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Friday, September 14, 2012

Availability of Injunctive Relief for Standard- Essential Patent Holders

Brian T. Yeh
Legislative Attorney

An “industry standard” is a set of technical specifications that provides a common design for a product or process. Standardization is crucial to the functioning of the modern innovation-based economy and in particular to the interoperability of technologically complex consumer electronic devices. Standards allow several firms to supply services and products that incorporate the standard, which may help to lower prices and provide greater consumer choices. Standard-setting organizations (SSOs) are voluntary membership organizations in which industry participants collaboratively select particular technical standards to be used by products in that industry. Many SSOs require their members to adhere to licensing policies and bylaws that try to preempt the potential conflict between industry standards and patent rights; such policies generally require that members of the SSO (1) disclose patent rights that are pertinent to a proposed standard and (2) license the patented invention within a standard to others on “fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory” terms, a standard commonly known as “FRAND licensing.”

In the past several years, there has been considerable debate over whether injunctive relief in a patent infringement lawsuit (or exclusionary relief at the International Trade Commission (ITC)) should be available to companies that own patents that cover a particular industry standard (socalled “standard-essential patent” or SEP), when those companies have previously committed themselves to license their patented technology to anyone (corporate partners or competitors) on FRAND terms. The question particularly impacts the computing and telecommunications industries, as consumer electronic products such as smartphones, GPS devices, tablets, and gaming consoles incorporate a number of industry standards that include patented technology. Many high technology companies have been involved in patent infringement lawsuits and cases before the ITC that concern disputes over SEPs and FRAND licensing. Some of the electronic device manufacturers object to what they believe are unreasonably excessive royalty requests by the SEP holder and thus do not reach an agreement to license the SEP. In such a situation, the SEP holder has sought out a judicial determination of the royalty rate or even an injunction (from federal courts) or exclusion order (from the ITC) against the sale or importation of products made by companies that did not obtain a license.

Some argue that a company that owns an SEP and that has promised to license such patent on FRAND terms essentially waives its right to seek an injunction against another company that implements the standard but fails to reach a license agreement with the SEP holder. They raise concerns about the potential negative effects on competition and U.S. consumers of allowing injunctive or exclusionary relief in cases involving FRAND-encumbered SEPs. They also believe that the threat of an injunction weighs heavily in negotiations over SEP licensing in a way that disproportionately rewards the SEP holder. However, others argue that an SEP holder is entitled to injunctive relief because an SSO’s FRAND agreement does not include a promise not to seek an injunction in appropriate circumstances. Yet, they assert that if an SSO required its members to give up their right to exclude others (which is the primary right that a patent confers), participation in the voluntary standard-setting process may diminish. Furthermore, if SEP holders were limited to only damages and not injunctive relief, implementers of the industry standard may forgo negotiating a license before introducing a product and then wait for a federal court to decide on an award of damages for the infringement.

Although no legislation has been introduced in this area, the 112th Congress has demonstrated its interest in evaluating the need for possible legislative remedies by holding several hearings relating to SEPs, FRANDs, injunctive relief, and patent disputes at the ITC.

Date of Report: September 7, 2012
Number of Pages: 25
Order Number: R42705
Price: $29.95

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