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An important new paper was recently posted to SSRN by Commissioner Joshua Wright and Joanna Tsai.  It addresses a very hot topic in the innovation industries: the role of patented innovation in standard setting organizations (SSO), what are known as standard essential patents (SEP), and whether the nature of the contractual commitment that adheres to a SEP — specifically, a licensing commitment known by another acronym, FRAND (Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory) — represents a breakdown in private ordering in the efficient commercialization of new technology.  This is an important contribution to the growing literature on patented innovation and SSOs, if only due to the heightened interest in these issues by the FTC and the Antitrust Division at the DOJ.

http://ssrn.com/abstract=2467939.

“Standard Setting, Intellectual Property Rights, and the Role of Antitrust in Regulating Incomplete Contracts”

JOANNA TSAI, Government of the United States of America – Federal Trade Commission
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JOSHUA D. WRIGHT, Federal Trade Commission, George Mason University School of Law
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A large and growing number of regulators and academics, while recognizing the benefits of standardization, view skeptically the role standard setting organizations (SSOs) play in facilitating standardization and commercialization of intellectual property rights (IPRs). Competition agencies and commentators suggest specific changes to current SSO IPR policies to reduce incompleteness and favor an expanded role for antitrust law in deterring patent holdup. These criticisms and policy proposals are based upon the premise that the incompleteness of SSO contracts is inefficient and the result of market failure rather than an efficient outcome reflecting the costs and benefits of adding greater specificity to SSO contracts and emerging from a competitive contracting environment. We explore conceptually and empirically that presumption. We also document and analyze changes to eleven SSO IPR policies over time. We find that SSOs and their IPR policies appear to be responsive to changes in perceived patent holdup risks and other factors. We find the SSOs’ responses to these changes are varied across SSOs, and that contractual incompleteness and ambiguity for certain terms persist both across SSOs and over time, despite many revisions and improvements to IPR policies. We interpret this evidence as consistent with a competitive contracting process. We conclude by exploring the implications of these findings for identifying the appropriate role of antitrust law in governing ex post opportunism in the SSO setting.

The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) June 23 Workshop on Conditional Pricing Practices featured a broad airing of views on loyalty discounts and bundled pricing, popular vertical business practices that recently have caused much ink to be spilled by the antitrust commentariat.  In addition to predictable academic analyses featuring alternative theoretical anticompetitive effects stories, the Workshop commendably included presentations by Benjamin Klein that featured procompetitive efficiency explanations for loyalty programs and by Daniel Crane that stressed the importance of (1) treating discounts hospitably and (2) requiring proof of harmful foreclosure.  On balance, however, the Workshop provided additional fuel for enforcers who are enthused about applying new anticompetitive effects models to bring “problematic” discounting and bundling to heel.

Before U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies launch a new crusade against novel vertical discounting and bundling contracts, however, they may wish to ponder a few salient factors not emphasized in the Workshop.

First, the United States has the most efficient marketing and distribution system in the world, and it has been growing more efficient in recent decades (this is the one part of the American economy that has been a bright spot).  Consumers have benefited from more shopping convenience and higher quality/lower priced offerings due to the advent of  “big box” superstores, Internet sales engines (and e-commerce in general), and other improvements in both on-line and “bricks and mortar” sales methods.

Second, and relatedly, the Supreme Court’s recognition of vertical contractual efficiencies in GTE-Sylvania (1977) ushered in a period of greatly reduced potential liability for vertical restraints, undoubtedly encouraging economically beneficial marketing improvements.  A new government emphasis on investigating and litigating the merits of novel vertical practices (particularly practices that emphasize discounting, which presumptively benefits consumers) could inject costly new uncertainty into the marketing side of business planning, spawn risk aversion, and deter marketing innovations that reduce costs, thereby harming welfare.  These harms would mushroom to the extent courts mistakenly “bought into” new theories and incorrectly struck down efficient practices.

Third, in applying new theories of competitive harm, the antitrust enforcers should be mindful of Ronald Coase’s admonition that “if an economist finds something—a business practice of one sort or other—that he does not understand, he looks for a monopoly explanation.  And as in this field we are very ignorant, the number of ununderstandable practices tends to be rather large, and the reliance on a monopoly explanation, frequent.”  Competition is a discovery procedure.  Entrepreneurial businesses constantly seek improvements not just in productive efficiency, but in distribution and marketing efficiencies, in order to eclipse their rivals.  As such, entrepreneurs may experiment with new contractual forms (such as bundling and loyalty discounts) in an effort to expand their market shares and grow their firms.  Business persons may not know ex ante which particular forms will work.  They may try out alternatives, sticking with those that succeed and discarding those that fail, without necessarily being able to articulate precisely the reasons for success or failure.  Real results in the market, rather than arcane economic theorems, may be expected to drive their decision-making.   Distribution and marketing methods that are successful will be emulated by others and spread.  Seen in this light (and relatedly, in light of transaction cost economics explanations for “non-standard” contracts), widespread adoption of new vertical contractual devices most likely indicates that they are efficient (they improve distribution, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery), not that they represent some new competitive threat.  Since an economic model almost always can be ginned up to explain why some new practice may reduce consumer welfare in theory, enforcers should instead focus on hard empirical evidence that output and quality have been reduced due to a restraint before acting.  Unfortunately, the mere threat of costly misbegotten investigations may chill businesses’ interest in experimenting with new and potentially beneficial vertical contractual arrangements, reducing innovation and slowing welfare enhancement (consistent with point two, above).

Fourth, decision theoretic considerations should make enforcers particularly wary of pursuing conditional pricing contracts cases.  Consistent with decision theory, optimal antitrust enforcement should adopt an error cost framework that seeks to minimize the sum of the costs attributable to false positives, false negatives, antitrust administrative costs, and disincentive costs imposed on third parties (the latter may also be viewed as a subset of false positives).  Given the significant potential efficiencies flowing from vertical restraints, and the lack of empirical showing that they are harmful, antitrust enforcers should exercise extreme caution in entertaining proposals to challenge new vertical arrangements, such as conditional pricing mechanisms.  In particular, they should carefully assess the cumulative weight of the high risk of false positives in this area, the significant administrative costs that attend investigations and prosecutions, and the disincentives toward efficient business arrangements (see points two and three above).  Taken together, these factors strongly suggest that the aggressive pursuit of conditional pricing practice investigations would flunk a reasonable cost-benefit calculus.

Fifth, a new U.S. antitrust enforcement crusade against conditional pricing could be used by foreign competition agencies to justify further attacks on efficient vertical practices.  This could add to the harm suffered by companies (including, of course, U.S.-based multinationals) which would be deterred from maintaining and creating new welfare-beneficial distribution methods.  Foreign consumers, of course, would suffer as well.

My caveats should not be read to suggest that the FTC should refrain from pursuing new economic learning on loyalty discounting and bundled pricing, nor on other novel business practices.  Nor should it necessarily eschew all enforcement in the vertical restraints area – although that might not be such a bad idea, given error cost and resource constraint issues.  (Vertical restraints that are part of a cartel enforcement scheme should be treated as cartel conduct, and, as such, should be fair game, of course.)  In order optimally to allocate scarce resources, however, the FTC might benefit by devoting relatively greater attention to the most welfare-inimical competitive abuses – namely, anticompetitive arrangements instigated, shielded, or maintained by government authority.  (Hard core private cartel activity is best left to the Justice Department, which can deploy powerful criminal law tools against such schemes.)

In recent years, antitrust enforcers in Europe and the United States have made public pronouncements and pursued enforcement initiatives that undermine the ability of patentees to earn maximum profits through the unilateral exercise of rights within the scope of their patents, as discussed in separate recent articles by me and by Professor Nicolas Petit of the University of Liege. (Similar sorts of concerns have been raised by Federal Trade Commissioner Joshua Wright.) This represents a change in emphasis away from restraints on competition among purveyors of rival patented technologies and toward the alleged “exploitation” of a patentee’s particular patented technology. It is manifested, for example, in enforcers’ rising enthusiasm for limiting patent royalties (based on hypothetical ex ante comparisons to “next best” technologies, or the existence of standards on which patents “read”), for imposing compulsory licensing remedies, and for constraining the terms of private patent litigation settlements involving a single patented technology. (Not surprisingly, given its broader legal mandate to attack abuses of dominant positions, the European Commission has been more aggressive than United States antitrust agencies.) This development has troubling implications for long-term economic welfare and innovation, and merits far greater attention than it has received thus far.

What explains this phenomenon? Public enforcers are motivated by research that purports to demonstrate fundamental flaws in the workings of the patent system (including patent litigation) and the poor quality of many patents, as described, for example, in 2003 and 2011 U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Reports. Central to this scholarship is the notion that patents are “highly uncertain” and merely “probabilistic” (read “second class”) property rights that should be deemed to convey only a right to try to exclude. This type of thinking justifies a greater role for prosecutors to “look inside” the patent “black box” and use antitrust to “correct” perceived patent “abuses,” including supposed litigation excesses.

This perspective is problematic, to say the least. Government patent agencies, not antitrust enforcers, are best positioned to (and have taken steps to) rein in litigation excesses and improve patent quality, and the Supreme Court continues to issue rulings clarifying patent coverage. More fundamentally, as Professor Petit and I explain, this new patent-specific interventionist trend ignores a robust and growing law and economics literature that highlights the benefits of the patent system in enabling technology commercialization, signaling value to capital markets and innovators, and reducing information and transaction costs. It also fails to confront empirical studies that by and large suggest stronger patent regimes are associated with faster economic growth and innovation. Furthermore, decision theory and error cost considerations indicate that antitrust agencies are ill-equipped to second guess unilateral exercises of property rights that fall within the scope of a patent. Finally, other antitrust jurisdictions, such as China, are all too likely to cite new United States and European constraints on unilateral patent right assertions as justifications for even more intrusive limitations on patent rights.

What, then, should the U.S. antitrust enforcement agencies do? Ideally, they should announce that they are redirecting their emphasis to prosecuting inefficient competitive restraints involving rival patented technologies, the central thrust of the 1995 FTC-U.S. Justice Department Patent-Antitrust Licensing Guidelines. In so doing, they should state publicly that an individual patentee should be entitled to the full legitimate returns flowing from the legal scope of its patent, free from antitrust threat. (The creation of patent-specific market power through deception or fraud is not a legitimate return on patent rights, of course, and should be subject to antitrust prosecution when found.) One would hope that eventually the European Commission (and, dare we suggest, other antitrust authorities as well) would be inspired to adopt a similar program. Additional empirical research documenting the economy-wide benefits of encouraging robust unilateral patent assertions could prove helpful in this regard.

Government impediments to the efficient provision of health care services in the United States are legion.  While much recent attention has focused on the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which by design reduces consumer choice and competition, harmful state law restrictions have long been spotlighted by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).  For example, research demonstrates that state “certificate of need” (CON) laws, which require prior state regulatory approval of new hospitals and hospital expansions, “create barriers to entry and expansion to the detriment of health care competition and consumers.

Less attention, however, has been focused on relatively new yet insidious state anticompetitive restrictions that have been adopted by three states (North Carolina, South Carolina, and New York), and are being considered by other jurisdictions as well – “certificates of public advantage” (COPAs).  COPAs are state laws that grant federal and state antitrust law immunity to health care providers that enter into approved “cooperative arrangements” that it is claimed will benefit state health care quality.  Like CONs, however, COPAs are likely to undermine, rather than promote, efficient and high quality health care delivery, according to the FTC.

As the FTC has pointed out, federal antitrust law already permits joint activity by health care providers that benefits consumers and is reasonably necessary to create efficiencies.  A framework for assessing such activity is found in joint FTC and DOJ Statements of Antitrust Enforcement in Health Care, supplemented by subsequent agency guidance documents.  Moreover, no antitrust exemption is needed to promote efficient cooperative arrangements, because the antitrust laws already allow procompetitive collaborations among competitors.

