Archives For contracts

[The following is a guest post by Thomas McCarthy on the Supreme Court's recent Amex v. Italian Colors Restaurant decision. Tom is a partner at Wiley Rein, LLP and a George Mason Law grad. He is/was also counsel for, among others,

So he's had a busy week....]

The Supreme Court’s recent opinion in American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant (June 20, 2013) (“Amex”) is a resounding victory for freedom-of-contract principles.  As it has done repeatedly in recent terms (see AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion (2011); Marmet Health Care Center, Inc. v. Brown (2012)), the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) makes arbitration “a matter of contract,” requiring courts to “rigorously enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms.”  Amex at 3.  In so doing, it rejected the theory that class procedures must remain available to claimants in order to ensure that they have sufficient financial incentive to prosecute federal statutory claims of relatively low value.  Consistent with the freedom-of-contract principles enshrined in the FAA, an arbitration agreement must be enforced—even if the manner in which the parties agreed to arbitrate leaves would-be claimants with low-value claims that are not worth pursuing.

In Amex, merchants who accept American Express cards filed a class action against Amex, asserting that Amex violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act by “us[ing] its monopoly power in the market for charge cards to force merchants to accept credit cards at rates approximately 30% higher than the fees for competing credit cards.”  Amex at 1-2.  And, of course, the merchants sought treble damages for the class under Section 4 of the Clayton Act.  Under the terms of their agreement with American Express, the merchants had agreed to resolve all disputes via individual arbitration, that is, without the availability of class procedures.  Consistent with that agreement, American Express moved to compel individual arbitration, but the merchants countered that the costs of expert analysis necessary to prove their antitrust claims would greatly exceed the maximum recovery for any individual plaintiff, thereby precluding them from effectively vindicating their federal statutory rights under the Sherman Act.  The Second Circuit sided with the merchants, holding that the prohibitive costs the merchants would face if they had to arbitrate on an individual basis rendered the class-action waiver in the arbitration agreement unenforceable.

In a 5-3 majority (per Justice Scalia), the Supreme Court reversed.  The Court began by highlighting the Federal Arbitration Act’s freedom-of-contract mandate—that “courts must rigorously enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms, including terms that specify with whom [the parties] choose to arbitrate their disputes, and the rules under which that arbitration will be conducted.”  Amex at 2-3 (internal quotations and citations omitted).  It emphasized that this mandate applies even to federal statutory claims, “unless the FAA’s mandate has been overridden by a contrary congressional command.”  Amex at 3 (internal quotations and citations omitted).  The Court then briefly explained that no contrary congressional command exists in either the federal antitrust laws or Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (which allows for class actions in certain circumstances).

Next, the Court turned to the merchants’ principal argument—that the arbitration agreement should not be enforced because enforcing it (including its class waiver provision) would preclude plaintiffs from effectively vindicating their federal statutory rights.  The Court noted that this “effective vindication” exception “originated as dictum” in prior cases and that the Court has only “asserted [its] existence” without ever having applied it in any particular case.  Amex at 6.  The Court added that this exception grew out of a desire to prevent a “prospec­tive waiver of a party’s right to pursue statutory reme­dies,” explaining that it “would certainly cover a provision in an arbitration agreement forbidding the assertion of certain statutory rights.”  The Court added that this exception might “perhaps cover filing and administrative fees attached to arbitration that are so high as to make access to the forum impracticable,” Amex at 6, but emphasized that, whatever the scope of this exception, the fact that the manner of arbitration the parties contracted for might make it “not worth the expense” to pursue a statutory remedy “does not constitute the elimination of the right to pursue that remedy.”  Amex at 7.

The Court closed by noting that its previous decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion “all but resolves this case.”  Amex at 8.  In Concepcion, the Court had invalidated a state law “conditioning enforcement of arbitration on the availability of class procedures because that law ‘interfere[d] with fundamental attributes of arbitration.’”   As the Court explained, Concepcion specifically rejected the argument “that class arbitration was necessary to prosecute claims ‘that might otherwise slip through the legal system’” thus establishing “that the FAA’s command to enforce arbitration agreements trumps any interest in ensuring the prosecution of low value claims.”  Amex at 9 (quoting Concepcion).  The Court made clear that, under the FAA, courts are to hold parties to the deal they struck—arbitration pursuant to the terms of their arbitration agreements, even if that means that certain claims may go unprosecuted.  Responding to a dissent penned by Justice Kagan, who complained that the Court’s decision would lead to “[l]ess arbitration,” contrary to the pro-arbitration policies of the FAA, Amex dissent at 5, the Court doubled down on this point, emphasizing that the FAA “favor[s] the absence of litigation when that is the consequence of a class-action waiver, since its ‘principal purpose’ is the enforcement of arbitration agreements according to their terms.”  Amex at 9 n.5 (emphasis added).

By holding parties to the deal they struck regarding the resolution of their disputes, the Court properly vindicates the FAA’s freedom-of-contract mandates.  And even assuming the dissenters are correct that there will be less arbitration in individual instances, the opposite is true on a macro level.  For where there is certainty in contract enforcement, parties will enter into contracts.  Amex thus should promote arbitration by eliminating uncertainty in contracting and thereby removing a barrier to swift and efficient resolution of disputes.

The Federal Trade Commission yesterday closed its investigation of Google’s search business (see my comment here) without taking action. The FTC did, however, enter into a settlement with Google over the licensing of Motorola Mobility’s standards-essential patents (SEPs). The FTC intends that agreement to impose some limits on an area of great complexity and vigorous debate among industry, patent experts and global standards bodies: The allowable process for enforcing FRAND (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) licensing of SEPs, particularly the use of injunctions by patent holders to do so. According to Chairman Leibowitz, “[t]oday’s landmark enforcement action will set a template for resolution of SEP licensing disputes across many industries.” That effort may or may not be successful. It also may be misguided.

In general, a FRAND commitment incentivizes innovation by allowing a SEP owner to recoup its investments and the value of its technology through licensing, while, at the same, promoting competition and avoiding patent holdup by ensuring that licensing agreements are reasonable. When the process works, and patent holders negotiate licensing rights in good faith, patents are licensed, industries advance and consumers benefit.

FRAND terms are inherently indeterminate and flexible—indeed, they often apply precisely in situations where licensors and licensees need flexibility because each licensing circumstance is nuanced and a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t workable. Superimposing process restraints from above isn’t necessarily the best thing in dealing with what amounts to a contract dispute. But few can doubt the benefits of greater clarity in this process; the question is whether the FTC’s particular approach to the problem sacrifices too much in exchange for such clarity.

