In a September 20 speech at the high profile Georgetown Global Antitrust Enforcement Symposium, Acting Assistant Attorney General Renata Hesse sent the wrong signals to the business community and to foreign enforcers (see here) regarding U.S. antitrust policy.  Admittedly, a substantial part of her speech was a summary of existing U.S. antitrust doctrine.  In certain other key respects, however, Ms. Hesse’s remarks could be read as a rejection of the mainstream American understanding (and the accepted approach endorsed by the International Competition Network) that promoting economic efficiency and consumer welfare are the antitrust lodestar, and that non-economic considerations should not be part of antitrust analysis.  Because foreign lawyers, practitioners, and enforcement officials were present, Ms. Hesse’s statement not only could be cited against U.S. interests in foreign venues, it could undermine longstanding efforts to advance international convergence toward economically sound antitrust rules.

Let’s examine some specifics.

Ms. Hesse’s speech begins with a paean to “economic fairness” – a theme that runs counter to the theme that leading federal antitrust enforcers have consistently stressed for decades, namely, that antitrust seeks to advance the economic goal of consumer welfare (and efficiency).  Consider this passage (emphasis added):

[E]nforcers [should be] focused on the ultimate goal of antitrust, economic fairness. . . .    The conservative leaning “Chicago School” made economic efficiency synonymous with the goals of antitrust in the 1970s, which incorporated theoretical economics into mainstream antitrust scholarship and practice.  Later, more centrist or left-leaning post-Chicago and Harvard School scholars showed that sophisticated empirical and theoretical economics tools can be used to support more aggressive enforcement agendas.  Together, these developments resulted in many technical discussions about what impact a business practice will have on consumer welfare mathematically measured – involving supply and demand curves, triangles representing “dead weight loss,” and so on.   But that sort of conversation is one that resonates very little – if at all – with those engaged in the straightforward, popular dialogue about the dangers of increasing corporate concentration.  The language of economic theory does not sound like the language of economic fairness that is the raw material for most popular discussions about competition and antitrust.      

Unfortunately, Ms. Hesse’s references to the importance of “fairness” recur throughout her remarks, driving home again and again that fairness is a principle that should play a key role in antitrust enforcement.  Yet fairness is an inherently subjective concept (fairness for whom, and measured by what standard?) that was often invoked in notorious and illogical U.S. Supreme Court decisions of days of yore – decisions that were rightly critiqued by leading scholars and largely confined to the dustbin of bad precedents, starting in the mid-1970s.

Equally bad are the speech’s multiple references to “high concentration” and “bigness,” unfortunate terms that also cropped up in economically irrational pre-1970s Supreme Court antitrust opinions.  Scholarship demonstrating that neither high market concentration nor large corporate size is necessarily associated with poor economic performance is generally accepted, and the core teaching that “bigness” is not “badness” is a staple of undergraduate industrial organization classes and introductory antitrust law courses in the United States.  Admittedly the speech also recognizes that bigness and high concentration are not necessarily harmful, but merely by giving lip service to these concepts, it encourages interventionists and foreign enforcers who are seeking additional justifications for antitrust crusades against “big” and “powerful” companies (more on this point later).

Perhaps the most unfortunate passage in the speech is Ms. Hesse’s defense of the Supreme Court’s “Philadelphia National Bank” (1963) (“PNB”) presumption that “a merger which produces a firm controlling an undue percentage share of the relevant market, and results in a significant increase in the concentration of firms in that market is so inherently likely to lessen competition substantially” that the law will presume it unlawful.  The PNB presumption is a discredited historical relic, an antitrust “oldie but baddy” that sound scholarship has shown should be relegated to the antitrust scrap heap.  Professor Joshua Wright and Judge Douglas Ginsburg explained why the presumption should be scrapped in a 2015 Antitrust Law Journal article:

The practical effect of the PNB presumption is to shift the burden of proof from the plaintiff, where it rightfully resides, to the defendant, without requiring evidence – other than market shares – that the proposed merger is likely to harm competition. The problem for today’s courts in applying this semicentenary standard is that the field of industrial organization economics has long since moved beyond the structural presumption upon which the standard is based. That presumption is almost the last vestige of pre-modern economics still embedded in the antitrust law of the United States. Even the 2010 Horizontal Merger Guidelines issued jointly by the Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice have abandoned the . . . presumption, though the agencies certainly do not resist the temptation to rely upon the presumption when litigating a case. There is no doubt the . . . presumption of PNB is a convenient litigation tool for the enforcement agencies, but the mission of the enforcement agencies is consumer welfare, not cheap victories in litigation. The presumption ought to go the way of the agencies’ policy decision to drop reliance upon the discredited antitrust theories approved by the courts in such cases as Brown Shoe, Von’s Grocery, and Utah Pie. Otherwise, the agencies will ultimately have to deal with the tension between taking advantage of a favorable presumption in litigation and exerting a reformative influence on the direction of merger law.  