While COPA laws are not needed to achieve socially desirable ends, they create strong incentives for unnecessary competitive restrictions among rival health care providers, which spawn serious consumer harm.  As the bipartisan Antitrust Modernization Commission observed, “[t]ypically, antitrust exemptions create economic benefits that flow to small, concentrated interest groups, while the costs of the exemption are widely dispersed, usually passed on to a large population of consumers through higher prices, reduced output, lower quality and reduced innovation.”  In short, one may expect that well-organized rent-seekers generally will be behind industry-specific antitrust exemptions.  This is no less true in health care than in other sectors of the economy.

Legislators should not assume that competitive problems created by COPAs can be cured by active supervision carried out by state officials.  Such supervision is difficult, costly, and prone to error, particularly because the supervised entities will have every incentive to mischaracterize their self-serving actions as welfare-enhancing rather than welfare-reducing.  In effect, state supervision absent antitrust sanction may devolve into a form of ad hoc economic regulation, subject to all the imperfections of regulation, including regulatory capture by special interests.

A real world example of the difficulties in regulating COPA arrangements is outlined in a 2011 state-commissioned economic analysis (2011 Study) of the 1995 COPA agreement (NC-COPA) between the State of North Carolina and Mission Health Systems (MHS).  In 1993 the State of North Carolina enacted a COPA statute, which grants federal and state antitrust immunity to parties that submit their cooperative agreements to active supervision by the State of North Carolina.  In 1995, to forestall a DOJ antitrust investigation into the merger of the only two acute-care hospitals in Asheville, North Carolina, MHS, the parent of the acquiring hospital, sought and was granted a COPA by the State.  (This COPA agreement was the first in North Carolina and the first in the nation.)  MHS subsequently expanded into additional health care ventures in western North Carolina, subject to state regulatory supervision specified in NC-COPA and thus free from antitrust scrutiny.  The 2011 Study identified a number of potentially harmful consequences flowing from this regulatory scheme:  (1) by regulating MHS’s average margin across all services and geographic areas, NC-COPA creates an incentive for MHS to expand into lower-margin markets to raise price in core markets without violating margin cap limitations; (2) NC-COPA’s cost cap offers only limited regulatory protection for consumers and creates undesirable incentives for MHS to increase outpatient prices and volumes; and (3) NC-COPA creates an incentive and opportunity for MHS to evade price or margin regulation in one market by instead imposing price increases in a related, but unregulated, market.  Moreover, the 2011 Study concluded that the NC-COPA was unnecessary to address competitive concerns attributable to the 1995 merger.  The State of North Carolina has not yet responded to recommendations in the Study for amending the NC-COPA to address these ills.  What the Study illustrates is that even assuming the best of intentions by regulators, COPAs raise serious problems of implementation and are likely to have deleterious unanticipated effects.  State governments would be well advised to heed the advice of federal (and state) antitrust enforcers and avoid the temptation to substitute regulation for competitive market forces subject to general antitrust law.

In sum, state legislatures should resist the premise that health care competitors will somehow advance the “public interest” if they are freed from antitrust scrutiny and subjected to COPA regulation.  Efficient joint activity can proceed without such special favor, whose natural effect is to incentivize welfare-reducing anticompetitive conduct – conduct which undermines, rather than promotes, health care quality and the general welfare.

The American Bar Association’s (ABA) “Antitrust in Asia:  China” Conference, held in Beijing May 21-23 (with Chinese Government and academic support), cast a spotlight on the growing economic importance of China’s six-year old Anti-Monopoly Law (AML).  The Conference brought together 250 antitrust practitioners and government officials to discuss AML enforcement policy.  These included the leaders (Directors General) of the three Chinese competition agencies (those agencies are units within the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC), the Ministry of Foreign Commerce (MOFCOM), and the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC)), plus senior competition officials from Europe, Asia, and the United States.  This was noteworthy in itself, in that the three Chinese antitrust enforcers seldom appear jointly, let alone with potential foreign critics.  The Chinese agencies conceded that Chinese competition law enforcement is not problem free and that substantial improvements in the implementation of the AML are warranted.

With the proliferation of international business arrangements subject to AML jurisdiction, multinational companies have a growing stake in the development of economically sound Chinese antitrust enforcement practices.  Achieving such a result is no mean feat, in light of the AML’s (Article 27) explicit inclusion of industrial policy factors, significant institutional constraints on the independence of the Chinese judiciary, and remaining concerns about transparency of enforcement policy, despite some progress.  Nevertheless, Chinese competition officials and academics at the Conference repeatedly emphasized the growing importance of competition and the need to improve Chinese antitrust administration, given the general pro-market tilt of the 18th Communist Party Congress.  (The references to Party guidance illustrate, of course, the continuing dependence of Chinese antitrust enforcement patterns on political forces that are beyond the scope of standard legal and policy analysis.)

While the Conference covered the AML’s application to the standard antitrust enforcement topics (mergers, joint conduct, cartels, unilateral conduct, and private litigation), the treatment of price-related “abuses” and intellectual property (IP) merit particular note.

In a panel dealing with the investigation of price-related conduct by the NDRC (the agency responsible for AML non-merger pricing violations), NDRC Director General Xu Kunlin revealed that the agency is deemphasizing much-criticized large-scale price regulation and price supervision directed at numerous firms, and is focusing more on abuses of dominance, such as allegedly exploitative “excessive” pricing by such firms as InterDigital and Qualcomm.  (Resale price maintenance also remains a source of some interest.)  On May 22, 2014, the second day of the Conference, the NDRC announced that it had suspended its investigation of InterDigital, given that company’s commitment not to charge Chinese companies “discriminatory” high-priced patent licensing fees, not to bundle licenses for non-standard essential patents and “standard essential patents” (see below), and not to litigate to make Chinese companies accept “unreasonable” patent license conditions.  The NDRC also continues to investigate Qualcomm for allegedly charging discriminatorily high patent licensing rates to Chinese customers.  Having the world’s largest consumer market, and fast growing manufacturers who license overseas patents, China possesses enormous leverage over these and other foreign patent licensors, who may find it necessary to sacrifice substantial licensing revenues in order to continue operating in China.

