The IEEE apparently is considering an unusual change to its intellectual property rights (“IPR”) policy that in many ways is contrary to developing U.S. law on determining a reasonable royalty rate and the availability of injunctive relief for standard essential patents (“SEPs”).  The IEEE provides a link to the current draft of this proposed IPR policy change that shows the proposed redline revisions to the current IPR policy.  The proposed IEEE revisions have even caught the attention of the popular press and others, such as Sen. Coons’ letter to the U.S. Attorney General Holder that calls the proposal an “unprecedented move by an international standards body to weaken the value and enforceability of  patented technology.” (see Bloomberg article).

Below is a summary of some key issues raised in the proposed IEEE IPR policy amendment that we have touched on in our blog posts discussing developing case law.

Smallest Saleable Compliant Implementation

The proposed change to IEEE’s IPR policy injects a new term called the “smallest saleable Compliant Implementation”, where a “Compliant Implementation” means “any product (e.g., component, sub-assembly, or end-product) or service that conforms to any mandatory or optional portion of a normative clause of an IEEE Standard.”  The specific langauge of the proposed IPR amendment is as follows:

Reasonable Rate” shall mean appropriate compensation to the patent holder for the practice of an Essential Patent Claim excluding the value, if any, resulting from the inclusion of that Essential Patent Claim’s technology in the IEEE Standard.  In addition, determination of such Reasonable Rates should include, but need not be limited to, the consideration of:

  • The value that the functionality of the claimed invention or inventive feature within the Essential Patent Claim contributes to the value of the relevant functionality of the smallest saleable Compliant Implementation that practices the Essential Patent Claim.
  • The value that the Essential Patent Claim contributes to the smallest saleable Compliant Implementation that practices that claim, in light of the value contributed by all Essential Patent Claims for the same IEEE Standard practiced in that Compliant Implementation.
  • Existing licenses covering use of the Essential Patent Claim, where such licenses were not obtained under the explicit or implicit threat of a Prohibitive Order, and where the circumstances and resulting license are otherwise sufficiently comparable to the circumstances of the contemplated license.

This changed policy apparently was derived from the “smallest saleable patent practicing unit” concept for the entire market value theory in U.S. patent damages law.  But IEEE’s proposed adoption of that concept into real-world arms length negotiations between sophisticated market players may be misplaced, because the “smallest saleable patent practicing unit” concept is an evidentiary principle for avoiding undue prejudice and confusion of lay jurors in U.S. jury trials under evidence Rule 403 (see our Aug. 30, 2013 LaserDynamics post and Dec. 5, 2014 Ericsson v. D-Link post).

In LaserDynamics, a case concerning patents generally, the Federal Circuit expressed concern about jury confusion “[w]here small elements of multi-component products are accused of infringement, calculating a royalty on the entire product carries a considerable risk that the patentee will be improperly compensated for non-infringing components of that product.”  Further, “disclosure to the jury of the overall product revenues ‘cannot help but skew the damages horizon for the jury, regardless of the contribution of the patented component to this revenue” and may “make a patentee’s proffered damages amount appear modest by comparison [and] artificially inflate the jury’s damages calculation.”  This jury confusion problem is not “avoided by the use of a very small royalty rate.” (See our Aug. 30, 2013 post for a more complete summary of the LaserDynamicsdecision)

Recently in Ericsson v. D-Link, a case concerning standard essential patents, the Federal Circuit explained that the entire market value rule (“EMVR”) has two considerations: (1) a “substantive legal rule” that the “ultimate reasonable royalty”–i.e., combination royalty rate and royalty base–”must be based on the … value that the patented invention adds to the end product” and (2) an “evidentiary principle” for selecting the royalty base that is intended “to help our jury system reliably implement” the substantive legal rule.  As the Federal Circuit explained, the “smallest saleable patent practicing unit” is an application of the evidentiary principle in U.S. jury trials:

The principle, as applicable specifically to the choice of a royalty base, is that, where a multi-component product is at issue and the patented feature is not the item which imbues the combination of the other features with value, care must be taken to avoid misleading the jury by placing undue emphasis on the value of the entire product.  It is not that an appropriately apportioned royalty award could never be fashioned by starting with the entire market value of a multi-component product–by, for instance, dramatically reducing the royalty rate to be applied in those cases–it is that reliance on the entire market value might mislead the jury, who may be less equipped to understand the extent to which the royalty rate would need to do the work in such instances.  Thus, where the entire value of a machine as a marketable article is “properly and legally attributable to the patented feature,” the damages owed to the patentee may be calculated by reference to that value.  Where it is not, however, courts must insist on a more realistic starting point for the royalty calculations by juries–often, the smallest salable unit and, at times, even less. (emphasis added)

(See our Dec. 5, 2014 post for a more complete summary of the Ericsson v. D-Link decision).

Thus, the  ”smallest saleable patent practicing unit” principle is an evidentiary rule to avoid jury confusion in U.S. jury trials that may not be appropriate for real-world arms length negotiations between sophisticated market participants, as IEEE’s amendment proposes.  The Federal Circuit’s recent Ericsson decision recognized that “licenses are generally negotiated without consideration of the EMVR [i.e., entire market value rule with its smallest saleable patent practicing unit evidentiary principle].”  The Federal Circuit ruled that the jury in that case could hear evidence about comparable licenses based on the ultimate end product, rather than the smallest saleable patent practicing unit, because, otherwise, “[m]aking real world, relevant licenses inadmissible … would often make it impossible for a patentee to resort to license-based evidence.”  This follows the Federal Circuit’s rationale in Virnetix that differences between comparable licenses and the hypothetical negotiation for patent damages are circumstances a jury is “entitled to hear … and decide for itself what to accept or reject.” (see our  Sep. 17, 2014 post).

Further, even in U.S. jury trials, the smallest saleable patent practicing unit evidentiary principle is not a blanket rule, the Federal Circuit in Ericsson explaining that, “where expert testimony explains to the jury the need to discount reliance on a given license to account only for the value attributed to the licensed technology, as it did here, the mere fact that licenses predicated on the value of a multi-component product are referenced in that analysis … is not reversible error.”  The IEEE proposed language above, however, appears to limit consideration of existing licenses to those “where the circumstances and resulting license are otherwise sufficiently comparable to the circumstances of the contemplated license,” which relies to some unspecified extent on the smallest saleable Compliant Implementation.  If the IEEE proposed IPR amendment is adopted, then lay jurors considering a hypothetical negotiation in litigation might be entrusted with more relevant real-world information than sophisticated market participants negotiating an actual license for a patent directed to an IEEE standard.  Odd.

While the brightline drawn by a smallest patentable patent practicing unit principle may be appealing at first blush, real world negotiations may require more flexibility to fit the specific patented technology to the specific licensed product.  Consider, for example, a wireless standard implemented within a microchip that is one of many components of an end product where functional benefits of the standard include (1) wireless connectivity and (2) low power consumption.  What benefit a specific licensed product derives from a patent covering that standard may depend primarily on (A) what functionality the patent covers and (B) the importance of that functionality to the licensed product.  A patent covering power savings may be important to the standard generally, but provide little, if any, benefit to a stationary end product that is powered from a wall outlet.  The stationary end product does benefit from wireless connectivity functionality, which avoids the cost and problems of running wires.  That end-product may include the power-saving functionality solely because it is built into the microchip supplied by the microchip vendor or because the end product must have that functionality in order to advertise that the product is fully compliant with the standard.  On the other hand, the patented power-saving functionality may provide substantial benefit to a mobile device by permitting longer use time between charges, smaller battery and hence smaller and lighter device, etc..