The crux of the issue in the Google consent decree—and the most controversial aspect of SEP licensing negotiations—is the role of injunctions. The consent decree requires that, before Google sues to enjoin a manufacturer from using its SEPs without a license, the company must follow a prescribed path in licensing negotiations. In particular:

Under this Order, before seeking an injunction on FRAND-encumbered SEPs, Google must: (1) provide a potential licensee with a written offer containing all of the material license terms necessary to license its SEPs, and (2) provide a potential licensee with an offer of binding arbitration to determine the terms of a license that are not agreed upon. Furthermore, if a potential licensee seeks judicial relief for a FRAND determination, Google must not seek an injunction during the pendency of the proceeding, including appeals.

There are a few exceptions, summarized by Commissioner Ohlhausen:

These limitations include when the potential licensee (a) is outside the jurisdiction of the United States; (b) has stated in writing or sworn testimony that it will not license the SEP on any terms [in other words, is not a “willing licensee”]; (c) refuses to enter a license agreement on terms set in a final ruling of a court – which includes any appeals – or binding arbitration; or (d) fails to provide written confirmation to a SEP owner after receipt of a terms letter in the form specified by the Commission. They also include certain instances when a potential licensee has brought its own action seeking injunctive relief on its FRAND-encumbered SEPs.

To the extent that the settlement reinforces what Google (and other licensors) would do anyway, and even to the extent that it imposes nothing more than an obligation to inject a neutral third party into FRAND negotiations to assist the parties in resolving rate disputes, there is little to complain about. Indeed, this is the core of the agreement, and, importantly, it seems to preserve Google’s right to seek injunctions to enforce its patents, subject to the agreement’s process requirements.

Industry participants and standard-setting organizations have supported injunctions, and the seeking and obtaining of injunctions against infringers is not in conflict with SEP patentees’ obligations. Even the FTC, in its public comments, has stated that patent owners should be able to obtain injunctions on SEPs when an infringer has rejected a reasonable license offer. Thus, the long-anticipated announcement by the FTC in the Google case may help to provide some clarity to the future negotiation of SEP licenses, the possible use of binding arbitration, and the conditions under which seeking injunctive relief will be permissible (as an antitrust matter).

Nevertheless, U.S. regulators, including the FTC, have sometimes opined that seeking injunctions on products that infringe SEPs is not in the spirit of FRAND. Everyone seems to agree that more certainty is preferable; the real issue is whether and when injunctions further that aim or not (and whether and when they are anticompetitive).

In October, Renata Hesse, then Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, remarked during a patent roundtable that

[I]t would seem appropriate to limit a patent holder’s right to seek an injunction to situations where the standards implementer is unwilling to have a neutral third-party determine the appropriate F/RAND terms or is unwilling to accept the F/RAND terms approved by such a third-party.

In its own 2011 Report on the “IP Marketplace,” the FTC acknowledged the fluidity and ambiguity surrounding the meaning of “reasonable” licensing terms and the problems of patent enforcement. While noting that injunctions may confer a costly “hold-up” power on licensors that wield them, the FTC nevertheless acknowledged the important role of injunctions in preserving the value of patents and in encouraging efficient private negotiation:

Three characteristics of injunctions that affect innovation support generally granting an injunction. The first and most fundamental is an injunction’s ability to preserve the exclusivity that provides the foundation of the patent system’s incentives to innovate. Second, the credible threat of an injunction deters infringement in the first place. This results from the serious consequences of an injunction for an infringer, including the loss of sunk investment. Third, a predictable injunction threat will promote licensing by the parties. Private contracting is generally preferable to a compulsory licensing regime because the parties will have better information about the appropriate terms of a license than would a court, and more flexibility in fashioning efficient agreements.

* * *

But denying an injunction every time an infringer’s switching costs exceed the economic value of the invention would dramatically undermine the ability of a patent to deter infringement and encourage innovation. For this reason, courts should grant injunctions in the majority of cases.…

Consistent with this view, the European Commission’s Deputy Director-General for Antitrust, Cecilio Madero Villarejo, recently expressed concern that some technology companies that complain of being denied a license on FRAND terms never truly intend to acquire licenses, but rather “want[] to create conditions for a competition case to be brought.”

But with the Google case, the Commission appears to back away from its seeming support for injunctions, claiming that:

Seeking and threatening injunctions against willing licensees of FRAND-encumbered SEPs undermines the integrity and efficiency of the standard-setting process and decreases the incentives to participate in the process and implement published standards. Such conduct reduces the value of standard setting, as firms will be less likely to rely on the standard-setting process.

Reconciling the FTC’s seemingly disparate views turns on the question of what a “willing licensee” is. And while the Google settlement itself may not magnify the problems surrounding the definition of that term, it doesn’t provide any additional clarity, either.

The problem is that, even in its 2011 Report, in which FTC noted the importance of injunctions, it defines a willing licensee as one who would license at a hypothetical, ex ante rate absent the threat of an injunction and with a different risk profile than an after-the-fact infringer. In other words, the FTC’s definition of willing licensee assumes a willingness to license only at a rate determined when an injunction is not available, and under the unrealistic assumption that the true value of a SEP can be known ex ante. Not surprisingly, then, the Commission finds it easy to declare an injunction invalid when a patentee demands a (higher) royalty rate in an actual negotiation, with actual knowledge of a patent’s value and under threat of an injunction.

As Richard Epstein, Scott Kieff and Dan Spulber discuss in critiquing the FTC’s 2011 Report:

In short, there is no economic basis to equate a manufacturer that is willing to commit to license terms before the adoption and launch of a standard, with one that instead expropriates patent rights at a later time through infringement. The two bear different risks and the late infringer should not pay the same low royalty as a party that sat down at the bargaining table and may actually have contributed to the value of the patent through its early activities. There is no economically meaningful sense in which any royalty set higher than that which a “willing licensee would have paid” at the pre-standardization moment somehow “overcompensates patentees by awarding more than the economic value of the patent.”

* * *

Even with a RAND commitment, the patent owner retains the valuable right to exclude (not merely receive later compensation from) manufacturers who are unwilling to accept reasonable license terms. Indeed, the right to exclude influences how those terms should be calculated, because it is quite likely that prior licensees in at least some areas will pay less if larger numbers of parties are allowed to use the same technology. Those interactive effects are ignored in the FTC calculations.

With this circular logic, all efforts by patentees to negotiate royalty rates after infringement has occurred can be effectively rendered anticompetitive if the patentee uses an injunction or the threat of an injunction against the infringer to secure its reasonable royalty.

