Archives For intellectual property

Today, in Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, a case involving the technology underlying the Spider-Man Web-Blaster, the Supreme Court invoked stare decisis to uphold an old precedent based on bad economics. In so doing, the Court spun a tangled web of formalism that trapped economic common sense within it, forgetting that, as Spider-Man was warned in 1962, “with great power there must also come – great responsibility.”

In 1990, Stephen Kimble obtained a patent on a toy that allows children (and young-at-heart adults) to role-play as “a spider person” by shooting webs—really, pressurized foam string—“from the palm of [the] hand.” Marvel Entertainment made and sold a “Web-Blaster” toy based on Kimble’s invention, without remunerating him. Kimble sued Marvel for patent infringement in 1997, and the parties settled, with Marvel agreeing to buy Kimble’s patent for a lump sum (roughly a half-million dollars) plus a 3% royalty on future sales, with no end date set for the payment of royalties.

Marvel subsequently sought a declaratory judgment in federal district court confirming that it could stop paying Kimble royalties after the patent’s expiration date. The district court granted relief, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, and the Supreme Court affirmed the Ninth Circuit. In an opinion by Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, the Court held that a patentee cannot continue to receive royalties for sales made after his patent expires. Invoking stare decisis, the Court reaffirmed Brulotte v. Thys (1964), which held that a patent licensing agreement that provided for the payment of royalties accruing after the patent’s expiration was illegal per se, because it extended the patent monopoly beyond its statutory time period. The Kimble Court stressed that stare decisis is “the preferred course,” and noted that though the Brulotte rule may prevent some parties from entering into deals they desire, parties can often find ways to achieve similar outcomes.

Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas, dissented, arguing that Brulotte is a “baseless and damaging precedent” that interferes with the ability of parties to negotiate licensing agreements that reflect the true value of a patent. More specifically:

“There are . . . good reasons why parties sometimes prefer post-expiration royalties over upfront fees, and why such arrangements have pro-competitive effects. Patent holders and licensees are often unsure whether a patented idea will yield significant economic value, and it often takes years to monetize an innovation. In those circumstances, deferred royalty agreements are economically efficient. They encourage innovators, like universities, hospitals, and other institutions, to invest in research that might not yield marketable products until decades down the line. . . . And they allow producers to hedge their bets and develop more products by spreading licensing fees over longer periods. . . . By prohibiting these arrangements, Brulotte erects an obstacle to efficient patent use. In patent law and other areas, we have abandoned per se rules with similarly disruptive effects. . . . [T]he need to avoid Brulotte is an economic inefficiency in itself. . . . And the suggested alternatives do not provide the same benefits as post-expiration royalty agreements. . . . The sort of agreements that Brulotte prohibits would allow licensees to spread their costs, while also allowing patent holders to capitalize on slow-developing inventions.”

Furthermore, the Supreme Court was willing to overturn a nearly century-old antitrust precedent that absolutely barred resale price maintenance in the Leegin case, despite the fact that the precedent was extremely well know (much better known than the Brulotte rule) and had prompted a vast array of contractual workarounds. Given the seemingly greater weight of the Leegin precedent, why was stare decisis set aside in Leegin, but not in Kimble? The Kimble majority’s argument that stare decisis should weigh more heavily in patent than in antitrust because, unlike the antitrust laws, “the patent laws do not turn over exceptional law-shaping authority to the courts”, is unconvincing. As the dissent explains:

“[T]his distinction is unwarranted. We have been more willing to reexamine antitrust precedents because they have attributes of common-law decisions. I see no reason why the same approach should not apply where the precedent at issue, while purporting to apply a statute, is actually based on policy concerns. Indeed, we should be even more willing to reconsider such a precedent because the role implicitly assigned to the federal courts under the Sherman [Antitrust] Act has no parallel in Patent Act cases.”

Stare decisis undoubtedly promotes predictability and the rule of law and, relatedly, institutional stability and efficiency – considerations that go to the costs of administering the legal system and of formulating private conduct in light of prior judicial precedents. The cost-based efficiency considerations underlying applying stare decisis to any particular rule, must, however, be weighed against the net economic benefits associated with abandonment of that rule. The dissent in Kimble did this, but the majority opinion regrettably did not.

In sum, let us hope that in the future the Court keeps in mind its prior advice, cited in Justice Alito’s dissent, that “stare decisis is not an ‘inexorable command’,” and that “[r]evisiting precedent is particularly appropriate where . . . a departure would not upset expectations, the precedent consists of a judge-made rule . . . , and experience has pointed up the precedent’s shortcomings.”

If you haven’t been following the ongoing developments emerging from the demise of Grooveshark, the story has only gotten more interesting. As the RIAA and major record labels have struggled to shut down infringing content on Grooveshark’s site (and now its copycats), groups like EFF would have us believe that the entire Internet was at stake — even in the face of a fairly marginal victory by the recording industry. In the most recent episode, the issuance of a TRO against CloudFlare — a CDN service provider for the copycat versions of Grooveshark — has sparked much controversy. Ironically for CloudFlare, however, its efforts to evade compliance with the TRO may well have opened it up to far more significant infringement liability.

