Archives For international trade

Over at the blog for the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property, Richard Epstein has posted a lengthy essay that critiques the Obama Administration’s decision this past August 3 to veto the exclusion order issued by the International Trade Commission (ITC) in the Samsung v. Apple dispute filed there (ITC Investigation No. 794).  In his essay, The Dangerous Adventurism of the United States Trade Representative: Lifting the Ban against Apple Products Unnecessarily Opens a Can of Worms in Patent Law, Epstein rightly identifies how the 3-page letter issued to the ITC creates tremendous institutional and legal troubles in the name an unverified theory about “patent holdup” invoked in the name of an equally overgeneralized and vague belief in the “public interest.”

Here’s a taste:

The choice in question here thus boils down to whether the low rate of voluntary failure justifies the introduction of an expensive and error-filled judicial process that gives all parties the incentive to posture before a public agency that has more business than it can possibly handle. It is on this matter critical to remember that all standards issues are not the same as this particularly nasty, high-stake dispute between two behemoths whose vital interests make this a highly atypical standard-setting dispute. Yet at no point in the Trade Representative’s report is there any mention of how this mega-dispute might be an outlier. Indeed, without so much as a single reference to its own limited institutional role, the decision uses a short three-page document to set out a dogmatic position on issues on which there is, as I have argued elsewhere, good reason to be suspicious of the overwrought claims of the White House on a point that is, to say the least, fraught with political intrigue

Ironically, there was, moreover a way to write this opinion that could have narrowed the dispute and exposed for public deliberation a point that does require serious consideration. The thoughtful dissenting opinion of Commissioner Pinkert pointed the way. Commissioner Pinkert contended that the key factor weighing against granting Samsung an exclusion order is that Samsung in its FRAND negotiations demanded from Apple rights to use certain non standard-essential patents as part of the overall deal. In this view, the introduction of nonprice terms on nonstandard patterns represents an abuse of the FRAND standard. Assume for the moment that this contention is indeed correct, and the magnitude of the problem is cut a hundred or a thousand fold. This particular objection is easy to police and companies will know that they cannot introduce collateral matters into their negotiations over standards, at which point the massive and pointless overkill of the Trade Representative’s order is largely eliminated. No longer do we have to treat as gospel truth the highly dubious assertions about the behavior of key parties to standard-setting disputes.

But is Pinkert correct? On the one side, it is possible to invoke a monopoly leverage theory similar to that used in some tie-in cases to block this extension. But those theories are themselves tricky to apply, and the counter argument could well be that the addition of new terms expands the bargaining space and thus increases the likelihood of an agreement. To answer that question to my mind requires some close attention to the actual and customary dynamics of these negotiations, which could easily vary across different standards. I would want to reserve judgment on a question this complex, and I think that the Trade Representative would have done everyone a great service if he had addressed the hard question. But what we have instead is a grand political overgeneralization that reflects a simple-minded and erroneous view of current practices.

You can read the essay at CPIP’s blog here, or you can download a PDF of the white paper version here (please feel free to distribute digitally or in hardcopy).

 

Over at Law360 I have a piece on patent enforcement at the ITC (gated), focusing on the ITC’s two Apple-Samsung cases: one in which the the ITC issued a final determination in which it found Apple to have infringed one of Samsung’s 3G-related SEPs, and the other (awaiting a final determination from the Commission) in which an ALJ found Samsung infringed four of Apple’s patents, including a design patent. Here’s a taste:

In fact, there is a strong argument in favor of ITC adjudication of FRAND-encumbered patents. As the name suggests, FRAND-encumbered patents must be licensed by their owners on reasonable, nondiscriminatory terms. Despite Apple’s claims that Samsung refused to negotiate, this seems unlikely (and the ITC found otherwise, of course). What’s more, post-adjudication, the FRAND requirement associated with a FRAND-encumbered patent remains.

As a result, negotiation over license terms for FRAND-encumbered patents can only be more likely than for other patents on which there is no duty to negotiate. Agreement over terms is similarly more likely as FRAND narrows the bargaining range for patent holders. What that means is that (1) avoiding a possible ITC exclusion order ex ante is a simple matter of entering into negotiations and licensing, an outcome that is required by FRAND, and (2) ex post (that is, after an exclusion order is issued), reinstating the ability to import and sell otherwise-infringing devices is also more readily accomplished, likewise through obligatory negotiation and licensing.

