Archives For March 2013

Today, a group of eighteen scholars, of which I am one, filed an amicus brief encouraging the Supreme Court to review a Court of Appeals decision involving loyalty rebates.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently upheld an antitrust judgment based on a defendant’s loyalty rebates even though the rebates resulted in above-cost prices for the defendant’s products and could have been matched by an equally efficient rival.  The court did so because it decided that the defendant’s overall selling practices, which involved no exclusivity commitments by buyers, had resulted in “partial de facto exclusive dealing” and thus were not subject to the price-cost test set forth in Brooke Group.  (For the uniniated, Brooke Group immunizes price cuts that result in above-cost prices for the discounter’s goods.)  We amici, who were assembled by Michigan Law’s Dan Crane, believe the Third Circuit’s decision threatens to chill proconsumer discounting practices and should be overruled.

The defendant in the case, Eaton, manufactures transmissions for big trucks (semis, cement trucks, etc.).  So did plaintiff Meritor.  Eaton and Meritor sold their products to the four manufacturers of big trucks.  Those “OEMs” installed the transmissions into the trucks they sold to end-user buyers, who typically customized their trucks and thus could select whatever transmissions they wanted.  Meritor claimed that Eaton drove it from the market by entering into purportedly exclusionary “long-term agreements” (LTAs) with the four OEMs.  The agreements did not require the OEMs to purchase any particular amount of Eaton’s products, but they did provide the OEMs with rebates (resulting in above-cost prices) if they bought high percentages of their requirements from Eaton.  The agreements also provided that Eaton could terminate the agreements if the market share targets were not met. Each LTA contained a “competitiveness clause” that allowed the OEM to purchase transmissions from another supplier without counting the purchases against the share target, or to terminate the LTA altogether, if another supplier offered a lower price or better product and Eaton could not match that offering.  Following adoption of the LTAs, Eaton’s market share grew, and Meritor’s shrank.  Before withdrawing from the U.S. market altogether, Meritor filed an antitrust action against Eaton.

Eaton insisted, not surprisingly, that it had simply engaged in hard competition.  It grew its market share by offering a lower price that an equally efficient rival could have matched.  Meritor’s failure, then, resulted from either its relative inefficiency or its unwillingness to lower its price to the level of its cost.  By immunizing above-cost discounted prices from liability, the Brooke Group rule permits and encourages the sort of competition in which Eaton engaged, and it should, the company argued, control here.

The Third Circuit disagreed.  This was not, the court said, a simple case of price discounting.  Instead, Eaton had engaged in what the court called “partial de facto exclusive dealing.”  The exclusive dealing was “partial”  because OEMs could purchase some transmissions from other suppliers and still obtain Eaton’s loyalty rebates (i.e., complete exclusivity was not required).  It was “de facto” because purchasing exclusively (or nearly exclusively) from Eaton was not contractually required but was instead simply the precondition for earning a rebate.  Nonetheless, reasoned the court, the gravamen of Meritor’s complaint was some sort of exclusive dealing, which is evaluated not under Brooke Group but instead under a rule of reason that focuses on the degree to which the seller’s practices foreclose its rivals from available sales opportunities.  Under that test, the court concluded, the judgment against Eaton could be upheld.  After all, Eaton’s sales practices won lots of business from Meritor, whose sales eventually shrunk so much that the company exited the market.

As we amici point out in our brief to the Supreme Court, the Third Circuit ignored the fact that it was Eaton’s discounts that led OEMs to buy so much from the company (and forego its rival’s offerings).  Absent an actual promise to buy a high level of one’s requirements from a seller, any “exclusive dealing” resulting from a loyalty rebate scheme results from the fact that buyers voluntarily choose to patronize the seller over its competitors because the discounter’s products are cheaper.  In other words, low pricing is the very means by which any “exclusivity” — and, hence, any market foreclosure — is achieved.  Any claim alleging that an agreement not mandating a certain level of purchases but instead providing for loyalty rebates results in “partial de facto exclusive dealing” is therefore, at its heart, a complaint about price competition.  Accordingly, it should be subject to the Brooke Group screening test for discounts resulting in above-cost pricing.

The Third Circuit wrongly insisted that Eaton had done something more sinister than win business by offering above-cost loyalty rebates.  It concluded that Eaton “essentially forced” the four OEMs (who likely had a good bit of buyer market power themselves) to accept its terms by threatening “financial penalties or supply shortages.”  But these purported “penalties” and threats of “supply shortages” appear nowhere in the record.

