The FRAND Contract
Government agencies in various countries have issued guidelines to facilitate private negotiation to license the use of standard-essential patents (SEPs) that a patent holder has voluntarily committed to a standard-setting organization (SSO) to offer to license on fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) terms (or on reasonable and nondiscriminatory (RAND) terms, as the case may be) to a third-party seeking to implement the standard. In effect, these jurisdictions are competing in a tournament of sorts to identify the best legal framework for resolving FRAND licensing disputes. A leading candidate is the existing body of U.S. contract law.
In this article, I examine the FRAND licensing of SEPs through the lens of U.S. contract law. I will eschew the phrase “FRAND commitment” in favor of the bulkier but more precise phrase “the FRAND contract between the SEP holder and the SSO.” That terminology helps to clarify that the license agreement potentially formed between the SEP holder and the implementer on FRAND terms is a separate, subsequent contract that is entirely distinct from the preexisting contract into which the SEP holder and the SSO have entered.
I begin by asking in Part I whether the FRAND contract is enforceable. U.S. courts have found that it is, yet commentators, courts, and other tribunals have flagged various theories of unenforceability when analyzing a FRAND commitment as a contract.
In Part II, I analyze the anatomy of the FRAND contract, as informed by first principles of U.S. contract law. Whether, with respect to a given implementer, a given SEP holder has discharged its FRAND duty to the SSO turns on whether the SEP holder has offered to license its SEPs to that implementer on FRAND terms. An implementer loses its rights as a third-party beneficiary of the SEP holder’s FRAND contract with the SSO if the third-party beneficiary rejects a FRAND offer or if it fails to accept that offer within a reasonable time. By underscoring the applicability of these fundamental principles of U.S. contract law, judges, arbitrators, and other decision makers would encourage both the SEP holder and the implementer to avoid dilatory tactics and orthogonal bargaining positions when negotiating license terms for the use of SEPs.
In Part III, I examine some of the frameworks that other countries have recently proposed for guiding negotiations for SEPs. Although these frameworks supposedly identify principles that would facilitate the license negotiation between an SEP holder and an implementer of an industry standard, they ignore the relevance of first principles of contract law. Instead, they try to reinvent the wheel—by fashioning a sui generis bargaining protocol for SEP license negotiations that ignores the transactional efficiency of preexisting contract principles of offer and acceptance. These proposals are unlikely to be more efficacious than U.S. contract jurisprudence in defining a clear protocol that encourages the expeditious execution of bilaterally negotiated FRAND licenses.
In Part IV, I offer preliminary observations on how a given SEP holder and a given implementer might agree to opt out of the FRAND contract so as to create a superior structure for concluding their bilateral negotiation of a license or, in the event of an impasse, for achieving a more expeditious and cost-effective resolution of their dispute.