* * *

The ITC’s threat of injunctive relief can impel negotiation and licensing in all contexts, of course. But the absence of monetary damages, coupled with the inherent uncertainties surrounding design patents, the broad scope of enforcement and the vagaries of CBP’s implementation of ITC orders, is significantly more troubling in the design patent context. Thus, contrary to many critics’ assertions, the White House’s recent proposal and pending bills in Congress, it is actually FRAND-encumbered SEPs that are most amenable to adjudication and enforcement by the ITC

As they say, read the whole thing.

Coincidentally, Verizon’s general counsel, Randal Milch, has an op-ed on the same topic in today’s Wall Street Journal. Notes Milch:

What we have warned is that patent litigation at the ITC—where the only remedy is to keep products from the American public—is too high-stakes a game for patent disputes. The fact that the ITC’s intellectual-property-dispute docket has nearly quadrupled over 15 years only raises the stakes further. Smartphone patent litigation accounts for a substantial share of that increase.

Here are three instances under which the president should veto an exclusion order:

  • When the patent holder isn’t practicing the technology itself. Courts have routinely found shutdown relief inappropriate for non-practicing entities. Patent trolls shouldn’t be permitted to exclude products from our shores.
  • When the patent holder has already agreed to license the patent on reasonable terms as part of standards setting. If the patent holder has previously agreed that a reasonable licensing fee is all it needs to be made whole, it shouldn’t get shutdown relief at the ITC.
  • When the infringing piece of the product isn’t that important to the overall product, and doesn’t drive consumer demand for the product at issue. There are more than 250,000 patents relevant to today’s smartphones. It makes no sense that exclusion could occur for infringement of the most minor patent.

Obviously, the second of these is implicated in the ITC’s SEP case. But, as I have noted before, this ignores (and exacerbates) the problem of reverse holdup—where potential licensees refuse to license on reasonable terms. As the ITC noted in the Apple-Samsung SEP case:

The ALJ found that the evidence did not support a conclusion that Samsung failed to offer Apple a license on FRAND terms.

***

Apple argues that Samsung was obligated to make an initial offer to Apple of a specific fair and reasonable royalty rate. The evidence on record does not support Apple’s position….Further, there is no legal authority for Apple’s argument. Indeed, the limited precedent on the issue appears to indicate that an initial offer need not be the terms of a final FRAND license because the SSO intends the final license to be accomplished through negotiation. See Microsoft Corp. v. Motorola, Inc. (because SSOs contemplated that RAND terms be determined through negotiation, “it logically does not follow that initial offers must be on RAND terms”) [citation omitted].

***

Apple’s position illustrates the potential problem of so-called reverse patent hold-up, a concern identified in many of the public comments received by the Commission.20 In reverse patent hold-up, an implementer utilizes declared-essential technology without compensation to the patent owner under the guise that the patent owner’s offers to license were not fair or reasonable. The patent owner is therefore forced to defend its rights through expensive litigation. In the meantime, the patent owner is deprived of the exclusionary remedy that should normally flow when a party refuses to pay for the use of a patented invention.

One other note, on the point about the increase in patent litigation: This needs to be understood in context. As this article notes:

Over the last 40 years the number of patent lawsuits filed in the US has stayed relatively constant as a percentage of patents issued.

And the accompanying charts paint the picture even more clearly. Perhaps the numbers at the ITC would look somewhat different, as it seems to have increased in importance as a locus of patent litigation activity. But the larger point about the purported excess of patent litigation remains. I hasten to add that this doesn’t mean that the system is perfect, in particular (as my Law360 piece notes) with respect to the issuance and enforcement of design patents. But that may be an argument for USPTO reform, design patent reform, and/or, as Scott Kieff (who, by the way, finally got a hearing last week on his nomination by President Obama to be a member of the ITC) has argued, targeted reforms of the presumption of validity and fee-shifting. But it’s not a strong argument against injunctive remedies (at the ITC or elsewhere) in SEP cases.