So the benefit that a claimed invention provides to an end product–and hence what would be reasonable licensing terms–depends on the specific patent and product to be licensed and not necessarily the “smallest saleable patent practicing unit” (e.g., the microchip in this example).  Thus, Judge Davis in CSIRO used the end product rather than microchip as the royalty base, because ”[b]asing a royalty solely on chip price is like valuing a copyrighted book based only on the costs of the binding, paper, and ink needed to actually produce the physical product.” (see our July 28, 2014 post summarizing the CSIRO decision, currently on appeal to the Federal Circuit).

If adopted, the new IEEE IPR policy also may lead to patent owners drafting claims to expand what constitutes a “Compliant Implementation” by claiming, for example, “a mobile phone comprising …. a microchip” or including limitations present in typical implementations beyond a microchip, such as “a mobile phone comprising an antenna, a power supply, an input device, a microchip implementing standard functionality, etc …”  And some may go bigger:  ”An automobile, comprising wheels, a motor, a microchip implementing standard functionality, etc.”  So, to avoid putting form over substance, what may be deemed a “reasonable” royalty still may be better determined based on the specific patent and products at issue and not necessarily what is claimed to be the smallest saleable Compliant Implementation.

Given the fact-specific circumstances underlying a FRAND licensing negotiation, perhaps whatever issues the proposed IEEE IPR amendments are intended to address might be better served through continued case-by-case development of what is a “reasonable”, rather than directing sophisticated market participants to view their bilateral negotiations through the blinders of the smallest saleable patent practicing unit designed to limit evidence considered by a lay jury in U.S. litigation.

Injunctive Relief

The proposed change to IEEE’s IPR Policy appears to make an extreme shift in policy by precluding an SEP patent holder from even seeking injunctive relief against an unwilling licensee until after a FRAND royalty is litigated and at least a first level of appeal exhausted, stating:

A statement that the Submitter will make available a license for Essential Patent Claims to an unrestricted number of Applicants on a worldwide basis without compensation or under Reasonable Rates, with other reasonable terms and conditions that are demonstrably free of any unfair discrimination to make, have made, use sell, offer to sell, or import any Compliant Implementation that practiced the Essential Patent Claims for use in conforming with the IEEE Standard.  An Accepted LOA that contains such a statement signifies that reasonable terms and conditions, including without compensation or under Reasonable Rates, are sufficient compensation for a license to use those Essential Patent Claims and preclude seeking, or seeking to enforce, a Prohibitive Order except as provided in this policy.

***

The Submitter of an Accepted LOA who has committed to make available a license for one or more Essential Patent Claims agrees that it shall neither seek nor seek to enforce a Prohibitive Order based on such Essential Patent Claim(s) in a jurisdiction unless the implementer fails to participate in, or to comply with the outcome of, an adjudication, including an affirming first-level appellate review, if sought by any party within applicable deadlines, in that jurisdiction by one or more courts that have the authority to: determine Reasonable Rates and other reasonable terms and conditions; adjudicate patent validity, enforceability, essentiality, and infringement; award monetary damages; and resolve any defenses and counterclaims.  In jurisdictions where the failure to request a Prohibitive Order in a pleading waives the right to seek a Prohibitive Order  at a later time, a Submitter may conditionally plead the right to seek a Prohibitive Order to preserve its right to do so later, if and when this policy’s conditions for seeking, or seeking to enforce, a Prohibitive Order are met.

This proposed IEEE IPR policy appears contrary to case law and administrative actions that have considered the availability of injunctive relief for standard essential patents and universally agree that injunctive relief should be available against unwilling licensees.  For example, in ruling that there was no per se rule against injunctive relief for standard essential patents, the Federal Circuit in Motorola v. Apple recognized that “an injunction may be justified where an infringer unilaterally refuses a FRAND royalty or unreasonably delays negotiations to the same effect.” (see our April 25, 2014 post for a summary of the Motorola v. Apple decision).  The Federal Circuit ruled that a party may seek an injunction, and the FRAND obligation and other circumstances are what “the district courts are more than capable of considering … when deciding whether to issue an injunction under the principles in eBay.”  But the proposed amended IEEE IPR Policy appears to preclude even seeking an injunction against an unwilling licensee without first filing suit and going through appeals to enforce adjudicated FRAND terms.

In LSI v. Realtek, Judge Whyte held that LSI had breached its FRAND obligation by “instigating an ITC Section 337 action naming Realtek as a respondent prior to offering a RAND license to Realtek.” (see our May 21, 2013 post on LSI v. Realtek).  But Judge Whyte also recognized that “an injunction may be warranted where an accused infringer of a standard-essential patent outright refuses to accept a RAND license” that has been offered (in that case “there is no indication that Realtek is notwilling to accept a RAND license.”). (emphasis in original).

When U.S. Trade Representative Froman disapproved of the exclusion order entered by the ITC in the Apple v. Samsung investigation, he noted that injunctive relief may be warranted for an unwilling licensee given concerns about harm caused by “reverse hold-up” or “hold-out” such as “constructive refusal to negotiate a FRAND license.” (see our Aug. 3, 2013 post summarizing USTR Froman’s decision).  In doing so, he quoted favorably from a joint policy statement by the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which states:

An exclusion order may still be an appropriate remedy in some circumstances, such as where the putative licensee is unable or refuses to take a FRAND license and is acting outside the scope of the patent holder’s commitment to license on FRAND terms.  For example, if a putative licensee refuses to pay what has been determined to be a FRAND royalty, or refuses to engage in a negotiation to determine F/RAND terms, an exclusion order could be appropriate. Such a refusal could take the form of a constructive refusal to negotiate, such as by insisting on terms outside the bounds of what could reasonably be considered to be F/RAND terms in an attempt to evade the putative licensee’s obligation to fairly compensate the patent holder.

Judge Essex’s decision in ITC Inv. No. 337-TA-868 also recognized that a FRAND commitment has obligations going both ways and a prospective licensee should seek a license as part of satisfying its obligations under the FRAND commitment (see our July 2, 2014 post for a summary of that decision).  Judge Essex echoed concerns of U.S. Trade Representative Froman as well as other agencies about “patent hold-out”:

The ETSI IPR policy requires companies that wish to use the IPR covered by the agreements to contact the owner of the IP, and take a license.  By skipping this step, the companies that use the IPR in violation of the policy are able to exert a pressure on the negotiations with the IPR holder to try to make the agreement in the lower range of FRAND, or perhaps even lower than a reasonable FRAND? rate.  They also are able to shift the risk involved in patent negotiation to the patent holder.  By not paying for a FRAND license and negotiating in advance of the use of the IPR, they force the patent holder to take legal action.  In this action, the patent owner can lose the IPR they believe they have, but if the patent holder wins they get no more than a FRAND solution, that is, what they should have gotten under the agreement in the first place.  There is no risk to the exploiter of the technology in not taking a license before they exhaust their litigation options if the only risk to them for violating the agreement is to pay a FRAND based royalty or fee.  This puts the risks of loss entirely on the side of the patent holder, and encourages patent hold-out, which is as unsettling to a fair solution as any patent hold up might be.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s consent decree settlement with Google/Motorola also recognized that injunctive relief should be available against unwilling licensees. (See our July 24, 2013 post summarizing of the FTC/Google Consent decree settlement).

In sum, the proposed amendments to the IEEE IPR Policy, if adopted, would contravene how injunctive relief for standard essential patents has been treated by U.S. courts and other governmental entities and could give rise to concerns about “patent hold-out” by unwilling licensees.  The balanced approach discussed by the Federal Circuit in Motorola v. Apple may be a better approach, where applying the general eBay factors typically will preclude injunctive relief in the usual course for FRAND-obligated standard essential patents, but such relief remains available for the parties to raise and a court to consider in exercising its discretion in extreme circumstances such as actual patent hold-out.

We understand that these are just proposed amendments to the IEEE IPR policy.  We will look for and post any relevant developments brought to our attention.