The theme of ratcheting down on patent holders’ profits was reiterated in a presentation by SAIC Director General Ren Airong (responsible for AML non-merger enforcement not directly involving price) on a panel discussing abuse of dominance and the antitrust-IP interface.  She revealed that key patents (and, in particular, patents that “read on” and are necessary to practice a standard, or “standard essential patents”) may well be deemed “necessary” or “essential” facilities under the final version of the proposed SAIC IP-Antitrust Guidelines.  In effect, implementation of this requirement would mean that foreign patent holders would have to grant licenses to third parties under unfavorable government-set terms – a recipe for disincentivizing future R&D investments and technological improvements.  Emphasizing this negative effect, co-panelists FTC Commissioner Ohlhausen and I pointed out that the “essential facilities” doctrine has been largely discredited by leading American antitrust scholars.  (In a separate speech, FTC Chairwoman Ramirez also argued against treating patents as essential facilities.)  I added that IP does not possess the “natural monopoly” characteristics of certain physical capital facilities such as an electric grid (declining average variable cost and uneconomic to replicate), and that competitors’ incentives to develop alternative and better technology solutions would be blunted if they were given automatic cheap access to “important” patents.  In short, the benefits of dynamic competition would be undermined by treating patents as essential facilities.  I also noted that, consistent with decision theory, wise competition enforcers should be very cautious before condemning single firm behavior, so as not to chill efficiency-enhancing unilateral conduct.  Director General Ren did not respond to these comments.

If China is to achieve its goal of economic growth driven by innovation, it should seek to avoid legally handicapping technology market transactions by mandating access to, or otherwise restricting returns to, patents.  As recognized in the U.S. Justice Department-Federal Trade Commission 1995 IP-Antitrust Guidelines and 2007 IP-Antitrust Report, allowing the IP holder to seek maximum returns within the scope of its property right advances innovative welfare-enhancing economic growth.  As China’s rapidly growing stock of IP matures and gains in value, it hopefully will gain greater appreciation for that insight, and steer its competition policy away from the essential facilities doctrine and other retrograde limitations on IP rights holders that are inimical to long term innovation and welfare.

On July 10 a federal judge ruled that Apple violated antitrust law by conspiring to raise prices of e-books when it negotiated deals with five major publishers. I’ve written on the case and the issues involved in it several times, including here, here, here and here. The most recent of these was titled, “Why I think the government will have a tough time winning the Apple e-books antitrust case.” I’m hedging my bets with the title this time, but it’s fairly clear to me that the court got this case wrong.

The predominant sentiment among pundits following the decision seems to be approval (among authors, however, the response to the suit has been decidedly different). Supporters believe it will lower e-book prices and instigate a shift in the electronic publishing industry toward some more-preferred business model. This sort of reasoning is dangerous and inconsistent with principled, restrained antitrust. Neither the government nor its supporting commentators should use, or applaud the use, of antitrust to impose the government’s (or anyone else’s) preferred business model on industry. And lower prices in the short run, while often an indication of increased competition, are not, by themselves, sufficient to determine that a business model is efficient in the long run.

For example, in a recent article, Mark Lemley is quoted supporting the outcome, noting that it may spur a shift toward his preferred model of electronic publishing:

It also makes no sense that publishers, not authors, capture most of the revenue from e-books, when they do very little of the work. I understand why publishers are reluctant to give up their old business model, but if they want to survive in the digital world, it’s time to make some changes.

As noted, there is no basis for using antitrust enforcement to coerce an industry to shift to a particular distribution of profits simply because “it’s time to make some changes.” Lemley’s characterization of the market’s dynamics is also seriously lacking in economic grounding (and the Authors Guild response to the suit linked above suggests the same). The economics of entrepreneurship has an impressive intellectual pedigree that began with Frank Knight, was further developed by Joseph Schumpeter, Israel Kirzner and Harold Demsetz, among others, and continues to today with its inclusion as a factor of production. (On the development of this tradition and especially Harold Demsetz’s important contribution to it, see here). The implicit claim that publishers’ and authors’ interests (to say nothing of consumers’ interests) are simply at odds, and that the “right” distribution of profits would favor authors over publishers based on the amount of “work” they do is economically baseless. Although it is a common claim, reflecting either idiosyncratic preferences or ignorance about the role of content publishers and distributors in the e-book marketplace and the role of entrepreneurship more generally, it is nonetheless mistaken and has no place in a consumer-welfare-based assessment of the market or antitrust intervention in it.

It’s also utterly unclear how the antitrust suit would do anything to change the relative distribution of profits between publishers and authors. In fact, the availability of direct publishing (offered by both Amazon and Apple) is the most likely disruptor of that dynamic, and authors could only be helped by an increase in competition among platforms—in other words, by Apple’s successful entry into the market.

Apple entered the e-books market as a relatively small upstart battling a dominant incumbent. That it did so by offering publishers (suppliers) attractive terms to deal with its new iBookstore is no different than a new competitor in any industry offering novel products or loss-leader prices to attract customers and build market share. When new entry then induces an industry-wide shift toward the new entrants’ products, prices or business model it’s usually called “competition,” and lauded as the aim of properly functioning markets. The same should be true here.

Despite the court’s claim that

there is overwhelming evidence that the Publisher Defendants joined with each other in a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy,

that evidence is actually extremely weak. What is unclear is why the publishers would need a conspiracy when they rarely compete against each other directly.

The court states that

To protect their then-existing business model, the Publisher Defendants agreed to raise the prices of e-books by taking control of retail pricing.

But despite the use of the antitrust trigger-words, “agreed to raise prices,” this agreement is not remotely clear, and rests entirely on circumstantial evidence (more on this later). None of the evidence suggests actual agreement over price, and none of the evidence demonstrates conclusively any real incentive for the publishers to reach “agreement” at all. In actuality, publishers rarely compete against each other directly (least of all on price); instead, for each individual publisher (and really for each individual title), the most relevant competition for this case is between the e-book version of a particular title and its physical counterpart. In this situation it should matter little to any particular e-book’s sales whether every other e-book in the world is sold at the same price or even a lower price.