Patent Activity by Year (in Terms of Applications Filed, Patents Issued and Lawsuits Filed)

Patent Activity by Year (in Terms of Applications Filed, Patents Issued and Lawsuits Filed)

Patent Lawsuits Normalized Against Patents Issued and Applications Filed

Patent Lawsuits Normalized Against Patents Issued and Applications Filed

Patent Activity by Year (in Terms of Applications Filed, Patents Issued and Lawsuits Filed), 5-year Moving Averages

Patent Activity by Year (in Terms of Applications Filed, Patents Issued and Lawsuits Filed), 5-year Moving Averages

The claim that there is a “patent litigation explosion” is a myth, but there’s a related patent litigation myth that has proven cantankerously resilient in the patent policy debates — there’s an “explosion” of patent-owners racing to the International Trade Commission (ITC) who are obtaining exclusion orders against infringers.

Well, this argument has crashed and burned against the hard facts of the actual numbers, but even before patent filings at the ITC dropped, this argument was still problematic.

The reason is that it was an example of a great game that we all learn in college: fun with statistics!  It’s the old rhetorical saw: If actual numbers don’t make something look bad, then just reframe the point as an out-of-context statistical claim and now it sounds like a complete disaster that demands immediate action by everyone—by Congress, by courts, and, given that the season is almost upon us, by Santa Claus (who should punish these allegedly rent-seeking patent-owners with coal in their stockings).

You may think I jest, but it’s common fare for commentators and academics to paint the situation in the ITC entirely in terms of statistical increases by patent-owners.  To take but one representative example from a 2009 academic article:

The ITC has become a popular forum for enforcing patents, with the number of actions increasing by nearly 80% since 2003.

An 80% increase in patent filings in six years!  This is clearly a litigation hurricane of historic proportions!  We must do something about this before the ITC is flooded like New York City was by Hurricane Sandy!

Yet, when one looks behind the statistics at the actual numbers, it’s almost laughable that numerous law journal articles, newspaper articles, and blog postings are breathlessly reporting on this as if this is a pressing policy problem in both the patent system and the ITC.  Congress even spent more taxpayer dollars holding hearings this past summer on this allegedly pressing problem, and what a waste of time this was.

Here’s the actual numbers behind the statistics: From 2003 to 2009 (fiscal year), patent filings in the ITC increased from 19 to 29.  In the ten years from 2001 to 2011, patent case filings in the ITC went from 29 to 70.  (Note the drop between 2001 and 2003, a drop that has occurred again and to which we will return shortly.)

So, commentators and academics want Congress to change the law to make it harder for patent-owners to seek relief at the ITC because patent filings increased in ten years from 29 cases to 70 cases.  Alas, 70 total cases doesn’t sound too bad, especially when hundreds of thousands of lawsuits and other regulatory cases are filed annually.  So, the easy answer to this problem is to reframe rhetorically the total cases: the shift from 29 to 70 cases is an increase of 141%!  In ten years!  Yep, fun with statistics.

But even if one thinks for some strange reason that 70 cases is a huge number of filings at the ITC, this is still an out-of-context assertion that doesn’t mean anything.  As empirical economists and statisticians always ask: What’s the baseline?

One good baseline is to compare ITC filings to patent infringement cases filed in plain-old-vanilla federal court. How many patent infringement cases are filed each year in federal court?  In 2010, the total number of patent infringement lawsuits was 3,605 cases.  Yes, you read that number right: 3,605 cases.  (That’s the last year for which we have numbers.)  And before readers jump to the conclusion that 3,605 cases is an unmitigated patent litigation explosion, this would be incorrect as well — as I explained in a previous blog posting, patent litigation rates today are approximately the same or less than the patent litigation rates from 1790 to 1860.

In sum, we’re supposed to be filled with shock and awe by the 70 patent cases that were filed in the ITC in 2011, as compared to the 3,605 cases filed in federal court.  These 70 patents cases at the ITC, we’re told, demand immediate congressional action to impose a regime change on the ITC in limiting its jurisdiction over patents.  To put it bluntly, people are getting their patent policy knickers in a twist because 1.94% of total patent infringement cases are also being filed in the ITC.  Yep, fun with statistics.

