One common trait of all standard essential patent (SEP) disputes is their procedural complexity. A lawyer’s dream come true.
A few weeks ago, I reported on the IPCom v. Lenovo litigation. The apparent conclusion was that, in the context of a multidimensional and multinational lawsuit, French courts were not ready to forgo their say. This seems to be confirmed in another high profile case, brought to my attention by Denis Schertenleib.
The case pitches the Dutch giant Philips against Hong Kong-based TCL.
Philips owns a portfolio of patents declared as essential for the 3G and 4G standards with the standard-setting organization ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute). According to a classical plot, Philips and TCL negotiated a patent license for this portfolio and the negotiations failed. It seems that one of the bones of contention was the scope of the license, both in terms of patents and countries.
Philips sued TCL in the UK for infringement of two patents, in October 2018.
TCL started a legal backfire by suing Philips in front of the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI). By the way, have I already mentioned on this blog that the TGI has been renamed TJ (tribunal judiciaire) since January 1, 2020?
What is much less conventional in this plot is that TCL sued not only Philips, but also the ETSI itself.
As a main request TCL asked the court:
- to declare that Philips’ essentiality declaration to the ETSI amounts to a promise to grant a FRAND license to TCL on all patents declared as essential for the 3G and 4G standards;
- to determine FRAND conditions for the license and to enjoin Philips to grant it;
- to enjoin the ETSI to participate in the license granting process;
- to declare that the conditions offered by Philips are not FRAND-compliant.
At the risk of disappointing readers, we do not have the court’s ruling yet. What we do have is an interim order by the judge in charge of case management dealing with a number of preliminary objections raised by Philips.
First, Philips argued that the Paris court lacked jurisdiction.
The discussion here revolves around article 8.1 of Regulation (EU) No. 1215/2012 (known as the Brussels I bis regulation) per which “a person domiciled in a Member State may also be sued where he is one of a number of defendants, in the courts for the place where any one of them is domiciled, provided the claims are so closely connected that it is expedient to hear and determine them together to avoid the risk of irreconcilable judgments resulting from separate proceedings“.
Again, Philips is a Dutch company. The ETSI, on the other hand, is located in Sophia Antipolis, on the French riviera. Philips argued that the claim against the ETSI was artificial so that the institute was not a “real defendant“. Philips further challenged that the claims against it and against the ETSI were closely related.
The judge in charge of case management disagreed:
It must be noted in this case that the claims against the ETSI on the one hand and Philips on the other hand relate to a same factual situation resulting from the fact that, according to the plaintiffs, Philips does not comply with the IP rules established by the ETSI.
Although the legal grounds for the requests against the ETSI and Philips are different […], this is not an obstacle to the acknowledgment of an identity of legal situation, […] especially since in this case all requests are expressly subjected to French law, as provided in the rules of procedure established by the ETSI.
The identity of legal situation supporting these requests is thus characterized.
It must also be noted that the ETSI is endowed with legal means to ensure that IP obligations are complied with by its members, so that the claims against this institute cannot be held as artificial.
In addition, it must be noted that a decision enjoining the ETSI to participate in the grant of a license if needed by implementing the measures provided in its internal regulations, and one holding that Philips complied with its obligation to offer a license to TCL under FRAND conditions would be incompatible and not only diverging.
Second, Philips relied on a lis pendens objection (due to the preexisting British lawsuit).
The basis for this objection is article 29 of the Brussels I bis regulation, per which “where proceedings involving the same cause of action and between the same parties are brought in the courts of different Member States, any court other than the court first seised shall of its own motion stay its proceedings until such time as the jurisdiction of the court first seised is established“.
Again, the judge disagreed:
[…] The claim in front of the High court of justice of England and Wales is based on infringement of the British part of European patents No. […]. It only concerns Philips and TCL.
The present lawsuit concerns Philips, TCL, and also the ETSI. It consists in determining whether Philips […] offered a worldwide license on a [patent portfolio] under fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory conditions.
As a result, the condition of triple identity of cause of action, subject-matter and parties is not met, and there is no reason to decline jurisdiction in favor of the English court.
Third, Philips relied on a related actions objection (still due to the preexisting British lawsuit).
This time, it is article 30 of the Brussels I bis regulation that comes into play:
1. Where related actions are pending in the courts of different Member States, any court other than the court first seised may stay its proceedings.
2. Where the action in the court first seised is pending at first instance, any other court may also, on the application of one of the parties, decline jurisdiction if the court first seised has jurisdiction over the actions in question and its law permits the consolidation thereof.
3. For the purposes of this Article, actions are deemed to be related where they are so closely connected that it is expedient to hear and determine them together to avoid the risk of irreconcilable judgments resulting from separate proceedings.
This objection was no more successful than the previous ones:
As mentioned by TCL, the trial on the FRAND license issue will only proceed in the UK if TCL does not renounce requesting such a license […]. No risk of irreconcilable judgments under article 30 of the Regulation is established, so that the objection based on related actions cannot be sustained and the present court does not have to decline jurisdiction.
I must say that this part of the judgment is somewhat less clear to me than the rest. I assume that what the judge meant is that the objection is premature as there is no indication at this time that the same question will be asked to the British court and the French court.
As a result, the judge rejected all objections raised by Philips, so that the litigation can proceed further.
The ETSI also requested that the claims against it should be declared inadmissible. However, this other objection needs to be examined by the full court, so that the judge in charge of case management has not ruled on it.
This interim judgment is of particular interest because the jurisdiction of the Paris TJ was acknowledged with respect to TCL’s FRAND determination requests, independently of any infringement, non-infringement or validity claims regarding any French patent or French part of a European patent.
Suing France-based ETSI as a co-defendant was what made it possible to achieve this outcome.
If this strategy continues to prove successful (which remains to see), it will mean that it can be replicated in any other 3G or 4G standard-related dispute, in other words that any IP right owner can be sued in France with respect to FRAND determination claim. So this is kind of a big deal.
On the other hand, I have read comments on this judgment according to which the decision was the first one to qualify the promise by a patent owner to grant a FRAND license under the ETSI IPR Policy as a “stipulation pour autrui”, namely a third-party beneficiary clause that creates a direct contractual relationship between the ETSI member (patent owner) and a third party (would-be licensee).
It has indeed long been proposed that an essentiality declaration with the ETSI amounted to this contractual mechanism of “stipulation pour autrui“. But I personally fail to find in the judgment any clear confirmation that the judge agreed with this qualification.
What I do find in the judgment is a mention that the ETSI agrees with this qualification; and a discussion on the legal grounds of the claims against Philips and the ETSI, the latter one being the “stipulation pour autrui“. But I do not understand this discussion as an acknowledgment that the proposed legal qualification is correct. However, it is likely that future judgments in this litigation will provide more clarity.
CASE REFERENCE: Tribunal judiciaire de Paris, 3ème chambre 1ère section, ordonnance du juge de la mise en état, February 6, 2020, SAS TCT Mobile Europe et al. v. Koninklijke Philips NV et al., RG No. 19/02085.