Archives For Patents

[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

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.

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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

Over at the blog for the Center for the Protection for Intellectual Property, Wayne Sobon, the Vice President and General Counsel of Inventergy, has posted an important essay that criticizes the slew of congressional bills that have been proposed in Congress in recent months. 

In A Line in the Sand on the Calls for New Patent Legislation, Mr. Sobon responds to the heavy-handed rhetoric and emotionalism that dominates the debate today over patent licensing and litigation. He calls for a return to the real first principles of the patent system in discussions about patent licensing, as well as for more measured thinking and analysis about the costs of uncertainty created by never-ending systemic changes from legislation produced by heavy lobbying by interested parties.  Here’s a small taste:

One genius of our patent system has been an implicit recognition that since its underlying subject matter, innovation, remains by definition in constant flux, the scaffolding of our system and the ability of all stakeholders to make reasonably consistent, prudent and socially efficient choices, should remain as stable as possible.  But now these latest moves, demanding yet further significant changes to our patent laws, threaten that stability.  And it is in fact systemic instability, from whatever source, that allows the very parasitic behaviors we have termed “troll”-like, to flourish.

It is silly and blindly ahistoric to lump anyone who seeks to license or enforce a patent right, but who does not themselves make a corresponding product, as a “troll.” 

Read the whole thing here. Mr. Sobon’s essay reflects similar concerns expressed by Commissioner Joshua Wright this past April on the Federal Trade Commission’s investigation of what the FTC identifies as “patent assertion entities.”

Earlier this month, Representatives Peter DeFazio and Jason Chaffetz picked up the gauntlet from President Obama’s comments on February 14 at a Google-sponsored Internet Q&A on Google+ that “our efforts at patent reform only went about halfway to where we need to go” and that he would like “to see if we can build some additional consensus on smarter patent laws.” So, Reps. DeFazio and Chaffetz introduced on March 1 the Saving High-tech Innovators from Egregious Legal Disputes (SHIELD) Act, which creates a “losing plaintiff patent-owner pays” litigation system for a single type of patent owner—patent licensing companies that purchase and license patents in the marketplace (and who sue infringers when infringers refuse their requests to license). To Google, to Representative DeFazio, and to others, these patent licensing companies are “patent trolls” who are destroyers of all things good—and the SHIELD Act will save us all from these dastardly “trolls” (is a troll anything but dastardly?).

As I and other scholars have pointed out, the “patent troll” moniker is really just a rhetorical epithet that lacks even an agreed-upon definition.  The term is used loosely enough that it sometimes covers and sometimes excludes universities, Thomas Edison, Elias Howe (the inventor of the lockstitch in 1843), Charles Goodyear (the inventor of vulcanized rubber in 1839), and even companies like IBM.  How can we be expected to have a reasonable discussion about patent policy when our basic terms of public discourse shift in meaning from blog to blog, article to article, speaker to speaker?  The same is true of the new term, “Patent Assertion Entities,” which sounds more neutral, but has the same problem in that it also lacks any objective definition or usage.

Setting aside this basic problem of terminology for the moment, the SHIELD Act is anything but a “smarter patent law” (to quote President Obama). Some patent scholars, like Michael Risch, have begun to point out some of the serious problems with the SHIELD Act, such as its selectively discriminatory treatment of certain types of patent-owners.  Moreover, as Professor Risch ably identifies, this legislation was so cleverly drafted to cover only a limited set of a specific type of patent-owner that it ended up being too clever. Unlike the previous version introduced last year, the 2013 SHIELD Act does not even apply to the flavor-of-the-day outrage over patent licensing companies—the owner of the podcast patent. (Although you wouldn’t know this if you read the supporters of the SHIELD Act like the EFF who falsely claim that this law will stop patent-owners like the podcast patent-owning company.)

