From India, a plea to keep royalties reasonable

Micromax300x112A 5% compulsory license. From Africa and from Asia, I’ve heard many calls to keep royalties fair. Corporate giants like Cisco and Intel, who collect relatively few royalties, quietly agree. Royalties paid in poor nations overwhelmingly flow to rich countries, not a good result. If those royalties are high, so much the worse. 

See Fairness for Africa: Cheaper Transit, Reasonable Royalties, Fair Taxes

America has been the strongest supporter of high royalties, partly because of a patent system unprepared for goods like cellphones with literally hundreds of claims. That is starting to change, as Chinese companies, particularly Huawei, are now filing more patents than the U.S. giants. The U.S. share of patents is about 25% and falling. We will soon have a negative balance on patent accounts. 

Carlos Slim of Telmex tells me that $50 smartphones will result in two billion more people connected. But $50 smartphones are impossible with the level of royalties demanded by powerful companies. 

Here’s the Open Letter I just received from Rohini Lakshané of India’s Centre for Internet and Society.

Dear Dave,

Honourable Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi,

After the government introduced the “Make in India” and “Digital India” programmes, the air is thick with the promise of reduced imports, new jobs, and goods for the domestic market. In light of the patent wars in India, the government can ill-afford to overlook the patent implications in indigenously manufactured mobile phones. CIS proposes that the Government of India initiate the formation of a patent pool of critical mobile technologies and a five percent compulsory license.

We at the Centre for Internet and Society support the “Make in India” and “Digital India” initiatives of the Indian government and share your vision of a digitally empowered India where “1.2 billion connected Indians drive innovation”, where “access to information knows no barriers”, and where knowledge is the citizens’ power. The government’s plan of incentivising the manufacturing of electronics hardware, including that of mobile phones in the 2015 Union Budget is equally encouraging. Towards this important goal of nation building, the Centre for Internet and Society is researching the patent and copyright implications of Internet-enabled mobile devices that are sold in the Indian market for Rs 6,000 or less.

Bolstered by Make in India, several mobile phone manufacturers have started or ramped up their manufacturing facilities in India. Homegrown brands — such as SpiceMaxx Mobile and Lava — and foreign manufacturers alike are making humongous investments in mobile phone plants. Chip manufacturer Mediatek; one of the newest entrants in the Indian smartphone market, Xiaomi; and telecom company Huawei, all different links in the mobile phone manufacturing chain, are setting up research and development units in India having recognised its potential as a significant market. These developments promise to cut or substitute imports, cater to the domestic market, create millions of jobs, and stem the outflow of money from India.

However, mobile phone manufacturers, big and small, have also been embroiled in litigation in India for the past few years over patents pertaining to crucial technologies. Micromax, one of the several Indian mobile phone manufacturers with original equipment manufacturers in China was ordered by the Delhi High Court late last year to pay a substantial one per cent of the selling price of its devices to Ericsson, which has claimed infringement of eight of its standard essential patents. Intex and Lava, two members of Micromax’s ilk, have been similarly sued and claim to have received the short end of the stick in the form of unreasonable and exorbitant compensations and royalty rates. Chinese budget phone manufacturers operating in India — Xiaomi, OnePlus, and Gionee — also have come under the sledgehammer of sudden suspension of the sale of their devices. The bigger companies such as Asus, Samsung and ZTE have faced the heat of patent litigation as well.

The fear of litigation over patent infringement could thwart local innovation. Additionally, the expenses incurred due to litigation and compensation could lead to the smaller manufacturers shutting shop or passing on their losses to their consumers, and in turn, driving the price points of Internet-enabled mobile devices out of the reach of many. It could also become a stumbling block to the success of ambitious plans of the government, such as the one to provide free WiFi in 2,500 cities and towns across India.

We propose that the Government of India initiate the formation of a patent pool of critical mobile technologies and mandate a five percent compulsory license. Such a pool would possibly avert patent disputes by ensuring that the owners’ rights are not infringed on, that budget manufacturers are not put out of business owing to patent feuds, and that consumers continue to get access to inexpensive mobile devices. Several countries including the United States regularly issue compulsory licenses on patents in the pharmaceutical, medical, defence, software, and engineering domains for reasons of public policy, or to thwart or correct anti-competitive practices.[1] [2] Unfortunately, we did not receive a response from the previous government to our suggestion of establishing such a patent pool. We believe that our proposal falls in line with your ambitious programmes designed to work towards your vision of India, and we hope that you would consider it.

Yours truly,
Rohini Lakshané,
Programme Officer,
The Centre for Internet and Society

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