Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Appeals Court Throws Out FTC Ruling Against Rambus

Earlier, the Federal Trade Commission determined that Rambus, while participating in a standard-setting process on DRAM memory, deceptively failed to disclose to the standard setting organization (JEDEC) the patent interests it held in four technologies that were standardized.

On appeal, Rambus argued that the Commission erred in finding that it violated any JEDEC patent disclosure rules and thus that it breached any antitrust duty to provide information to its rivals. Second, it asserted that even if its nondisclosure contravened JEDEC’s policies, the Commission found the consequences of such nondisclosure only in the alternative: that it prevented JEDEC either from adopting a non-proprietary standard, or from extracting a RAND commitment from Rambus when standardizing its technology. As the latter would not involve an antitrust violation, there would be insufficient basis for liability.

The Appeals Court agreed with Rambus, noting that they had "serious concerns about the breadth the Commission ascribed to JEDEC’s disclosure policies and their relation to what Rambus did or did not disclose." Noted the court:

Here, the Commission expressly left open the likelihood that JEDEC would have standardized Rambus’s technologies even if Rambus had disclosed its intellectual property. Under this hypothesis, JEDEC lost only an opportunity to secure a RAND commitment from Rambus. But loss of such a commitment is not a harm to competition from alternative technologies in the relevant markets. . . . Indeed, had JEDEC limited Rambus to reasonable royalties and required it to provide licenses on a nondiscriminatory basis, we would expect less competition from alternative technologies, not more; high prices and constrained output tend to attract competitors, not to repel them.
The court pinged the FTC for stretching a very thin evidentiary record to establish anticompetitive behavior. The parties stipulated earlier that, as of Rambus’s last JEDEC meeting, it held no patents that were essential to the manufacture or use of devices complying with any JEDEC standard, and that when JEDEC issued the SDRAM standard Rambus had no pending patent claims that would necessarily have been infringed by a device compliant with that standard.

As such, the only apparent grounds for supporting the FTC's opinion was that Rambus failed to fully disclose pending applications, as well as disclose progress on unfiled amendments at the PTO. However, the Appeals court found that the JEDEC policies did not explicitly address such situations, and, after looking at the trial record, concluded that "[w]e don’t see how a few strands of trial testimony would persuade the Commission to read this language more broadly."

Also, the Court had some words to share on the JEDEC patent policy:
As the Federal Circuit has said, JEDEC’s patent disclosure policies suffered from “a staggering lack of defining details.” . . . Even assuming that any evidence of unwritten disclosure expectations would survive a possible narrowing effect based upon the written directive of Manual 21-I, the vagueness of any such expectations would nonetheless remain an obstacle. One would expect that disclosure expectations ostensibly requiring competitors to share information that they would otherwise vigorously protect as trade secrets would provide “clear guidance” and “define clearly what, when, how, and to whom the members must disclose.”. . . This need for clarity seems especially acute where disclosure of those trade secrets itself implicates antitrust concerns; JEDEC involved, after all, collaboration by competitors. . . . In any event, the more vague and muddled a particular expectation of disclosure, the more difficult it should be for the Commission to ascribe competitive harm to its breach.
The D.C. Circuit's decision does not end the Rambus litigation, but merely returns the case to the FTC for possible retrial consistent with the court's opinion.

Download the opinion here (link)

SIDE NOTES: From CNNMoney.com: "Michael Cohen, an analyst at Pacific American Securities, has estimated that Rambus could realize as much as $11.7 billion in total royalties from all makers of DRAMs, assuming the company was able to clear all of its legal hurdles."

Rambus currently has patent-infringement cases against many DRAM makers, including Samsung Electronics Co., Micron Technology Inc., Hynix Semiconductor Inc., and Nanya Technology Corp.

1 Comentário:

Anonymous said...

Although holding here that the FTC had insufficent evidence for a Sherman Act violation, query if the indicated major claim changes in pending patent applications by a standards-setting participant to obtain alleged "monopoly" patents covering the standard everyone adopts could still be considered "patent misuse" impacting the enforcement of those patent claims?

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