision in Huawei v ZTE as meaning that there can be a range of FRAND rates.
  • Injunctive relief is available if an implementer refuses to take a FRAND licence determined by the court. Mr Justice Birss indicated that an injunction would be granted against Huawei at a post-judgment hearing in a few weeks’ time (although presumably Huawei can avoid this by now taking a licence on the terms set by the Judge).
  • UP is entitled to damages dating back to 1 January 2013 at the determined major markets FRAND rate applied to UK sales. 
  • What constitutes a FRAND rate does not vary depending on the size of the licensee.
  • For a portfolio like UP’s and for an implementer like Huawei, a FRAND licence is worldwide.
  • It’s still legitimate to make offers higher or lower than FRAND if they do not disrupt or prejudice negotiations.
Abuse of dominance:
  • UP did not abuse its dominant position by issuing proceedings for an injunction prematurely (it began the litigation without complying with the Huawei v ZTE framework).
Calculating the FRAND rate:
  • A FRAND royalty rate can be determined by making appropriate adjustments to a ‘benchmark rate’ primarily based upon the SEP holder’s portfolio. 
  • In the alternative, if a UK-only portfolio licence was appropriate, an uplift of 100% on the benchmark rates would be required.
  • Counting patents is the only practical approach for assessing the value of sizeable patent portfolios, although it may be possible to identify a patent as an exceptional ‘keystone’ invention.
  • Comparable, freely negotiated licences can be used as to determine a FRAND rate.
The FRAND rates as determined:


Other FRAND terms:
  • The Judge goes into some details as to the terms which will be FRAND in the licence between Unwired Planet and Huawei – much of which will be worth reading for licensors and licensees in this field.  Of particular note is the royalty base for infrastructure (excluding services). 
Other remedies:
  • Damages are compensatory and are pegged to the FRAND rate.
Comment

There have been near continual disputes between the major players in the TMT field over the last decade or so.  The meaning of FRAND has been strategically important in a large number of cases.  However, many of these companies are very effective negotiators.  In the vast majority of cases, they are able to agree licences without resorting to litigation.  Where proceedings are initiated, the parties are usually able to settle long before a judgment is reached, particularly given the time and expense required to take a FRAND case all the way to trial.  (Such expense is, however, usually dwarfed by the value of the licence – many licences in this field are valued in $billions.) 

The scarcity of judicial opinion in this area means this is a rare opportunity to see how a respected UK judge has approached a number of the unresolved questions regarding FRAND. 

A number of significant questions remain unanswered however, and we will be exploring these in future blog posts.  There’s also the matter of the upcoming post-judgment hearing in a few weeks’ time, which will establish whether or not Huawei will actually be subject to an injunction in the UK, and of course the chance that either party might wish to appeal.  All in all, there’s plenty of interest to talk about, plenty of advice to be given to clients, and the FRAND debate will undoubtedly continue on.

EU Commission’s Microsoft / LinkedIn Decision – watershed for competition and data?

On 6 December 2016, the European Commission approved the acquisition of LinkedIn by Microsoft, conditional on compliance with a series of commitments.  The full text of the decision has recently been published, affording some useful insight into the Commission’s reasoning.

The merger is one of a number of high profile technology cases in which data is the key asset. Cases such as this are challenging the Commission’s relaxed attitude to the potential effects on competition of deals involving significant volumes of data (for example, the Commission’s 2014 clearance decision of Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp – now the subject of an investigation into whether Facebook provided misleading information in the context of that merger review).  

Similarly, in the LinkedIn / Microsoft decision, the Commission’s assessment was that the post-merger combination of data (such as the individual career information, contact details and professional contacts of users) did not raise competition concerns.

The Commission identified two potential concerns: 

  1. The combination of data may increase the merged entity’s market power in the data market or increase barriers to entry / expansion for competitors who need this data in order to compete – forcing them to collect a larger dataset in order to compete with the merged entity; and 
  2. Even if the datasets are not combined, the companies may have been competing pre-merger on the basis of the data they control and that this competition could be eliminated by the merger. 
These concerns were dismissed by the Commission on a number of grounds, the most interesting being that the combination of their respective datasets is unlikely to result in raising the barriers to entry / expansion for other players as there will continue to be large amounts of internet user data available for advertising purposes which are not within Microsoft’s exclusive control.