And as Billy Mays would say: But wait, there’s more!  (That OxiClean was definitely worth it.  My sneakers were never so clean.)

Lest one still thinks that the number of patent filings in the ITC is a problem, the ITC released last month its fiscal-year 2012 report on patent filings — a report that got about as much attention as a report on dryer lint accumulations in fiscal-year 2012.  Given the ongoing uproar over patent filings in the ITC, one would expect that the ITC’s report would be have been trumpeted in news articles, blog postings, and by the commentators and academics who have been singing this tune for the past several years.

Nope, not a single peep about this report has been made in the more-than-30 days since its release.  Why the silence — the deafening silence — about the most recent data from the ITC on patent filings?

The reason is simple: the facts in the latest ITC fiscal-year report don’t fit the policy narrative.  The ITC reported that patent cases filed in the ITC dropped from a high of 70 cases in 2011 to a total of 48 cases in 2012 (fiscal year).  In the statistical terms loved so much by the critics of patent filings at the ITC, patent filings dropped by 31.4% between 2011 and 2012 (fiscal years).  Now that’s an interesting statistical number about which much could be said — or, as is the case, not said and ignored in the hope that it’ll just go away.

So, what happened to the loud, incessant complaints about skyrocketing patent filings in the ITC?  Well, to paraphrase the old man at the end of every Scooby Doo episode: And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for you meddling facts!

UPDATE: I made some minor copy-edit changes to the text after I posted it.

From the Economist, and courtesy of Craig Newmark:

Enter Georgia Chopsticks. Jae Lee, a former scrap-metal exporter, saw an opportunity and began turning out chopsticks for the Chinese market late last year. He and his co-owner, David Hughes, make their chopsticks from poplar and sweet-gum trees, which have the requisite flexibility and toughness, and are abundant throughout Georgia.

In May Georgia Chopsticks moved to larger premises in Americus, a location that offered room to grow, inexpensive facilities and a willing workforce. Sumter County, of which Americus is the seat, has an unemployment rate of more than 12%. Georgia Chopsticks now employs 81 people turning out 2m chopsticks a day. By year’s end Mr Lee and Mr Hughes hope to increase their workforce to 150, and dream of building a “manufacturing incubator” to help foreign firms take advantage of Georgia’s workforce and raw materials.

 

Merger Retrospective

Steve Salop —  4 April 2011

Several years ago, the DOJ cleared a merger between Whirlpool and Maytag.   The primary defense was that post-merger prices could not rise because of intense competition from foreign competitors like LG and Samsung. Apparently the actual competition was more than Whirlpool wanted to bear.  Guess What?  Mr. Laissez-Faire Antitrust, meet Dr. Public Choice.  The Wall Street Journal has reported that Whirlpool has filed a dumping complaint against LG and Samsung.   Whirlpool’s dumping complaint involves refrigerators and the merger concerns involved washers and dryers more than refrigerators.  But, the complaint sends a signal to LG and Samsung.  The comlaint also certainly does raise a caution about relying on foreign competition, and suggests a potential remedial provision.

Copyright Conundrum

Michael Sykuta —  4 August 2010

Earlier this year, the US Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to Costco in the case of OMEGA SA v. Costco Wholesale Corp. (541 F. 3d 982 (2008)).  At issue is whether the ‘first sale doctrine’ of US copyright law (17 U.S.C. § 109(a)), which limits the copyright owner’s ability to restrict distribution of its product after first sale, applies to foreign-manufactured products whose first sale was outside the U.S. and whose importation to the U.S. was not authorized by the manufacturer. (I happened to run across a July 31 op-ed by Eric Felten at the WSJ lamenting the potential for the case to limit the ability of libraries to lend books, particularly books originally published and purchased overseas.) The case raises some interesting issues about the role and purpose of copyright protection, segregated market price discrimination in a global economy, and the role of the gray markets in arbitraging global price disparities.

