Confidentiality orders in court proceedings

Motorola is suing Hytera for infringement of its patents relating to mobile phone technology.1 As part of the proceeding, Hytera is seeking to invoke a Digital Mobile Radio Essential Properties Cross Licence Agreement. Hytera has obtained an order that information about various terms in the agreement be kept confidential (I.e., suppressed) for 10 years after the proceeding is decided.

Section 37AF of the Federal Court of Australia Act provides the Court with power to suppress or restrict the publication of evidence. In the case of confidential information, such as trade secrets, the party seeking to restrict access to the information must show under s 37AGthat the restriction “is necessary to prevent prejudice to the proper administration of justice”.

Perram J noted that some scepticism might be felt towards the idea that protection of confidential information met the strict standard of necessity. His Honour accepted, however, case law recognised that commercial sensitivity, especially if it were likely that competitors could benefit from information which made public through the Court system, is a circumstance in which the necessity standard could be met.The integrity of the litigious process might be undermined if parties were precluded from advancing relevant information as a result of the harm potentially flowing from publication. In this case, the agreement in question was still on foot. And the information would place Hytera at a competitive disadvantage in future negotiations with third parties. At [15], his Honour explained:

disclosure of the information would be prejudicial to the proper administration of justice because it would tend to ‘destroy or diminish’ (Origin Energy at 148) the value of confidential information with the possible consequence that commercial parties will be more reticent to approach the Court to settle their disputes. I am therefore satisfied that an order under s 37AF in this case is appropriate.

Perram J was not prepared, however, to grant Hytera’s request that the information be kept sealed for 10 years. There was no evidence about the nature and lifespan of the digital mobile radio technology in issue or the life cycle of the telecommunications standards. Having reviewed the agreement and the substance of the information that had been disclosed, Perram J was prepared to order suppression for three years only. His Honour was prepared to reconsider if further evidence were put on.

If you are going to seek suppression orders – i.e, that information be kept confidential, therefore, you will need to lead evidence which establishes (1) that the information is in fact confidential and (2) there is a real risk of prejudice if the confidentiality is not preserved. Another factor which the Court seems to be mentioning more often was that the affidavit evidence was through the solicitor “on information and belief”, rather than from someone knowledgeable within Hytera itself.

Motorola Solutions, Inc. v Hytera Communications Corporation Ltd (No 2) [2018 FCA 17

  1. Apparently, the trial is scheduled to run for 5 weeks. There are also parallel actions in the USA, China and Germany. ?

Smartphone patent landscape

Dr Mark Summerfield has an interesting post demonstrating some work he and his colleagues have been doing modelling the ownership of patents in the smartphone space.

In their mobile technology landscape, or themescape, they seek to demonstrate pictorially:

  • Samsung appears to own key hardware patents;
  • Microsoft seems to own most software patents;
  • but Apple seems to have highly strategic patents.

The themescape also seeks to demonstrate that Google was a long way behind, but may be catching up if it gets to acquire Motorola’s patents.

Dr Summerfield does express some frustration:

It is therefore ironic – and some might say more than a little unfair – that Apple should be in a position to frustrate Samsung’s attempts to compete against its iPhone and iPad products, while the FRAND obligations associated with Samsung’s much larger patent portfolio leave it in a strategically weakened position.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that Samsung is in the Federal Court of Australia arguing that it should not be barred from obtaining an injunction against the iPhone 4S on the basis of the FRAND status of the patents which it is asserting against Apple.

But one might equally wonder why Samsung should be allowed to get injunctions on the basis of its so-called FRAND patents (assuming the fair and reasonable royalty is forthcoming) when it apparently volunteered its patents for inclusion into various standards in return for FRAND obligations? This FRAND-type issue has been around since at least the 1980s and led to this basic position.

Foss Patents also has a relatively recent round up of where many of the litigations between the various smartphone manufacturers currently sit.