There are many things wrong with the SHIELD Act, but one thing that I want to highlight here is that it based on a falsehood: the oft-repeated claim that two Boston University researchers have proven in a study that “patent troll suits cost American technology companies over $29 billion in 2011 alone.”  This is what Rep. DeFazio said when he introduced the SHIELD Act on March 1. This claim was repeated yesterday by House Members during a hearing on “Abusive Patent Litigation.” The claim that patent licensing companies cost American tech companies $29 billion in a single year (2011) has become gospel since this study, The Direct Costs from NPE Disputes, was released last summer on the Internet. (Another name of patent licensing companies is “Non Practicing Entity” or “NPE.”)  A Google search of “patent troll 29 billion” produces 191,000 hits. A Google search of “NPE 29 billion” produces 605,000 hits. Such is the making of conventional wisdom.

The problem with conventional wisdom is that it is usually incorrect, and the study that produced the claim of “$29 billion imposed by patent trolls” is no different. The $29 billion cost study is deeply and fundamentally flawed, as explained by two noted professors, David Schwartz and Jay Kesan, who are also highly regarded for their empirical and economic work in patent law.  In their essay, Analyzing the Role of Non-Practicing Entities in the Patent System, also released late last summer, they detailed at great length serious methodological and substantive flaws in The Direct Costs from NPE Disputes. Unfortunately, the Schwartz and Kesan essay has gone virtually unnoticed in the patent policy debates, while the $29 billion cost claim has through repetition become truth.

In the hope that at least a few more people might discover the Schwartz and Kesan essay, I will briefly summarize some of their concerns about the study that produced the $29 billion cost figure.  This is not merely an academic exercise.  Since Rep. DeFazio explicitly relied on the $29 billion cost claim to justify the SHIELD Act, and he and others keep repeating it, it’s important to know if it is true, because it’s being used to drive proposed legislation in the real world.  If patent legislation is supposed to secure innovation, then it behooves us to know if this legislation is based on actual facts. Yet, as Schwartz and Kesan explain in their essay, the $29 billion cost claim is based on a study that is fundamentally flawed in both substance and methodology.

In terms of its methodological flaws, the study supporting the $29 billion cost claim employs an incredibly broad definition of “patent troll” that covers almost every person, corporation or university that sues someone for infringing a patent that it is not currently being used to manufacture a product at that moment.  While the meaning of the “patent troll” epithet shifts depending on the commentator, reporter, blogger, or scholar who is using it, one would be extremely hard pressed to find anyone embracing this expansive usage in patent scholarship or similar commentary today.

There are several reasons why the extremely broad definition of “NPE” or “patent troll” in the study is unusual even compared to uses of this term in other commentary or studies. First, and most absurdly, this definition, by necessity, includes every university in the world that sues someone for infringing one of its patents, as universities don’t manufacture goods.  Second, it includes every individual and start-up company who plans to manufacture a patented invention, but is forced to sue an infringer-competitor who thwarted these business plans by its infringing sales in the marketplace.  Third, it includes commercial firms throughout the wide-ranging innovation industries—from high tech to biotech to traditional manufacturing—that have at least one patent among a portfolio of thousands that is not being used at the moment to manufacture a product because it may be “well outside the area in which they make products” and yet they sue infringers of this patent (the quoted language is from the study). So, according to this study, every manufacturer becomes an “NPE” or “patent troll” if it strays too far from what somebody subjectively defines as its rightful “area” of manufacturing. What company is not branded an “NPE” or “patent troll” under this definition, or will necessarily become one in the future given inevitable changes in one’s business plans or commercial activities? This is particularly true for every person or company whose only current opportunity to reap the benefit of their patented invention is to license the technology or to litigate against the infringers who refuse license offers.

So, when almost every possible patent-owning person, university, or corporation is defined as a “NPE” or “patent troll,” why are we surprised that a study that employs this virtually boundless definition concludes that they create $29 billion in litigation costs per year?  The only thing surprising is that the number isn’t even higher!

