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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.”

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.

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.”

[Cross posted at the CPIP Blog.]

By Mark Schultz & Adam Mossoff

A handful of increasingly noisy critics of intellectual property (IP) have emerged within free market organizations. Both the emergence and vehemence of this group has surprised most observers, since free market advocates generally support property rights. It’s true that there has long been a strain of IP skepticism among some libertarian intellectuals. However, the surprised observer would be correct to think that the latest critique is something new. In our experience, most free market advocates see the benefit and importance of protecting the property rights of all who perform productive labor – whether the results are tangible or intangible.

How do the claims of this emerging critique stand up? We have had occasion to examine the arguments of free market IP skeptics before. (For example, see here, here, here.) So far, we have largely found their claims wanting.

We have yet another occasion to examine their arguments, and once again we are underwhelmed and disappointed. We recently posted an essay at AEI’s Tech Policy Daily prompted by an odd report recently released by the Mercatus Center, a free-market think tank. The Mercatus report attacks recent research that supposedly asserts, in the words of the authors of the Mercatus report, that “the existence of intellectual property in an industry creates the jobs in that industry.” They contend that this research “provide[s] no theoretical or empirical evidence to support” its claims of the importance of intellectual property to the U.S. economy.

Our AEI essay responds to these claims by explaining how these IP skeptics both mischaracterize the studies that they are attacking and fail to acknowledge the actual historical and economic evidence on the connections between IP, innovation, and economic prosperity. We recommend that anyone who may be confused by the assertions of any IP skeptics waving the banner of property rights and the free market read our essay at AEI, as well as our previous essays in which we have called out similarly odd statements from Mercatus about IP rights.

The Mercatus report, though, exemplifies many of the concerns we raise about these IP skeptics, and so it deserves to be considered at greater length.

For instance, something we touched on briefly in our AEI essay is the fact that the authors of this Mercatus report offer no empirical evidence of their own within their lengthy critique of several empirical studies, and at best they invoke thin theoretical support for their contentions.

This is odd if only because they are critiquing several empirical studies that develop careful, balanced and rigorous models for testing one of the biggest economic questions in innovation policy: What is the relationship between intellectual property and jobs and economic growth?

Apparently, the authors of the Mercatus report presume that the burden of proof is entirely on the proponents of IP, and that a bit of hand waving using abstract economic concepts and generalized theory is enough to defeat arguments supported by empirical data and plausible methodology.

This move raises a foundational question that frames all debates about IP rights today: On whom should the burden rest? On those who claim that IP has beneficial economic effects? Or on those who claim otherwise, such as the authors of the Mercatus report?

The burden of proof here is an important issue. Too often, recent debates about IP rights have started from an assumption that the entire burden of proof rests on those investigating or defending IP rights. Quite often, IP skeptics appear to believe that their criticism of IP rights needs little empirical or theoretical validation, beyond talismanic invocations of “monopoly” and anachronistic assertions that the Framers of the US Constitution were utilitarians.

As we detail in our AEI essay, though, the problem with arguments like those made in the Mercatus report is that they contradict history and empirics. For the evidence that supports this claim, including citations to the many studies that are ignored by the IP skeptics at Mercatus and elsewhere, check out the essay.

Despite these historical and economic facts, one may still believe that the US would enjoy even greater prosperity without IP. But IP skeptics who believe in this counterfactual world face a challenge. As a preliminary matter, they ought to acknowledge that they are the ones swimming against the tide of history and prevailing belief. More important, the burden of proof is on them – the IP skeptics – to explain why the U.S. has long prospered under an IP system they find so odious and destructive of property rights and economic progress, while countries that largely eschew IP have languished. This obligation is especially heavy for one who seeks to undermine empirical work such as the USPTO Report and other studies.

In sum, you can’t beat something with nothing. For IP skeptics to contest this evidence, they should offer more than polemical and theoretical broadsides. They ought to stop making faux originalist arguments that misstate basic legal facts about property and IP, and instead offer their own empirical evidence. The Mercatus report, however, is content to confine its empirics to critiques of others’ methodology – including claims their targets did not make.

