Cases that never will be (I) – Hynix (Case T-148/10)
Last week one of the most knowledgeable people in the EU competition law world (Commission official whose name I can’t disclose) tipped me to a new series of blog posts:
His words were “someone should one day write on a blog the story of competition cases that could have had a significant impact on the law had they not been withdrawn”. Since the number of competition law bloggers is not that high (even though it’s rapidly increasing…), and since I was the addressee of the message, I sort of got the point.
Actually, I very much like the idea of writing about cases that never were or, rather, that never will be.
There are a few candidate cases to be discussed; a non-exhaustive tentative list of non-cases could include: Siderca, Chi Mei, Suez-Environment, Formula One, Oulmers, BIC Deutschland, Balog or Van der Weerd. [Additional suggestions would be welcome].
Today we’ll start with Hynix (Rambus), a case in which the hearing was scheduled for 2 July but that was withdrawn a few days ago following a settlement.
The Judgment that will never come to light in this case would have constituted a most important precedent in relation to some important general enforcement issues, as well as in relation to an eventual judicial review of the current investigations concerning Google or Samsung.
A bit of background:
In 2002 Hynix filed a complaint alleging that Rambus had engaged in deceptive conduct in a standard setting procedure in relation to DRAM chips by not disclosing the existence of the patents and patent applications which it later claimed were relevant to the adopted standard, and that it had later charged excessive royalties for the use of those patents (i.e. royalties higher than those that it would have been able to claim had it not engaged in deceptive conduct). This is what is generally referred to as “patent ambush”.
The case was interesting because the deceptive conduct at issue had made Rambus acquire dominance (it preceded dominance), and the charging of high royalties could be regarded as the natural consequence of such dominance. Given that EU law does not target “monopolization” practices (those use to achieve dominance), the Commission had attempted to close this enforcement gap by targeting exploitative pricing under Art. 102 under the argument that dominance had been unlawfully attained. This was a brave and controversial move on the part of the Commission.
On 27 July 2007 the Commission adopted a statement of objections setting out its concerns. Rambus responded to the SO and a hearing was held.
Almost two years later, however, Rambus submitted preliminary commitments, those were later market-tested, revised, and eventually made binding on December 2009 (in a nutshell, Rambus committed (i) not to charge royalties for the two standards adopted while Rambus engaged in the deceptive conduct; (ii) to set a maximum royalty of 1,5% for the later generation of standards and to offer thus maximum rate to all market participants). (Note that the commitments concerned only future payments, not those already made).
As you know, in a case like this (or in a case like Google’s), once the Commission accepts commitments it must (a) adopt an Article 9 decision making them binding; and (b) adopt a decision rejecting any complaints stating that there are no longer grounds for action.
Hynix appealed both of these decisions.
In essence, Hynix argued that the Commission violated Article 9 of Regulation 1/2003 by choosing the procedure envisaged in that article where its concerns related to a serious violation of Art. 102.
In its SO, the Commission had envisaged a finding that the charging by Rambus of capped royalties is incompatible with Article 102 (82 back then). However, the corollary of the commitment decision was to make royalty caps binding, thus endorsing their legality.
The Judgment that will never on this case would have shed light on some of the hottest current topics in EU competition law (abuse of dominance in high-tech sector, misuse of patents, the circumstances in which the Commission can or cannot adopt commitment decisions…). In the past we have devoted lots of ink pixels to discussing these issues, and it’s a pity for the law that questions like the following will, for the time being, remain unaddressed:
What constitutes an abusive practice with respect to standardization, in particular so far as concerns patent ambushing?
Were commitments in the form of future royalty caps sufficient to eradicate the competitive problems found by the Commission?
What guiding principles (beyond Alrosa) are to be taken into account when assessing the appropriateness and adequacy of commitments?
Can the Commission address what it had perceived as a serious violation by means of a commitments decision? In that context, may the Commission adopt remedies which are only prospective in nature? Is the Commission entitled to have recourse to a commitment (Article 9) decision after having adopted a Statement of Objections? And in this case, can a Statement of Objections be considered as a valid “preliminary assessment” for the purposes of Art. 9 of Regulation 1/2003?