$500 Million Price-Fixing Sentence Affirmed against AU Optronics

illegalLast week the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed criminal convictions against AU Optronics (“AUO”), a Taiwanese maker of Thin-Film Liquid Crystal Display (“TFT-LCD”) panels, its U.S. subsidiary and two of its top executives, for illegal price-fixing that resulted in prison sentences of thirty-six months for each of the individuals and a $500 million fine for AUO. The case offers many stark lessons to global manufacturers whose employees may communicate with competitors about the pricing and supply of their products.

Initially, AUO was one of several leading TFT-LCD manufacturers indicted in the Northern District of California for conspiring to fix prices for TFT-LCDs in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, based on a series of meetings that took place between the alleged conspirators. In the meetings, the defendants discussed prices at which they would sell TFT-LCDs to their U.S. customers, including Dell, Compaq and HP.

AUO was the only accused company to take the case to trial, with rivals including LG Display, Chunghwa Picture Tubes, Chi Mei Optoelectronics and Sharp Corp. all pleading guilty and paying a total of more than $890 million in fines. At trial, the jury found AUO and its executives guilty and imposed the $500 million fine. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the AUO convictions and fine. While the decision addresses many points, a few are particularly noteworthy. Continue reading

Best Practices for Licensing Patents to Companies in China

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Patent licensing generally is fraught with risks, but licensors who do business in China face special challenges. Common practices and contract provisions that may work elsewhere often prove ineffective in China. Consequently, before entering into such an arrangement, the prudent lawyer will review some of the key issues faced by licensors in China.

Notably, foreign companies are increasingly being forced to defend their licensing terms before China’s antitrust regulator, the National Development and Reform Commission (“NDRC”). US patent-assertion entity InterDigital recently settled a dispute with the NDRC, by agreeing to lower its royalty rates in China and make other changes to its terms. The NDRC raided Qualcomm’s Beijing and Shanghai offices and launched an investigation into the US chip-maker’s licensing terms. And, when Microsoft announced plans to acquire Nokia’s business (but not its patents), several competitors demanded China’s government impose restrictions on the deal, prohibiting Microsoft and Nokia from raising their licensing rates in China.

But anti-trust compliance is just one challenge faced by licensors in China; other challenges relate to restrictions on technology imports, under-reporting of royalties, difficulties with audits, dispute resolution and more. This article will summarize a few relevant laws and challenges licensors should be aware of and best practices for dealing with them. Continue reading

Microsoft to Close Nokia Deal by Friday

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Microsoft announced it will complete its US$7.5 billion acquisition of Nokia’s cellphone business by Friday, April 25, including over 30,000 staff, a wide range of devices and Nokia’s CEO, who will report directly to Microsoft’s CEO.

The transaction will allow Microsoft to compete directly against Apple, Samsung and other cell-phone makers and allow Nokia to focus on generating revenue from its extensive patent portfolio.

Chinese antitrust regulators finally gave their approval to the deal earlier this month, while South Korea’s regulators still haven’t given their approval, but the parties claim approval from Korea is not required to close the deal. Continue reading

Wage-Fixing Suit v. Tech Giants Moving Forward to Trial

wage-fixing suitDefendants Adobe, Apple, Google, Intel, Intuit, Lucasfilm and Pixar lost an attempt to dispose of by summary judgment a wage-fixing lawsuit filed against them by 64,600 engineers, designers, quality analysts, artists, editors, and system administrators employed by the seven companies.

In the fascinating class-action lawsuit, the plaintiffs contend the defendant tech companies colluded to not hire employees away from each other, thereby reducing competition and lowering wages. On Friday, US District Court Judge Lucy Koh quashed the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, so the case will move forward to trial.

Read more about the case HERE

Trade Secrets and Employee Mobility in the U.S. and Asia

In 2010, Hewlett-Packard sued its former CEO for threatened misappropriation of trade secrets, after he took a position as President of Oracle. In 2012, Taiwan’s Acer, Inc. sued its former CEO for breach of a non-competition agreement after he quit and took a top position at Lenovo. And last month, criminal charges were filed against five employees of Taiwan’s HTC Corp., for allegedly conspiring to form a competing company using secrets stolen from HTC.

Employers often spend considerable resources recruiting, hiring and training key talent, only to face potential disaster when those trusted employees quit to join a competitor, often taking sensitive files on their way out the door. Even if they don’t act in bad faith, departing employees carry critical, confidential information inside their heads, which can’t be deleted. Fortunately, various remedies may be available for the former employer, from confidentiality and non-competition agreements, to lawsuits for actual or threatened misappropriation of trade secrets and the doctrine of inevitable disclosure.

But there’s a conflict. Employers have a legitimate interest in preventing misappropriation of trade secrets, while employees have a legitimate interest in utilizing knowledge and skills gained through work experience and working for employers of their choosing. Courts and lawmakers have long struggled to establish a balance between those competing interests. Below is a general overview of relevant laws and practices in the U.S. and Asia. Continue reading

Battling Trade Secret Theft in Taiwan

Here we go again. Last week, police detained three employees of Taiwanese smartphone-maker HTC, raided their homes and offices and seized their computers and cellphones to search for evidence, as HTC is accusing them of stealing sensitive technology to use in competition with HTC in China.

The three men – a vice president of product design, director of R&D, and senior designer – are accused of stealing secrets relating to HTC’s Sense 6.0 smartphones, which are scheduled for launch later this year. While the investigation is just beginning, reports have accused the three of collaborating with officials in Chengdu, China to form a competing smartphone company in China using the secrets stolen from HTC. They are also accused of defrauding HTC out of more than US$650,000, by use of forged documents, apparently to raise capital for their new venture.

