Consider an agreement under which a license fee is payable for use of a patented technology even if it transpires that the patent is invalid. Is such an agreement contrary to Article 101 TFEU? The answer is no, provided that the licensee is able freely to terminate the contract by giving reasonable notice. Some years ago the ECJ so held in relation to expired patents: C-320/87 Ottung  ECR 1177 at §13. The recent decision in C-567/14 Genentech v Hoechst and Sanofi-Aventis clarifies that the same proposition applies to revoked patents (and indeed to patents which are valid but have not been infringed). The case also throws into sharp relief the tensions that may arise between European competition law and domestic procedural rules on the reviewability of arbitrations.
In 1992, Genentech (“G”) was granted a worldwide non-exclusive license for the use of technology which was subject of a European patent as well as two patents issued in the United States. G undertook to pay inter alia a ‘running royalty’ of 0.5% levied on the amount of sales of ‘finished products’ as defined in the license agreement (“the Agreement”). G was entitled to terminate the Agreement on two months’ notice.
The European patent was revoked in 1999. G unsuccessfully sought revocation of the United States patents in 2008 but this action failed; these patents therefore remained validly in place. G was later held liable in an arbitration to pay the running royalty. Late in the day in the arbitration proceedings, G alleged that construing the Agreement to require payment even in the event of patent revocation would violate EU competition law. That argument was rejected by the arbitrator. G sought annulment of the relevant arbitration awards in an action before the Court of Appeal, Paris. From that court sprung the preliminary reference that is the subject of this blog.
Effective EU competition law vs domestic restrictions on review of arbitration awards
Hoechst and Sanofi Aventis (the parties to whom the running royalty was due and not paid) argued that the reference was inadmissible because of French rules of procedure preventing any review of international arbitral awards unless the infringement was ‘flagrant’ (AG Op §§48-67) and the arbitral tribunal had not considered the point (AG Op §§68-72). In essence, the CJEU rejected this argument on the narrow basis that it was required to abide by the national court’s decision requesting a preliminary ruling unless that decision had been overturned under the relevant national law (§§22-23). Interestingly, the Advocate General ranged much more broadly in reaching the same conclusion, stating that these limitations on the review of international arbitral awards were “contrary to the principle of effectiveness of EU law”, “(n)o system can accept infringements of its most fundamental rules making up its public policy, irrespective of whether or not those infringements are flagrant or obvious” and “one or more parties to agreements which might be regarded as anticompetitive cannot put these agreements beyond the reach of review under Articles 101 TFEU and 102 TFEU by resorting to arbitration” (AG Op §§58, 67 and 72).
Ruling on Article 101 TFEU
As mentioned above, this aspect of the CJEU’s ruling builds on the earlier decision in C-320/87 Ottung  ECR 1177. A single, simple proposition emerges. An agreement to pay a license fee to use a patented technology does not contravene Article 101 just because the license fee remains payable in case of invalidity, revocation or non-infringement, provided that the licensee is free to terminate the agreement by giving reasonable notice (Ottung §13; Genentech §§40-43).
Digging deeper, two practical caveats must be added. First, it would be unsafe to assume that contractual restrictions on termination are the only restrictions on the licensee’s freedom that are relevant to the assessment. The Advocate General’s opinion in Genentech gives the further example of restrictions on the licensee’s ability to challenge the validity or infringement of the patents (AG Op §104). Indeed, any post-termination restriction which interferes with the licensee’s “freedom of action” might change the outcome if it places the licensee at a competitive disadvantage as against other users of the technology (AG Op §§91, 104; Ottung §13). Second, on the facts of Genentech, the commercial purpose of the Agreement was to enable the licensee to use the technology at issue while avoiding patent litigation (§32). Accordingly, it was clear that fees payable were connected to the subject matter of the agreement (AG Op §94). It is unlikely that a license agreement imposing supplementary obligations unconnected to its subject matter would be treated in the same fashion (AG Op §§95, 104; C-193//83 Windsurfing International v Commission  E.C.R. 611).