Whistling in the Wind? DOJ’s Unusual Statement of Interest in FTC v. Qualcomm Case Highlights Disparity Between U.S. Antitrust Agencies on FRAND, SEPs, & Competition Law

by Orrick - Antitrust Watch
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Orrick - Antitrust Watch

In a highly unusual move, the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) recently filed a statement of interest in the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)’s unfair competition case against Qualcomm. The statement asks the court to order additional briefing and hold a hearing on a remedy if it finds Qualcomm liable for anticompetitive abuses in connection with its patent licensing program. As the FTC pointed out in its short response to the DOJ, the court had already considered and addressed the question of whether liability and remedies should be separately considered, and the parties had already submitted extensive briefing regarding remedies.

The DOJ’s “untimely” statement of interest, in the words of the FTC, comes three months after a bench trial concluded in January of this year, while the parties are awaiting a decision on the merits from Judge Koh. The DOJ’s filing represents the most direct clash between the DOJ and the FTC on the issue of standard-essential patents (SEPs) subject to a commitment to license on fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory terms (FRAND). The two agencies have expressed divergent positions but up until recently had not directly taken any affirmative actions in the other’s cases or enforcement activities.

Though the statement of interest notes that the DOJ “takes no position . . . on the underlying merits of the FTC’s claims,” the DOJ’s views on this subject are well known. Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Makan Delrahim has been a prominent and outspoken critic of the principal theory of the FTC’s entire case—that breach of a FRAND commitment can amount to an antitrust violation—despite the fact that legal precedent is well-settled in favor of the FTC’s position.

The Filing Represents Another Step by DOJ to Protect SEP Holders

For some time now, the DOJ has articulated a position largely hostile to the FTC’s underlying theory in its case against Qualcomm: the applicability of competition law upon a breach of a FRAND commitment. As background, SEPs are patents that have been voluntarily submitted by the owner and formally incorporated into a particular technological standard by a standard-setting organization (SSO). Because standardization can eliminate potential competitors for alternative technologies and confer significant bargaining power upon SEP holders vis-à-vis potential licensees, many SSOs require that the patent holder commit to license its SEPs on FRAND terms.

Beginning in late 2017, AAG Delrahim made a series of speeches presenting the DOJ’s new position on SEPs, FRAND commitments, and competition law. Among other issues, AAG Delrahim stated that the antitrust laws should not be used to police the FRAND commitments of SEP holders, insisting that such issues are more properly addressed through contract and other common law remedies. This new position by the DOJ was notable not only because it reversed the approach of the prior administration but also because it was largely inconsistent with numerous U.S. court decisions—including Judge Koh’s denial of Qualcomm’s motion to dismiss the FTC’s case. At a conference last week, AAG Delrahim doubled down on the DOJ’s position and stated he is looking for the “right case” to test the DOJ’s views on this issue. But if the DOJ were to press its views in court, it would find itself in a difficult and awkward position of having to argue that other cases that have ruled on these issues were wrongly decided.

In addition to the speeches, the DOJ has taken measures to implement its new approach, which up until recently, stopped short of effectively challenging the FTC. First, the DOJ opened several investigations of potential anticompetitive conduct in SSOs by companies that make devices implementing standards. Second, the DOJ withdrew its support from a 2013 joint statement issued by the DOJ and the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office on remedies for FRAND-encumbered SEPs because of the DOJ’s view, as explained by AAG Delrahim recently, that the policy statement “put a thumb on the scale” in favor of licensees. Third, the DOJ sought to submit another statement of interest in a private lawsuit filed by u-Blox alleging that InterDigital breached its FRAND commitments by demanding supra-competitive royalty rates for various wireless communications SEPs.

The DOJ’s current position fails to recognize the market distortion that can result when an SEP owner fails to comply with a voluntary commitment to limit those same patents rights—and the market power that is conferred on SEP holders in return for that commitment. It also fails to recognize that such policy actions ultimately will embolden certain SEP owners to engage in even more aggressive behavior at a critical period when innovative companies are beginning to incorporate wireless communications SEPs into entirely new industries, such as automobiles and the Internet of Things.

DOJ’s Filing Is Highly Unusual

The DOJ’s decision to insert itself into a case brought by another enforcement agency is exceedingly rare (although not entirely unprecedented). This is especially true because the FTC is representing the interest of consumers by acting pursuant to its authority under the FTC Act. The timing is also curious because the DOJ waited three months after the bench trial ended to file its statement, likely long after the court began drafting its opinion. The statement could be seen as a warning to the court that if it finds an antitrust violation it should not impose a remedy based on the evidence presented at trial.

The DOJ’s statement of interest further begs the question of why the agency thought it was necessary to bring itself into the case. To the extent that Qualcomm believes that the court should order additional briefing and a hearing on the issue of a remedy, even though the issue has seemingly already been addressed, Qualcomm is perfectly capable of presenting those views to the court on its own. In its response, the FTC made clear that it “did not participate in or request” the DOJ to weigh in on the case.

DOJ’s filing notes it is concerned about the risk that an “overly broad remedy” could “reduce competition and innovation in markets for 5G technology and downstream applications that rely on that technology.” But such a statement is remarkable. First, it suggests that the DOJ believes its sister enforcement agency is not concerned about fostering competition and innovation. Second, the statement suggests that the DOJ is willing to second-guess from the sidelines the judgment of both a court and competition agency that have been evaluating in detail the effect of Qualcomm’s business practices. Even if both of those positions are true, it is surprising to see the DOJ submit such a controversial filing in a matter in which AAG Delrahim is recused.

Ultimate Impact of Filing

The DOJ could have had multiple underlying motivations for choosing to submit this filing. Consistent with the split between the DOJ and FTC noted above, the DOJ could be signaling to the court that it disagrees with the FTC’s theory of competitive harm in an effort to influence the outcome on the merits. The DOJ could also be attempting to apply subtle pressure on the FTC to reach a settlement with Qualcomm to avoid drawing further attention to the two agencies’ divergent views on breach of a FRAND commitment. The statement could also be intended to discourage litigants from bringing antitrust cases premised on a breach of FRAND theory, demonstrating that, like in the u-Blox case, the DOJ is not reluctant to intervene.

However, regardless of the DOJ’s intention, its filing is unlikely to achieve any of those objectives. Judge Koh is an experienced judge who is well versed in issues at the intersection of antitrust and intellectual property law and does not shy away from ruling on difficult issues. Notably, when the FTC and Qualcomm jointly requested that she delay ruling on the FTC’s motion for partial summary judgment to pursue settlement negotiations, she denied the request and issued a significant decision holding that Qualcomm’s FRAND commitment means that it must offer licenses to its SEPs to competing chipset suppliers. Judge Koh may also exercise discretion to deny the DOJ’s statement, as the FTC pointed out in its response. More broadly, it is also unlikely that such a public airing of disagreement will go over well with an agency very focused on the state of competition in technology sectors. And the statement is also unlikely to deter private plaintiffs in light of the well-established and increasing body of case law holding that a breach of FRAND can violate competition law. The DOJ’s statement of interest, as unusual as it is, may ultimately amount to nothing more than whistling in the wind.

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