Continue Reading…

In light of economic worries in Vietnam, the WSJ reports that the country is soon likely to impose a widespread set of price controls and restrictions on political activity after an encouraging move toward freer markets:

Carlyle Thayer, a veteran Vietnam watcher and professor at the Australian Defense Academy in Canberra, says conservative factions in the ruling Politburo are tightening their grip on the country as Vietnam’s economic worries—especially inflation and fallout from currency devaluations—grow. He says he expects more crackdowns and arrests to come in the run-up to the country’s 2011 Party Congress, a major political event that will aim to map out Vietnam’s political and economic direction for the following five years.  In turn, the crackdowns threaten to curtail investment and economic growth in the country…..

Now, the price-control unit of Vietnam’s Finance Ministry is drafting proposals that, if implemented by the government, would compel private and foreign-owned companies to report pricing structures, according to documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal and corroborated by Vietnamese officials.  In some cases, the proposed rules would allow the government to set prices on a wide range of privately made or imported goods, including petroleum products, fertilizers and milk to help contain inflation as Vietnam continues pumping money into its volatile economy. Typically, the government applies this kind of aggressive measure only to state-owned businesses, and it is unclear whether Vietnam will write the wider rules into law.

Somewhat relatedly, here is one of my favorite papers about the economics of contractual relationships and enforcement institutions in Vietnam (McMillan & Woodruff).

Seth Weinberger and I have a new article up at SSRN injecting some IR theory into the debate over international antitrust law.   Abstract:

The article, written jointly by a law professor and political science professor, endeavors to explain why the United States is particularly resistant to various efforts at international harmonization of antitrust law. While others have wrangled with this question over the years, none has assessed the question from within the broader political framework in which all relations between nations exist. Our article endeavors to fill this intellectual gap.

Existing efforts to describe or explain the lack of international harmonization have generally focused on the direct economic effects, and the narrow political difficulties, of the harmonization of competition laws through certain international mechanisms, most notably the WTO and the OECD. Largely absent in these accounts is a background theory of international politics against which the practicalities – and the ultimate desirability – of international competition law harmonization can be assessed. Our article presents such a theory. It places the conflict over international competition laws within the larger framework of international relations, and in so doing draws out some novel and important implications of the debate.

An important insight of this Article is that, largely independent of the economic calculus regarding the costs and benefits of entering into a multilateral international antitrust agreement, there is an inherent “transaction benefit” in the act of engaging in political exchange between states. Traditional economic and legal analyses of international relations have focused largely on the choice of organizational form (market exchange (no explicit agreement) versus bilateral versus multilateral institutions) and the likelihood and nature of compliance with each type in the absence of a central enforcement authority. By contrast, we strive here to develop a political theory of international law which accounts on the one hand for the costs of entering into international agreements, but also accounts for the state’s political preference for a specific form of agreement.

The novel implication of this understanding is that, by crafting international agreements in which the other parties are made to alter their domestic institutions as a condition of agreement, the dominant state (here, the United States) receives a credible commitment from the other state as to its willingness to adhere to the terms of the specific agreement under negotiation which, in the absence of centralized enforcement, might not otherwise be forthcoming. Additionally, the alteration of domestic institutions in a manner directed by the dominant state will in and of itself be viewed as a benefit of the agreement. By facilitating domestic normative change, the dominant state will gain a measure of transformative power from the change of domestic institutions. As a result, nations derive political benefits from international agreements in a way that transcends the substance of the agreements themselves.

The process of internationalizing and harmonizing competition law provides fertile ground in which to examine these ideas. Negotiations over antitrust policy are particularly important because as government barriers to trade have fallen they may well be replaced by private barriers. At the same time, as tariff barriers to trade have fallen, governments may resort to the discriminate application of antitrust law to maintain preferred local monopolies, and therefore to make payoffs to politically important constituents. The prospects for the illiberal application of antitrust laws and their economic importance make the debates over their form an issue of abiding concern for the process of global economic liberalization.

Get it while it’s hot!

