21 September 2020

Telecoms patent wars escalate

In this article for Automotive World, partner Andrew White explores the implications of Nokia’s win in a recent dispute with Daimler over patented telecoms tech.

The automotive patent wars are heating up following a recent decision of the Mannheim Regional Court in Germany, which held that Daimler had infringed on a Nokia patent for connected car technology. The decision relates specifically to Nokia’s European patent EP2981103.

This case represents one of a number of 3G/4G/5G patents that are part of the Avanci patent pool with which other car makers, including BMW and Volkswagen, have already concluded licences to some degree or another. It has been reported that Daimler’s co-litigants in the proceedings were Continental, Huawei, Robert Bosch, TomTom, Valeo/Peiker and Bury, and this case is part of a wider litigation campaign by other members of the Avanci patent pool including Conversant and Sharp.

One of the key issues that Daimler disputes is whether, as a car maker, it is required to obtain a licence from Nokia to use the patented technology itself, or whether it should be the Tier 1 suppliers (in this case Continental) of the connectivity modules that should obtain the licence. This could have something to do with the royalties payable – because patent royalties are typically calculated as a percentage of sales price of the product sold, and so the percentage royalty on a complete car may be somewhere higher in absolute terms than the same percentage of a component part.

This decision only related to one of ten connected suits filed by Nokia against Daimler, and the litigation has garnered much attention from other automakers, suppliers and even politicians.

Nokia claims the decision will help bring Daimler back to the negotiating table. However, the court set an extraordinarily high bond of €7bn (US$8.3bn) that Nokia would be required to pay if it wishes to obtain an injunction against Daimler. This is because of the possibility of an appeal coming to a different decision and therefore the potential damages that Daimler could incur as a result of a potentially unjustified injunction. Daimler seems confident that this won’t stop its ability to make and sell cars in the short term.

Due to the effect this might have on the wider auto industry, it is expected that if Daimler opts to appeal the decision, clarification would be sought from the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

Many parties weighed in on the dispute, including the German Federal Cartel Office which, in June 2020, recommended that the Mannheim Regional Court suspend the case pending the referral of a number of questions to the CJEU. The questions touched on issues of competition law, querying whether Nokia, in holding such an important patent (relevant to a telecommunications standard) abused its dominant position for refusing to license to a supplier, and also whether the patent holder is free to pick which companies they license to.

However, the Mannheim Regional Court reportedly decided not to make such a referral to the CJEU because it held that Daimler was already unwilling to conclude a licence (because Daimler considered it should be its supplier, Continental, that obtained the licence). Since the decision was announced on 18 August 2020, Daimler has stated its intention to appeal the decision.

Regardless of the outcome (i.e. if Nokia opts to pay the €7bn injunction or if Daimler does indeed appeal), this decision strengthens the hand of the telecoms patent holders and those members of the Avanci patent pool. It appears that automakers are having to play catch up in a world that was, until recently, traditionally dominated by telecoms companies.

Commenting on the decision, Avanci provided the following statement: “While we don’t comment on the details of cases we are not party to, Daimler’s legal disputes with Nokia, Sharp and Conversant could still be resolved easily and quickly by Daimler taking an Avanci licence. Our vision of making patent licensing easier and more efficient has already seen 15 automakers, including Audi and BMW, join our one-stop platform. Our single Avanci licence covers thousands of cellular essential patents from 38 patent owners.”

This article was originally published by Automotive World in September 2020.