Centre for Internet & Society
CCI allowed to probe Ericsson: FAQs on Ericsson’s disputes with Micromax and Intex

Delhi High Court’s order in Ericsson patent case is a boost for India’s home grown manufacturers in their battle against global patent holders. (Photo: iStock)

The blog post is an analysis of the recent decision of the Delhi High Court, clarifying that the Competition Commission of India could investigate Ericsson for a violation of competition law. A shorter version of this blog post was published in the Quint on April 30, 2016.

Read the original article published by Quint on April 30 here.

The mobile phone is the sole access point to the internet for about half of India’s population. It has an important role to play in India’s development story, one that is amplified given the central government’s focus on leveraging the internet for better governance. The government has recognized this importance, evidenced through electronics manufacturing incentives and, a stated commitment to ensure ‘universal access to mobile connectivity’. Homegrown brands, including Micromax and Intex, with their affordable, low-cost mobile phones, play an important role in this development story.

In March, 2013, the Swedish multinational, Ericsson, sued Micromax for patent infringement, setting in motion a series of events, with the potential to disturb India’s mobile phone dream. Then, last month, the Delhi High Court (the Court) recognized the authority of the market regulator - the Competition Commission of India (CCI) - to probe Ericsson for its allegedly anticompetitive conduct.

Why did Ericsson sue Micromax?

Ericsson claims that Micromax’s mobile phones infringe its standard essential patents (SEPs) on mobile phone technologies, including 3G and EDGE.

How are some patents identified as SEPs?

International Standard Setting Organizations (SSOs) – such as ETSI or IEEE - recognize international standards. 3G and Wi-Fi are examples of such internationally recognized standards.

According to the SSOs, the determination of standards depends on consensus, driven by their members. After a standard is determined, SEP owners (including Ericsson) voluntarily disclose which of their patents are essential to the determined standard, and, undertake to license these on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms, to any willing licensee.

Does this give rise to legal issues?

This process results in a variety of (well-documented) legal questions, many of which have been raised in India’s SEP litigation, and have been alluded to by the Court in the present judgment. The Court has recognized the potential for SEPs to create dominant positions for their owners, noting that “any technology accepted as a standard would have to be mandatorily followed [emphasis, mine] by all enterprises in the particular industry.”

Some other legal issues around SEPs include the enforceability of FRAND commitments; determining what would constitute ‘fair’, ‘reasonable’ and, ‘non-discriminatory’; the possibility of non/incomplete disclosure by patent owners; and, a refusal by licensees to negotiate FRAND terms in good faith. A related issue that has received comparatively less attention is the essentiality of peripheral or, non standard but essential patents, where there is no obligation to license on FRAND terms.

Have there been other SEP infringement suits filed in India?

Yes. Besides Micromax, Ericsson has also sued other low-cost mobile phone sellers/manufacturers, homegrown and otherwise, for patent infringement. These include Intex, Lava, Gionee, Xia and iBall. In addition, Vringo has also sued ZTE and Asus, separately. [In this article, we will limit ourselves to a discussion on Ericsson’s suits against Micromax and Intex.]

What did Micromax and Intex do after being sued by Ericsson?

Ericsson’s suits were followed by deliberations between the parties (Ericsson and Micromax, and, Ericsson and Intex, independently) and some interim orders by the Court. This litigation is ongoing, and final orders are awaited.

Meanwhile, both Micromax and Intex have pursued a series of other remedies. Intex has filed applications for the revocation of Ericsson’s patents. In addition, Micromax and Intex have each filed separate complaints under India’s Competition Act, 2002 before the CCI, alleging that Ericsson had abused its dominant position. This is a punishable offence under Indian competition law.

Micromax and Intex have both claimed that Ericsson’s royalty rates were excessive. In addition, Micromax has objected to Ericsson’s use of the threat of injunctions and custom seizures, and, has also claimed that Ericsson’s conduct results in a denial of market access for Indian handset manufacturers. Intex has alleged, inter alia, that it was forced into signing an onerous non disclosure agreement by Ericsson; and, that it was forced to negotiate licences without a complete disclosure of its patents by Ericsson.

The CCI, finding there to be a prima facie case in each of the above complaints, ordered the Director General to undertake an investigation into the allegations made by both – Micromax and Intex. These orders were challenged by Ericsson in the Court.

On what grounds did Ericsson challenge the CCI’s orders?

Briefly, Ericsson argued-

(a)    that the issue was one of patent law, which barred the applicability of competition law;

(b)   that it was not an ‘enterprise’ under the Competition Act, 2002, and, that the CCI was empowered to check anticompetitive conduct only of ‘enterprises’;

(c)    that its conduct was not anticompetitive since it was only exercising its rights to enforce its patents;

(d)   that since the disputes between the parties were already being heard in other proceedings before the Court, the CCI could not adjudicate them; and,

(e)    that Intex and Micromax were barred from making such allegations.  Ericsson opined that since they had challenged its ownership of the SEPs, through revocation of petition applications (filed by Intex), and a denial of infringement claims (by Micromax), they could not now present a complaint premised on it being the owner of those same SEPs.

What did the Court hold?

Rejecting Ericsson’s arguments, the Court held that the CCI did [emphasis, mine] have the jurisdiction to examine if Ericsson’s conduct was anticompetitive, finding it to be an ‘enterprise’ under the Competition Act, 2002. However, the Court was clear that the CCI’s actions could be subject to judicial review by the High Court. It also found that the mere applicability of the Patents Act, 1970, did not bar the applicability of competition law, since the legislations covered distinct fields and served different purposes. Further, it opined that Micromax and Intex were free to explore alternative remedies; neither this pursuit, nor, the pendency of disputes on similar issues before the Court, was a bar to the CCI’s jurisdiction.

Interestingly, while not adjudicating the issue of Ericsson’s abuse of dominance in this particular case, Justice Bakhru, citing its conduct as presented by the other parties said that in some cases, “such conduct, if it is found, was directed in pressuring an implementer to accept non-FRAND terms, would amount to an abuse of dominance.”

What does the judgment mean for India’s homegrown brands?

The judgment is a boost for India’s home grown manufacturers in their battle against global patent holders. However, while it certainly validates the role and powers of India’s young market regulator, it will no doubt be appealed. One also expects multiple appeals over the CCI’s findings in the present and, future similar cases.

It is impossible to predict the outcome of legal proceedings in SEP litigation. Accordingly, Micromax, Intex (and others) would do well to augment their own patent portfolios (either by filing their own patents, or, by acquiring those of other companies). This may create a more level playing field, opening up alternate channels of negotiation, including, cross-licensing. They may also seek access to Ericsson’s SEPs under the compulsory licensing mechanism in India’s patent law.

What does the government have to say?

The Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion has recently released a discussion paper on these issues, inviting comments from stakeholders. It would be unsurprising if the government intends to regulate this space, given the strong implications for not just its flagship Make in India and Digital India programs, but also its foreign policy narrative on protecting IPRs and fostering innovation. Immediate welcome steps from the government would be a final word on the National IPR Policy, and, the adoption of the National Competition Policy, awaited since 2014 and 2011, respectively.

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