The idea behind FRAND is rather simple (reward inventors; protect competition), but the practice of SEP licensing is much more complicated. Circumstances differ from case to case, and, more importantly, so do the parties’ views on what may constitute an appropriate licensing rate under FRAND. As I have written elsewhere, a single company may have very different views on the meaning of FRAND depending on whether it is the licensor or licensee in a given negotiation—and depending on whether it has already implemented a standard or not. As one court looking at the very SEPs at issue in the Google case has pointed out:

[T]he court is mindful that at the time of an initial offer, it is difficult for the offeror to know what would in fact constitute RAND terms for the offeree. Thus, what may appear to be RAND terms from the offeror’s perspective may be rejected out-of-pocket as non-RAND terms by the offeree. Indeed, it would appear that at any point in the negotiation process, the parties may have a genuine disagreement as to what terms and conditions of a license constitute RAND under the parties’ unique circumstances.

The fact that many firms engaged in SEP negotiations are simultaneously and repeatedly both licensors and licensees of patents governed by multiple SSOs further complicates the process—but also helps to ensure that it will reach a conclusion that promotes innovation and ensures that consumers reap the rewards.

In fact, an important issue in assessing the propriety of injunctions is the recognition that, in most cases, firms would rather license their patents and receive royalties than exclude access to their IP and receive no compensation (and incur the costs of protracted litigation, to boot). Importantly, for firms that both license out their own patents and license in those held by other firms (the majority of IT firms and certainly the norm for firms participating in SSOs), continued interactions on both sides of such deals help to ensure that licensing—not withholding—is the norm.

Companies are waging the smartphone patent wars with very different track records on SSO participation. Apple, for example, is relatively new to the mobile communications space and has relatively few SEPs, while other firms, like Samsung, are long-time players in the space with histories of extensive licensing (in both directions). But, current posturing aside, both firms have an incentive to license their patents, as Mark Summerfield notes:

Apple’s best course of action will most likely be to enter into licensing agreements with its competitors, which will not only result in significant revenues, but also push up the prices (or reduce the margins) on competitive products.

While some commentators make it sound as if injunctions threaten to cripple smartphone makers by preventing them from licensing essential technology on viable terms, companies in this space have been perfectly capable of orchestrating large-scale patent licensing campaigns. That these may increase costs to competitors is a feature—not a bug—of the system, representing the return on innovation that patents are intended to secure. Microsoft has wielded its sizeable patent portfolio to drive up the licensing fees paid by Android device manufacturers, and some commentators have even speculated that Microsoft makes more revenue from Android than Google does. But while Microsoft might prefer to kill Android with its patents, given the unlikeliness of this, as MG Siegler notes,

[T]he next best option is to catch a free ride on the Android train. Patent licensing deals already in place with HTC, General Dynamics, and others could mean revenues of over $1 billion by next year, as Forbes reports. And if they’re able to convince Samsung to sign one as well (which could effectively force every Android partner to sign one), we could be talking multiple billions of dollars of revenue each year.

Hand-wringing about patents is the norm, but so is licensing, and your smartphone exists, despite the thousands of patents that read on it, because the firms that hold those patents—some SEPs and some not—have, in fact, agreed to license them.

The inability to seek an injunction against an infringer, however, would ensure instead that patentees operate with reduced incentives to invest in technology and to enter into standards because they are precluded from benefiting from any subsequent increase in the value of their patents once they do so. As Epstein, Kieff and Spulber write:

The simple reality is that before a standard is set, it just is not clear whether a patent might become more or less valuable. Some upward pressure on value may be created later to the extent that the patent is important to a standard that is important to the market. In addition, some downward pressure may be caused by a later RAND commitment or some other factor, such as repeat play. The FTC seems to want to give manufacturers all of the benefits of both of these dynamic effects by in effect giving the manufacturer the free option of picking different focal points for elements of the damages calculations. The patentee is forced to surrender all of the benefit of the upward pressure while the manufacturer is allowed to get all of the benefit of the downward pressure.

Thus the problem with even the limited constraints imposed by the Google settlement: To the extent that the FTC’s settlement amounts to a prohibition on Google seeking injunctions against infringers unless the company accepts the infringer’s definition of “reasonable,” the settlement will harm the industry. It will reinforce a precedent that will likely reduce the incentives for companies and individuals to innovate, to participate in SSOs, and to negotiate in good faith.

Contrary to most assumptions about the patent system, it needs stronger, not weaker, property rules. With a no-injunction rule (whether explicit or de facto (as the Google settlement’s definition of “willing licensee” unfolds)), a potential licensee has little incentive to negotiate with a patent holder and can instead refuse to license, infringe, try its hand in court, avoid royalties entirely until litigation is finished (and sometimes even longer), and, in the end, never be forced to pay a higher royalty than it would have if it had negotiated before the true value of the patents was known.

Flooding the courts and discouraging innovation and peaceful negotiations hardly seem like benefits to the patent system or the market. Unfortunately, the FTC’s approach to SEP licensing exemplified by the Google settlement may do just that. Continue Reading…

For those who follow these things (and for those who don’t but should!), Eric Goldman just posted an excellent short essay on Section 230 immunity and account terminations.

Here’s the abstract:

An online provider’s termination of a user’s online account can be a major-and potentially even life-changing-event for the user. Account termination exiles the user from a virtual place the user wanted to be; termination disrupts any social network relationship ties in that venue, and prevents the user from sending or receiving messages there; and the user loses any virtual assets in the account, which could be anything from archived emails to accumulated game assets. The effects of account termination are especially acute in virtual worlds, where dedicated users may be spending a majority of their waking hours or have aggregated substantial in-game wealth. However, the problem arises in all online environments (including email, social networking and web hosting) where account termination disrupts investments made by users.

Because of the potentially significant consequences from online user account termination, user-rights advocates, especially in the virtual world context, have sought legal restrictions on online providers’ discretion to terminate users. However, these efforts are largely misdirected because of 47 U.S.C. §230(c)(2) (“Section 230(c)(2)”), a federal statutory immunity. This essay, written in conjunction with an April 2011 symposium at UC Irvine entitled “Governing the Magic Circle: Regulation of Virtual Worlds,” explains Section 230(c)(2)’s role in immunizing online providers’ decisions to terminate user accounts. It also explains why this immunity is sound policy.