While the opinion asserts that each publisher

could also expect to lose substantial sales if they unilaterally raised the prices of their own e-books and none of their competitors followed suit,

it also states that

there is no evidence that the Publisher Defendants have ever competed with each other on price. To the contrary, several of the Publishers’ CEOs explained that they have not competed with each other on that basis.

These statements are difficult to reconcile, but the evidence supports the latter statement, not the former.

The only explanation offered by the court for the publishers’ alleged need for concerted action is an ambiguous claim that Amazon would capitulate in shifting to the agency model only if every publisher pressured it to do so simultaneously. The court claims that

if the Publisher Defendants were going to take control of e-book pricing and move the price point above $9.99, they needed to act collectively; any other course would leave an individual Publisher vulnerable to retaliation from Amazon.

But it’s not clear why this would be so.

On the one hand, if Apple really were the electronic publishing juggernaut implied by this antitrust action, this concern should be minimal: Publishers wouldn’t need Amazon and could simply sell their e-books through Apple’s iBookstore. In this case the threat of even any individual publisher’s “retaliation” against Amazon (decamping to Apple) would suffice to shift relative bargaining power between the publishers and Amazon, and concerted action wouldn’t be necessary. On this theory, the fact that it was only after Apple’s entry that Amazon agreed to shift to the agency model—a fact cited by the court many times to support its conclusions—is utterly unremarkable.

That prices may have shifted as well is equally unremarkable: The agency model puts pricing decisions in publishers’ hands (who, as I’ve previously discussed, have very different incentives than Amazon) where before Amazon had control over prices. Moreover, even when Apple presented evidence that average e-book prices actually fell after its entrance into the market, the court demanded that Apple prove a causal relationship between its entrance and lower overall prices. (Even the DOJ’s own evidence shows, at worst, little change in price, despite its heated claims to the contrary.) But the burden of proof in such cases rests with the government to prove that Apple caused prices to rise, not for Apple to explain why they fell.

On the other hand, if the loss of Amazon as a retail outlet were really so significant for publishers, Apple’s ability to function as the lynchpin of the alleged conspiracy is seriously questionable. While the agency model coupled with the persistence of $9.99 pricing by Amazon would seem to mean reduced revenue for publishers on each book sold through Apple’s store, the relatively trivial number of Apple sales compared with Amazon’s, particularly at the outset, would be of little concern to publishers, and thus to Amazon. In this case it is difficult to believe that publishers would threaten their relationships with Amazon for the sake of preserving the return on their newly negotiated contracts with Apple (and even more difficult to believe that Amazon would capitulate), and the claimed coordinating effects of the MFN provisions is difficult to sustain.

The story with respect to Amazon is questionable for another reason. While the court claims that the publishers’ concern with Amazon’s $9.99 pricing was its effect on physical book sales, it is extremely hard to believe that somehow $12.99 for the electronic version of a $30 (or, often, even more expensive) physical book would be significantly less damaging to physical book sales. Moreover, the evidence put forth by the DOJ and found persuasive by the court all pointed to e-book revenues alone, not physical book sales, as the issue of most concern to publishers (thus, for example, Steve Jobs wrote to HarperCollins’ CEO that it could “[k]eep going with Amazon at $9.99. You will make a bit more money in the short term, but in the medium term Amazon will tell you they will be paying you 70% of $9.99. They have shareholders too.”).

Moreover, as Joshua Gans points out, the agency model that Amazon may have entered into with the publishers would have been particularly unhelpful in ensuring monopoly returns for the publishers (we don’t know the exact terms of their contracts, however, and there are reports from trial that Amazon’s terms were “identical” to Apple’s):

While Apple gave publishers a 70 percent share of book sales and the ability to set their own price, Amazon offered a menu. If you price below $9.99 for a book, Amazon’s share will be 70 percent but if you price above $10, Amazon only returns 35 percent to the publisher. Amazon also charged publishers a delivery fee based on the book’s size (in kb).

Thus publishers could, of course, raise prices to $12.99 in both Apple’s and Amazon’s e-book stores, but, if this effective price cap applied, doing so would result in a significant loss of revenue from Amazon. In other words, the court’s claim—that, having entered into MFNs with Apple, the publishers then had to move Amazon to the agency model to ensure that they didn’t end up being forced by the MFNs to sell books via Apple (on the less-attractive agency terms) at Amazon’s $9.99—is far-fetched. To the extent that raising Amazon’s prices above $10 may have cut royalties almost in half, the MFNs with Apple would be extremely unlikely to have such a powerful effect. But, as noted above, because of the relative sales volumes involved the same dynamic would have applied even under identical terms.

It is true, of course, that Apple cares about price differences between books sold through its iBookstore and the same titles sold through other electronic retailers—and thus it imposed MFN clauses on the publishers. But this is not anticompetitive. In fact, by facilitating Apple’s entry, the MFN clauses plainly increased competition by introducing a new competitor to the industry. What’s more, the terms of Apple’s agreements with the publishers exactly mirrors the terms it uses for apps and music sold through the iTunes store, as well. And as Gordon Crovitz noted:

As this column reported when the case was brought last year, Apple executive Eddy Cue in 2011 turned down my effort to negotiate different terms for apps by news publishers by telling me: “I don’t think you understand. We can’t treat newspapers or magazines any differently than we treat FarmVille.” His point was clear: The 30% revenue-share model is how Apple does business with everyone. It is not, as the government alleges, a scheme Apple concocted to fix prices with book publishers.

Another important error in the case — and, unfortunately, it is one to which Apple’s lawyers acceded—is the treatment of “trade e-books” as the relevant market. For antitrust purposes, there is no generalized e-book (or physical book, for that matter) market. As noted above, the court itself acknowledged that the publishers “have [n]ever competed with each other on price.” The price of Stephen King’s latest novel likely has, at best, a trivial effect on sales of…nearly every other fiction book published, and probably zero effect on sales of non-fiction books.

This is important because the court’s opinion turns on mostly circumstantial evidence of an alleged conspiracy among publishers to raise prices and on the role of concerted action in protecting publishers from being “undercut” by their competitors. But in a world where publishers don’t compete on price (and where the alleged agreement would have reduced the publishers’ revenues in the short run and done little if anything to shore up physical book sales in the long run), it is far-fetched to interpret this evidence as the court does—to infer a conspiracy to raise prices.