In response to Grooveshark’s shutdown in April, copycat sites began springing up. Initially, the record labels played a game of whac-a-mole as the copycats hopped from server to server within the United States. Ultimately the copycats settled on grooveshark.li, using a host and registrar outside of the country, as well as anonymized services that made direct action against the actual parties next to impossible. Instead of continuing the futile chase, the plaintiffs decided to address the problem more strategically.

High volume web sites like Grooveshark frequently depend upon third party providers to optimize their media streaming and related needs. In this case, the copycats relied upon the services of CloudFlare to provide DNS hosting and a content delivery network (“CDN”). Failing to thwart Grooveshark through direct action alone, the plaintiffs sought and were granted a TRO against certain third-parties, eventually served on CloudFlare, hoping to staunch the flow of infringing content by temporarily enjoining the ancillary activities that enabled the pirates to continue operations.

CloudFlare refused to comply with the TRO, claiming the TRO didn’t apply to it (for reasons discussed below). The court disagreed, however, and found that CloudFlare was, in fact, bound by the TRO.

Unsurprisingly the copyright scolds came out strongly against the TRO and its application to CloudFlare, claiming that

Copyright holders should not be allowed to blanket infrastructure companies with blocking requests, co-opting them into becoming private trademark and copyright police.

Devlin Hartline wrote an excellent analysis of the court’s decision that the TRO was properly applied to CloudFlare, concluding that it was neither improper nor problematic. In sum, as Hartline discusses, the court found that CloudFlare was indeed engaged in “active concert and participation” and was, therefore, properly subject to a TRO under FRCP 65 that would prevent it from further enabling the copycats to run their service.

Hartline’s analysis is spot-on, but we think it important to clarify and amplify his analysis in a way that, we believe, actually provides insight into a much larger problem for CloudFlare.

As Hartline states,

This TRO wasn’t about the “world at large,” and it wasn’t about turning the companies that provide internet infrastructure into the “trademark and copyright police.” It was about CloudFlare knowingly helping the enjoined defendants to continue violating the plaintiffs’ intellectual property rights.

Importantly, the issuance of the TRO turned in part on whether the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits — which is to say that the copycats could in fact be liable for copyright infringement. Further, the initial TRO became a preliminary injunction before the final TRO hearing because the copycats failed to show up to defend themselves. Thus, CloudFlare was potentially exposing itself to a claim of contributory infringement, possibly from the time it was notified of the infringing activity by the RIAA. This is so because a claim of contributory liability would require that CloudFlare “knowingly” contributed to the infringement. Here there was actual knowledge upon issuance of the TRO (if not before).

However, had CloudFlare gone along with the proceedings and complied with the court’s order in good faith, § 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) would have provided a safe harbor. Nevertheless, following from CloudFlare’s actual behavior, the company does now have a lot more to fear than a mere TRO.

Although we don’t have the full technical details of how CloudFlare’s service operates, we can make some fair assumptions. Most importantly, in order to optimize the content it serves, a CDN would necessarily have to store that content at some point as part of an optimizing cache scheme. Under the terms of the DMCA, an online service provider (OSP) that engages in caching of online content will be immune from liability, subject to certain conditions. The most important condition relevant here is that, in order to qualify for the safe harbor, the OSP must “expeditiously [] remove, or disable access to, the material that is claimed to be infringing upon notification of claimed infringement[.]”

Here, not only had CloudFlare been informed by the plaintiffs that it was storing infringing content, but a district court had gone so far as to grant a TRO against CloudFlare’s serving of said content. It certainly seems plausible to view CloudFlare as acting outside the scope of the DMCA safe harbor once it refused to disable access to the infringing content after the plaintiffs contacted it, but certainly once the TRO was deemed to apply to it.

To underscore this point, CloudFlare’s arguments during the TRO proceedings essentially admitted to knowledge that infringing material was flowing through its CDN. CloudFlare focused its defense on the fact that it was not an active participant in the infringing activity, but was merely a passive network through which the copycats’ content was flowing. Moreover, CloudFlare argued that

Even if [it]—and every company in the world that provides similar services—took proactive steps to identify and block the Defendants, the website would remain up and running at its current domain name.

But while this argument may make some logical sense from the perspective of a party resisting an injunction, it amounts to a very big admission in terms of a possible infringement case — particularly given CloudFlare’s obstinance in refusing to help the plaintiffs shut down the infringing sites.

As noted above, CloudFlare had an affirmative duty to to at least suspend access to infringing material once it was aware of the infringement (and, of course, even more so once it received the TRO). Instead, CloudFlare relied upon its “impossibility” argument against complying with the TRO based on the claim that enjoining CloudFlare would be futile in thwarting the infringement of others. CloudFlare does appear to have since complied with the TRO (which is now a preliminary injunction), but the compliance does not change a very crucial fact: knowledge of the infringement on CloudFlare’s part existed before the preliminary injunction took effect, while CloudFlare resisted the initial TRO as well as RIAA’s efforts to secure compliance.