But the meat of the essay (at least the normative part of the essay) is this:

Online user communities inevitably require at least some provider intervention. At times, users need “protection” from other users. The provider can give users self-help tools to reduce their reliance on the online provider’s intervention, but technological tools cannot ameliorate all community-damaging conduct by determined users. Eventually, the online provider needs to curb a rogue user’s behavior to protect the rest of the community. Alternatively, a provider may need to respond to users who are jeopardizing the site’s security or technical infrastructure. . . .  Section 230(c)(2) provides substantial legal certainty to online providers who police their premises and ensure the community’s stability when intervention is necessary.

* * *

Thus, marketplace incentives work unexpectedly well to discipline online providers from capriciously wielding their termination power. This is true even if many users face substantial nonrecoupable or switching costs, both financially and in terms of their social networks. Some users, both existing and prospective, can be swayed by the online provider’s capriciousness—and by the provider’s willingness to oust problem users who are disrupting the community. The online provider’s desire to keep these swayable users often can provide enough financial incentives for the online provider to make good choices.

Thus, broadly conceived, § 230(c)(2) removes legal regulation of an online provider’s account termination, making the marketplace the main governance mechanism over an online provider’s choices. Fortunately, the marketplace is effective enough to discipline those choices.

Eric doesn’t talk explicitly here about property rights and transaction costs, but that’s what he’s talking about.  Well-worth reading as a short, clear, informative introduction to this extremely important topic.

Did Apple conspire with e-book publishers to raise e-book prices?  That’s what DOJ argues in a lawsuit filed yesterday. But does that violate the antitrust laws?  Not necessarily—and even if it does, perhaps it shouldn’t.

Antitrust’s sole goal is maximizing consumer welfare.  While that generally means antitrust regulators should focus on lower prices, the situation is more complicated when we’re talking about markets for new products, where technologies for distribution and consumption are evolving rapidly along with business models.  In short, the so-called Agency pricing model Apple and publishers adopted may mean (and may not mean) higher e-book prices in the short run, but it also means more variability in pricing, and it might well have facilitated Apple’s entry into the market, increasing e-book retail competition and promoting innovation among e-book readers, while increasing funding for e-book content creators.

The procompetitive story goes something like the following.  (As always with antitrust, the question isn’t so much which model is better, but that no one really knows what the right model is—least of all antitrust regulators—and that, the more unclear the consumer welfare effects of a practice are, as in rapidly evolving markets, the more we should err on the side of restraint).

Apple versus Amazon

Apple–decidedly a hardware company–entered the e-book market as a device maker eager to attract consumers to its expensive iPad tablets by offering appealing media content.  In this it is the very opposite of Amazon, a general retailer that naturally moved into retailing digital content, and began selling hardware (Kindle readers) only as a way of getting consumers to embrace e-books.

The Kindle is essentially a one-trick pony (the latest Kindle notwithstanding), and its focus is on e-books.  By contrast, Apple’s platform (the iPad and, to a lesser degree, the iPhone) is a multi-use platform, offering Internet browsing, word processing, music, apps, and other products, of which books probably accounted–and still account–for a relatively small percentage of revenue.  Importantly, unlike Amazon, Apple has many options for promoting adoption of its platform—not least, the “sex appeal” of its famously glam products.  Without denigrating Amazon’s offerings, Amazon, by contrast, competes largely on the basis of its content, and its devices sell only as long as the content is attractive and attractively priced.

In essence, Apple’s iPad is a platform; Amazon’s Kindle is a book merchant wrapped up in a cool device.

What this means is that Apple, unlike Amazon, is far less interested in controlling content prices for books and other content; it hardly needs to control that lever to effectively market its platform, and it can easily rely on content providers’ self interest to ensure that enough content flows through its devices.

In other words, Apple is content to act as a typical platform would, acting as a conduit for others’ content, which the content owner controls.  Amazon surely has “platform” status in its sights, but reliant as it is on e-books, and nascent as that market is, it is not quite ready to act like a “pure” platform.  (For more on this, see my blog post from 2010).

The Agency Model

As it happens, publishers seem to prefer the Agency Model, as well, preferring to keep control over their content in this medium rather than selling it (as in the brick-and-mortar model) to a retailer like Amazon to price, market, promote and re-sell at will.  For the publishers, the Agency Model is essentially a form of resale price maintenance — ensuring that retailers who sell their products do not inefficiently discount prices.  (For a clear exposition of the procompetitive merits of RPM, see this article by Benjamin Klein).

(As a side note, I suspect that they may well be wrong to feel this way.  The inclination seems to stem from a fear of e-books’ threat to their traditional business model — a fear of technological evolution that can have catastrophic consequences (cf. Kodak, about which I wrote a few weeks ago).  But then content providers moving into digital media have been consistently woeful at understanding digital markets).

So the publishers strike a deal with Apple that gives the publishers control over pricing and Apple a cut (30%) of the profits.  Contrary to the DOJ’s claim in its complaint, this model happens to look exactly like Apple’s arrangement for apps and music, as well, right down to the same percentage Apple takes from sales.  This makes things easier for Apple, gives publishers more control over pricing, and offers Apple content and a good return sufficient to induce it to market and sell its platform.

It is worth noting here that there is no reason to think that the wholesale model wouldn’t also have generated enough content and enough return for Apple, so I don’t think the ultimate motivation here for Apple was higher prices (which could well have actually led to lower total return given fewer sales), but rather that it wasn’t interested in paying for control.  So in exchange for a (possibly) larger slice of the pie, as well as consistency with its existing content provider back-end and the avoidance of having to monitor and make pricing decisions,  Apple happily relinquished decision-making over pricing and other aspects of sales.

The Most Favored Nation Clauses

Having given up this price control, Apple has one remaining problem: no guarantee of being able to offer attractive content at an attractive price if it is forced to try to sell e-books at a high price while its competitors can undercut it.  And so, as is common in this sort of distribution agreement, Apple obtains “Most Favored Nation” (MFN) clauses from publishers to ensure that if they are permitting other platforms to sell their books at a lower price, Apple will at least be able to do so, as well.  The contracts at issue in the case specify maximum resale prices for content and ensure Apple that if a publisher permits, say, Amazon to sell the same content at a lower price, it will likewise offer the content via Apple’s iBooks store for the same price.

The DOJ is fighting a war against MFNs, which is a story for another day, and it seems clear from the terms of the settlement with the three setting publishers that indeed MFNs are a big part of the target here.  But there is nothing inherently problematic about MFNs, and there is plenty of scholarship explaining why they are beneficial.  Here, and important among these, they facilitate entry by offering some protection for an entrant’s up-front investment in challenging an incumbent, and prevent subsequent entrants from undercutting this price.  In this sense MFNs are essentially an important way of inducing retailers like Apple to sign on to an RPM (no control) model by offering some protection against publishers striking a deal with a competitor that leaves Apple forced to price its e-books out of the market.