The only “penalty” an OEM would have incurred by failing to meet a purchase target is the denial of a rebate from Eaton.  If that’s enough to make Brooke Group inapplicable, then any conditional price cut resulting in an above-cost price falls outside the decision’s safe harbor, for failure to meet the discount condition would subject buyers to a “penalty.”  Proconsumer price competition would surely be chilled by such an evisceration of Brooke Group.  As for threats of supply shortages, the only thing Meritor and the Third Circuit could point to was Eaton’s contractual right to cancel its LTAs if OEMs failed to meet purchase targets.  But if that were enough to make Brooke Group inapplicable, then the decision’s price-cost test could never apply when a dominant seller offers a conditional rebate or discount.  Because the seller could refuse in the future to supply buyers who fail to qualify for the discount, there would be, under the Third Circuit’s reasoning, not just a loyalty rebate but also an implicit threat of “supply shortages” for buyers that fail to meet the seller’s purchase targets.

This is not the first case in which a plaintiff has sought to evade a price-cost test, and thereby impose liability on a discounting scheme that would otherwise pass muster, by seeking to recharacterize the defendant’s conduct.  A few years back, a plaintiff (Masimo) sought to evade the Ninth Circuit’s PeaceHealth decision, which creates a Brooke Group-like safe harbor for certain bundled discounts that could not exclude equally efficient rivals, by construing the defendant’s conduct as “de facto exclusive dealing.”  Dan Crane and I participated as amici in that case as well.

I won’t speak for Dan, but I for one am getting tired of working on these briefs!  It’s time for the Supreme Court to clarify that prevailing price-cost safe harbors cannot be evaded simply through the use of creative labels like “partial de facto exclusive dealing.”  Hopefully, the Court will heed our recommendation that it review — and overrule — the Third Circuit’s Meritor decision.

[In case you’re interested, the other scholars signing the brief urging cert in Meritor are Ken Elzinga (Virginia Econ), Richard Epstein (NYU and Chicago Law), Jerry Hausman (MIT Econ), Rebecca Haw (Vanderbilt Law), Herb Hovenkamp (Iowa Law), Glenn Hubbard (Columbia Business), Keith Hylton (Boston U Law), Bill Kovacic (GWU Law), Alan Meese (Wm & Mary Law), Tom Morgan (GWU Law), Barak Orbach (Arizona Law), Bill Page (Florida Law), Robert Pindyck (MIT Econ), Edward Snyder (Yale Mgt), Danny Sokol (Florida Law), and Robert Topel (Chicago Business).]

 

 LEC

“[N]or shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

These words from the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment lurk behind a great many news stories these days.  For the next two days, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether they guarantee a right to same-sex marriage (or, more narrowly, whether they preclude a state from banning gay marriage after it’s been permitted).  The Court will also consider whether similar words in the Fifth Amendment, which applies to the federal government, preclude Congress from denying same-sex married couples the rights that are available to other married couples under federal programs.  Just today, the Court announced that it will consider whether the words preclude a state, by referendum, from eliminating the use of affirmative action in higher education.

But do the words place any meaningful restrictions on regulations of purely economic activity?  For the last two-thirds of a century, most people have assumed they don’t.  Sure, economic regulations are officially subject to Fourteenth Amendment constraints.  But the “rational basis review” courts have applied in scrutinizing economic regulations has generally amounted to  a rule of per se validity.

As Alan Meese explains, a recent Fifth Circuit decision suggests that might be changing, if ever so slightly.  Conservatives may balk (e.g., “you can’t have Lochner without Roe!”), but, as Alan discusses, the Fifth Circuit’s scrutiny was far less stringent than that engaged in by the courts that struck down economic regulations in the so-called Lochner era.  As Chip Mellor and Jeff Rowes explain, it seems the Fifth Circuit was just doing its constitutionally assigned job here.

Earlier this month, Representatives Peter DeFazio and Jason Chaffetz picked up the gauntlet from President Obama’s comments on February 14 at a Google-sponsored Internet Q&A on Google+ that “our efforts at patent reform only went about halfway to where we need to go” and that he would like “to see if we can build some additional consensus on smarter patent laws.” So, Reps. DeFazio and Chaffetz introduced on March 1 the Saving High-tech Innovators from Egregious Legal Disputes (SHIELD) Act, which creates a “losing plaintiff patent-owner pays” litigation system for a single type of patent owner—patent licensing companies that purchase and license patents in the marketplace (and who sue infringers when infringers refuse their requests to license). To Google, to Representative DeFazio, and to others, these patent licensing companies are “patent trolls” who are destroyers of all things good—and the SHIELD Act will save us all from these dastardly “trolls” (is a troll anything but dastardly?).

