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Appeals court seems poised to reverse landmark Qualcomm antitrust ruling

Judges Consuelo Callahan, Johnnie Rawlinson, and Stephen Murphy.
Enlarge / Judges Consuelo Callahan, Johnnie Rawlinson, and Stephen Murphy.

An lawyer for the Federal Commerce Fee confronted a skeptical reception from three appellate judges Thursday as he fought to defend a landmark ruling that Qualcomm’s aggressive modem chip licensing ways violated antitrust regulation.

“Is not that possibly being overly capitalistic however not essentially anticompetitive?” Decide Consuelo Callahan requested at one level in the course of the argument earlier than the ninth Circuit Courtroom of Appeals in California. Callahan, a George W. Bush appointee, was listening to the case alongside one other Bush appointee, Stephen Murphy, and Clinton decide Johnnie Rawlinson.

Final Could, a federal trial court docket decide dominated that Qualcomm had violated antitrust regulation with its “no license, no chips” coverage. Underneath this coverage, nobody was allowed to purchase chips from Qualcomm except they first agreed to pay royalties for Qualcomm’s patents.

The FTC argued—and Decide Lucy Koh agreed—that Qualcomm had ruthlessly used its monopoly over sure varieties of modem chips to pressure clients to pay unfairly excessive royalties for its patents. These extreme royalties acted as a de facto tax on its rivals’ merchandise, since handset makers needed to pay Qualcomm whether or not or not they purchased Qualcomm’s chips.

Judges and attorneys within the case repeatedly referred again to an antitrust case from the 1990s that pitted Microsoft in opposition to Caldera, which had been promoting a competing model of DOS. In that case, Microsoft charged PC makers a licensing payment for each laptop it offered, whether or not or not the machine shipped with Microsoft software program. Caldera satisfied the decide that this was anticompetitive, for the reason that licensing payment acted as an anticompetitive tax on Microsoft rivals like Caldera.

FTC lawyer Brian Fletcher argued that the identical evaluation utilized to Qualcomm’s licensing practices. On this case, the tax on rivals is described as patent royalties, making the state of affairs superficially completely different from Microsoft’s licensing technique. However the FTC argued that the sensible impact is similar: Qualcomm’s patent licensing charges successfully embody a “surcharge” on rivals’ chips that they could not have gotten and not using a chip monopoly. Qualcomm then makes use of extra earnings from patent licensing to pay rebates to its personal clients, successfully giving its personal chips an unfair benefit out there.

“I’m having a tough time maintaining”

The judges appeared skeptical of Fletcher’s case—in the event that they understood it in any respect.

“Issues are going so quick I am having a tough time maintaining with all this,” stated Decide Murphy. “The district court docket discovered by way of surcharging that the surcharge mirrored the monopolistic or unlawful worth of what did you say?”

“It is the monopoly place that Qualcomm has within the chip market,” Fletcher defined. “Patent negotiations, ordinarily, the way in which that they work is the patent holder says, ‘You are infringing my patents, you should take a license.’ The opposite aspect says, ‘I do not assume so.’ They attain a dedication of an acceptable license fee in opposition to the backdrop of unusual patent treatments.”

The important thing query, Fletcher stated, is “are these patent royalties in actual fact being pushed by the chip monopoly and never by the worth of the patents?”

“So what could be improper with that?” Rawlinson shot again. “Would not the Supreme Courtroom say that patent holders have the precise to cost their patents? What could be anticompetitive about that?”

Fletcher drew the judges’ consideration to the Caldera case, which he argued concerned the same enterprise follow.

“Why did the OEMs say it is unfair?” Callahan requested (by “OEMs,” she meant smartphone makers). “As a result of they’ve to purchase a license? They’ve to purchase a license anyway.”

When Qualcomm lawyer Tom Goldstein got here again to the rostrum for a rebuttal, one decide—Rawlinson—did appear to have absorbed Fletcher’s argument.

When Goldstein argued that even the FTC did not declare Qualcomm wasn’t imposing a tax on rivals’ chips, Rawlinson objected. “They’re saying in essence that is the identical factor you are doing. You are calling it one thing else. However when the quilt is pulled off, it truly is only a bare tax” on rivals, she stated.

A divided authorities

It is an inherently sophisticated case that has been made much more sophisticated by a schism throughout the government department. The Federal Commerce Fee initially filed its lawsuit in opposition to Qualcomm within the remaining days of the Obama administration.

Republicans are inclined to favor much less aggressive antitrust enforcement, so ordinarily, the inauguration of a brand new Republican president would have meant a brand new Republican majority that would rapidly settle pending circumstances they did not assume had been price pursuing. However the brand new FTC chairman, Joseph Simons, recused himself from the case as a result of his former regulation agency had counted Qualcomm as a consumer.

That led to a 2-2 impasse, with the fee’s two Democrats desirous to proceed pursuing the case and the 2 Republicans preferring to drop it. On this state of affairs, the FTC goes with the default possibility, which is for FTC workers to proceed pursuing the case. Nevertheless it does so and not using a clear strategic route from the commissioners.

The Division of Justice shares jurisdiction over antitrust enforcement with the FTC, and ordinarily the 2 companies coordinate to keep away from stepping on one another’s toes. However in a extremely uncommon transfer, Trump’s Justice Division intervened within the case on Qualcomm’s aspect. That led to the spectacle of two authorities attorneys squaring off on reverse sides of a authorized argument.

The Justice Division argues that Decide Koh’s resolution, which ordered Qualcomm to decouple patent licenses from chip gross sales and cease partaking in different anticompetitive conduct, is a menace to US nationwide safety. Communications chips are extensively seen as vital for nationwide safety, and Qualcomm is America’s main modem chipmaker. Qualcomm’s main rivals are principally in Asia—together with the South Korean Samsung and the Chinese language Huawei.

However judges appeared skeptical of the Justice Division’s nationwide safety arguments, calling them obscure and unsubstantiated. They famous that the Justice Division had not supplied any particular numbers or market evaluation displaying how a lot Decide Koh’s ruling would injury Qualcomm’s standing out there. And the FTC’s Fletcher identified that one purpose Qualcomm is the one main modem chip maker within the US is that Qualcomm’s anticompetitive ways helped push one other American firm, Intel, out of the market.

The case is much from over. Decide Koh’s ruling final Could was a preliminary injunction ordering Qualcomm to vary its enterprise practices whereas the case moved to trial. The appeals court docket may reverse that injunction however let the case go to trial, which may ultimately result in the same order years sooner or later. Or the appeals court docket may go additional and overturn some or all of Decide Koh’s authorized evaluation, handing Qualcomm a direct win within the case.

Theoretically, the judges may additionally uphold Decide Koh’s ruling and go away the injunction in place. However the tenor of the judges’ questions on Thursday made me assume this is not very seemingly.

About Timothy B. Lee

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