The Commission’s approach contrasts with that of some commentators (and indeed some of the Commission’s own non-merger enforcement activities) which have highlighted the potential for platforms to gain an unassailable advantage over competitors in relation to data. 

Concerns of data ‘tipping points’ were among the reasons why French and German competition authorities have published a joint paper on data and competition law. 

Germany has amended its domestic competition law to increase the legal tools available to prevent market dominance and abuses in relation to data. These changes will come in to force later this year and include: 

  1. controversially) amending the German merger thresholds to require notification of deals involving innovative companies (like start-ups) with a transaction value of EUR 400 million; and
  2. introducing specific criteria for reviewing market power in (digital) multi-sided markets, for example allowing the Bundeskartellamt (BKA) to consider: concentration tendencies; the role of big data; economies of scale; user behaviour; and the possibilities to switch a platform.
The additional merger threshold is intended to allow the BKA to review mergers in which the transaction value is high but the parties’ turnover in Germany is below the existing EUR 25 million threshold; for example, when Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp for USD 22 billion was not notifiable in Germany (although it was reviewed by the Commission). 

France and Germany’s robust approach to competition concerns in relation to data is in contrast with the less interventionist position in the UK. This is demonstrated by recent UK government report on digital platforms which found that, “In many sectors, e.g. search engines or social networks, firm behaviour and survey evidence suggests that in the event of even a modest hike in costs users would expect to find an alternative and cease using the service. It is difficult to reconcile this behaviour, and this finding, with the sense that there is an important “moat” which prevents users switching to alternative services over time. Any moat that does exist only seems to be enough to keep them in one place if the platform continues to be free and improve its service over time.

Given the moves towards ex ante regulation of data in France and Germany, and given the ex post investigation into Facebook/WhatsApp, it remains to be seen whether future merger investigations will take a similarly permissive approach.

Will pricing algorithms be the European Commission’s next antitrust target?

There has been considerable debate over the last year or so about the potential anti-competitive impacts of pricing algorithms. They could lead to discriminatory pricing, for example a company quoting different prices to different people based on an algorithmic analysis of their personal data, or cases of collusion, for example companies using algorithms to automatically fix prices. 

In a recent speech, Commissioner Vestager sounded a clear warning against the latter example: “companies can’t escape responsibility for collusion by hiding behind a computer program”. She also indicated that the use of pricing software forms part of the issues being investigated in the Commission’s new investigation into price-fixing in consumer electronics.

However, as pricing algorithms increase in complexity and sophistication, and their use becomes more prevalent, it will not be easy for competition authorities to establish where the use of such algorithms equates to actionable infringements of competition law.

How might pricing algorithms be used?

A new book by Professors Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke have identified four scenarios in which pricing algorithms may promote anti-competitive collusion (see here; also developed in more detail in their book Virtual Competition). 

The first is where firms collude as in a traditional cartel, but use computers to manage or implement the cartel more effectively, or to monitor compliance, for example by utilising real-time data analysis. Competition authorities have already investigated this kind of subject-matter – for example, the CMA issued an infringement decision last year against two companies that agreed to use algorithms to fix prices for the sale of posters and frames on Amazon (see here).

The second example is a hub-and-spoke scenario whereby one pricing algorithm may be used to determine prices charged by numerous users. Evaluating this sort of issue is a current challenge for competition authorities. Last year, in Eturas, the CJEU held that travel agents participating in a platform that implemented a discount cap could be liable if they knew about the anti-competitive agreement and failed to distance themselves from it (see here).  An ongoing case in the US (Meyer v Kalanick) is examining Uber’s ‘surge’ pricing algorithm, which increases the price of an Uber journey as demand increases.  The claimants allege that this constitutes an implied horizontal price-fixing agreement.  

The examples seen so far involve relatively straightforward cases of the use of algorithms as an aid or means to fix prices (although the Uber example arguably involves only unilateral conduct, rather than collusion).  However, Ezrachi and Stucke’s final two scenarios move into more uncertain territory – what if there is no express collusion by the companies? 

