Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron

Archive for July 19th, 2022

Reversing the hold up vs hold out debate?

with 7 comments

Exactly 7 years ago, on 16 July 2015, the CJEU rendered its Judgment in Huawei v ZTE (here are the comments I published that day).

The Huawei v ZTE Judgment essentially sought to clarify the circumstances under which the seeking of injunctions by a SEP holder could constitute an abuse of dominance. The Judgment confirmed the view, initially advanced in academic circles, and endorsed by the European Commission in Samsung and Motorola, (and vehemently opposed by many) that in certain cases patent hold up was a competition law problem connected to the leveraging of market power obtained through standardization. The underlying idea was that hold up could materialize in refusals to licence, excessive royalties or injunctions. In that Judgment the Court set up a procedural framework balancing the different stakes and incentives at issue.

7 years later many of these debates remain (and remain equally bitter). Interestingly, though, there appears to have been an effort to shift attention away from hold up and focus, instead, on hold out  (i.e. the situation where implementers would allegedly refuse to negotiate in good faith). The argument is that innovation on the part of SEP holders would be discouraged should their royalties not be high enough as a result of hold out.

Paying attention to potential hold out on case-by-case assessments might be, to some extent, natural because  implementing the procedural framework set out in Huawei v ZTE necessarily requires assessing whether implementers have entered into bona fides negotiations.

At the same time, however, the recent trend is to present hold out (aka “reverse hold up”) as the other side of the same coin. This view has made it from economic articles, to national litigation, to the “new Madison” policy in the US under AAG Delrahim. More recently, and more surprisingly, the European Commission’s draft horizontal Guidelines (recital 470) would appear to support this view:

When the standard constitutes a barrier to entry, the undertaking could thereby control the product or service market to which the standard relates. This in turn could allow undertakings to behave in anti-competitive ways, for example by refusing to license the necessary IPR or by extracting excess rents by way of discriminatory or excessive royalty fees thereby preventing effective access to the standard (“hold-up”). The reverse situation may also arise if licensing negotiations are drawn out for reasons attributable solely to the user of the standard. This could include for example a refusal to pay a FRAND royalty fee or using dilatory strategies (“hold-out”)”.

Perhaps it is simply a drafting problem, but this paragraph appears to put hold up on the part of SEP holders and hold out on the part of individual users of the standard (and the concerns to which they both relate) at the same level, also from a legal standpoint. This is interesting for various reasons that we have often discussed on this blog. First, the shift in the focus of these debates is one more example of the pendulum oscillations that characterize competition law, but one where the swing would appear to be particularly wide. Second, this text would also appear to equate hold out practices with anticompetitive hold up practices on the grounds that both can affect the distribution of rents between the different parties, regardless of whether they involve the exercise of market power or not.

I would welcome your views on this point. Not having worked for clients on these issues, I have no view on the extent to which hold out may be a real-life concern. As a competition lawyer, however, I have trouble seeing how hold out practices could lead to genuine competition law concerns (i.e. how they could lead to foreclosure, anticompetitive leveraging, exploitation or otherwise restrict competition) absent dominance or a cartel/boycott-like arrangement at the level of would-be licensees. I see that others have expressed very similar thoughts (e.g. here or here).

Don’t get me wrong. As mentioned above, hold out considerations can be, and have been, relevant in case-by-case assessments under the Huawei v ZTE framework (under that framework injunctions remain legitimate in relation to implementers not acting in good faith). But to the extent that hold out concerns may be concerned with relative bargaining power (as opposed to market power) and with the distribution of rents between SEP holders and implementers (absent market power, exploitation or foreclosure), they would not appear to be a matter for competition law to address. In sum, while the narrative, the incentives, and perhaps even the economics, may be “the reverse” as those arising in hold up scenarios, this might not be accurate from a legal standpoint.

Written by Alfonso Lamadrid

19 July 2022 at 1:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized