Google gets EUR2.43 billion fine

The European Commission has fined Google EUR2.43 billion (approx. AU$3.6 billion) for misusing its market power over internet searches.

According to the Commission, Google has over 90% market share for internet searches in the EU.

The Commission found that Google had abused this dominant position in internet searching by promoting results for its own Google comparison shopping service over results for competing comparison shopping services.

At this stage, the Commission’s press release and Factsheet are available.

While this is no doubt the start of a long legal process, Ben Thompson at Stratechery has an interesting, succinct analysis of the application of competition rules to Internet players here which is well worth reading.

ACCC loses antitrust case against Pfizer

Flick J has ruled that Pfizer did not breach antitrust rules by trying to maintain sales of Lipitor after it came off patent.

Pfizer’s patent on atorvastatin (Lipitor) was due to expire on 18 May 2012.[1] Its analysis showed it was facing a revenue cliff: from $771 million a year in 2011 to $70 million a years by 2015. Pfizer came up with a 3-part plan:

  1. in the 18 months prior to expiry, it stopped supplying Lipitor through wholesalers and started supplying pharmacies directly (thereby earning the wholesale margin for itself);
  2. it offered a 5% discount to those pharmacies it supplied + a 5% “rebate” credited to an accrual fund. The “rebate” was repayable to the pharmacy if it committed to buy from Pfizer a specified proportion of its anticipated generic atorvastatin needs after the patent expired – the amount of “rebate” repaid would vary according to the proportion of generic needs committed to and the time frame for the commitment. For example, the pharmacy would receive 100% if it committed to taking 75% of its anticipated needs for 12 months. but only 50% if it committed to taking 75% for only 6 months.
  3. Pfizer also made a bundled offer – it could offer to supply both Lipitor and its generic product “atorvastatin Pfizer”.

The ACCC brought action alleging by implementing this plan, Pfizer had contravened:

  • section 46 of the Competition and Consumer Act (CCA), which prohibits a corporation with a substantiall degree of power in a market from taking advantage of that power for proscribed anti-competitive purposes; and
  • section47 of the CCA which prohibits exclusive dealing that has the purpose or effect of substantially lessening competition in a market.

Flick J has dismissed the ACCC’s action.

Relevant market

His Honour found that the relevant market was the market for the supply to community pharmacies in Australia of atorvastatin as the ACCC contended. Pfizer argued the market was the market for the wholesale supply of pharmaceutical products and over the counter products to community pharmacies.

Substantial degree of power in the market

His Honour also found that Pfizer had a substantial degree of power in that market until late 2011 and had taken advantage of that power by implementing its scheme. Pfizer did not have a substantial degree of power in the market from January 2012 on wards.

Before January 2012, Pfizer was the only supplier of atorvastatin and the constraints on the price it could charge imposed by the PBS was “not sufficient to render its market power anything other than “substantial”.” Flick J recognised that there was no precise date which could be identified as the point where Pfizer’s market power ceased to be substantial. By late 2011, however, that power was no longer “enduring” as the expiry date of the patent loomed closer. By February 2012, Ranbaxy was able to enter the market offering its generic atorvastatin for sale[2] and the other intending generic suppliers had registered their products on the Therapeutic Goods Register and were starting sales discussions with potential customers.

Flick J found Pfizer took advantage of its power to impose the direct sales to pharmacies model because the pharmacies were opposed to it, but Pfizer was able to impose it on them as the only possible source of atorvastatin. Similarly, the rebate scheme took advantage of that power because it created an expection of payments in the future on terms that were unclear and yet to be decided. Flick J found that the amount of money accumulated within the rebate scheme by the time the patent expired was very substantial – $35 million – a powerful incentive to buy product from Pfizer. One might wonder, however, why the position would have been any different if the terms on which the rebate could be claimed had been clear.

No anti-competitive purpose

Even in the period before January 2012 when it had a substantial degree of power in the market, however, there was no contravention of 2 46 because it did not take advantage of its market power for a proscribed anti-competitive purpose.

Pfizer also did not contravene s 47 because in implementing the scheme it did not have the purpose of substantially lessening competition.