For example, in addition to the several strawman attacks identified in our AEI essay, the Mercatus report constructs another strawman in its discussion of studies of copyright piracy done by Stephen Siwek for the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI). Mercatus inaccurately and unfairly implies that Siwek’s studies on the impact of piracy in film and music assumed that every copy pirated was a sale lost – this is known as “the substitution rate problem.” In fact, Siwek’s methodology tackled that exact problem.

IPI and Siwek never seem to get credit for this, but Siwek was careful to avoid the one-to-one substitution rate estimate that Mercatus and others foist on him and then critique as empirically unsound. If one actually reads his report, it is clear that Siwek assumes that bootleg physical copies resulted in a 65.7% substitution rate, while illegal downloads resulted in a 20% substitution rate. Siwek’s methodology anticipates and renders moot the critique that Mercatus makes anyway.

After mischaracterizing these studies and their claims, the Mercatus report goes further in attacking them as supporting advocacy on behalf of IP rights. Yes, the empirical results have been used by think tanks, trade associations and others to support advocacy on behalf of IP rights. But does that advocacy make the questions asked and resulting research invalid? IP skeptics would have trumpeted results showing that IP-intensive industries had a minimal economic impact, just as Mercatus policy analysts have done with alleged empirical claims about IP in other contexts. In fact, IP skeptics at free-market institutions repeatedly invoke studies in policy advocacy that allegedly show harm from patent litigation, despite these studies suffering from far worse problems than anything alleged in their critiques of the USPTO and other studies.

Finally, we noted in our AEI essay how it was odd to hear a well-known libertarian think tank like Mercatus advocate for more government-funded programs, such as direct grants or prizes, as viable alternatives to individual property rights secured to inventors and creators. There is even more economic work being done beyond the empirical studies we cited in our AEI essay on the critical role that property rights in innovation serve in a flourishing free market, as well as work on the economic benefits of IP rights over other governmental programs like prizes.

Today, we are in the midst of a full-blown moral panic about the alleged evils of IP. It’s alarming that libertarians – the very people who should be defending all property rights – have jumped on this populist bandwagon. Imagine if free market advocates at the turn of the Twentieth Century had asserted that there was no evidence that property rights had contributed to the Industrial Revolution. Imagine them joining in common cause with the populist Progressives to suppress the enforcement of private rights and the enjoyment of economic liberty. It’s a bizarre image, but we are seeing its modern-day equivalent, as these libertarians join the chorus of voices arguing against property and private ordering in markets for innovation and creativity.

It’s also disconcerting that Mercatus appears to abandon its exceptionally high standards for scholarly work-product when it comes to IP rights. Its economic analyses and policy briefs on such subjects as telecommunications regulation, financial and healthcare markets, and the regulatory state have rightly made Mercatus a respected free-market institution. It’s unfortunate that it has lent this justly earned prestige and legitimacy to stale and derivative arguments against property and private ordering in the innovation and creative industries. It’s time to embrace the sound evidence and back off the rhetoric.

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

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

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

JOANNA TSAI, Government of the United States of America – Federal Trade Commission
Email:
JOSHUA D. WRIGHT, Federal Trade Commission, George Mason University School of Law
Email:

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

[First posted to the CPIP Blog on June 17, 2014]

Last Thursday, Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla Motors, issued an announcement on the company’s blog with a catchy title: “All Our Patent Are Belong to You.” Commentary in social media and on blogs, as well as in traditional newspapers, jumped to the conclusion that Tesla is abandoning its patents and making them “freely” available to the public for whomever wants to use them. As with all things involving patented innovation these days, the reality of Tesla’s new patent policy does not match the PR spin or the buzz on the Internet.

The reality is that Tesla is not disclaiming its patent rights, despite Musk’s title to his announcement or his invocation in his announcement of the tread-worn cliché today that patents impede innovation. In fact, Tesla’s new policy is an example of Musk exercising patent rights, not abandoning them.

If you’re not puzzled by Tesla’s announcement, you should be. This is because patents are a type of property right that secures the exclusive rights to make, use, or sell an invention for a limited period of time. These rights do not come cheap — inventions cost time, effort, and money to create and companies like Tesla then exploit these property rights in spending even more time, effort and money in converting inventions into viable commercial products and services sold in the marketplace. Thus, if Tesla’s intention is to make its ideas available for public use, why, one may wonder, did it bother to expend the tremendous resources in acquiring the patents in the first place?

The key to understanding this important question lies in a single phrase in Musk’s announcement that almost everyone has failed to notice: “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” (emphasis added)

What does “in good faith” mean in this context? Fortunately, one intrepid reporter at the L.A. Times asked this question, and the answer from Musk makes clear that this new policy is not an abandonment of patent rights in favor of some fuzzy notion of the public domain, but rather it’s an exercise of his company’s patent rights: “Tesla will allow other manufacturers to use its patents in “good faith” – essentially barring those users from filing patent-infringement lawsuits against [Tesla] or trying to produce knockoffs of Tesla’s cars.” In the legalese known to patent lawyers and inventors the world over, this is not an abandonment of Tesla’s patents, this is what is known as a cross license.

In plain English, here’s the deal that Tesla is offering to manufacturers and users of its electrical car technology: in exchange for using Tesla’s patents, the users of Tesla’s patents cannot file patent infringement lawsuits against Tesla if Tesla uses their other patents. In other words, this is a classic deal made between businesses all of the time — you can use my property and I can use your property, and we cannot sue each other. It’s a similar deal to that made between two neighbors who agree to permit each other to cross each other’s backyard. In the context of patented innovation, this agreement is more complicated, but it is in principle the same thing: if automobile manufacturer X decides to use Tesla’s patents, and Tesla begins infringing X’s patents on other technology, then X has agreed through its prior use of Tesla’s patents that it cannot sue Tesla. Thus, each party has licensed the other to make, use and sell their respective patented technologies; in patent law parlance, it’s a “cross license.”

The only thing unique about this cross licensing offer is that Tesla publicly announced it as an open offer for anyone willing to accept it. This is not a patent “free for all,” and it certainly is not tantamount to Tesla “taking down the patent wall.” These are catchy sound bites, but they in fact obfuscate the clear business-minded nature of this commercial decision.

For anyone perhaps still doubting what is happening here, the same L.A Times story further confirms that Tesla is not abandoning the patent system. As stated to the reporter: “Tesla will continue to seek patents for its new technology to prevent others from poaching its advancements.” So much for the much ballyhooed pronouncements last week of how Tesla’s new patent (licensing) policy “reminds us of the urgent need for patent reform”! Musk clearly believes that the patent system is working just great for the new technological innovation his engineers are creating at Tesla right now.

For those working in the innovation industries, Tesla’s decision to cross license its old patents makes sense. Tesla Motors has already extracted much of the value from these old patents: Musk was able to secure venture capital funding for his startup company and he was able to secure for Tesla a dominant position in the electrical car market through his exclusive use of this patented innovation. (Venture capitalists consistently rely on patents in making investment decisions, and for anyone who doubts this need to watch only a few episodes of Shark Tank.) Now that everyone associates radical, cutting-edge innovation with Tesla, Musk can shift in his strategic use of his company’s assets, including his intellectual property rights, such as relying more heavily on the goodwill associated with the Tesla trademark. This is clear, for instance, from the statement to the LA Times that companies or individuals agreeing to the “good faith” terms of Tesla’s license agree not to make “knockoffs of Tesla’s cars.”

There are other equally important commercial reasons for Tesla adopting its new cross-licensing policy, but the point has been made. Tesla’s new cross-licensing policy for its old patents is not Musk embracing “the open source philosophy” (as he asserts in his announcement). This may make good PR given the overheated rhetoric today about the so-called “broken patent system,” but it’s time people recognize the difference between PR and a reasonable business decision that reflects a company that has used (old) patents to acquire a dominant market position and is now changing its business model given these successful developments.

At a minimum, people should recognize that Tesla is not declaring that it will not bring patent infringement lawsuits, but only that it will not sue people with whom it has licensed its patented innovation. This is not, contrary to one law professor’s statement, a company “refrain[ing] from exercising their patent rights to the fullest extent of the law.” In licensing its patented technology, Tesla is in fact exercising its patent rights to the fullest extent of the law, and that is exactly what the patent system promotes in the myriad business models and innovative

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: I’ve been reliably informed that Vint Cerf coined the term “permissionless innovation,” and, thus, that he did so with the sorts of private impediments discussed below in mind rather than government regulation. So consider the title of this post changed to “Permissionless innovation SHOULD not mean ‘no contracts required,'” and I’ll happily accept that my version is the “bastardized” version of the term. Which just means that the original conception was wrong and thank god for disruptive innovation in policy memes!

Can we dispense with the bastardization of the “permissionless innovation” concept (best developed by Adam Thierer) to mean “no contracts required”? I’ve been seeing this more and more, but it’s been around for a while. Some examples from among the innumerable ones out there:

Vint Cerf on net neutrality in 2009:

We believe that the vast numbers of innovative Internet applications over the last decade are a direct consequence of an open and freely accessible Internet. Many now-successful companies have deployed their services on the Internet without the need to negotiate special arrangements with Internet Service Providers, and it’s crucial that future innovators have the same opportunity. We are advocates for “permissionless innovation” that does not impede entrepreneurial enterprise.

Net neutrality is replete with this sort of idea — that any impediment to edge providers (not networks, of course) doing whatever they want to do at a zero price is a threat to innovation.

Chet Kanojia (Aereo CEO) following the Aereo decision:

It is troubling that the Court states in its decision that, ‘to the extent commercial actors or other interested entities may be concerned with the relationship between the development and use of such technologies and the Copyright Act, they are of course free to seek action from Congress.’ (Majority, page 17)That begs the question: Are we moving towards a permission-based system for technology innovation?

At least he puts it in the context of the Court’s suggestion that Congress pass a law, but what he really wants is to not have to ask “permission” of content providers to use their content.

Mike Masnick on copyright in 2010:

But, of course, the problem with all of this is that it goes back to creating permission culture, rather than a culture where people freely create. You won’t be able to use these popular or useful tools to build on the works of others — which, contrary to the claims of today’s copyright defenders, is a key component in almost all creativity you see out there — without first getting permission.

Fair use is, by definition, supposed to be “permissionless.” But the concept is hardly limited to fair use, is used to justify unlimited expansion of fair use, and is extended by advocates to nearly all of copyright (see, e.g., Mike Masnick again), which otherwise requires those pernicious licenses (i.e., permission) from others.

The point is, when we talk about permissionless innovation for Tesla, Uber, Airbnb, commercial drones, online data and the like, we’re talking (or should be) about ex ante government restrictions on these things — the “permission” at issue is permission from the government, it’s the “permission” required to get around regulatory roadblocks imposed via rent-seeking and baseless paternalism. As Gordon Crovitz writes, quoting Thierer:

“The central fault line in technology policy debates today can be thought of as ‘the permission question,'” Mr. Thierer writes. “Must the creators of new technologies seek the blessing of public officials before they develop and deploy their innovations?”

But it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about private contracts.

Just about all human (commercial) activity requires interaction with others, and that means contracts and licenses. You don’t see anyone complaining about the “permission” required to rent space from a landlord. But that some form of “permission” may be required to use someone else’s creative works or other property (including broadband networks) is no different. And, in fact, it is these sorts of contracts (and, yes, the revenue that may come with them) that facilitates people engaging with other commercial actors to produce things of value in the first place. The same can’t be said of government permission.

Don’t get me wrong – there may be some net welfare-enhancing regulatory limits that might require forms of government permission. But the real concern is the pervasive abuse of these limits, imposed without anything approaching a rigorous welfare determination. There might even be instances where private permission, imposed, say, by a true monopolist, might be problematic.

But this idea that any contractual obligation amounts to a problematic impediment to innovation is absurd, and, in fact, precisely backward. Which is why net neutrality is so misguided. Instead of identifying actual, problematic impediments to innovation, it simply assumes that networks threaten edge innovation, without any corresponding benefit and with such certainty (although no actual evidence) that ex ante common carrier regulations are required.

“Permissionless innovation” is a great phrase and, well developed (as Adam Thierer has done), a useful concept. But its bastardization to justify interference with private contracts is unsupported and pernicious.

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

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

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

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

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

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