EC, US courts set key mobile patent precedents

Caroline Gabriel/Wireless Watch
06 May 2014

Apple and Samsung's latest Silicon Valley patents battle has wrapped up for now, but other decisions, on both sides of the Atlantic, may have a longer term impact on the thorny web of mobile IPR practice. EU competition authorities have ruled that Motorola Mobility did abuse its dominant market position in its own Apple fight, while the US Supreme Court is doling out judgements which may reduce the power of patent trolls.

The European Commission is conducting a series of probes of how major handset makers, including Motorola and Samsung, have licensed their standards-essential patents (SEP), which should be subject to Frand (fair reasonable and non-discriminatory) terms, ill-defined as these often are. The EC’s competition agency has found that Motorola Mobility abused a dominant market position, acquired through its SEP holdings, when it sought an injunction against Apple devices that allegedly violated those patents.

The EC stopped short of a fine, acknowledging the lack of existing case law in this area, but

ordered the firm, now part of Google, to “undo the negative effects” of the product ban, which was obtained from a German court and concerns IPR which is part of the GPRS standard. Motorola had previously pledged to standards bodies such as Europe’s ETSI that it would license these patents on Frand terms. After the German trial went against Apple, the iPhone maker agreed to license the technology on terms set by the court, but nonetheless, Motorola pursued the injunction, which the EC clearly sees as overstepping the mark in aggressive competitive tactics.

The EC also found that Motorola behaved in an anti-competitive way when it threatened to enforce its injunction if Apple did not give up its right to challenge the validity of the offending patents, or appeal against the ruling that it infringed them.

The investigation of Motorola’s practices began in April 2012, sparked by a complaint from Apple. The EC has been taking a tougher line on Frand, especially in the smart-phone business, which has been beset by distracting and costly lawsuits round the world for the past couple of years. During that time, standards bodies, courts and regulatory authorities have become increasingly impatient about handset makers’ readiness to at-tack one another in court rather than with product innovation, and to brandish aggressive weapons such as injunctions, which are seen as a way to cripple rivals, not merely to support legitimate technology rights.

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