In the third scenario, each firm independently adopts an algorithm that continually monitors and adjusts prices according to market data. Although this can lead – effectively – to tacit collusion, particularly in oligopolistic markets (those with a small number of sellers), there is no agreement between companies that could form the basis of an investigation.  However, there can evidently be an anti-competitive effect: if an online retailer can track the prices used by another online retailer for common products, and immediately adjust its own prices to match any discounts, it can prevent the second online retailer from gaining a reputation for lower prices. The incentive for either retailer to lower its prices is removed.  On the other hand, examples from the analogue world suggests that this kind of market review can be used to ensure lower prices for consumers, at least for now (think supermarkets’ price match promises…).

In the fourth scenario, machine learning and the increasing sophistication of algorithms expand tacit collusion beyond oligopolistic markets, making it very difficult even to detect when it’s happening.

The latter two examples pose obvious difficulties for competition authorities. If they do consider such actions to be anti-competitive, how would they prove the requisite intention to co-ordinate prices?

How will competition authorities react?

As discussed above, competition authorities have already undertaken investigations against companies using pricing algorithms in collusion. We have previously noted the CMA’s interest in developing digital tools to aid its investigations (here). It seems certain that such tools will be necessary as these algorithms become more sophisticated and harder to detect.

The actions of non-dominant companies in using pricing algorithms whilst acting independently do not fall within the current competition law framework, even if such use ultimately results in higher prices for consumers. Commissioner Vestager has accepted that “what matters is how these algorithms are actually used”. This sensibly suggests that for now the Commission’s focus will remain on the more clear-cut cases of collusion. Anything else is arguably a matter for policy and regulation rather than enforcement by competition authorities.

However, Commissioner Vestager also stated that “pricing algorithms need to be built in a way that doesn’t allow them to collude”, suggesting that they needed to be designed in a way that will oblige them to reject offers of collusion. It is unclear whether this means Commissioner Vestager intends to target the use of pricing algorithms more generally, or simply to drive home that the competition rules apply equally where collusion is achieved algorithmically.

The fourth scenario, where machine learning algorithms tacitly collude to fix prices, does sound speculative. However, recent developments such as Carnegie Mellon’s Liberatus beating four of the world’s best professional poker players (here) and Google Deep Mind’s AlphaGo victory against Lee Sedol (here) indicate that it might not be too far from becoming reality in the near future.

Collusion in the online economy – new competition law traps for the unwary?

We reported last year on the Eturas decision, in which the Court of Justice ruled that technical measures applied on an online platform gave rise to a potentially anti-competitive agreement.  The Lithuanian Court which had referred the matter to the CJEU then went on to consider liability, based on the participants’ knowledge of the relevant facts (for a review of this decision, see here).

But the risks posed by agreements over platform T&Cs are not the only thing for companies to be aware of.

The European Commission is now carrying out active enforcement in relation to geo-blocking, which can be achieved primarily through technical measures.  The Steam video games investigation is looking in particular at whether anti-piracy measures have an anti-competitive effect. 

Meanwhile, the CMA last autumn issued a statement noting another practice potentially raising antitrust concerns.  This concerned agreements restricting the use of paid online search advertising (e.g. through use of Google AdWords).  The CMA suggested that restrictions on bidding for particular ad terms, or on negative matching (identifying terms for which ads should not be shown) may infringe the competition rules.  It appears that the CMA sees this in terms of potential effects on competition, rather than as a new form of object restriction, with the CMA stating that the practices are particularly likely to be problematic “where one or more similar agreements include parties that collectively represent a material share of the relevant markets and, in the context of brand bidding restrictions, as a result of negative matching obligations in relation to brand terms which an advertiser would not negatively match but for the agreement”.   It should therefore not be assumed that such a provision would in fact be restrictive of competition – but it is something which bears watching.  Indeed, the CMA is not the only competition authority to have lighted on this issue – a similar point is under investigation in the United States, where the FTC accuses 1-800 Contacts of “orchestrating a web of anticompetitive agreements with rival online contact lens sellers that suppress competition in certain online search advertising auctions”.