There is nothing, that I know of, in the MFNs or elsewhere in the agreements that requires the publishers to impose higher resale prices elsewhere, or prevents the publishers from selling throughApple at a lower price, if necessary.  That said, it may well have been everyone’s hope that, as the DOJ alleges, the MFNs would operate like price floors instead of price ceilings, ensuring higher prices for publishers.  But hoping for higher prices is not an antitrust offense, and, as I’ve discussed, it’s not even clear that, viewed more broadly in terms of the evolution of the e-book and e-reader markets, higher prices in the short run would be bad for consumers.

The Legal Standard

To the extent that book publishers don’t necessarily know what’s really in their best interest, the DOJ is even more constrained in judging the benefits (or costs) for consumers at large from this scheme.  As I’ve suggested, there is a pretty clear procompetitive story here, and a court may indeed agree that this should not be judged under a per se liability standard (as would apply in the case of naked price-fixing).

Most important, here there is no allegation that the publishers and Apple (or the publishers among themselves) agreed on price.  Rather, the allegation is that they agreed to adopt a particular business model (one that, I would point out, probably resulted in greater variation in price, rather than less, compared to Amazon’s traditional $9.99-for-all pricing scheme).  If the DOJ can convince a court that this nevertheless amounts to a naked price-fixing agreement among publishers, with Apple operating as the hub, then they are probably sunk.  But while antitrust law is suspicious of collective action among rivals in coordinating on prices, this change in business model does not alone coordinate on prices.  Each individual publisher can set its own price, and it’s not clear that the DOJ’s evidence points to any agreement with respect to actual pricing level.

It does seem pretty clear that there is coordination here on the shift in business models.  But sometimes antitrust law condones such collective action to take account of various efficiencies (think standard setting or joint ventures or collective rights groups like BMI).  Here, there is a more than plausible case that coordinated action to move to a plausibly-more-efficient business model was necessary and pro-competitive.  If Apple can convince a court of that, then the DOJ has a rule of reason case on its hands and is facing a very uphill battle.

The DOJ’s recent press release on the Google/Motorola, Rockstar Bidco, and Apple/ Novell transactions struck me as a bit odd when I read it.  As I’ve now had a bit of time to digest it, I’ve grown to really dislike it.  For those who have not followed Jorge Contreras had an excellent summary of events at Patently-O.

For those of us who have been following the telecom patent battles, something remarkable happened a couple of weeks ago.  On February 7, the Wall St. Journal reported that, back in November, Apple sent a letter[1] to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) setting forth Apple’s position regarding its commitment to license patents essential to ETSI standards.  In particular, Apple’s letter clarified its interpretation of the so-called “FRAND” (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) licensing terms that ETSI participants are required to use when licensing standards-essential patents.  As one might imagine, the actual scope and contours of FRAND licenses have puzzled lawyers, regulators and courts for years, and past efforts at clarification have never been very successful.  The next day, on February 8, Google released a letter[2] that it sent to the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), ETSI and several other standards organizations.  Like Apple, Google sought to clarify its position on FRAND licensing.  And just hours after Google’s announcement, Microsoft posted a statement of “Support for Industry Standards”[3] on its web site, laying out its own gloss on FRAND licensing.  For those who were left wondering what instigated this flurry of corporate “clarification”, the answer arrived a few days later when, on February 13, the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released its decision[4] to close the investigation of three significant patent-based transactions:  the acquisition of Motorola Mobility by Google, the acquisition of a large patent portfolio formerly held by Nortel Networks by “Rockstar Bidco” (a group including Microsoft, Apple, RIM and others), and the acquisition by Apple of certain Linux-related patents formerly held by Novell.  In its decision, the DOJ noted with approval the public statements by Apple and Microsoft, while expressing some concern with Google’s FRAND approach.  The European Commission approved Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility on the same day.

To understand the significance of the Apple, Microsoft and Google FRAND statements, some background is in order.  The technical standards that enable our computers, mobile phones and home entertainment gear to communicate and interoperate are developed by corps of “volunteers” who get together in person and virtually under the auspices of standards-development organizations (SDOs).  These SDOs include large, international bodies such as ETSI and IEEE, as well as smaller consortia and interest groups.  The engineers who do the bulk of the work, however, are not employees of the SDOs (which are usually thinly-staffed non-profits), but of the companies who plan to sell products that implement the standards: the Apples, Googles, Motorolas and Microsofts of the world.  Should such a company obtain a patent covering the implementation of a standard, it would be able to exert significant leverage over the market for products that implemented the standard.  In particular, if a patent holder were to obtain, or even threaten to obtain, an injunction against manufacturers of competing standards-compliant products, either the standard would become far less useful, or the market would experience significant unanticipated costs.  This phenomenon is what commentators have come to call “patent hold-up”.  Due to the possibility of hold-up, most SDOs today require that participants in the standards-development process disclose their patents that are necessary to implement the standard and/or commit to license those patents on FRAND terms.

As Contreras notes, an important part of these FRAND commitments offered by Google, Motorola, and Apple related to the availability of injunctive relief (do go see the handy chart in Contreras’ post laying out the key differences in the commitments).  Contreras usefully summarizes the three statements’ positions on injunctive relief:

In their February FRAND statements, Apple and Microsoft each commit not to seek injunctions on the basis of their standards-essential patents.  Google makes a similar commitment, but qualifies it in typically lawyerly fashion (Google’s letter is more than 3 single-spaced pages in length, while Microsoft’s simple statement occupies about a quarter of a page).  In this case, Google’s careful qualifications (injunctive relief might be possible if the potential licensee does not itself agree to refrain from seeking an injunction, if licensing negotiations extended beyond a reasonable period, and the like) worked against it.  While the DOJ applauds Apple’s and Microsoft’s statements “that they will not seek to prevent or exclude rivals’ products form the market”, it views Google’s commitments as “less clear”.  The DOJ thus “continues to have concerns about the potential inappropriate use of [standards-essential patents] to disrupt competition”.

Its worth reading the DOJ’s press release on this point — specifically, that while the DOJ found that none of the three transactions itself raised competitive concerns or was substantially likely to lessen the competition, the DOJ expressed general concerns about the relationship between these firms’ market positions and ability to use the threat of injunctive relief to hold up rivals:

Apple’s and Google’s substantial share of mobile platforms makes it more likely that as the owners of additional SEPs they could hold up rivals, thus harming competition and innovation.  For example, Apple would likely benefit significantly through increased sales of its devices if it could exclude Android-based phones from the market or raise the costs of such phones through IP-licenses or patent litigation.  Google could similarly benefit by raising the costs of, or excluding, Apple devices because of the revenues it derives from Android-based devices.