Rather than having a purpose of deterring competition by the generics, Flick J accepted that Pfizer was motivated by rationale business objectives. For example, selling directly to pharmacies rather than through wholesalers:

But my question, Mr Latham, was directed to Lipitor and generic atorvastatin, not some dream of establishing a generics business? — But once again you’re asking me to make a decision on – on one product, when I have seven products, over $1 billion, coming off patent. And it’s not just Pfizer Australia. It’s around the world. And to try to get the best business organisation that’s going to deliver continuing operations through those generic products, plus, they have these additional benefits of being closer to pharmacy. Going through the licensee doesn’t tick that important box.

The requirement to take 75% of the pharmacies needs to qualify for the “rebate” also did not have an anti-competitive purpose. Rather, Flick J found that the requirement had been reduced from 100% to 75% – sacrificing $30 million in potential revenue – to enable the pharmacy to establish a second source of supply.

s 51(3)

Section 51(3) exempts from s 47 conditions in, amongst other things, licences of patent to the extent they relate to the invention to which the patent relates or articles made according to the invention.

Although its operation did not fall to be determined because there was no contravention of s 47, Flick J would have found it did not apply in this case. His Honour considered that the sale of atorvastatin to the pharmacies would not involve any licence. More importantly, his Honour would have held that the condition was collateral to the patent and so outside the scope of the exemption.

What actually happened

In the event, Pfizer went from selling 100% of the prescribed atorvastatin (as Lipitor) in March 2012, to 32% of prescription in April and settling around 22 – 23% by June 2012. While Pfizer antiticpated marketing advantages in being the only supplier likely to supply generic atorvastatin in pills the same shape, size and colour as Lipitor, the evidence showed it held 100% of the generic market until September 2012, after which its share fell away to 16 – 17% by March/April 2013.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission v Pfizer Australia Pty Ltd [2015] FCA 113


  1. PBS figures for the year to June 2012 showed Lipitor was the highest cost to the scheme ($593 million) followed by rosuvastatin ($359 million) and ranibizumab ($308 million).  ?
  2. Pfizer and Ranbaxy had settled other litigation on terms which enabled Ranbaxy to enter the market before the patent expired.  ?

IP and antitrust in Australia

Wow! I think this is a first in Australia: the ACCC – Australia’s competition “watchdog” – is suing Pfizer for antitrust breaches over its (then expiring) patent for Lipitor.[1]

According to the ACCC’s press release:

At its peak, Lipitor was prescribed to over one million Australians with annual sales exceeding AU$700 million.

Pfizer had a patent over the active ingredient, atorvastatin, but it expired in May 2012.

Early in 2012 (before the patent expired), the ACCC alleges that Pfizer offered to supply Lipitor to pharmacies at “significant discounts and the payment of rebates previously accrued” so long as they agreed to buy from Pfizer a minimum volume of up to 12 months’ generic atorvastatin after the patent expired.

The ACCC alleges this constituted a misuse of market power contrary to s 46 and exclusive dealing contrary to s 47 of the Competition and Consumer Act because:

(1) the offers were made before the patent expired and so at a time when other generic suppliers could not make offers; and

(2) “Pfizer engaged in this conduct for the purpose of deterring or preventing competitors in the market for atorvastatin from engaging in competitive conduct, as well as for the purpose of substantially lessening competition”.

If the ACCC is right, it wants penalties, declarations and costs. Under the Act, the pecuniary penalties could be up to the greater of $10 million, 3 times the benefit gained from the contravention or 10% of annual turnover.

More generally, as the ACCC’s chairman flagged:

This case also raises an important public interest issue regarding the conduct of a patent holder nearing the expiry of that patent and what constitutes permissible competitive conduct.

Now, patentees’ efforts, while their patent is in force, to tie customers into taking the product after the patent has expired, were so controversial that, just over one hundred years ago, Parliaments introduced legislation to permit licensees to terminate patent licences once the patent expired.[2]

Beyond that, s 46 also prohibits any corporation from taking advantage of a substantial degree of power in a market for the purpose of:

(a) eliminating or substantially damaging a competitor of the corporation or of a body corporate that is related to the corporation in that or any other market;

(b) preventing the entry of a person into that or any other market; or

(c) deterring or preventing a person from engaging in competitive conduct in that or any other market.

So, to contravene s 46, the ACCC will have to establish two conditions:

(1) Pfizer had a substantial degree of power in a market; and

(2) it took advantage of that power for an anti-competitive purpose.