In conjunction with this statement, the CMA also announced a market study into digital comparison tools; it described the study as an opportunity to explore the nature of competition between price comparison websites and their relationship with service providers.  This may lead to further issues in this area; in the meantime, judgment in the Coty case, which considers contractual prohibitions on the use of certain online sales channels, such as price comparison websites, is due from the CJEU in the near future.

And then there’s the risk of good ol’-fashioned collusion, with a modern twist.  One thing that comes to mind is the new attention on the significance of privacy conditions for consumers.  Now that these are recognised as a parameter of competition (see here, for example), is there a risk that exchanging information about planned changes to privacy conditions / other online trading T&Cs, or actually agreeing a common strategy for these could amount to a breach of Article 101 or its national equivalents?   Or that an agreement between separate companies to adopt a common practice on such terms (in particular if it results in less protection for consumers) could amount to active collusion?  These are open questions for now, but companies should remember that – while benchmarking is often sensible – they should ultimately take their own decisions, and keep their own counsel, about such matters.

Coincidentally, the consumer arm of the CMA has just closed an investigation into the online terms and conditions of cloud service providers following changes agreed by a number of companies.  The closure statement notes that “the CMA remains interested in unfair terms and conditions, particularly in the digital economy”.  It should not be assumed that this interest is limited only to the parts of the CMA responsible for enforcement of consumer laws… 

Pay-for-delay focus on steroids

At the end of last week, the CMA sent a formal statement of objections to Actavis UK and Concordia alleging that they had entered into illegal ‘pay-for-delay’ patent settlement agreements.
 
For a number of years Actavis was the sole supplier of hydrocortisone tablets used to treat conditions such as Addison’s disease that result in insufficient amounts of natural steroid hormones. Concordia was the first potential competitor to obtain a market authorisation for a generic version of the drug. The CMA alleges that Actavis incentivised Concordia not to enter the market with its generic version of the drug by agreeing a fixed supply of its drug to Concordia at a very low price for resale to customers in the UK. As a result Actavis remained the sole supplier of the drug for most of the duration of the agreements (January 2013 to June 2016), during which time the cost of the drug to the NHS rose substantially from £49 to £88 per pack. 
 
The CMA has provisionally found that the pharma companies have breached competition law by entering into anti-competitive agreements.  It has also provisionally found that Actavis abused its dominant position by inducing Concordia to delay its independent entry into the market. This case is separate from the CMA’s other continuing investigation into Actavis UK, which it announced at the end of last year.  That investigation is looking at whether Actavis UK has abused a dominant position by charging excessive prices to the NHS for the drug following a 12,000% price rise over the course of several years.  A substantial portion of that price rise took place in the period before the start of the agreements in issue in this investigation.
 
This latest development comes amidst a number of appeals regarding the application of competition law to pay-for-delay patent settlement agreements in the pharma sector.  In particular, the General Court of the EU recently upheld the European Commission’s decision fining Lundbeck and a number of generic companies in relation to patent settlement agreements (see here and here). That decision is now on appeal to the EU Court of Justice – the grounds of appeal are available here.  Separately, the CAT is currently hearing the appeal of the CMA’s infringement decision against GSK and a number of generic companies for pay-for-delay agreements (see here and here) – this hearing is listed for five weeks, continuing until the end of this month.
 
In both of these appeals a key issue is whether the competition authorities applied the correct test in finding that the pay-for-delay agreements restricted competition ‘by object’, meaning that the effects of the agreements did not need to be considered. The appellants argue that, following the EU Court of Justice’s decision in Cartes Bancaires, ‘by object’ restrictions should be interpreted restrictively.   The Lundbeck appeal to the EU Court of Justice also raises the critical issue of how the General Court dealt with the existence of Lundbeck’s patents. With this in mind, we will be keeping a close eye on the CMA’s investigation into Actavis/Concordia, particularly the legal basis for any final finding of infringement…  

Francion Brooks

Back to the future: the Commission opens e-commerce competition investigations

True to its current focus on all things digital, the European Commission has recently announced that it has launched three separate investigations into whether certain online sales practices prevent, in breach of EU antitrust rules, consumers from benefiting from cross-border choice in their purchases of consumer electronics, video games and hotel accommodation at competitive prices.