Phrased another way, CloudFlare became an infringer by virtue of having cached copyrighted content and been given notice of that content. However, in its view, merely removing CloudFlare’s storage of that copyrighted content would have done nothing to prevent other networks from also storing the copyrighted content, and therefore it should not be enjoined from its infringing behavior. This essentially amounts to an admission of knowledge of infringing content being stored in its network.

It would be hard to believe that CloudFlare’s counsel failed to advise it to consider the contributory infringement issues that could arise from its conduct prior to and during the TRO proceedings. Thus CloudFlare’s position is somewhat perplexing, particularly once the case became a TRO proceeding. CloudFlare could perhaps have made technical arguments against the TRO in an attempt to demonstrate to its customers that it didn’t automatically shut down services at the behest of the RIAA. It could have done this in good faith, and without the full-throated “impossibility” argument that could very plausibly draw them into infringement litigation. But whatever CloudFlare thought it was gaining in taking a “moral” stance on behalf of OSPs everywhere with its “impossibility” argument, it may well have ended up costing itself much more.

In my article published today in The Daily Signal, I delve into the difficulties of curbing Internet-related copyright infringement.  The key points are summarized below.

U.S. industries that rely on copyright protection (such as motion pictures, music, television, visual arts, and software) are threatened by the unauthorized Internet downloading of copyrighted writings, designs, artwork, music and films. U.S. policymakers must decide how best to protect the creators of copyrighted works without harming growth and innovation in Internet services or vital protections for free speech.

The Internet allows consumers to alter and immediately transmit perfect digital copies of copyrighted works around the world and has generated services designed to provide these tools. Those tools include, for example, peer-to-peer file-sharing services and mobile apps designed to foster infringement. Many websites that provide pirated content—including, for example, online video-streaming sites—are located outside the United States. Such piracy costs the U.S. economy billions of dollars in losses per year—including reduced income for creators and other participants in copyright-intensive industries.

Curtailing online infringement will require a combination of litigation, technology, enhanced private-sector initiatives, public education, and continuing development of readily accessible and legally available content offerings. As the Internet continues to develop, the best approach to protecting copyright in the online environment is to rely on existing legal tools, enhanced cooperation among Internet stakeholders and business innovations that lessen incentives to infringe.

Yesterday my essay on this topic was published as part of a Heritage Foundation Special Report on Saving Internet Freedom.  The essay reviews threats to copyrighted works posed by the Internet and describes public and private essays to deal with Internet-related copyright infringement.  The essay concludes as follows:

“A variety of approaches—many of which are private, voluntary initiatives requiring no new laws or regulations—have been deployed to combat online copyright infringement, and new ones are being developed. While these efforts have not eliminated infringement, which remains a substantial problem, they are having some success.

There is no “silver bullet.” Curtailing online infringement will require a combination of litigation tools, technology, enhanced private-sector initiatives, public education, and continuing development of readily accessible and legally available content offerings. As the Internet continues to develop, the best approach to protecting copyright in the online environment is to rely on existing legal tools, enhanced cooperation among Internet stakeholders, and business innovations that lessen incentives to infringe.”

Earlier this week Senators Orrin Hatch and Ron Wyden and Representative Paul Ryan introduced bipartisan, bicameral legislation, the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 (otherwise known as Trade Promotion Authority or “fast track” negotiating authority). The bill would enable the Administration to negotiate free trade agreements subject to appropriate Congressional review.

Nothing bridges partisan divides like free trade.

Top presidential economic advisors from both parties support TPA. And the legislation was greeted with enthusiastic support from the business community. Indeed, a letter supporting the bill was signed by 269 of the country’s largest and most significant companies, including Apple, General Electric, Intel, and Microsoft.

Among other things, the legislation includes language calling on trading partners to respect and protect intellectual property. That language in particular was (not surprisingly) widely cheered in a letter to Congress signed by a coalition of sixteen technology, content, manufacturing and pharmaceutical trade associations, representing industries accounting for (according to the letter) “approximately 35 percent of U.S. GDP, more than one quarter of U.S. jobs, and 60 percent of U.S. exports.”

Strong IP protections also enjoy bipartisan support in much of the broader policy community. Indeed, ICLE recently joined sixty-seven think tanks, scholars, advocacy groups and stakeholders on a letter to Congress expressing support for strong IP protections, including in free trade agreements.

Despite this overwhelming support for the bill, the Internet Association (a trade association representing 34 Internet companies including giants like Google and Amazon, but mostly smaller companies like coinbase and okcupid) expressed concern with the intellectual property language in TPA legislation, asserting that “[i]t fails to adopt a balanced approach, including the recognition that limitations and exceptions in copyright law are necessary to promote the success of Internet platforms both at home and abroad.”

But the proposed TPA bill does recognize “limitations and exceptions in copyright law,” as the Internet Association is presumably well aware. Among other things, the bill supports “ensuring accelerated and full implementation of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights,” which specifically mentions exceptions and limitations on copyright, and it advocates “ensuring that the provisions of any trade agreement governing intellectual property rights that is entered into by the United States reflect a standard of protection similar to that found in United States law,” which also recognizes copyright exceptions and limitations.

What the bill doesn’t do — and wisely so — is advocate for the inclusion of mandatory fair use language in U.S. free trade agreements.

Fair use is an exception under U.S. copyright law to the normal rule that one must obtain permission from the copyright owner before exercising any of the exclusive rights in Section 106 of the Copyright Act.

Including such language in TPA would require U.S. negotiators to demand that trading partners enact U.S.-style fair use language. But as ICLE discussed in a recent White Paper, if broad, U.S.-style fair use exceptions are infused into trade agreements they could actually increase piracy and discourage artistic creation and innovation — particularly in nations without a strong legal tradition implementing such provisions.

All trade agreements entered into by the U.S. since 1994 include a mechanism for trading partners to enact copyright exceptions and limitations, including fair use, should they so choose. These copyright exceptions and limitations must conform to a global standard — the so-called “three-step test,” — established under the auspices of the 1994 Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement, and with roots going back to the 1967 amendments to the 1886 Berne Convention.

According to that standard,

Members shall confine limitations or exceptions to exclusive rights to

  1. certain special cases, which
  2. do not conflict with a normal exploitation of the work and
  3. do not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the right holder.

This three-step test provides a workable standard for balancing copyright protections with other public interests. Most important, it sets flexible (but by no means unlimited) boundaries, so, rather than squeezing every jurisdiction into the same box, it accommodates a wide range of exceptions and limitations to copyright protection, ranging from the U.S.’ fair use approach to the fair dealing exception in other common law countries to the various statutory exceptions adopted in civil law jurisdictions.

Fair use is an inherently common law concept, developed by case-by-case analysis and a system of binding precedent. In the U.S. it has been codified by statute, but only after two centuries of common law development. Even as codified, fair use takes the form of guidance to judicial decision-makers assessing whether any particular use of a copyrighted work merits the exception; it is not a prescriptive statement, and judicial interpretation continues to define and evolve the doctrine.

Most countries in the world, on the other hand, have civil law systems that spell out specific exceptions to copyright protection, that don’t rely on judicial precedent, and that are thus incompatible with the common law, fair use approach. The importance of this legal flexibility can’t be understated: Only four countries out of the 166 signatories to the Berne Convention have adopted fair use since 1967.

Additionally, from an economic perspective the rationale for fair use would seem to be receding, not expanding, further eroding the justification for its mandatory adoption via free trade agreements.

As digital distribution, the Internet and a host of other technological advances have reduced transaction costs, it’s easier and cheaper for users to license copyrighted content. As a result, the need to rely on fair use to facilitate some socially valuable uses of content that otherwise wouldn’t occur because of prohibitive costs of contracting is diminished. Indeed, it’s even possible that the existence of fair use exceptions may inhibit the development of these sorts of mechanisms for simple, low-cost agreements between owners and users of content – with consequences beyond the material that is subject to the exceptions. While, indeed, some socially valuable uses, like parody, may merit exceptions because of rights holders’ unwillingness, rather than inability, to license, U.S.-style fair use is in no way necessary to facilitate such exceptions. In short, the boundaries of copyright exceptions should be contracting, not expanding.

It’s also worth noting that simple marketplace observations seem to undermine assertions by Internet companies that they can’t thrive without fair use. Google Search, for example, has grown big enough to attract the (misguided) attention of EU antitrust regulators, despite no European country having enacted a U.S-style fair use law. Indeed, European regulators claim that the company has a 90% share of the market — without fair use.

Meanwhile, companies like Netflix contend that their ability to cache temporary copies of video content in order to improve streaming quality would be imperiled without fair use. But it’s impossible to see how Netflix is able to negotiate extensive, complex contracts with copyright holders to actually show their content, but yet is somehow unable to negotiate an additional clause or two in those contracts to ensure the quality of those performances without fair use.

Properly bounded exceptions and limitations are an important aspect of any copyright regime. But given the mix of legal regimes among current prospective trading partners, as well as other countries with whom the U.S. might at some stage develop new FTAs, it’s highly likely that the introduction of U.S.-style fair use rules would be misinterpreted and misapplied in certain jurisdictions and could result in excessively lax copyright protection, undermining incentives to create and innovate. Of course for the self-described consumer advocates pushing for fair use, this is surely the goal. Further, mandating the inclusion of fair use in trade agreements through TPA legislation would, in essence, force the U.S. to ignore the legal regimes of its trading partners and weaken the protection of copyright in trade agreements, again undermining the incentive to create and innovate.

There is no principled reason, in short, for TPA to mandate adoption of U.S-style fair use in free trade agreements. Congress should pass TPA legislation as introduced, and resist any rent-seeking attempts to include fair use language.

As I explained in a recent Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) New Patent Policy (NPP) threatens to devalue patents that cover standards; discourage involvement by innovative companies in IEEE standard setting; and undermine support for strong patents, which are critical to economic growth and innovation.  The Legal Memorandum focused on how the NPP undermines patentees’ rights and reduces returns to patents that “read on” standards (“standard essential patents” or “SEPs”).  It did not, however, address the merits of the Justice Department Antitrust Division’s (DOJ) February 2 Business Review Letter (BRL), which found no antitrust problems with the NPP.

Unfortunately, the BRL does little more than opine on patent policy questions, such as the risk of patent “hold-up” that the NPP allegedly is designed to counteract.  The BRL is virtually bereft of antitrust analysis.  It states in conclusory fashion that the NPP is on the whole procompetitive, without coming to grips with the serious risks of monopsony and collusion, and reduced investment in standards-related innovation, inherent in the behavior that it analyzes.  (FTC Commissioner Wright and prominent economic consultant Greg Sidak expressed similar concerns about the BRL in a March 12 program on standard setting and patents hosted by the Heritage Foundation.)

Let’s examine the BRL in a bit more detail, drawing from a recent scholarly commentary by Stuart Chemtob.  The BRL eschews analyzing the risk that by sharply constraining expected returns to SEPs, the NPP’s requirements may disincentivize technology contributions to standards, harming innovation.  The BRL focuses on how the NPP may reduce patentee “hold-up” by effectively banning injunctions and highlighting three factors that limit royalties – basing royalties on the value of the smallest saleable unit, the value contributed to that unit in light of all the SEPs practiced the unit, and existing licenses covering the unit that were not obtained under threat of injunction.  The BRL essentially ignores, however, the very real problem of licensee “hold-out” by technology implementers who may gain artificial bargaining leverage over patentees.  Thus there is no weighing of the NPP’s anticompetitive risks against its purported procompetitive benefits.  This is particularly unfortunate, given the absence of hard evidence of hold-up.  (Very recently, the Federal Circuit in Ericsson v. D-Link denied jury instructions citing the possibility of hold-up, given D-Link’s failure to provide any evidence of hold-up.)   Also, by forbidding injunctive actions prior to first level appellate review, the NPP effectively precludes SEP holders from seeking exclusion orders against imports that infringe their patents, under Section 337 of the Tariff Act.  This eliminates a core statutory protection that helps shield American patentees from foreign anticompetitive harm, further debasing SEPs.  Furthermore, the BRL fails to assess the possible competitive harm firms may face if they fail to accede to the IEEE’s NPP.

Finally, and most disturbingly, the BRL totally ignores the overall thrust of the NPP – which is to encourage potential licensees to insist on anticompetitive terms that reduce returns to SEP holders below the competitive level.  Such terms, if jointly agreed to by potential licensees, could well be deemed a monopsony buyers’ cartel (with the potential licensees buying license rights), subject to summary antitrust condemnation in line with such precedents as Mandeville Island Farms and Todd v. Exxon.

In sum, the BRL is an embarrassingly one-sided document that would merit a failing grade as an antitrust exam essay.  DOJ would be wise to withdraw the letter or, at the very least, rewrite it from scratch, explaining that the NPP raises serious antitrust questions that merit close examination.  If it fails to do so, one can only conclude that DOJ has decided that it is suitable to use business review letters as vehicles for unsupported statements of patent policy preferences, rather than as serious, meticulously crafted memoranda of guidance on difficult antitrust questions.

Today, the International Center for Law & Economics released a white paper, co-authored by Executive Director Geoffrey Manne and Senior Fellow Julian Morris, entitled Dangerous Exception: The detrimental effects of including “fair use” copyright exceptions in free trade agreements.

Dangerous Exception explores the relationship between copyright, creativity and economic development in a networked global marketplace. In particular, it examines the evidence for and against mandating a U.S.-style fair use exception to copyright via free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and through “fast-track” trade promotion authority (TPA).

In the context of these ongoing trade negotiations, some organizations have been advocating for the inclusion of dramatically expanded copyright exceptions in place of more limited language requiring that such exceptions conform to the “three-step test” implemented by the 1994 TRIPs Agreement.

The paper argues that if broad fair use exceptions are infused into trade agreements they could increase piracy and discourage artistic creation and innovation — especially in nations without a strong legal tradition implementing such provisions.

The expansion of digital networks across borders, combined with historically weak copyright enforcement in many nations, poses a major challenge to a broadened fair use exception. The modern digital economy calls for appropriate, but limited, copyright exceptions — not their expansion.

The white paper is available here. For some of our previous work on related issues, see:

American standard setting organizations (SSOs), which are private sector-based associations through which businesses come together to set voluntary industrial standards, confer great benefits on the modern economy.  They enable virtually all products we rely upon in modern society (including mechanical, electrical, information, telecommunications, and other systems) to interoperate, thereby spurring innovation, efficiency, and consumer choice.

Many SSO participants hold “standard essential patents” (SEPs) that may be needed to implement individual SSO standards.  Thus, in order to promote widespread adoption and application of standards, SSOs often require participants to agree in advance to reveal their SEPs and to license them on “fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory” (FRAND) terms.  Historically, however, American SSOs have not sought to micromanage the details of licensing negotiations between holders of SEPs and other patents on the one side, and manufacturers that desire access to those patents on the other.   These have been left up to free market processes, which have led to an abundance of innovative products and services (smartphones, for example) that have benefited consumers and spurred the rapid development of high technology industries.

Unfortunately, this salutary history of non-intervention in licensing negotiations may be about to come to an end, if the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), one of the largest and most influential SSOs in the world (“the world’s largest technical professional society”), formally votes on February 9 to change its patent policy.  As detailed below, the new policy would, if adopted, reduce the value of SEPs, discourage involvement by innovative companies in IEEE standard setting, and undermine support for strong patents, which are critical to economic growth and innovation.

In a February 2, 2015 business review letter, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division (DOJ) informed the IEEE that it had no plans to bring an antitrust enforcement action regarding that SSO’s proposed patent policy changes.  Although it may not constitute an antitrust violation, the new policy would greatly devalue SEPs and thereby undermine incentives to make patents available for use in IEEE standards.  Key features of the proposed policy change are as follows.  The new IEEE policy requires a patentee to provide the IEEE with a letters of assurance waiving its right to seek an injunction against an infringer, in order to have its patents included in an IEEE standard.  The new policy also specifies that an analysis of comparable licenses for purposes of determining a FRAND royalty can only consider licenses for which the SEP holder had relinquished the right to seek and enforce an injunction against an unlicensed implementer.  Moreover, under the change, an SEP holder may seek an injunction only after having fully litigated its claims against an unlicensed implementer through the appeals stage – a process which would essentially render injunctive relief highly impractical if not futile.  In addition, the new policy precludes an SEP holder from conditioning a license on reasonable reciprocal access to non-SEP patents held by the counterparty licensee.  Finally, the new policy straitjackets licensing negotiations by specifying that royalty negotiations must be based on the value of the “relevant functionality of the smallest saleable compliant implementation that practices the essential patent claim.”  This ignores the fact that the benefit that a claimed invention provides to an end product – which is often key to determining reasonable licensing terms – depends on the specific patent and product to be licensed, and not necessarily the “smallest saleable compliant implementation” (for example, a small microchip).  All told, the new IEEE policy creates an imbalance between the rights of innovators (whose patents lose value) and implementers of technologies, and interferes in market processes by inappropriately circumscribing the terms of licensing negotiations.

The press release accompanying the release of the February 2 business review letter included this statement by the letter’s author, Renata Hesse, DOJ’s Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division regarding this matter:  “IEEE’s decision to update its policy, if adopted by the IEEE Board, has the potential to help patent holders and standards implementers to reach mutually beneficial licensing agreements and to facilitate the adoption of pro-competitive standards.”  Regrettably, this may fairly be read as a DOJ endorsement of the new IEEE policy, and, thus, as implicit DOJ support for devaluing SEPs.  As such, it threatens to encourage other SSOs to adopt policies that sharply limit the ability of SEP holders to obtain reasonable returns on their patents.  Individual contract negotiations, that take into account the full set of matter-specific factors that bear on value, are more likely to enhance welfare when they are not artificially constrained by “ground rules” that tilt in favor of one of the two sets of interests represented at the negotiating table.

In its future pronouncements on the patent-antitrust interface, DOJ should bear in mind its 2013 joint policy statement with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, in which it stated that “DOJ and USPTO strongly support the protection of intellectual property rights and believe that a patent holder who makes . . . a F/RAND commitment should receive appropriate compensation that reflects the value of the technology contributed to the standard.  It is important for innovators to continue to have incentives to participate in standards-setting activities and for technological breakthroughs in standardized technologies to be fairly rewarded.”  Consistent with this pronouncement, DOJ would be well-advised to clarify its views and explain that it does not support policies that prevent SEP holders from obtaining a fair return on their patents.  Such a statement might be accompanied by a critique of SSO policy changes that place ex ante limitations on SEP holders and thus threaten to undermine welfare-enhancing participation in standard setting.  It would also be helpful, of course, if the IEEE would take note of these concerns and not adopt (or, if it is too late for that, reconsider and rescind) its proposed new patent policy.

In my just-published article in The Antitrust Source, I argue that the law and economics literature on patents and error cost analysis demonstrate that the recent focus by U.S. (and foreign) antitrust enforcers on single-firm patent abuses is misplaced, and may reduce incentives to innovate.  I recommend that antitrust enforcers focus instead on restrictions among competing technologies, which are the primary concern of the 1995 U.S. DOJ-FTC Antitrust-IP Guidelines.  I conclude:

“Patent-antitrust enforcement should “stick to its knitting” and focus on transactions that lessen competition among rival technologies or on wrongful actions (not competition on the merits) designed to artificially inflate the market value of a patent beyond its legitimate scope. New antitrust enforcement initiatives that seek to limit returns within the legitimate scope of the patentare unwise. Even if they appeared to restrain licensing fees in the short term, economic theory and evidence suggests that such “creative antitrust enforcement” would undermine incentives to invest in patenting, thereby weakening the patent system and tending to slow innovation and economic growth. Nations seeking to spur their economies would be well advised to avoid such antitrust adventurism.”

The free market position on telecom reform has become rather confused of late. Erstwhile conservative Senator Thune is now cosponsoring a version of Senator Rockefeller’s previously proposed video reform bill, bundled into satellite legislation (the Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act or “STAVRA”) that would also include a provision dubbed “Local Choice.” Some free marketeers have defended the bill as a step in the right direction.

Although it looks as if the proposal may be losing steam this Congress, the legislation has been described as a “big and bold idea,” and it’s by no means off the menu. But it should be.

It has been said that politics makes for strange bedfellows. Indeed, people who disagree on just about everything can sometimes unite around a common perceived enemy. Take carriage disputes, for instance. Perhaps because, for some people, a day without The Bachelor is simply a day lost, an unlikely alliance of pro-regulation activists like Public Knowledge and industry stalwarts like Dish has emerged to oppose the ability of copyright holders to withhold content as part of carriage negotiations.

Senator Rockefeller’s Online Video Bill was the catalyst for the Local Choice amendments to STAVRA. Rockefeller’s bill did, well, a lot of terrible things, from imposing certain net neutrality requirements, to overturning the Supreme Court’s Aereo decision, to adding even more complications to the already Byzantine morass of video programming regulations.

But putting Senator Thune’s lipstick on Rockefeller’s pig can’t save the bill, and some of the worst problems from Senator Rockefeller’s original proposal remain.

Among other things, the new bill is designed to weaken the ability of copyright owners to negotiate with distributors, most notably by taking away their ability to withhold content during carriage disputes and by forcing TV stations to sell content on an a la carte basis.

Video distribution issues are complicated — at least under current law. But at root these are just commercial contracts and, like any contracts, they rely on a couple of fundamental principles.

First is the basic property right. The Supreme Court (at least somewhat) settled this for now (in Aereo), by protecting the right of copyright holders to be compensated for carriage of their content. With this baseline, distributors must engage in negotiations to obtain content, rather than employing technological workarounds and exploiting legal loopholes.

Second is the related ability of contracts to govern the terms of trade. A property right isn’t worth much if its owner can’t control how it is used, governed or exchanged.

Finally, and derived from these, is the issue of bargaining power. Good-faith negotiations require both sides not to act strategically by intentionally causing negotiations to break down. But if negotiations do break down, parties need to be able to protect their rights. When content owners are not able to withhold content in carriage disputes, they are put in an untenable bargaining position. This invites bad faith negotiations by distributors.

The STAVRA/Local Choice proposal would undermine the property rights and freedom of contract that bring The Bachelor to your TV, and the proposed bill does real damage by curtailing the scope of the property right in TV programming and restricting the range of contracts available for networks to license their content.

The bill would require that essentially all broadcast stations that elect retrans make their content available a la carte — thus unbundling some of the proverbial sticks that make up the traditional property right. It would also establish MVPD pass-through of each local affiliate. Subscribers would pay a fee determined by the affiliate, and the station must be offered on an unbundled basis, without any minimum tier required – meaning an MVPD has to offer local stations to its customers with no markup, on an a la carte basis, if the station doesn’t elect must-carry. It would also direct the FCC to open a rulemaking to determine whether broadcasters should be prohibited from withholding their content online during a dispute with an MPVD.

“Free market” supporters of the bill assert something like “if we don’t do this to stop blackouts, we won’t be able to stem the tide of regulation of broadcasters.” Presumably this would end blackouts of broadcast programming: If you’re an MVPD subscriber, and you pay the $1.40 (or whatever) for CBS, you get it, period. The broadcaster sets an annual per-subscriber rate; MVPDs pass it on and retransmit only to subscribers who opt in.

But none of this is good for consumers.

When transaction costs are positive, negotiations sometimes break down. If the original right is placed in the wrong hands, then contracting may not assure the most efficient outcome. I think it was Coase who said that.

But taking away the ability of content owners to restrict access to their content during a bargaining dispute effectively places the right to content in the hands of distributors. Obviously, this change in bargaining position will depress the value of content. Placing the rights in the hands of distributors reduces the incentive to create content in the first place; this is why the law protects copyright to begin with. But it also reduces the ability of content owners and distributors to reach innovative agreements and contractual arrangements (like certain promotional deals) that benefit consumers, distributors and content owners alike.

The mandating of a la carte licensing doesn’t benefit consumers, either. Bundling is generally pro-competitive and actually gives consumers more content than they would otherwise have. The bill’s proposal to force programmers to sell content to consumers a la carte may actually lead to higher overall prices for less content. Not much of a bargain.

There are plenty of other ways this is bad for consumers, even if it narrowly “protects” them from blackouts. For example, the bill would prohibit a network from making a deal with an MVPD that provides a discount on a bundle including carriage of both its owned broadcast stations as well as the network’s affiliated cable programming. This is not a worthwhile — or free market — trade-off; it is an ill-advised and economically indefensible attack on vertical distribution arrangements — exactly the same thing that animates many net neutrality defenders.

Just as net neutrality’s meddling in commercial arrangements between ISPs and edge providers will ensure a host of unintended consequences, so will the Rockefeller/Thune bill foreclose a host of welfare-increasing deals. In the end, in exchange for never having to go three days without CBS content, the bill will make that content more expensive, limit the range of programming offered, and lock video distribution into a prescribed business model.

Former FCC Commissioner Rob McDowell sees the same hypocritical connection between net neutrality and broadcast regulation like the Local Choice bill:

According to comments filed with the FCC by Time Warner Cable and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, broadcasters should not be allowed to take down or withhold the content they produce and own from online distribution even if subscribers have not paid for it—as a matter of federal law. In other words, edge providers should be forced to stream their online content no matter what. Such an overreach, of course, would lay waste to the economics of the Internet. It would also violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against state-mandated, or forced, speech—the flip side of censorship.

It is possible that the cable companies figure that subjecting powerful broadcasters to anti-free speech rules will shift the political momentum in the FCC and among the public away from net neutrality. But cable’s anti-free speech arguments play right into the hands of the net-neutrality crowd. They want to place the entire Internet ecosystem, physical networks, content and apps, in the hands of federal bureaucrats.

While cable providers have generally opposed net neutrality regulation, there is, apparently, some support among them for regulations that would apply to the edge. The Rockefeller/Thune proposal is just a replay of this constraint — this time by forcing programmers to allow retransmission of broadcast content under terms set by Congress. While “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” sounds appealing in theory, here it is simply doubling down on a terrible idea.

What it reveals most of all is that true neutrality advocates don’t want government control to be limited to ISPs — rather, progressives like Rockefeller (and apparently some conservatives, like Thune) want to subject the whole apparatus — distribution and content alike — to intrusive government oversight in order to “protect” consumers (a point Fred Campbell deftly expands upon here and here).

You can be sure that, if the GOP supports broadcast a la carte, it will pave the way for Democrats (and moderates like McCain who back a la carte) to expand anti-consumer unbundling requirements to cable next. Nearly every economic analysis has concluded that mandated a la carte pricing of cable programming would be harmful to consumers. There is no reason to think that applying it to broadcast channels would be any different.

What’s more, the logical extension of the bill is to apply unbundling to all MVPD channels and to saddle them with contract restraints, as well — and while we’re at it, why not unbundle House of Cards from Orange is the New Black? The Rockefeller bill may have started in part as an effort to “protect” OVDs, but there’ll be no limiting this camel once its nose is under the tent. Like it or not, channel unbundling is arbitrary — why not unbundle by program, episode, studio, production company, etc.?

There is simply no principled basis for the restraints in this bill, and thus there will be no limit to its reach. Indeed, “free market” defenders of the Rockefeller/Thune approach may well be supporting a bill that ultimately leads to something like compulsory, a la carte licensing of all video programming. As I noted in my testimony last year before the House Commerce Committee on the satellite video bill:

Unless we are prepared to bear the consumer harm from reduced variety, weakened competition and possibly even higher prices (and absolutely higher prices for some content), there is no economic justification for interfering in these business decisions.

So much for property rights — and so much for vibrant video programming.

That there is something wrong with the current system is evident to anyone who looks at it. As Gus Hurwitz noted in recent testimony on Rockefeller’s original bill,

The problems with the existing regulatory regime cannot be understated. It involves multiple statutes implemented by multiple agencies to govern technologies developed in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, according to policy goals from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. We are no longer living in a world where the Rube Goldberg of compulsory licenses, must carry and retransmission consent, financial interest and syndication exclusivity rules, and the panoply of Federal, state, and local regulations makes sense – yet these are the rules that govern the video industry.

While video regulation is in need of reform, this bill is not an improvement. In the short run it may ameliorate some carriage disputes, but it will do so at the expense of continued programming vibrancy and distribution innovations. The better way to effect change would be to abolish the Byzantine regulations that simultaneously attempt to place thumbs of both sides of the scale, and to rely on free market negotiations with a copyright baseline and antitrust review for actual abuses.

But STAVRA/Local Choice is about as far from that as you can get.