There are many other methodological flaws in the $29 billion cost study, such as its explicit assumption that patent litigation costs are “too high” without providing any comparative baseline for this conclusion.  What are the costs in other areas of litigation, such as standard commercial litigation, tort claims, or disputes over complex regulations?  We are not told.  What are the historical costs of patent litigation?  We are not told.  On what basis then can we conclude that $29 billion is “too high” or even “too low”?  We’re supposed to be impressed by a number that exists in a vacuum and that lacks any empirical context by which to evaluate it.

The $29 billion cost study also assumes that all litigation transaction costs are deadweight losses, which would mean that the entire U.S. court system is a deadweight loss according to the terms of this study.  Every lawsuit, whether a contract, tort, property, regulatory or constitutional dispute is, according to the assumption of the $29 billion cost study, a deadweight loss.  The entire U.S. court system is an inefficient cost imposed on everyone who uses it.  Really?  That’s an assumption that reduces itself to absurdity—it’s a self-imposed reductio ad absurdum!

In addition to the methodological problems, there are also serious concerns about the trustworthiness and quality of the actual data used to reach the $29 billion claim in the study.  All studies rely on data, and in this case, the $29 billion study used data from a secret survey done by RPX of its customers.  For those who don’t know, RPX’s business model is to defend companies against these so-called “patent trolls.”  So, a company whose business model is predicated on hyping the threat of “patent trolls” does a secret survey of its paying customers, and it is now known that RPX informed its customers in the survey that their answers would be used to lobby for changes in the patent laws.

As every reputable economist or statistician will tell you, such conditions encourage exaggeration and bias in a data sample by motivating participation among those who support changes to the patent law.  Such a problem even has a formal name in economic studies: self-selection bias.  But one doesn’t need to be an economist or statistician to be able to see the problems in relying on the RPX data to conclude that NPEs cost $29 billion per year. As the classic adage goes, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Even worse, as I noted above, the RPX survey was confidential.  RPX has continued to invoke “client confidences” in refusing to disclose its actual customer survey or the resulting data, which means that the data underlying the $29 billion claim is completely unknown and unverifiable for anyone who reads the study.  Don’t worry, the researchers have told us in a footnote in the study, they looked at the data and confirmed it is good.  Again, it doesn’t take economic or statistical training to know that something is not right here. Another classic cliché comes to mind at this point: “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.”

In fact, keeping data secret in a published study violates well-established and longstanding norms in all scientific research that data should always be made available for testing and verification by third parties.  No peer-reviewed medical or scientific journal would publish a study based on a secret data set in which the researchers have told us that we should simply trust them that the data is accurate.  Its use of secret data probably explains why the $29 billion study has not yet appeared in a peer-reviewed journal, and, if economics has any claim to being an actual science, this study never will.  If a study does not meet basic scientific standards for verifying data, then why are Reps. DeFazio and Chaffetz relying on it to propose national legislation that directly impacts the patent system and future innovation?  If heads-in-the-clouds academics would know to reject such a study as based on unverifiable, likely biased claptrap, then why are our elected officials embracing it to create real-world legal rules?

And, to continue our running theme of classic clichés, there’s the rub. The more one looks at the actual legal requirements of the SHIELD Act, the more, in the words of Professor Risch, one is left “scratching one’s head” in bewilderment.  The more one looks at the supporting studies and arguments in favor of the SHIELD Act, the more one is left, in the words of Professor Risch, “scratching one’s head.”  The more and more one thinks about the SHIELD Act, the more one realizes what it is—legislation that has been crafted at the behest of the politically powerful (such as an Internet company who can get the President to do a special appearance on its own social media website) to have the government eliminate a smaller, publicly reviled, and less politically-connected group.

In short, people may have legitimate complaints about the ways in which the court system in the U.S. generally has problems.  Commentators and Congresspersons could even consider revising the general legal rules governing patent ligtiation for all plaintiffs and defendants to make the ligitation system work better or more efficiently (by some established metric).   Professor Risch has done exactly this in a recent Wired op-ed.  But it’s time to call a spade a spade: the SHIELD Act is a classic example of rent-seeking, discriminatory legislation.

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

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

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

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

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

There are a few exceptions, summarized by Commissioner Ohlhausen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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