As I and other scholars have pointed out, the “patent troll” moniker is really just a rhetorical epithet that lacks even an agreed-upon definition.  The term is used loosely enough that it sometimes covers and sometimes excludes universities, Thomas Edison, Elias Howe (the inventor of the lockstitch in 1843), Charles Goodyear (the inventor of vulcanized rubber in 1839), and even companies like IBM.  How can we be expected to have a reasonable discussion about patent policy when our basic terms of public discourse shift in meaning from blog to blog, article to article, speaker to speaker?  The same is true of the new term, “Patent Assertion Entities,” which sounds more neutral, but has the same problem in that it also lacks any objective definition or usage.

Setting aside this basic problem of terminology for the moment, the SHIELD Act is anything but a “smarter patent law” (to quote President Obama). Some patent scholars, like Michael Risch, have begun to point out some of the serious problems with the SHIELD Act, such as its selectively discriminatory treatment of certain types of patent-owners.  Moreover, as Professor Risch ably identifies, this legislation was so cleverly drafted to cover only a limited set of a specific type of patent-owner that it ended up being too clever. Unlike the previous version introduced last year, the 2013 SHIELD Act does not even apply to the flavor-of-the-day outrage over patent licensing companies—the owner of the podcast patent. (Although you wouldn’t know this if you read the supporters of the SHIELD Act like the EFF who falsely claim that this law will stop patent-owners like the podcast patent-owning company.)

There are many things wrong with the SHIELD Act, but one thing that I want to highlight here is that it based on a falsehood: the oft-repeated claim that two Boston University researchers have proven in a study that “patent troll suits cost American technology companies over $29 billion in 2011 alone.”  This is what Rep. DeFazio said when he introduced the SHIELD Act on March 1. This claim was repeated yesterday by House Members during a hearing on “Abusive Patent Litigation.” The claim that patent licensing companies cost American tech companies $29 billion in a single year (2011) has become gospel since this study, The Direct Costs from NPE Disputes, was released last summer on the Internet. (Another name of patent licensing companies is “Non Practicing Entity” or “NPE.”)  A Google search of “patent troll 29 billion” produces 191,000 hits. A Google search of “NPE 29 billion” produces 605,000 hits. Such is the making of conventional wisdom.

The problem with conventional wisdom is that it is usually incorrect, and the study that produced the claim of “$29 billion imposed by patent trolls” is no different. The $29 billion cost study is deeply and fundamentally flawed, as explained by two noted professors, David Schwartz and Jay Kesan, who are also highly regarded for their empirical and economic work in patent law.  In their essay, Analyzing the Role of Non-Practicing Entities in the Patent System, also released late last summer, they detailed at great length serious methodological and substantive flaws in The Direct Costs from NPE Disputes. Unfortunately, the Schwartz and Kesan essay has gone virtually unnoticed in the patent policy debates, while the $29 billion cost claim has through repetition become truth.

In the hope that at least a few more people might discover the Schwartz and Kesan essay, I will briefly summarize some of their concerns about the study that produced the $29 billion cost figure.  This is not merely an academic exercise.  Since Rep. DeFazio explicitly relied on the $29 billion cost claim to justify the SHIELD Act, and he and others keep repeating it, it’s important to know if it is true, because it’s being used to drive proposed legislation in the real world.  If patent legislation is supposed to secure innovation, then it behooves us to know if this legislation is based on actual facts. Yet, as Schwartz and Kesan explain in their essay, the $29 billion cost claim is based on a study that is fundamentally flawed in both substance and methodology.

In terms of its methodological flaws, the study supporting the $29 billion cost claim employs an incredibly broad definition of “patent troll” that covers almost every person, corporation or university that sues someone for infringing a patent that it is not currently being used to manufacture a product at that moment.  While the meaning of the “patent troll” epithet shifts depending on the commentator, reporter, blogger, or scholar who is using it, one would be extremely hard pressed to find anyone embracing this expansive usage in patent scholarship or similar commentary today.