The specific transactions at issue, however, are not likely to substantially lessen competition.  The evidence shows that Motorola Mobility has had a long and aggressive history of seeking to capitalize on its intellectual property and has been engaged in extended disputes with Apple, Microsoft and others.  As Google’s acquisition of Motorola Mobility is unlikely to materially alter that policy, the division concluded that transferring ownership of the patents would not substantially alter current market dynamics.  This conclusion is limited to the transfer of ownership rights and not the exercise of those transferred rights.

With respect to Apple/Novell, the division concluded that the acquisition of the patents from CPTN, formerly owned by Novell, is unlikely to harm competition.  While the patents Apple would acquire are important to the open source community and to Linux-based software in particular, the OIN, to which Novell belonged, requires its participating patent holders to offer a perpetual, royalty-free license for use in the “Linux-system.”  The division investigated whether the change in ownership would permit Apple to avoid OIN commitments and seek royalties from Linux users.  The division concluded it would not, a conclusion made easier by Apple’s commitment to honor Novell’s OIN licensing commitments.

In its analysis of the transactions, the division took into account the fact that during the pendency of these investigations, Apple, Google and Microsoft each made public statements explaining their respective SEP licensing practices.  Both Apple and Microsoft made clear that they will not seek to prevent or exclude rivals’ products from the market in exercising their SEP rights.

What’s problematic about a competition enforcement agency extracting promises not to enforce lawfully obtained property rights during merger review, outside the formal consent process, and in transactions that do not raise competitive concerns themselves?  For starters, the DOJ’s expression about competitive concerns about “hold up” obfuscate an important issue.  In Rambus the D.C. Circuit clearly held that not all forms of what the DOJ describes here as patent holdup violate the antitrust laws in the first instance.  Both appellate courts discussion patent holdup as an antitrust violation have held the patent holder must deceptively induce the SSO to adopt the patented technology.  Rambus makes clear – as I’ve discussed — that a firm with lawfully acquired monopoly power who merely raises prices does not violate the antitrust laws.  The proposition that all forms of patent holdup are antitrust violations is dubious.  For an agency to extract concessions that go beyond the scope of the antitrust laws at all, much less through merger review of transactions that do not raise competitive concerns themselves, raises serious concerns.

Here is what the DOJ says about Google’s commitment:

If adhered to in practice, these positions could significantly reduce the possibility of a hold up or use of an injunction as a threat to inhibit or preclude innovation and competition.

Google’s commitments have been less clear.  In particular, Google has stated to the IEEE and others on Feb. 8, 2012, that its policy is to refrain from seeking injunctive relief for the infringement of SEPs against a counter-party, but apparently only for disputes involving future license revenues, and only if the counterparty:  forgoes certain defenses such as challenging the validity of the patent; pays the full disputed amount into escrow; and agrees to a reciprocal process regarding injunctions.  Google’s statement therefore does not directly provide the same assurance as the other companies’ statements concerning the exercise of its newly acquired patent rights.  Nonetheless, the division determined that the acquisition of the patents by Google did not substantially lessen competition, but how Google may exercise its patents in the future remains a significant concern.

No doubt the DOJ statement is accurate and the DOJ’s concerns about patent holdup are genuine.  But that’s not the point.

The question of the appropriate role for injunctions and damages in patent infringement litigation is a complex one.  While many scholars certainly argue that the use of injunctions facilitates patent hold up and threatens innovation.  There are serious debates to be had about whether more vigorous antitrust enforcement of the contractual relationships between patent holders and standard setting organization (SSOs) would spur greater innovation.   The empirical evidence suggesting patent holdup is a pervasive problem is however, at best, quite mixed.  Further, others argue that the availability of injunctions is not only a fundamental aspect of our system of property rights, but also from an economic perspective, that the power of the injunctions facilitates efficient transacting by the parties.  For example, some contend that the power to obtain injunctive relief for infringement within the patent thicket results in a “cold war” of sorts in which the threat is sufficient to induce cross-licensing by all parties.  Surely, this is not first best.  But that isn’t the relevant question.

There are other more fundamental problems with the notion of patent holdup as an antitrust concern.  Kobayashi & Wright also raise concerns with the theoretical case for antitrust enforcement of patent holdup on several grounds.  One is that high probability of detection of patent holdup coupled with antitrust’s treble damages makes overdeterrence highly likely.  Another is that alternative remedies such as contract and the patent doctrine of equitable estoppel render the marginal benefits of antitrust enforcement trivial or negative in this context.  Froeb, Ganglmair & Werden raise similar points.   Suffice it to say that the debate on the appropriate scope of antitrust enforcement in patent holdup is ongoing as a general matter; there is certainly no consensus with regard to economic theory or empirical evidence that stripping the availability of injunctive relief from patent holders entering into contractual relationships with SSOs will enhance competition or improve consumer welfare.  It is quite possible that such an intervention would chill competition, participation in SSOs, and the efficient contracting process potentially facilitated by the availability of injunctive relief.

The policy debate I describe above is an important one.  Many of the questions at the center of that complex debate are not settled as a matter of economic theory, empirics, or law.  This post certainly has no ambitions to resolve them here; my goal is a much more modest one.  The DOJs policymaking efforts through the merger review process raise serious issues.  I would hope that all would agree — regardless of where they stand on the patent holdup debate — that the idea that these complex debates be hammered out in merger review at the DOJ because the DOJ happens to have a number of cases involving patent portfolios is a foolish one for several reasons.

First, it is unclear the DOJ could have extracted these FRAND concessions through proper merger review.  The DOJ apparently agreed that the transactions did not raise serious competitive concerns.   The pressure imposed by the DOJ upon the parties to make the commitments to the SSOs not to pursue injunctive relief as part of a FRAND commitment outside of the normal consent process raises serious concerns.  The imposition of settlement conditions far afield from the competitive consequences of the merger itself is something we do see from antitrust enforcement agencies in other countries quite frequently, but this sort of behavior burns significant reputational capital with the rest of the world when our agencies go abroad to lecture on the importance of keeping antitrust analysis consistent, predictable, and based upon the economic fundamentals of the transaction at hand.

Second, the DOJ Antitrust Division does not alone have comparative advantage in determining the optimal use of injunctions versus damages in the patent system.

