The abuse of a dominant position acquired through a patent is a subject for competition law

JSaiDeepakpicTypically, patent litigation involves suits for infringement and counterclaims for patent invalidation. The conduct of parties to patent disputes however, has added another dimension — the effect of the patentee’s conduct on consumers and competition in the market.

Take for instance, the anti-trust proceedings initiated in 2012 by the European Commission against Motorola Mobility Inc. The main ground for the investigation was Motorola’s aggressive pursuit of injunctive relief against potential licensees to coerce them into paying unreasonable royalty for the use of Motorola’s Standard Essential Patents (“SEPs”) on video compression standards and standards for Wireless Local

AdvancedProfessionalCertificationinCorporateLawPractice_apcclpArea Network (WLAN) technologies. SEPs, a type of patents, claim inventions that are necessary to comply with the prevailing technology standards. Given the essential nature of the subject-matter claimed by these patents, their abuse or coercive use has serious and adverse implications for consumers and other players in the industry.

In light of these developments,we need to clearly understand the respective realms of the Patents Act, 1970 (“Patents Act”) and the Competition Act, 2002 (“Competition Act”). Although the Patents Act is typically associated with patent grant, validity, and enforcement, Section 140 of the Act lists the restrictive covenants that are forbidden in patent-related contracts such as licenses. The provision, among other things, expressly proscribes any contractual provision that prevents a challenge by a licensee to the validity of a licensed patent. Similarly, Section 84 of the Patents Act provides for a compulsory licensing mechanism to ensure that a patentee fulfils his obligations under the Act, one of which is to provide access to his patented technology at reasonably affordable rates.

Although both these provisions address certain “public” concerns, the Patents Act does not have the mandate, bandwidth, or the teeth to ensure that a patentee’s conduct does not have an adverse effect on other players and consumers. Instead, it is the Competition Act that has the express mandate to deal with and deter anti-competitive conduct and to promote balance in the market.

Section19(4)CompetitionAct2002_AbuseofominantPosition.jpgIn this regard, it would help to read Section 19(4) of the Competition Act. This particular provision spells out those factors which the Competition Commission of India (“CCI”) shall have regard to when enquiring if an enterprise enjoys a dominant position under Section 4 of the Competition Act. One of these factors is the monopoly or dominant position acquired as a result of any statute. This clearly includes a patent right, which is a statutory monopoly granted by and under the Patents Act. Simply put therefore, the CCI has the power under Section 4 of the Competition Act read with Section 19(4)(g) to look into allegations of abuse of dominance acquired as a result of a patent right. In other words, the manner of patent exploitation and enforcement, and its effect on the market are the primary preserve of the Competition Act, and not the Patents Act.

Specific and general legislation

Citing Sections 84 and 140 of the Patents Act, it could be argued that the Act — being the more “specific legislation” which governs patents and patentees compared to the Competition Act — must be treated as a self-sufficient code. This approach however, is flawed since, as stated earlier, addressing market inequities generated as a consequence of a patentee’s abuse of his rights is essentially a subject of scrutiny under the Competition Act, and not the Patents Act. This explains the reason for the presence of Section 62 of the Competition Act, which in effect states that the competition statute shall apply in addition to and not in derogation of, other legislations such as the Patents Act. Therefore, the specific-over-general rule does not apply to Competition Act insofar as the Patents Act is concerned. In fact, the Competition Act goes even a step further and provides in no uncertain terms in Section 60 that the Act shall prevail over any other law in force which is inconsistent with the Competition Act. This “overriding effect” ensures that the Competition Act’s applicability is never watered down or rendered futile because of a conflict with another provision in any other law.

Sections60and62_CompetitionAct2002.jpgAt this point, it may be important to clarify the position of the Competition Act under Sections 60 and 62 to understand the status of the legislation. While on the one hand Section 60 proclaims the overriding effect of the Competition Act over anything that is inconsistent with the Act, Section 62 states that the Act shall be in addition to, and not in derogation of other laws. What this means is that so long as there is no inconsistency between the Competition Act and other legislations such as the Patents Act, both statutes shall apply simultaneously to a situation to which both Acts apply. In the event an inconsistency, the Competition Act will prevail. Therefore, in case of a non-conflicting intersection, both statutes apply, and where there exists or arises a conflict, the Competition Act shall prevail. After all, market and consumer interests have to prevail over domain-specific issues.

J. Sai Deepak, an engineer-turned-litigator, is a Senior Associate in the litigation team of Saikrishna & Associates. He is the founder of “The Demanding Mistress” blawg. All opinions expressed here are academic and personal.