There are several reasons why the extremely broad definition of “NPE” or “patent troll” in the study is unusual even compared to uses of this term in other commentary or studies. First, and most absurdly, this definition, by necessity, includes every university in the world that sues someone for infringing one of its patents, as universities don’t manufacture goods.  Second, it includes every individual and start-up company who plans to manufacture a patented invention, but is forced to sue an infringer-competitor who thwarted these business plans by its infringing sales in the marketplace.  Third, it includes commercial firms throughout the wide-ranging innovation industries—from high tech to biotech to traditional manufacturing—that have at least one patent among a portfolio of thousands that is not being used at the moment to manufacture a product because it may be “well outside the area in which they make products” and yet they sue infringers of this patent (the quoted language is from the study). So, according to this study, every manufacturer becomes an “NPE” or “patent troll” if it strays too far from what somebody subjectively defines as its rightful “area” of manufacturing. What company is not branded an “NPE” or “patent troll” under this definition, or will necessarily become one in the future given inevitable changes in one’s business plans or commercial activities? This is particularly true for every person or company whose only current opportunity to reap the benefit of their patented invention is to license the technology or to litigate against the infringers who refuse license offers.

So, when almost every possible patent-owning person, university, or corporation is defined as a “NPE” or “patent troll,” why are we surprised that a study that employs this virtually boundless definition concludes that they create $29 billion in litigation costs per year?  The only thing surprising is that the number isn’t even higher!

There are many other methodological flaws in the $29 billion cost study, such as its explicit assumption that patent litigation costs are “too high” without providing any comparative baseline for this conclusion.  What are the costs in other areas of litigation, such as standard commercial litigation, tort claims, or disputes over complex regulations?  We are not told.  What are the historical costs of patent litigation?  We are not told.  On what basis then can we conclude that $29 billion is “too high” or even “too low”?  We’re supposed to be impressed by a number that exists in a vacuum and that lacks any empirical context by which to evaluate it.

The $29 billion cost study also assumes that all litigation transaction costs are deadweight losses, which would mean that the entire U.S. court system is a deadweight loss according to the terms of this study.  Every lawsuit, whether a contract, tort, property, regulatory or constitutional dispute is, according to the assumption of the $29 billion cost study, a deadweight loss.  The entire U.S. court system is an inefficient cost imposed on everyone who uses it.  Really?  That’s an assumption that reduces itself to absurdity—it’s a self-imposed reductio ad absurdum!

In addition to the methodological problems, there are also serious concerns about the trustworthiness and quality of the actual data used to reach the $29 billion claim in the study.  All studies rely on data, and in this case, the $29 billion study used data from a secret survey done by RPX of its customers.  For those who don’t know, RPX’s business model is to defend companies against these so-called “patent trolls.”  So, a company whose business model is predicated on hyping the threat of “patent trolls” does a secret survey of its paying customers, and it is now known that RPX informed its customers in the survey that their answers would be used to lobby for changes in the patent laws.

As every reputable economist or statistician will tell you, such conditions encourage exaggeration and bias in a data sample by motivating participation among those who support changes to the patent law.  Such a problem even has a formal name in economic studies: self-selection bias.  But one doesn’t need to be an economist or statistician to be able to see the problems in relying on the RPX data to conclude that NPEs cost $29 billion per year. As the classic adage goes, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Even worse, as I noted above, the RPX survey was confidential.  RPX has continued to invoke “client confidences” in refusing to disclose its actual customer survey or the resulting data, which means that the data underlying the $29 billion claim is completely unknown and unverifiable for anyone who reads the study.  Don’t worry, the researchers have told us in a footnote in the study, they looked at the data and confirmed it is good.  Again, it doesn’t take economic or statistical training to know that something is not right here. Another classic cliché comes to mind at this point: “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.”

In fact, keeping data secret in a published study violates well-established and longstanding norms in all scientific research that data should always be made available for testing and verification by third parties.  No peer-reviewed medical or scientific journal would publish a study based on a secret data set in which the researchers have told us that we should simply trust them that the data is accurate.  Its use of secret data probably explains why the $29 billion study has not yet appeared in a peer-reviewed journal, and, if economics has any claim to being an actual science, this study never will.  If a study does not meet basic scientific standards for verifying data, then why are Reps. DeFazio and Chaffetz relying on it to propose national legislation that directly impacts the patent system and future innovation?  If heads-in-the-clouds academics would know to reject such a study as based on unverifiable, likely biased claptrap, then why are our elected officials embracing it to create real-world legal rules?

And, to continue our running theme of classic clichés, there’s the rub. The more one looks at the actual legal requirements of the SHIELD Act, the more, in the words of Professor Risch, one is left “scratching one’s head” in bewilderment.  The more one looks at the supporting studies and arguments in favor of the SHIELD Act, the more one is left, in the words of Professor Risch, “scratching one’s head.”  The more and more one thinks about the SHIELD Act, the more one realizes what it is—legislation that has been crafted at the behest of the politically powerful (such as an Internet company who can get the President to do a special appearance on its own social media website) to have the government eliminate a smaller, publicly reviled, and less politically-connected group.