Third, appearances here are quite problematic.  Given that the DOJ did not appear to have significant competitive concerns with the transactions, one can create the following narrative of events without too much creative effort: (1) the DOJ team has theoretical priors that injunctive relief is a significant competitive problem, (2) the DOJ happens to have these mergers in front of it pending review from a couple of firms likely to be repeat players in the antitrust enforcement game, (3) the DOJ asks the firms to make these concessions despite the fact that they have little to do with the conventional antitrust analysis of the transactions, under which they would have been approved without condition.

The more I think about the use of the merger review process to extract concessions from patent holders in the form of promises not to enforce property rights which they would otherwise be legally entitled to, the more the DOJ’s actions appear inappropriate.  The stakes are high here both in terms of identifying patent and competition rules that will foster rather than hamper innovation, but also with respect to compromising the integrity of merger review through the imposition of non-merger related conditions we are more akin to seeing from the FCC, states, or less well-developed antitrust regimes.

Economists are all quite familiar with the “holdup problem,” i.e. one contracting partner exploiting the other after asset specific investments have been made.  One classic law school textbook example is Alaska Packers v. Domenico in which the Alaska Packers’ Association hired Domenico for the salmon season for $50 plus 2 cents per salmon caught, but after leaving the dock and arriving in Alaskan waters for the short salmon season, the workers demanded an increase in their pay.  The defendant agreed, but upon return to San Francisco, refused to pay.  The seaman sued and lost on the theory that the exchange did not involve fresh consideration.  This, Judge Posner has argued, was the right economic result on the grounds that it discourages holdup.  Many of our readers will also be familiar with the famous Fisher Body / GM example of vertical integration solving the holdup problem, and the subsequent debate between Benjamin Klein and Ronald Coase over that particular example.

Now comes another example of the holdup problem at work.  In fact, it is difficult to imagine a better example.  Apparently, half way through a flight from India to Birmingham, England, an airline took advantage of the asset specific investments made by its passengers to alter the terms of the deal:

Passengers aboard two chartered jetliners from India to Britain were hit up for about $200 each, in cash, to continue their trip this week in what one flier compared to a hostage situation.  The charter company, Austria-based Comtel Air, and the Spanish company that owns the planes pointed fingers at each other over the situation Thursday. But Lal Dadrah, a passenger on one of the flights who recorded the crew passing the hat, called the situation “a complete, utter sham.”

Comtel Air passengers on a Tuesday flight to Birmingham, England, from the Indian city of Amritsar were hit up for 130 pounds — about $200 each — during a layover in Vienna. They were allowed off the aircraft to take the money from teller machines, a process that took about seven hours. There were varying accounts of what the money was to pay for, ranging from fuel to fees.

The NY Times story provides a few more details:

Britain’s Channel 4 news broadcast video showing a Comtel cabin crew member telling passengers: “We need some money to pay the fuel, to pay the airport, to pay everything we need. If you want to go to Birmingham, you have to pay.”

Some passengers said they were sent off the plane to cash machines in Vienna to raise the money.

“We all got together, took our money out of purses — 130 pounds ($205),” said Reena Rindi, who was aboard with her daughter. “Children under two went free, my little one went free because she’s under two. If we didn’t have the money, they were making us go one by one outside, in Vienna, to get the cash out.”

The economics don’t stop there.  There is potential for an agency problem as well:

Bhupinder Kandra, the airline’s majority shareholder, told the Associated Press from Vienna that travel agents had taken the passengers’ money before the planes left but had not passed it on to the airline.  “This is not my problem,” he said. “The problem is with the agents.”

A great example for the classroom.

 

One of my colleagues recently accepted a publication offer on a law review article, only to receive a later publication offer from a much more prestigious journal.  This sort of occurrence is not uncommon in the legal academy, where scholars submitting articles for publication do not offer to publish their work in a journal but rather solicit publication offers from journals (and generally solicit multiple offers at the same time).  One may easily accept an inferior journal’s offer before receiving another from a preferred journal. 

I’ve been in my colleague’s unfortunate position three times: once when I was trying to become a professor, once during my first semester of teaching, and once in the semester before I went up for tenure.  Each time, breaching my initial publication contract and accepting the later-received offer from the more prestigious journal would have benefited me by an amount far greater than the harm caused to the jilted journal.  Accordingly, the welfare-maximizing outcome would have been for me to breach my initial publication agreement and to pay the put-upon journal an amount equal to the damage caused by my breach.  Such a move would have been Pareto-improving:  I would have been better off, and the original publisher, the breach “victim,” would have been as well off as before I breached.  

As all first-year law students learn (or should learn!), the law of contracts is loaded with doctrines designed to encourage efficient breach and discourage inefficient performance.  Most notable among these is the rule precluding punitive damages for breach of contract:  If a breaching party were required to pay such damages, in addition to the so-called “expectancy” damages necessary to compensate the breach victim for her loss, then promisors contemplating breach might perform even though doing so would cost more than the value of the performance to the promisee.  Such performance would be wasteful.

So why didn’t I — a contracts professor who knows that a promisor’s contract duty is always disjunctive: “perform or pay” — breach my initial publication agreements and offer the jilted journal editors some amount of settlement (say, $1,000 for an epic staff party — an amount far less than the incremental value to me of going with the higher-ranked journal)?  Because of a silly social norm frowning upon such conduct as indicative of a flawed character.  When I was looking for a teaching job, I was informed that breaching a publication agreement is a definite no-no and might impair my job prospects.  After I became a professor, I learned that members of my faculty had threatened to vote against the tenure of professors who breached publication agreements.  To be fair, I’m not sure those faculty members would do so if the breaching professor compensated the jilted journal, effectively “buying himself out” of his contract.  But who would run that risk?

So I empathize with my colleague who now feels stuck publishing in the less prestigious journal.  And, while I recognize the difference between a legal and moral obligation, I would commend the following wise words to those law professors who would imbue law review publishing contracts with “mystic significance”:

Nowhere is the confusion between legal and moral ideas more manifest than in the law of contract.  Among other things, here again the so-called primary rights and duties are invested with a mystic significance beyond what can be assigned and explained.  The duty to keep a contract at common law means a prediction that you must pay damages if you do not keep it — and nothing else.  If you commit a tort, you are liable to pay a compensatory sum.  If you commit a contract, you are liable to pay a compensatory sum unless the promised event comes to pass, and that is all the difference.  But such a mode of looking at the matter stinks in the nostrils of those who think it advantageous to get as much ethics into the law as they can.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., The Path of the Law, 10 Harv. L. Rev. 457 (1897).  

I’m off to the International conference on “Regulatory Competition in Contract Law and Dispute Resolution” at Ludwig-Maximilians-University’s Center for Advanced Studies in Munich.  I’m joining an otherwise illustrious group (here’s the program) to present my and Kobayashi’s Law as a Byproduct.