Meanwhile, by restricting itself to consideration of competitive effects in the e-book market alone, the court also inappropriately and without commentary dispenses with Apple’s pro-competitive justifications for its conduct. Put simply, Apple contends that its entry into the e-book retail and reader markets was facilitated by its contract terms. But the court ignores these arguments.

On the one hand, it does so because it treats this as a per se case, in which procompetitive effects are irrelevant. But the court’s determination to treat this as a per se case—with its lengthy recitation of relevant legal precedent and only cursory application of precedent to the facts of the case—is suspect. As I have noted before:

What would [justify per se treatment] is if the publishers engaged in concerted action to negotiate these more-favorable terms with other publishers, and what would be problematic for Apple is if its agreement with each publisher facilitated that collusion.

But I don’t see any persuasive evidence that the terms of Apple’s deals with each publisher did any such thing. For MFNs to perform the function alleged by the DOJ it seems to me that the MFNs would have to contribute to the alleged agreement between the publishers, just as the actions of the vertical co-conspirators in Interstate Circuit and Toys-R-Us were alleged to facilitate coordination. But neither the agency agreement itself nor the MFN and price cap terms in the contracts in any way affected the publishers’ incentive to compete with each other. Nor, as noted above, did they require any individual publisher to cause its books to be sold at higher prices through other distributors.

Even if it is true that the publishers participated in a per se illegal horizontal price fixing scheme (and despite the court’s assertion that this is beyond dispute, the evidence is not nearly so clear as the court suggests), Apple’s unique role in that alleged scheme can’t be analyzed in the same fashion. As Leegin notes (and the court in this case quotes), for conduct to merit per se treatment it must “always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output.” But the conduct at issue here—whether somehow coupled with a horizontal price fixing scheme or not—doesn’t meet this standard. The agency model, the MFN terms in the publishers’ contracts with Apple, and the efforts by Apple to secure broad participation by the largest publishers before entering the market are all potentially—if not likely—procompetitive. And output seems to have increased substantially following Apple’s entry into the e-book retail market.

In short, I continue to believe that the facts of this case do not merit per se treatment, and there is a good chance the court’s opinion could be overturned on this ground. For this reason, its rejection of Apple’s procompetitive arguments was inappropriate.

But even in its brief “even under the rule of reason…” analysis, the court improperly rejects Apple’s procompetitive arguments. The court’s consideration of these arguments is basically summed up here:

The pro-competitive effects to which Apple has pointed, including its launch of the iBookstore, the technical novelties of the iPad, and the evolution of digital publishing more generally, are phenomena that are independent of the Agreements and therefore do not demonstrate any pro-competitive effects flowing from the Agreements.

But this is factually inaccurate. Apple has claimed that its entry—and thus at minimum its development and marketing of the iPad as an e-reader and its creation of the iBookstore—were indeed functions of the contract terms and the simultaneous acceptance by the largest publishers of these terms.

The court goes on to assert that, even if the claimed pro-competitive effect was the introduction of competition into the e-book market,

Apple demanded, as a precondition of its entry into the market, that it would not have to compete with Amazon on price. Thus, from the consumer’s perspective — a not unimportant perspective in the field of antitrust — the arrival of the iBookstore brought less price competition and higher prices.

In making this claim the court effectively—and improperly—condemns MFNs to per se illegal status. In doing so the court claims that its opinion’s reach is not so broad:

this Court has not found that any of these [agency agreements, MFN clauses, etc.]…components of Apple’s entry into the market were wrongful, either alone or in combination. What was wrongful was the use of those components to facilitate a conspiracy with the Publisher Defendants”

But the claimed absence of retail price competition that accompanied Apple’s entry is entirely a function of the MFN clauses: Whether at $9.99 or $12.99, the MFN clauses were what ensured that Apple’s and Amazon’s prices would be the same, and disclaimer or not they are swept in to the court’s holding.

This effective condemnation of MFN clauses, while plainly sought by the DOJ, is simply inappropriate as a matter of law. In order to condemn Apple’s conduct under the per se rule, the court relies on the operation of the MFNs in allegedly reducing competition and raising prices to make its case. But that these do not “always or almost always tend to restrict competition and reduce output” is clear. While the DOJ may view such terms otherwise (more on this here and here), courts have not done so, and Leegin’s holding that such vertical restraints are to be assessed under the rule of reason still holds. The court’s use of the per se standard and its refusal to consider Apple’s claimed pro-competitive effects are improper.

Thus I (somewhat more cautiously this time…) suggest that the court’s decision may be overturned on appeal, and I most certainly think it should be. It seems plainly troubling as a matter of economics, and inappropriate as a matter of law.

The Federalist Society has started a new program, The Executive Branch Review, which focuses on the myriad fields in which the Executive Branch acts outside of the constitutional and legal limits imposed on it, either by Executive Orders or by the plethora of semi-independent administrative agencies’ regulatory actions.

I recently posted on the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) ongoing investigations into the patent licensing business model and the actions (“consent decrees”) taken by the FTC against Bosch and Google.  These “consent decrees” constrain Bosch’s and Google’s rights in enforce patents they have committed to standard setting organizations (these patents are called “standard essential patents”). Here’s a brief taste:

One of the most prominent participants at the FTC-DOJ workshop back in December, former DOJ antitrust official and UC-Berkeley economics professor Carl Shapiro, explained in his opening speech that there was still insufficient data on patent licensing companies and their effects on the market.  This is true; for instance, a prominent study cited by Google et al. in support of their request to the FTC to investigate patent licensing companies has been described as being fundamentally flawed on both substantive and methodological grounds. Even more important, Professor Shapiro expressed skepticism at the workshop that, even if there was properly acquired, valid data, the FTC lacked the legal authority to sanction patent licensing firms for being allegedly anti-competitive.

Commentators have long noted that courts and agencies have a lousy historical track record when it comes to assessing the merits of new innovation, whether in new products or new business models. They maintain that the FTC should not continue such mistakes by letting its decision-making today be driven by rhetoric or by the widespread animus against certain commercial firms. Restraint and fact-gathering, institutional virtues reflected in a government animated by the rule of law and respect for individual rights, are key to preventing regulatory overreach and harm to future innovation.