Taiwan has seen similar cases before. In 2012, the nation’s second largest LCD panel-maker, AU Optronics (AUO), sued two of its former high-level executives for stealing trade secrets, which they took to their new employer, a major competitor in China. In 2011, Taiwan IC-design company, MediaTek, sued a former employee for stealing secrets and sharing them with his new employer. And, most famously, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) battled with its Chinese rival, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC), for almost a decade over allegations that SMIC poached numerous employees, who stole critical information that SMIC used to illegally manufacture competing products. Continue reading

10 Tips for Managing Litigation for Superior Results and Cost Savings

Earlier this year, a U.S. District Court approved the payment of $308 million in attorney fees to 116 law firms in a single case (In re TFT-LCD Antitrust Litigation, N.D. Cal.), with one firm receiving $75 million in fees and another receiving $49 million. While that case may be an extreme example, the median hourly rate for partners in U.S. law firms is $625 per hour and the average patent lawsuit requires $2.5 million in attorney fees. Is it any wonder people complain about attorney fees?

Fortunately, by managing litigation effectively, those costs can be greatly reduced. For several years I served as Director of Legal at a multi-billion dollar tech company based in Taiwan and was responsible for resolving all disputes and litigation. Cost-down was our corporate mantra, with every invoice closely scrutinized by management. Below are a few of the lessons I learned. Continue reading

Design Patents in China: Applications, Infringement and Enforcement

Design patents have been making the news. Last summer, Apple’s $1.05 billion verdict against Samsung was famously based, in part, on the finding that Samsung infringed Apple’s rounded-rectangle and edge-to-edge glass designs. Since then, Yamaha, Thule, Oakley, Nike and Spanx, to name just a few, have litigated in the U.S. over the design of headphones, ski racks, sunglasses, footwear and women’s undergarments. And just last month, former head of the USPTO, David Kappos, published an OpEd piece describing design as “the new frontier of intellectual property.”

Nothing has fundamentally changed about the nature of design patents. The first US design patent was granted in 1842. The Statue of Liberty, Coke bottle, Volkswagen Beatle, Stealth Bomber and Star Wars’ Yoda are all protected by design patents. Design patents have long played an important role in consumer electronics, automotive, apparel, jewelry, packaging and other industries.

But industrial design is becoming increasingly important, Mr. Kappos explains, because the increasing functionality of man-made devices brings with it increasing complexity, so innovative companies are constantly seeking superior designs, a convergence of form and function that helps make the complex simple and sets their companies apart; and protecting such designs is critical.

While that explanation sounds reasonable, in China there are additional factors and – as always – the picture is complex and uncertain, but it is perfectly clear that companies doing business in China, from manufacturing to sales, should seriously consider the roles design patents can play with respect to brand protection, counterfeiting and unscrupulous business practices. Continue reading

China’s Great Leap Forward in Patents

On March 28, Apple Inc. appeared in court in Shanghai to defend charges that Siri, its voice-recognition, personal-assistant software, allegedly infringes a Chinese patent. The plaintiff and owner of the patent, Zhizhen Internet Technology Co., claims its version of the software has over 100 million users in China and is requesting the court to ban all manufacturing or sales of Apple’s product in China.

This was not the first time Apple faced patent infringement claims in China. Last summer a Taiwanese man sued the company in China for alleged infringement relating to its Facetime technology; in 2010 a Shenzhen company threatened to sue concerning iPad design; in 2008 Apple was sued for the iPod; and in 2012, a Hong Kong company launched GooPhone I5, an android-based replica of the iPhone 5, reportedly based on leaked photos of the iPhone. GooPhone claimed to have patented the design and threatened to sue Apple if it dared to sell the genuine article in China.

Nor is Apple alone. French company, Schneider Electric lost a $48 million patent infringement verdict in China and Samsung lost one for $7.4 million. Sony, Phillips, Canon and Dell have all had their battles and GooPhone sells knockoffs of other smartphones in China with apparent impunity. Of course it’s possible in some cases the Chinese technology may be first and the Chinese patent legitimate. However, foreign companies face a growing risk that Chinese entities may unscrupulously patent foreign technology in China and demand a toll to do business there. Not only that, but in coming years companies will increasingly face challenges worldwide from the growing landslide of patents coming out of China. Continue reading

Ten Tips for Successful Outbound Technology Licensing

In this age of endless corporate cost-cutting, it might seem the only way to compel a company to license ones technology is through litigation or threats of litigation. After all, why would a company agree to pay large sums of hard-earned dollars for the use of intangible property unless it absolutely has to?

Well, they do. While patent lawsuits grab the big headlines, plenty of licensing takes place without threats or coercion. Often it results from business discussions between willing participants. The licensor may be unwilling or unable to fully develop and commercialize its technology, while the licensee may believe use of the technology will generate increased revenue or other benefits that should outweigh the costs of licensing.

Take Microsoft, for example. They license out a variety of technologies that improve the performance of computers, monitors, keyboards and more. But, they hit a jackpot with their android patents, licensing their technology to cell phone manufacturers who paid more than $400 million in licensing revenue in 2012. Or consider IBM, Intel, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments, each generating roughly $1 billion in annual licensing revenue. Of course, those are extreme cases, but the point is licensing deals are often entered into not in response to litigation but as a strategic, mutually-beneficial business transaction.

Of course, it’s not easy locating potential licensing partners and convincing them that paying royalties makes business sense. In fact, it usually requires a great deal of work. But, technology licensing agreements are often negotiated as a business deal, with the licensor wielding a carrot not a stick, sparing both parties the stress and expense of litigation. I know, because my former employer, on several occasions, succeeded in doing the same.

Here are 10 tips intended to help your company out-license its technology through business means. Continue reading