Tech and car firms ask EU for patent help

Letter signed by 27 companies raises concerns about fair and reasonable licensing of patents

Tech and car companies have issued a complaint to the European Commission asking antitrust regulators to look into patent abuses.

In a letter co-signed by Apple, Cisco, Lenovo, Dell, Ford and 22 more companies across the car and technology industry, it's alleged that unnamed companies are refusing to license patents on fair and reasonable terms. The result is that the signatories are prevented from using certain technologies in their development of autonomous cars as well as smart home and other connected devices, it's claimed.

"The practice of some [standard essential patent] owners to grant licenses only to certain companies... prevents companies across the internet of things and related innovative technology industries from planning investments in R&D," the letter says, according to a report in the Financial Times.

"This practice stifles innovation, discourages new market entry, and ties suppliers to established customers. As a result, European businesses and consumers may pay higher prices than they would pay in a more competitive market."

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The letter appears to be referencing, but does not specifically mention, rules known as FRAND, or "fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory". Some patents are considered essential or are part of a technology that has become a standard; not allowing other companies, even rivals, to use them is seen as detrimental to innovation and competition. If a rival is willing to pay a fair amount to licence such a patent, it's seen as anti-competitive to not allow it.

The letter also doesn't mention which companies are failing to share their patents, though other reports have suggested it could be Nokia, which has sparked complaints from Daimler — one of the signatories on the letter — for its failures to license patents related to driverless cars. Nokia denies the accusation.

“We urge you to take decisive measures to ensure that European law and policy protects innovation across all industries and prevents practices which undermine the viability of investments benefiting the future of Europe,” the letter says.

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