The context to the investigations is the Commission's Digital Single Market Strategy and its related sector inquiry on e-commerce, which suggested that the use of online sales restrictions were widespread throughout the EU (previous posts here and here).

The Commission is now examining whether the companies concerned are breaking EU competition rules by “unfairly restricting retail prices” or by excluding customers from certain offers because of their nationality or location (geo-blocking). 

The Commission’s rationale for the inquires is that these practices may make cross-border shopping or online shopping in general more difficult and ultimately harm consumers by preventing them from benefiting from greater choice and lower online prices.  Whether the evidence gathered from the investigations ultimately bears out this hypothesis is very much an open question. 

Whatever the wider benefits to the Commission of the sector investigation, it is questionable whether these investigations in themselves justify the full arsenal of an antitrust sector inquiry.  To judge by the press release, at least a significant part of the Commission’s concern appears to relate to classical infringements of competition law – resale price maintenance and contractual barriers to parallel trade – which merely happen to have come to light through the sector inquiry.  Time will tell whether this hypothesis is correct, or whether more specific types of online anti-competitive conduct are in fact concerned.

Amazon’s E-Books antitrust saga - War now Peace?

Amazon has offered commitments to the European Commission to end the antitrust investigation into its use of ‘most favoured nation’ (MFN or parity) clauses in its e-books contracts with publishers, launched in 2015. The Commission is now inviting comments on these proposed commitments from customers and rivals. 

The Commission’s concern is that the clauses may breach EU antitrust rules and result in reduced competition among e-book distributors and less consumer choice.

Amazon’s MFN clauses require publishers to inform Amazon about more favourable terms or conditions offered to Amazon's competitors and to offer Amazon similar terms and conditions. This includes requiring publishers to offer Amazon any new or different distribution methods or release dates, any better wholesale prices or agency commissions, or to make available a particular catalogue of e-books.

The Commission considers that the cumulative effect of these clauses is to make it harder for other e-book retailers to compete with Amazon by developing new and innovative products and services. It also takes the view that imposing these clauses on publishers may amount to an abuse of a dominant market position.

In parallel, Audible, Amazon’s audio-books subsidiary, has announced the end of its exclusivity provisions in its distribution agreement with Apple following a joint antitrust investigation by the Commission and the German competition authority, the Bundeskartellamt. 

Amazon’s proposed commitments

Amazon disputes the competition law basis for the Commission’s investigation.  Nevertheless, in order to bring the investigation to a close (and to avoid the risk of a costly infringement decision), it has offered commitments:
  • Not to enforce:
    1. any clause requiring publishers to offer Amazon similar terms and conditions as those offered to Amazon's competitors; or 
    2. any clause requiring publishers to inform Amazon about such terms and conditions. 
  • To allow publishers to terminate e-book contracts that contain a clause linking discount possibilities for e-books to the retail price of a given e-book on a competing platform. Publishers would be allowed to terminate the contracts upon 120 days' advance written notice.
  • Finally, not to include, in any new e-book agreement with publishers, any of these clauses.
The commitments would apply for five years and (as is usual for behavioural commitments) be subject to oversight by a monitoring trustee.

E-Books - déjà vu? 

This is not the first time the Commission has investigated the e-books sector. In 2011 it opened antitrust proceedings against Apple and five international publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Hachette Livres, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Georg von Holtzbrinck Verlagsgruppe) on the basis that it considered that they had colluded to limit retail price competition for e-books. In that case the companies also offered commitments to address the Commission's concerns (see our previous comment).

Where does this leave MFNs?

The Commission and national competition authorities have conducted investigations into MFN clauses in a number of other sectors, including online motor insurance and online sports goods retail, on which we have previously commented.  

While MFNs are not per se unlawful, and in some circumstances may even be pro-competitive, companies should carefully consider their possible anti-competitive effects before including them in new contracts. 

FTC settles abusive acquisition of pharma licensing rights

On 18 January, the FTC announced that Mallinckrodt ARD Inc. (formerly Questcor Pharmaceuticals, Inc.) and its parent company have agreed to pay $100 million to settle FTC charges that they violated antitrust laws when Questcor acquired the rights to a drug that threatened its monopoly in the U.S. market for adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) drugs.  The announcement was made concurrently with the release of the FTC's complaint.