Blogging may be light for the next week (but eating and drinking may be heavy). Tips on what I must see and do in Munich would be appreciated.

There has been plenty of Hurricane Irene blogging, and some posts linking natural disasters to various aspects of law and policy (see, e.g. my colleague Ilya Somin discussing property rights and falling trees).   Often, post-natural disaster economic discussion at TOTM turns to the perverse consequences of price gouging laws.  This time around, the damage from the hurricane got me thinking about the issue of availability of credit.  In policy debates in and around the new CFPB and its likely agenda — which is often reported to include restrictions on payday lending — I often take up the unpopular (at least in the rooms in which these debates often occur) position that while payday lenders can abuse consumers, one should think very carefully about incentives before going about restricting access to any form of consumer credit.  In the case of payday lending, for example, proponents of restrictions or outright bans generally have in mind a counterfactual world in which consumers who are choosing payday loans are simply “missing out” on other forms of credit with superior terms.  Often, proponents of this position rely upon a theory involving particular behavioral biases of at least some substantial fraction of borrowers who, for example, over estimate their future ability to pay off the loan.  Skeptics of government-imposed restrictions on access to consumer credit (whether it be credit cards or payday lending) often argue that such restrictions do not change the underlying demand for consumer credit.  Consumer demand for credit — whether for consumption smoothing purposes or in response to a natural disaster or personal income “shock” or another reason — is an important lubricant for economic growth.  Restrictions do not reduce this demand at all — in fact, critics of these restrictions point out, consumers are likely to switch to the closest substitute forms of credit available to them if access to one source is foreclosed.  Of course, these stories are not necessarily mutually exclusive: that is, some payday loan customers might irrationally use payday lending while better options are available while at the same time, it is the best source of credit available to other customers.

In any event, one important testable implication for the economic theories of payday lending relied upon by critics of such restrictions (including myself) is that restrictions on their use will have a negative impact on access to credit for payday lending customers (i.e. they will not be able to simply turn to better sources of credit).  While most critics of government restrictions on access to consumer credit appear to recognize the potential for abuse and favor disclosure regimes and significant efforts to police and punish fraud, the idea that payday loans might generate serious economic benefits for society often appears repugnant to supporters.  All of this takes me to an excellent paper that lies at the intersection of these two issues: natural disasters and the economic effects of restrictions on payday lending.  The paper is Adair Morse’s Payday Lenders: Heroes or Villians.    From the abstract:

I ask whether access to high-interest credit (payday loans) exacerbates or mitigates individual financial distress. Using natural disasters as an exogenous shock, I apply a propensity score matched, triple difference specification to identify a causal relationship between access-to-credit and welfare. I find that California foreclosures increase by 4.5 units per 1,000 homes in the year after a natural disaster, but the existence of payday lenders mitigates 1.0-1.3 of these foreclosures. In a placebo test for natural disasters covered by homeowner insurance, I find no payday lending mitigation effect. Lenders also mitigate larcenies, but have no effect on burglaries or vehicle thefts. My methodology demonstrates that my results apply to ordinary personal emergencies, with the caveat that not all payday loan customers borrow for emergencies.

To be sure, there are other papers with different designs that identify economic benefits from payday lending and other otherwise “disfavored” credit products.  Similarly, there papers out there that use different data and a variety of research designs and identify social harms from payday lending (see here for links to a handful, and here for a recent attempt).  A literature survey is available here.  Nonetheless, Morse’s results remind me that consumer credit institutions — even non-traditional ones — can generate serious economic benefits in times of need and policy analysts must be careful in evaluating and weighing those benefits against potential costs when thinking about and designing restrictions that will change incentives in consumer credit markets.

So you thought unconscionability was for furniture stores?  Larry Cunningham has news for you:

This Article explains why and how traditional contract law’s theory of unconscionability should be used to create a modicum of judicial scrutiny to strike obnoxious pay contracts and preserve legitimate ones. Under this proposal, pay contracts that are the product of managerial domination of the process and formed on terms massively favoring the executive will be stricken. This will follow direct shareholder lawsuits in state courts where the contract is made or performed and applying that state’s contract law. This new legal theory circumvents today’s dead-end route, where pay contracts are always upheld in derivative shareholder lawsuits applying corporate law that sets no meaningful limits on executive pay. This proposal creates new but modest pressure from sister states on Delaware to take greater responsibility for the effects its production of corporate law has nationally.

For those outraged by lopsided corporate executive compensation, this Article offers an appealing new legal theory of contractual unconscionability to police them. Those who see no or few problems with contemporary pay arrangements, or who are outraged by federal regulatory schemes like the Dodd-Frank Act, will welcome how this proposal is narrowly tailored using common law to address the most obnoxious cases.

The article, among other things, would take the executive pay issue out of the internal affairs doctrine and put it into the morass of general choice of law rules for contracts (footnotes omitted):

[B]ecause they are not matters of internal affairs, they would be governed by the law of the state having the greatest interest.  Managers could name Delaware as the choice of law by contract and maintain Delaware’s quasi-monopoly that insulates the devices from judicial scrutiny. Yet contractual choice-of-law clauses are but one factor relevant to determining what law governs a contract.

To be sure, says Cunningham,

investors may recoil at the prospect of gadfly fellow shareholders challenging corporate pay contracts.

But he sees this as

a way to restore a modicum of external pressure on the State of Delaware, the leading promulgator of corporate law for national use. * * * [T]he practical reality is that the competition has ended, and Delaware faces no such pressure today.

There is, of course, a substantial literature questioning the Bebchuk-Fried-Walker conclusion on which this proposal is based that executive pay is out of whack.  And another substantial literature on whether or not the market for corporate law is out of whack.  But let’s put those questions aside and play along with the premises of the proposal.  Consider the consequences: 

  • Under this proposal, an executive, having negotiated her pay with a corporate board, would have no way of knowing whether, at some point, the pay might be challenged under standards to be named later in some state (her residence state, the corporation’s main place of doing business, somewhere else?) at the instigation of a lawyer seeking to extort a payment from the company. 
  • Executives would retain whatever power they supposedly had over the corporation in negotiating their contract to negotiate protection from or payment for this litigation risk.  Shareholders, of course, would pay.
  • Firms would surely find some way to deal with this new rule.  Would the result be better than the system we have now of entrusting the decision to directors?

I guess you could say I’m not convinced. I prefer to take this article as an interesting thought-experiment on why regulation of corporate pay is misguided.