With a raft of high-profile litigation, tangles with China, the rollout of 5G and more, it's been an interesting and not uneventful several years for Qualcomm's Technology Licensing (QTL) business. Steering the ship through these turbulent times was QTL President, Alex Rogers. Likely due in part to his role in guiding Qualcomm through these challenges, IAM named Rogers in its top 40 market makers list (again, I might add), an annual ranking of business leaders shaking up the market. Rogers recently sat down for an interview with IAM, in which he discussed the licensing business’s journey over the past several years. I wanted to share some of the things that stood out to me in the interview (for more background, see my own interview with Rogers last fall).
These days, understandably, the first question posed in most tech industry interviews seems to be, "how is your business coping with the pandemic?" Licensing deals, traditionally, involve a lot of face-to-face negotiation. That had to change when Covid-19 came along. Despite that, Rogers said QTL was able to adapt to virtual negotiations "without a hitch." In fact, according to Rogers, the business was running so smoothly and quickly that QTL had to build in mechanisms to slow down workflow and avoid employee burnout.
Rogers also said that QTL's innovation pipeline has even sped up, with an increase of 30% since the outset of the pandemic, due to the extra productivity time employees gained when they stopped commuting and traveling for work. This increased to 60% by the end of the year according to the company’s Q4 earnings, with 5G-related inventions more than doubled. And while innovation is also typically a face-to-face team effort, Rogers says Qualcomm's engineers have found collaborative virtual platforms that have allowed them to make the transition seamlessly.
Choppy legal seas
As mentioned earlier, Qualcomm has been in the news for its high profile legal battles over the last few years. The FTC filed an antitrust case against the company back in 2017, culminating in a ruling against Qualcomm in a northern California district court in 2019. Qualcomm then successfully appealed the decision with the Ninth Court of Appeals. As I said in my coverage at the time, it was an absolute clown show, but Qualcomm weathered the storm.
Rogers shared some more insights into that period for Qualcomm and his role in it. Before he stepped into his role with QTL, his background as a litigator led him to work with Qualcomm's regulatory issues in China. While not a licensing lawyer, Rogers cited his experience as a litigator and the adaptability he learned from it as crucial to his efforts to navigate Qualcomm's more recent legal challenges. After Qualcomm permanently brought Rogers on as head of QTL in 2016, he said it took six years of "laser focus" to work through myriad regulatory issues.
Qualcomm in China
Rogers also discussed Qualcomm's dealings in China, where the company has successfully sealed many deals despite the strict regulatory atmosphere. To successfully operate in China, Rogers said, it is imperative to have a robust and credible presence there. Not only does Qualcomm have this presence, but QTL specifically is well-entrenched, with a general manager, Dr. Kun Qian, who has been working with the product business for a long time within the country. Rogers also stressed the necessity of relationships in doing business in China; companies must understand licensees and customers, their strategic goals and the give-and-take in the relationships.
When asked about the rising geopolitical tensions between China and the U.S. (where Qualcomm is headquartered), Rogers said that ultimately the people in business want to continue doing business. Everyone understands the backdrop of the situation, but those in the industry simply want to keep moving forward at the end of the day.
Rogers previously had voiced concerns that the U.S.'s approach to IP, mainly when it came to cellular standards, was undermining its value and essentially "shooting itself in the foot." Now, Rogers believes that the pendulum is swinging back towards a healthier regulatory environment that better protects and encourages innovation and maintains the value of IP.
Asked about Qualcomm's progress in 5G, Rogers was rightfully effusive given the significant role the company has played in driving the technology forward. While Qualcomm officially launched its 5G program in 2017, he touted the "many, many years" that Qualcomm spent researching and developing the underlying 5G technology, from releases 15-17.
Because of this, Rogers said, Qualcomm has been able to sign long-term licensing deals with almost every major handset manufacturer, as well as other cellular devices—over a hundred agreements and counting. In the recent Q1 2021 earnings, the company announced more than 120 5G licensing agreements. He also noted that Qualcomm had been involved in virtually every single major 5G launch globally, helping with the swift rollout of the technology in over 35 different countries.
On licensing and U.S. SEP FRAND policy
Lastly, Rogers discussed the topic of SEP FRAND policy and licensing strategies in the U.S. When asked if the U.S. licensing policy's progress would face a backlash from the incoming administration, Rogers said he was not too concerned. He believes that the world now has a clearer understanding of how various faulty arguments to devalue SEPs, including the proposition that SEP holders are obligated to engage in multi-level licensing , inappropriately disincentivizes the few companies, such as Qualcomm, who continue to pursue critical cellular systems research in 5G. Additionally, he noted that scrutiny over the tech world appears to have shifted towards the Big Tech platform companies, at least for the time being.
Over the last several years, the industry has seen increasing numbers of anti-suit injunctions, anti-anti-suit injunctions and the proliferation of a complex litigation playbook covering SEP FRAND licensing. When asked if this sort of atmosphere is conducive to signing new deals, Rogers said there is some concern—especially if global FRAND determinations are deemed acceptable for determining the appropriateness of injunctive relief. Still, he said, how big of a problem this is will depend on whether tech companies can receive good, fair hearings under all jurisdictions. Rogers went on to voice support for the utilization of arbitration to settle SEP FRAND disputes, calling it a "good, less hostile, less litigious way to resolve a licensing issue."
For someone who has followed Qualcomm throughout the years and closely watched the FTC hearings, it was fascinating to get another insider perspective from the man leading QTL's strategy. By beating back the antitrust suit, Qualcomm has helped turn the tide away from prior, harmful licensing regulations and pushed the industry into a world where innovation is encouraged and IP is adequately protected and monetized. QTL and Rogers have been instrumental in these efforts, and the industry at large—especially other creators of IP—should be grateful.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.