Searching for Answers to the Standard Essential Patent Problem
Later this year (likely in October), the United Kingdom’s highest court will hear arguments on questions arising in two disputes concerning standard essential patents (SEPs). The UK Supreme Court has agreed to hear appeals in Unwired Planet International Ltd and another v Huawei Technologies (UK) Co Ltd and another UKSC 2018/0214 and the joined cases Huawei Technologies Co Ltd and another v Conversant Wireless Licensing SARL UKSC 2019/0041 and ZTE Corporation and another v Conversant Wireless Licensing SARL UKSC 2019/0042. The arguments are likely to focus on one question: can a national court impose a global license in SEP cases? The closely watched appeal will be the culmination of years of litigation between the parties. In the Unwired Planet case, Mr. Justice Birss of the High Court heard five trials on the validity and infringement/essentiality of Unwired Planet’s patents. In April 2017, he then gave a mammoth judgment determining what a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) license would be, and setting royalty rates. Critically, he found that only a worldwide license would be FRAND in the circumstances of this case. The England and Wales Court of Appeal upheld this conclusion, in a judgment in October 2018. The Supreme Court will likely sit in a five-judge panel in a hearing that will last about two days and will be live streamed on its website (the date and panel details have not been confirmed yet). It will hand down judgment later this year or early in 2020. (Ironically, patent specialist Lord Kitchin is a member of the Supreme Court but will not be sitting in this case as it is his own judgment that is under appeal.) You might have thought that—after decades of legal debate and academic writing, dozens of judgments addressing questions such as what constitutes a FRAND license and what are reasonable royalties, and extensive discussions between technology companies—the questions around SEPs would be close to being resolved. But that is far from the case. The outcome of the UK Supreme Court hearing, for instance, will have an impact on negotiations between owners of SEP portfolios and implementers worldwide, at a time when standards are set to become critical to many more industries.