The CMA has today issued a £1.71m fine against two laundry companies for market sharing. Micronclean Limited was fined £510,118 and Berendsen Cleanroom Services Limited was liable for £1,197,956. The companies both specialise in laundering clothes worn in ‘cleanrooms’. These are highly sterile environments, with meticulous rules on the cleanliness of equipment and clothing, which are vital in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and medical devices.
The two companies had established a joint venture agreement in the 1980s where both traded under the ‘Micronclean’ brand. However it was only in 2012 that they started the market sharing arrangement, attempting to mask it as a reciprocal trademark licence arrangement.
This arrangement had two problematic elements. First an artificial line was drawn between London and Anglesey; customers south of that line were reserved for Berendsen, whilst those to the north were allocated to Micronclean. Second, over and above the territorial restrictions, companies decided to reserve specific customers to themselves and agreed not to compete for them.
Geographic market sharing and customer allocation is illegal (other than where legitimate exclusivity arrangements are concluded as part of a broadly pro-competitive agreement such as technology licensing). In this instance, the CMA did consider whether the arrangement, when taken as part of the wider joint venture agreement, could be justified. Unfortunately for Micronclean and Berendsen the CMA concluded that it could not. In particular the CMA found that the companies were competitors and two of the biggest players on the market. This left customers, including the NHS, with few options in choosing service providers.
The existence of the trade mark agreement did nothing to change that fundamental position. Trade mark licences do not generally fall within the scope of the Technology Transfer Block Exemption. In any event, the EU Commission’s Guidelines on Technology Transfer, which provides broad guidance on the analytical approach to the competitive effects of IP licensing, make clear that sales restrictions agreed between competitors in a licensing arrangement are likely to be regarded as market sharing, particularly where the licence is a cross licence (or “reciprocal” in the language of the block exemption) – and so it proved here.
This case serves as a reminder that anti-competitive practices which take place under the guise of an IP licence will not avoid scrutiny by the competition authorities. In this instance the arrangement came to light in the context of two related merger reviews in the industry undertaken by the CMA – also a reminder of the importance of due diligence and early review of competition issues in the context of corporate transactions. As Ann Pope, Senior Director at the CMA added to the press release: “Companies must regularly check their trading arrangements, including long-running joint ventures and collaborative agreements, to make sure they’re not breaking the law.”