The first issue turns on what is the market: the market for Lipitor or some wider market such as a market for the treatment of high cholesterol? This question highlights the reference in the ACCC’s press release to the succes of Lipitor “at its peak”. I don’t know much about the market for treatment of high cholesterol but, by the time Pfizer did this allegedly dastardly deed, there were presumably some alternatives to prescribing Lipitor.[3]

In an earlier proceeding involving copyright,[4] the Full Court of the Federal Court held that a record company which had less than 20% of the market did not have a substantial degree of power in the market. So, unless the ACCC can tie the market narrowly to the market for Lipitor, it may well face considerable difficulties.[5]

Those difficulties may mean that the s 47 allegation has greater significance as, in that earlier case, the Full Federal Court still found the record companies contravened s 47 even though they did not have market power. Although their conduct could not have the effect of substantially lessening competition (because they did not have sufficient market power), their purpose was anti-competitive.

Plainly, Pfizer was trying to sign up the pharmacies to this deal so that they would not buy at least the minimum amount from these generic suppliers who were apparently waiting in the wings, but is that anti-competitive? Maybe it depends on how large the minimum requirement is in relation to the pharmacy’s expected needs for the period. But, it was only for 12 months!

Normally,[6] one would expect the pharmacies could readily calculate whether they were better off taking the deal or continuing to pay the “list” price for Lipitor and then taking advantage of spot prices in the market after the patent expired. If the alleged contravention, however, was that Pfizer refused to supply Lipitor at all while the patent was in force unless the pharmacies agreed to buy “generic” Lipitor after the patent’s expiry, that might have put the pharmacies in a very difficult position of being unable to fill prescriptions.

A further potential complication is that s 47 does not apply to conditions in a licence (or assignment) of a patent to the extent the conditions related to the patented invention or articles made by the use of the patented invention. No-one really knows what that means. Could a pharmacy that agrees to buy Lipitor from Pfizer be a licensee? Certainly, in keeping the drug for sale and selling it, the pharmacy would be exploiting the patent (while it was still in force), but has an implied licence to do those acts. Could agreement to buy “generic” Lipitor after the patent has expired relate to the invention?

At this stage, the parties have filed their respective pleadings,[7] discovery is taking place to be followed by affidavits and a return to Court for further directions in September.

The ACCC’s press release

Lid dip: Patentology


  1. Federal Court Proceeding No. NSD 146/2014, filed on 13 February 2014.  ?
  2. As this case demonstrated, however, it has limited effect.  ?
  3. And it may often be the case that different drugs have different side effects or have particular advantages over other treatments so it is not quite the same as comparing, say, Pink Lady apples with Fuji apples or ….  ?
  4. Universal Music Australia Pty Ltd v Australian Competition & Consumer Commission [2003] FCAFC 193  ?
  5. That said, the price of Lipitor in Australia, even off-patent, has managed to attract unfavourable headlines.  ?
  6. Maybe there is some complexity arising from the arcane operations of pricing under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme?  ?
  7. If anyone cares to provide a copy, I’d love to read them :-).  ?

Misusing a patentee’s market power

The Court of General Instance (formerly (?) the EU’s CFI) has upheld the European Commission’s ruling that AstraZeneca abused its dominant position in the market by practices designed to block or delay generic drugs competing with Losec from entering the market.

The abusive practices were:

  1. submitting deliberately misleading statements to patent agents, national patent offices and national courts in order to acquire or preserve supplementary protections certificates for omeprazole to which AstraZeneca was not entitled or to which it was entitled for a shorter duration; and
  2. requesting (and obtaining) the withdrawal of regulatory marketing authorisations for Losec capsules and replacing those marketing authorisations with marketing authorisations for Losec MUPS tablets.

The result of the second practice was to delay entry on to the market of competing generic products as they could not use the abridged marketing approval process.

The Court did reduce, however, the fine from Euros 60 million to Euros 52.5 million.

The case concerned patents for omeprazole, the patent protection for which has generated some controversy in Australia.

Like the EU, Australian law does provide for supplementary protection certificates and there is the potential for abridged marketing approval processes for generics (pdf – e.g). Art. 82 of the Treaty also has some resemblance to s 46 of the TPA and, while we might think that the EU has a fairly idiosyncratic approach to determining market power, the Hoffman-La Roche ruling relied on by the Court of General Instance has been referred to with approval by the High Court in Australia.

Case T?321/05 AstraZeneca AB v Commission

which has been conveniently summarised by Linklaters and Gibson Dunn.

Now, we might think this is an application of the peculiar EU approach to