Go read the whole thing, and, while you’re at it, check out Commissioner Joshua Wright’s similar comments on the FTC’s investigations of patent licensing companies, which the FTC calls “patent assertion entities.”

A heavily revised and expanded verison of one of my earlier blog postings was just posted as an op-ed on Forbes.com.  This op-ed addresses how the FTC and DOJ have let themselves become swept up in anti-patent rhetoric, as evidenced by the FTC-DOJ workshop on December 10 that I participated in. Here’s a small taste of the op-ed:

Although the public hears the mantra almost daily that “the patent system is broken,” what we really need is a thorough evaluation of the historic impact the patent system has had on innovation without the negative hype and misinformation that is perpetuated in news headlines or blogs. On December 10, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) held the first of a series of workshops on the patent system and innovation. This first workshop dived into the workings of what some people call “patent assertion entities” (PAE), which are firms that acquire and license patents. The FTC and DOJ, as well as most of the invited participants at the workshop, adopted the “PAE” label as the subject of their critical scrutiny.

 Of course, identifying these firms by their business model of patent licensing denies the patent system naysayers the pejorative rhetorical force of their “PAE” label.  In fact, patent licensing firms have come under attack in newspaper reports, in blogs, and in academic commentary, prompting the FTC and DOJ to consider whether to sanction patent licensing firms for allegedly undermining the innovation made possible by the patent system through some nebulous notion that patent licensing is somehow “anti-competitive.” If anything, this reveals the power of rhetoric.

The truth is that these patent licensing firms maximize value in patented innovation, proving once again Adam Smith’s classic economic insight that specialization and division of labor is key to the success of a commercial economy. There has always existed since the early nineteenth century a secondary market in the sale and purchase of patents, but these firms make use of modern developments in corporate law, finance, and technology to reap new value for inventors or other firms who lack either the knowledge or resources to monetize their innovation assets. In short, patent licensing firms reflect the exact same value-maximizing aggregation and specialization that other firms have long employed in our successful invention economy, such as when 3M or Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory aggregated inventors for research and development itself. Patent licensing firms, by better enabling inventors to sell and exchange their ideas, bring the same efficiencies to our invention economy as did the invention of R&D departments over one hundred years ago.

As the blogging master (Instapundit) likes to say: Read the whole thing!

The U.S. Department of Justice sued eBay last week for agreeing not to poach employees from rival Intuit. According to the Department’s press release, “eBay’s agreement with Intuit hurt employees by lowering the salaries and benefits they might have received and deprived them of better job opportunities at the other company.” DOJ maintains that agreements among rivals not to compete for workers have long been deemed per se illegal. (Indeed, Google, Apple, Adobe, and Pixar quickly settled antitrust claims based on similar non-poaching arrangements in 2010.)

DOJ is right to attack this type of arrangement. Apart from harming individual employees, non-poaching agreements occasion a societal harm: They preclude labor resources from being channeled to their highest and best uses. To poach a competitor’s star employee, you must offer to pay that employee more than she’s currently making (or otherwise adjust the terms of her employment in a way she deems desirable). Her current employer will usually have a chance to counter your offer. If you win the bidding war, it’s likely because the current employer’s willingness-to-pay for the employee—an amount reflective of the degree by which the employee enhances her firm’s value—is less than yours. If you can derive more value from the employee, you should have her. When employers agree to limit competition for workers, they preclude labor resources from flowing to their highest and best ends, causing an “allocative inefficiency.”

So perhaps DOJ should go after the members of the Association of American Law Schools. Pursuant to a Statement of Good Practices to which AALS members scrupulously adhere, each law school has agreed to limit competition with its rivals by refraining from making lateral offers of employment after March 1 each year. Unlike the eBay/Intuit arrangement, the competing law schools’ trade restraint is applicable for only part of the year–from March 1 until the fall hiring season–but it has the same basic effect as the eBay arrangement. And, despite the law schools’ claims to the contrary, it isn’t justified on efficiency grounds.

By preventing law professors from credibly threatening to leave their existing employers after March 1, the AALS restraint significantly reduces professors’ ability to negotiate higher wages or more favorable employment terms. If you announce a competing school’s offer six weeks before fall classes start, you’re much more likely to receive an attractive counter-offer from your current employer than you would be if you sprang the news of your potential departure six months before the start of classes, when you’re more easily replaced. What’s more, law schools generally don’t tell professors what they’ll be earning the following year until after March 1, when it’s too late for a disgruntled professor to secure another offer elsewhere. The AALS restraint thus artificially depresses the salaries of a school’s most desirable professors.

Now this might not seem like something to get worked up over. Most people think law professors are a spoiled lot. They have relatively low teaching loads and, despite the fact that most lack PhDs, they generally earn a good deal more than most academics. Why should DOJ intervene on behalf of these fat cats? Because the law schools’ non-poaching arrangement diminishes the quality of legal education. Here’s why.

At most law schools, where equality of end-states tends to be fetishized, professors are generally compensated in lock-step according to seniority. There’s some variation, but apart from endowed positions, starting salaries and annual raises are around the same level for everyone.

Talent and effort, by contrast, are not evenly distributed. Most law schools have some super-stars who are exceptional teachers and scholars, a number of “solid” professors who put in their time and provide competent teaching and enough scholarship to stay engaged, and a fair bit of dead weight. Lock-step compensation depresses the incentive to move into the first category and enhances the attractiveness of the last. It’s favored by administrators, though, because it permits them to avoid awkward conversations about merit.

If late-in-time departures of professors were a real possibility, administrators would have a stronger incentive to keep their most productive folks happy. They could stand to lose teachers with low course enrollments, so they probably wouldn’t worry too much about keeping their salaries relatively high. They’d also know that their less productive scholars are unlikely to receive a late offer. But highly productive scholars who also provide lots of the thing the law school is ultimately selling–law teaching–would likely begin to earn higher salaries than their less valuable colleagues. With compensation more accurately reflecting the value professors provide, labor resources would be allocated more efficiently. And, of course, law professors would have an increased incentive to make themselves both “poachable” and indispensable by firing on all cylinders–teaching, scholarship, and service.