Trends in Protectionism

Josh Wright —  6 August 2009

Here’s a troubling paragraph from Chad Bown’s WSJ op-ed:

The count of newly imposed protectionist policies like antidumping duties and other “safeguard” measures increased by 31% in the first half of 2009 relative to the same period one year ago, which itself is not an alarming number. But many governments take more than a year to make final decisions on such policies after receiving the initial request for protection from a domestic industry. The fact that industry requests for new import restrictions were 34% higher in 2008 relative to 2007 is a worrying trend even though 2007 saw a historical low in such requests. And with the recession continuing, requests for new import restrictions were 19% higher in the first half of 2009 relative to 2008.  This suggests a wave of new protectionist measures may be on the way. While leaders of the Group of 20 large economies unanimously pledged not to resort to protectionism at a Washington summit last November and reaffirmed this in London in April, virtually all of them have slipped at least a little bit.

Free Trade Petition

Josh Wright —  19 March 2009

Atlas Economic Research Foundation is circulating a petition in favor of free trade (HT Sasha Volokh).  The plan is to unveil the petition before the April 1 G20 meetings in London.  Here is the text of the petition.  You can sign it here if you are interested.

Free Trade Is the Best Policy

The specter of protectionism is rising.  It is always a dangerous and foolish policy, but it is especially dangerous at a time of economic crisis, when it threatens to damage the world economy.  Protectionism’s peculiar premise is that national prosperity is increased when government grants monopoly power to domestic producers.  As centuries of economic reasoning, historical experience, and empirical studies have repeatedly shown, that premise is dead wrong.  Protectionism creates poverty, not prosperity. Protectionism doesn’t even “protect” domestic jobs or industries; it destroys them, by harming export industries and industries that rely on imports to make their goods.  Raising the local prices of steel by “protecting” local steel companies just raises the cost of producing cars and the many other goods made with steel.  Protectionism is a fool’s game.

But the fact that protectionism destroys wealth is not its worst consequence.  Protectionism destroys peace.  That is justification enough for all people of good will, all friends of civilization, to speak out loudly and forcefully against economic nationalism, an ideology of conflict, based on ignorance and carried into practice by protectionism.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, Montesquieu observed that “Peace is the natural effect of trade. Two nations who differ with each other become reciprocally dependent; for if one has an interest in buying, the other has an interest in selling; and thus their union is founded on their mutual necessities.”

Trade’s most valuable product is peace.  Trade promotes peace, in part, by uniting different peoples in a common culture of commerce – a daily process of learning others’ languages, social norms, laws, expectations, wants, and talents.

Trade promotes peace by encouraging people to build bonds of mutually beneficial cooperation.  Just as trade unites the economic interests of Paris and Lyon, of Boston and Seattle, of Calcutta and Mumbai, trade also unites the economic interests of Paris and Portland, of Boston and Berlin, of Calcutta and Copenhagen – of the peoples of all nations who trade with other.

A great deal of rigorous empirical research supports the proposition that trade promotes peace.

Perhaps the most tragic example of what happens when that insight is ignored is World War II.

International trade collapsed by 70 percent between 1929 and 1932, in no small part because of America’s 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff and the retaliatory tariffs of other nations.  Economist Martin Wolf notes that “this collapse in trade was a huge spur to the search for autarky and Lebensraum, most of all for Germany and Japan.”

The most ghastly and deadly wars in human history soon followed.

By reducing war, trade saves lives.

Trade saves lives also by increasing prosperity and extending it to more and more people.  The evidence that freer trade promotes prosperity is simply overwhelming. Prosperity enables ordinary men and women to lead longer and healthier lives.

And with longer, healthier lives lived more peacefully, people integrated into the global economy have more time to enjoy the vast array of cultural experiences brought to them by free trade.  Culture is enriched by contributions from around the world, made possible by free trade in goods and in ideas.

Without a doubt, free trade increases material prosperity.  But its greatest gift is not easily measured with money. That greatest gift is lives that are freer, fuller, and far less likely to be scalded or destroyed by the atrocities of war.

Accordingly, we the undersigned join together in a plea to the governments of all nations to resist the calls of the short-sighted and the greedy to raise higher the barriers to trade.  In addition, we call on them to tear down current protectionist barriers to free trade. To each government, we say: let your citizens enjoy not only the fruits of your own fields, factories, and genius, but also those of the entire globe.  The rewards will be greater prosperity, richer lives, and enjoyment of the blessings of peace.