In short, people may have legitimate complaints about the ways in which the court system in the U.S. generally has problems.  Commentators and Congresspersons could even consider revising the general legal rules governing patent ligtiation for all plaintiffs and defendants to make the ligitation system work better or more efficiently (by some established metric).   Professor Risch has done exactly this in a recent Wired op-ed.  But it’s time to call a spade a spade: the SHIELD Act is a classic example of rent-seeking, discriminatory legislation.

Over at Forbes Berin Szoka and I have a lengthy piece discussing “10 Reasons To Be More Optimistic About Broadband Than Susan Crawford Is.” Crawford has become the unofficial spokesman for a budding campaign to reshape broadband. She sees cable companies monopolizing broadband, charging too much, withholding content and keeping speeds low, all in order to suppress disruptive innovation — and argues for imposing 19th century common carriage regulation on the Internet. Berin and I begin (we expect to contribute much more to this discussion in the future) to explain both why her premises are erroneous and also why her proscription is faulty. Here’s a taste:

Things in the US today are better than Crawford claims. While Crawford claims that broadband is faster and cheaper in other developed countries, her statistics are convincingly disputed. She neglects to mention the significant subsidies used to build out those networks. Crawford’s model is Europe, but as Europeans acknowledge, “beyond 100 Mbps supply will be very difficult and expensive. Western Europe may be forced into a second fibre build out earlier than expected, or will find themselves within the slow lane in 3-5 years time.” And while “blazing fast” broadband might be important for some users, broadband speeds in the US are plenty fast enough to satisfy most users. Consumers are willing to pay for speed, but, apparently, have little interest in paying for the sort of speed Crawford deems essential. This isn’t surprising. As the LSE study cited above notes, “most new activities made possible by broadband are already possible with basic or fast broadband: higher speeds mainly allow the same things to happen faster or with higher quality, while the extra costs of providing higher speeds to everyone are very significant.”

Even if she’s right, she wildly exaggerates the costs. Using a back-of-the-envelope calculation, Crawford claims that slow downloads (compared to other countries) could cost the U.S. $3 trillion/year in lost productivity from wasted time spent “waiting for a link to load or an app to function on your wireless device.” This intentionally sensationalist claim, however, rests on a purely hypothetical average wait time in the U.S. of 30 seconds (vs. 2 seconds in Japan). Whatever the actual numbers might be, her methodology would still be shaky, not least because time spent waiting for laggy content isn’t necessarily simply wasted. And for most of us, the opportunity cost of waiting for Angry Birds to load on our phones isn’t counted in wages — it’s counted in beers or time on the golf course or other leisure activities. These are important, to be sure, but does anyone seriously believe our GDP would grow 20% if only apps were snappier? Meanwhile, actual econometric studies looking at the productivity effects of faster broadband on businesses have found that higher broadband speeds are not associated with higher productivity.

* * *

So how do we guard against the possibility of consumer harm without making things worse? For us, it’s a mix of promoting both competition and a smarter, subtler role for government.

Despite Crawford’s assertion that the DOJ should have blocked the Comcast-NBCU merger, antitrust and consumer protection laws do operate to constrain corporate conduct, not only through government enforcement but also private rights of action. Antitrust works best in the background, discouraging harmful conduct without anyone ever suing. The same is true for using consumer protection law to punish deception and truly harmful practices (e.g., misleading billing or overstating speeds).

A range of regulatory reforms would also go a long way toward promoting competition. Most importantly, reform local franchising so competitors like Google Fiber can build their own networks. That means giving them “open access” not to existing networks but to the public rights of way under streets. Instead of requiring that franchisees build out to an entire franchise area—which often makes both new entry and service upgrades unprofitable—remove build-out requirements and craft smart subsidies to encourage competition to deliver high-quality universal service, and to deliver superfast broadband to the customers who want it. Rather than controlling prices, offer broadband vouchers to those that can’t afford it. Encourage telcos to build wireline competitors to cable by transitioning their existing telephone networks to all-IP networks, as we’ve urged the FCC to do (here and here). Let wireless reach its potential by opening up spectrum and discouraging municipalities from blocking tower construction. Clear the deadwood of rules that protect incumbents in the video marketplace—a reform with broad bipartisan appeal.

In short, there’s a lot of ground between “do nothing” and “regulate broadband like electricity—or railroads.” Crawford’s arguments simply don’t justify imposing 19th century common carriage regulation on the Internet. But that doesn’t leave us powerless to correct practices that truly harm consumers, should they actually arise.

Read the whole thing here.