Antitrust (as opposed to merger) cases about acquisitions of competing technology are not an everyday occurrence.  However, this complaint has something of the flavour of the EU Commission’s Tetra Pak 1 decision.  In that case, the EU Commission objected to Tetra Pak’s acquisition (through a merger) of exclusive rights to what was at the time the only viable competing technology to Tetra Pak’s dominant aseptic packaging system.  The Commission (and subsequently the EU courts) held that this would prevent competitors from entering the market and therefore amounted to an abuse of a dominant position.  

The FTC’s Mallinckrodt complaint alleges that while benefitting from an existing monopoly over the only U.S. ACTH drug, Acthar, Questcor illegally acquired the U.S. rights to develop a competing drug, Synacthen (a synthetic ACTH drug which is pharmacologically very similar to Acthar).  This acquisition stifled competition by preventing any other company from using the Synacthen assets to develop a synthetic ACTH drug, preserving Questcor’s monopoly and allowing it to maintain extremely high prices for Acthar.  

To judge by the FTC’s complaint, the case appears to contain some pretty stark facts which may have contributed to the immediate settlement of the proceedings by Mallinckrodt.  Those facts also bring the case squarely into line with the US and EU competition regulators’ current concern over excessive pricing in pharma.

First up is the finding that Questcor had a 100% share of the U.S. ACTH market and that it took advantage of that monopoly to repeatedly raise the prices of Acthar from $40 a vial in 2001 to more than $34,000 per vial today – an 85,000% increase.  The complaint details that in August 2007 Questcor increased the price of Acthar more than 1,300% overnight from $1,650 to $23,269 per vial and that it has taken significant and profitable increases on eight occasions since 2011 pushing the price up another 46% to its current $34,034 per vial.  Acthar is a speciality drug used to treat infantile spasms, a rare seizure disorder affecting infants, as well as being a drug of last resort (owing to its cost) for a variety of other serious medical conditions.  According to the FTC, Acthar treatment for an infant with infantile spasms can cost more than $100,000.  In Europe, Canada and other parts of the world doctors treat these conditions with Synacthen which is available at a fraction of the price of Acthar in the U.S. (Synacthen is not available in the U.S. as it does not have FDA approval.)  The FTC relies on the supra-competitive prices charged in the U.S. for Acthar as evidence of Questcor’s monopoly power as well as its 100% market share and the existence of substantial barriers to entry.

It is also part of the FTC’s case that Questcor disrupted the bidding process for Synacthen when the rights came up for acquisition.  According to the complaint, Questcor first sought to acquire Synacthen in 2009, and continued to monitor the competitive threat posed by Synacthen thereafter.  When the U.S. rights to Synacthen were eventually marketed in 2011, dozens of companies expressed an interest in acquiring them with three firms proceeding through several rounds of detailed negotiations.  All three firms planned to commercialise Synacthen and to use it to compete directly with Acthar including by pricing Synacthen well below Acthar.  In October 2012, Questcor submitted an offer for Synacthen and subsequently acquired the rights to Synacthen for the U.S. and thirty-five other countries and did not subsequently bring the product to market in the US.

In addition to the $100 million payout, the proposed court order requires that Questcor grant a licence to develop Synacthen to treat infantile spasms and nephrotic syndrome to a licensee approved by the FTC, a pretty far-reaching remedy.  

This case is the latest in a string of cases on both sides of the Atlantic relating to escalating pharma prices (as discussed in our previous blog posts here and here).  While companies retain significant scope to price products as they see fit, it reaffirms that pharma companies should be wary of implementing very significant price increases in the absence of good objective reasons for doing so.  This is particularly so where the increase is facilitated by commercial strategies such as acquiring IP rights to existing/potentially competitive products.  In the EU, it is also worth remembering that – as established by Tetra Pak I (on appeal to the General Court) – an agreement which falls within a block exemption can at the same time constitute an infringement of Article 102.  So companies and their advisors should remember to wear Article 101 and 102 hats when reviewing agreements.

Helen Hopson