Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Standard Essential Patents: Reviewing the IEEE’s IPR Policy- Part I

Earlier this year in March, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) published the latest version of its bylaws which shall apply to the licensing practices of its members in so far as they relate to the technology standards prescribed by the IEEE. Given that a lot has already been written about the policy, I am not sure if I can add a new perspective to it. Therefore, these series of posts I intend to pen may be treated as my on-going attempts to make sense of the policy given its relevance to my current body of work.

Articles 6 and 7 of the policy deal with the patent and copyright policies respectively. In this post, I review certain aspects of the Patent policy, which I believe are significant developments in SEP jurisprudence. Article 6.1 which contains the definitions defines “Compliant Implementation” thus:

Compliant Implementation” shall mean any product (e.g., component, sub-assembly, or end-product) or service that conforms to any mandatory or optional portion of a normative clause of an IEEE Standard.

At a time when there is little or no judicial guidance, much less clarity, on whether the policy of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) envisages an obligation on SEP owners to grant FRAND-encumbered licenses to component manufacturers such as chipset makers, the IEEE’s definition of “compliant implementation” must be welcomed for its expansive scope and clarity. The definition expressly treats a component or sub-assembly, and not just the end-product, as product for the purposes of standard compliant implementation.

Although Intel has advanced a similar position in its amicus brief before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Apple v. Motorola, the brief does not undertake a systematic interpretation of terms such as “Manufacture”, “Equipment” and “Methods” which have been defined in the ETSI IPR policy. This is not to say that Intel’s argument is without basis, but the reasoning in the brief could have been more comprehensive so as to deal with and negate the position that only end-product manufacturers are entitled to a FRAND license under the ETSI IPR policy. Fortunately, the IEEE policy leaves very little to imagination in this regard giving the impression that the framers of this policy have drawn important lessons from the ongoing debate with respect to the ETSI policy.

The other important definition, perhaps a more critical one, is that of an “Essential Patent Claim” which is defined as follows:

“Essential Patent Claim” shall mean any Patent Claim the practice of which was necessary to implement either a mandatory or optional portion of a normative clause of the IEEE Standard when, at the time of the IEEE Standard’s approval, there was no commercially and technically feasible non-infringing alternative implementation method for such mandatory or optional portion of the normative clause. An Essential Patent Claim does not include any Patent Claim that was essential only for Enabling Technology or any claim other than that set forth above even if contained in the same patent as the Essential Patent Claim”

It is pertinent to note that the definition includes both mandatory and optional portions of an IEEE standard. In other words, even if a patent claim covers an optional portion of an IEEE standard, it shall be deemed to be an Essential Patent Claim. It would be interesting to see a Court interpret this definition in the future in light of Fujitsu v. Netgear, where the subject-matter of the dispute related to IEEE standards. In this decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that where a portion of a standard is optional:

standards compliance alone would not establish that the accused infringer chooses to implement the optional section. In these instances, it is not sufficient for the patent owner to establish infringement by arguing that the product admittedly practices the standard, therefore it infringes. In these cases, the patent owner must com-pare the claims to the accused products or, if appropriate, prove that the accused products implement any relevant optional sections of the standard. This should alleviate any concern about the use of standard compliance in assessing patent infringement. Only in the situation where a patent covers every possible implementation of a standard will it be enough to prove infringement by showing standard compliance.”

In view of this test, can the updated definition of an Essential Patent Claim prevail over the Federal Circuit Court’s ruling? Given that ruling of the Court, and not IEEE’s bylaws, has the force of law as to what constitutes "essential" and how essentiality may be established, the definition may not be of much use to patentees who claim ownership of IEEE standards in circumventing the test laid down by the Court.

The other interesting aspect of the definition of an Essential Patent Claim is its express exclusion of any enabling technology. “Enabling Technology” has been defined thus:

““Enabling Technology” shall mean any technology that may be necessary to make or use any product or portion thereof that complies with the IEEE Standard but is neither explicitly required by nor expressly set forth in the IEEE Standard (e.g., semiconductor manufacturing technology, compiler technology, object oriented technology, basic operating system technology, and the like)”

According to this definition, it appears that owners of essential patent claims cannot extend their claim of essentiality over or treat as essential those patent claims which are directed towards technologies/products that enable the implementation of an IEEE standard. In other words, since an IEEE standard could be silent on the actual manner of its enablement, a patentee which allegedly owns a Standard Essential Patent cannot claim that a specific enabling technology is essential for the implementation of the standard since there could be multiple ways of implementing the standard.

This does not mean that infringement cannot be alleged by the patentee. It only means that as opposed to using the claim of essentiality to establish infringement, the patentee would need to demonstrate a claim-based infringement using the conventional claim-to-product comparison. Therefore, only if the patent contains a claim which covers a particular manner of enablement of the standard or a product which facilitates enablement, it would be available for the patentee to allege infringement based on the claim since the essentiality of the patent cannot aid him in this regard. In this sense, the definitions of Essential Patent Claim and Enabling Technology strike a distinction between technology/product which enables the implementation of the Essential Patent Claim and technology/product which actually implements/uses the Essential Patent Claim. This is yet another interesting aspect of the definitions whose interpretation and application by Courts is bound to generate divergent views. 

In the next post, I shall continue with my review of the IEEE patent policy. 

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