But don’t the law schools need their non-poaching arrangement in order to prevent scheduling disorder that would hurt students? That’s certainly what they claim. The “Statement of Good Practices” memorializing the law schools’ collusive agreement begins:

[T]he departure of a full-time law teacher always requires changes at the law school. Unless the school is given sufficient time to make the necessary arrangements to find another to offer the instruction given by the departing teacher, the reasonable expectations of students will be  frustrated and the school’s educational program otherwise disrupted. To serve  the best interests of the program of legal education from which the teacher is departing and that to which she or he may be going, the Association urges that law schools and law faculty members follow these suggested practices….

A horizontal restraint of trade, though, isn’t necessary to prevent the sort of harm the law schools envision. If a law school believes it needs some amount of lead time to prepare for a professor’s departure, it may unilaterally negotiate contracts with its professors obligating them to provide a certain amount of notice before any departure and specifying liquidated damages for breach. Unlike the “one-size-fits-all” AALS restraint, such contracts could accommodate heterogeneous needs and preferences. For example, required lead times and the amount of liquidated damages could vary based on the location of the school (urban with lots of adjunct possibilities vs. rural with few), the degree to which the professor’s course offerings require a specialized background (Securities Regulation vs. Contracts), and the pedagogical importance of the courses (Business Organizations vs. Law & Literature). Moreover, this contractarian approach, unlike the AALS’s horizontal restraint, would further allocative efficiency across law schools: If Raider Law is willing to pay Target Law’s hot professor an amount that will increase her salary and cover the liquidated damages she owes Target because of an untimely departure, then Raider must value her more than Target and should get her. Thus, it is possible to achieve the practical benefit the AALS restraint purports to pursue without using a horizontal restraint and in a manner that permits allocative efficiency.

A horizontal agreement not to compete should not be allowed to stand when a less restrictive, easily achieved vertical option could secure the retraint’s benefits. See, e.g., Maricopa County Med. Soc’y (condemning an efficiency-enhancing maximum price-fixing agreement among physicians and observing that the procompetitive benefit occasioned by the restraint could be achieved via vertical agreements rather than a horizontal restraint); NCAA (refusing to allow the need for competitive balance to immunize a naked horizontal restraint because such balance could be achieved less restrictively); cf. Professional Engineers (horizontal agreement not to engage in price negotiations in order to assure high-quality engineering illegal when substantive quality standards could achieve same result).

Perhaps one day the DOJ will acknowledge that American law schools are competitors and, for the benefit of law students and the legal profession, ought to act like it.

From July 30 WSJ

Paul H. Rubin —  8 August 2012

Wall Street Journal

‘A Climate That Helps Us Grow’

By PAUL H. RUBIN

President Obama’s riff on small business—”If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that, somebody else made that happen”—has become a major controversy. The Romney campaign has made this quote the subject of several speeches and ads, and there have been rallies all over the country of business people with signs saying that “I did build this business.”

Mr. Obama is now claiming that his words, delivered at a campaign stop in Roanoke, Va., on July 13, were taken out of context. “Of course Americans build their own businesses,” he said in a campaign ad last week. What he meant was simply that government sets the stage for business creation. In his speech, and again in his campaign ad, the example Mr. Obama pointed to was “roads and bridges.”

The context of the speech indicates the president really did mean that “you didn’t build that.” But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt; let’s assume he merely meant that business is impossible without government institutions that create the infrastructure for the economy to operate. As Mr. Obama’s deputy campaign chief Stephanie Cutter said, in clarifying his original remarks on July 24, “We build our businesses through hard work and initiative, with the public and private sectors working together to create a climate that helps us grow. President Obama knows that.”

But business is certainly not getting “a climate that helps us grow” from the current administration. That administration has instead created a hostile climate through its regulatory policies.

The news media report almost daily about new regulatory burdens. More generally, according to an analysis in March by the Heritage Foundation, “Red Tape Rising,” the Obama administration in its first three years adopted 106 major regulations (those with costs over $100 million), compared with 28 such regulations in the George W. Bush administration. Heritage notes that there are 144 more such major regulations in the pipeline.

Consider a major example of government investment—roads and bridges. A transportation system needs roads, but it also needs gasoline. This administration’s policies—its refusal to allow a private company to build the Keystone XL pipeline, its reduction in permits for offshore drilling and increased EPA regulation of pollutants—retard the production of gasoline. If transportation is an important input from government to creating a favorable climate for business, shouldn’t we be encouraging, not discouraging, gasoline production?

Other inputs needed by business are capital and labor. The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, signed by Mr. Obama and enforced by his appointees, makes raising capital and investing more difficult. Since many regulations needed to implement this law have not even been written, business cannot know how to adapt to them. This increases uncertainty and so reduces incentives for investment.

The increased minimum wage, passed and signed in the early days of the administration, discourages hiring of entry-level workers. ObamaCare has increased uncertainty regarding future labor costs and so hindered business in hiring and expanding. The pro-union decisions by Obama appointees at the National Labor Relations Board do not create a climate to help the economy grow.

There are many other burdens placed on business. Example: The Americans With Disabilities Act is being interpreted by the Justice Department to require all hotel-based swimming pools to provide increased access to disabled persons. This will come at a high cost per pool. Many hotels and motels are small, family-run enterprises. This requirement will either lead to an increase in prices or to a decision not to have pools at all.

Either policy will induce patrons to shift to larger chain motels. Interestingly, the application of this rule has been delayed for existing pools until Jan. 31, 2013, after the election. Families vacationing this summer will not notice the new requirement.

If we accept the plain meaning of Mr. Obama’s speech, it indicates that he does not believe in the importance of entrepreneurs in creating businesses. But if we accept the reinterpretation of his speech in light of his administration’s deeds, it indicates a belief that a hostile regulatory climate poses no danger to economic growth. Either interpretation means that this administration is not good for business.

Mr. Rubin is professor of economics at Emory University and president-elect of the Southern Economic Association.

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