Do Not Pass Go and Do Not Collect License Fees
Qualcomm is a leader in the market of wireless chip connectivity that every cell phone needs. Qualcomm holds patents related to 3G, 4G and 5G networking technology as well as other software. Qualcomm demanded a license fee for every device that connects to a cellular network. In other words, all cell phones. It forced its customers, like Apple, to enter into patent license agreements for Qualcomm’s technology; even if the customer was using a chip manufactured by someone else, like Intel.
Enter the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC investigated Qualcomm and concluded that it was violating antitrust law. Antitrust law prohibits anticompetitive trade practices, i.e. monopolies. The FTC asserted that Qualcomm violated antitrust laws by forcing its customers to enter into patent license agreements for Qualcomm’s technology in order to purchase its chips. After a bench trial, the court entered judgment in the FTC’s favor. The court held that Qualcomm had a “no license, no chip” policy. Because of this policy, Qualcomm charged excessively high royalties. Not to get too complicated, but when a software company owns and licenses a standard essential patent (SEP), there are reasonable terms for licensing the software or Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) terms. Qualcomm’s excessive license fees violated FRAND. This resulted in injury to the consumer by increasing the cost of cell phones. The court came down hard on Qualcomm. Among other things, it required Qualcomm to end the “no license, no chip” policy. Qualcomm has to renegotiate its licenses in accordance with FRAND terms. Qualcomm is going to have to submit to compliance and monitoring procedures for seven years.
WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. What Qualcomm did is often described as “tying”. Qualcomm tied the licensing of the software to purchase the hardware. And it looks like Qualcomm also tied its software to the hardware of its competitors. This is called “horizontal” tying. Most businesses are rarely going to be in Qualcomm’s position. But if a business has a “golden ticket” type of technology, it can’t lock customers in and cut out competitors by tying its technology. Most businesses are more likely to find themselves in the position of Qualcomm’s customers. When presented with a “tied” product and licensing situation, it’s best to seek advice of counsel.