Ms. Hesse ignored this reasoned analysis in commenting on the PNB presumption:

[I]n the wake of the Chicago School’s influence, antitrust commentators started to call into question the validity of this common-sense presumption, believing that economic theory showed that mergers tended to be beneficial or, if they resulted in harm, that harm was fleeting.  Those skeptics demanded more detailed proof of consumer harm in place of the presumption.  More recent economics studies, however, have given new life to the old presumption—in several ways.  First, we are learning more and more that mergers among substantial competitors tend to lead to higher prices. [citation omitted]  Second, economists have been finding that mergers often fail to deliver on the gains their proponents sought to achieve. [citation omitted] Taking these insights together, we should be skeptical of the claim that mergers among substantial competitors are beneficial.  The law – which builds this skepticism into it – provides an excellent tool for protecting competition from large, horizontal mergers.

Ms. Hesse’s discussion of the PNB presumption is problematic on several counts.  First, it cites one 2014 study that purports to find price increases following certain mergers in some oligopolistic industries as supporting the presumption, without acknowledging a key critique of that study – that it ignores efficiencies and potential gains in producer welfare (see here).  Second, it cites one 2001 study suggesting that financial performance may not be enhanced by some mergers while ignoring other studies to the contrary (see, for example, here and here).  Third, and most fundamentally, Ms. Hesse’s statement that “we should be skeptical of the claim that mergers among substantial competitors are beneficial” misses the point of antitrust enforcement entirely, and, in so doing, could be read as discouraging efficiency-seeking acquisitions.  It is not the role of antitrust enforcement to make merging parties prove that their proposed transaction will be beneficial – rather, enforcers must prove that a proposed transaction’s effect “may be substantially to lessen competition”, as stated in section 7 of the Clayton Act.  Requiring “proof” that a merger between competitors “will be beneficial” after the fact, in response to a negative presumption, strongly discourages potential efficiency-seeking consolidations, to the detriment of economic growth and welfare.  That was the case in the 1960s, and it could become so again today, if U.S. antitrust enforcers embark on a concerted campaign of touting the PNB presumption.  Relatedly, an efficient market for corporate control (involving the strong potential of acquisitions to achieve synergies or to correct management problems in badly-run targets) is chilled when a presumption blocks acquisitions absent a “proof” of future benefit, to the detriment of the economy.  Apart from these technical points, the PNB presumption in effect grants a government bureaucracy (exercising “the pretense of knowledge”) the right to condemn voluntary commercial transactions of a particular sort (horizontal mergers) that have not been shown to be harmful.  Such a grant of authority ignores the superior ability of information-seeking market participants to uncover and apply knowledge (as the late Friedrich Hayek might have pointed out) and is fundamentally at odds with the system of voluntary exchange that lies at the heart of a successful market economy.

Another highly problematic statement is Ms. Hesse’s discussion of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) final 2010 Intel settlement:

The Federal Trade Commission’s case against Intel a decade later . . . shows how dominant firms can cut off the normal mechanisms of competition to maintain dominance.  In that case, the FTC alleged that Intel violated Section 5 of the FTC Act by maintaining its monopoly in central processing units (or CPUs) through a variety of payments and penalties (including loyalty or market-share discounts) to computer manufacturers to induce them not to purchase products from Intel’s rivals such as AMD and Via Technologies. [citation omitted]  When a monopolist pays customers to disfavor its rivals and punishes those customers who nevertheless do business with a rival, that does not look like the monopolist is competing with its rivals on the merits of their products.  Because these actions served only to foreclose competition from rival producers of CPUs, these actions distorted the competitive process.

Ms. Hesse ignores the fact that Intel involved a settlement, not a final litigated decision, and thus is lacking in precedential weight.  Firms that believe their conduct was perfectly legal may nevertheless settle an FTC investigation if they deem the costs (including harm to reputation) of continuing to litigate outweigh the costs of the settlement’s terms.  Furthermore, various learned commentators (such as Professor and then-FTC Commissioner Joshua Wright, see here) have pointed out that Intel’s discounts had tangible procompetitive effects and that there was a lack of evidence that Intel’s conduct harmed consumers or competitors (indeed, AMD, Intel’s principal competitor, continued to thrive during the period of Intel’s alleged “bad” behavior).  In short, Ms. Hesse’s conclusion that Intel’s actions “served only to foreclose competition from rival producers of CPUs” lacks credibility.  Moreover, Ms. Hesse’s reference to illegal “monopoly maintenance,” a Sherman Antitrust Act monopolization term of art, fails to note that the FTC stressed that Intel was brought purely under FTC section 5, “which is broader than the antitrust laws”.

Finally, the speech’s concluding section ends on a discordant note.  In summing up what she deemed to be an appropriate, up-to-date approach to antitrust litigation, Ms. Hesse reemphasizes the “fairness” theme, making such statements as “ultimately the plaintiff’s story should highlight the moral underpinnings of the antitrust laws—fighting against the unfairness of concentrated economic power” and “attempts to obtain or keep economic power unfairly”.  While such statements might be rationalized as having been made in the context of promoting a “non-technical” appreciation for antitrust by the general public, the emphasis on fairness as a rhetorical device in lieu of palpable economic harm and consumer welfare is quite troublesome.

On the domestic front, that emphasis may not have a direct impact on the exercise of prosecutorial discretion and on American judicial precedents in the short run (at least one hopes so).  In the longer run, however, it cuts against efforts to constrain populist impulses that would transform antitrust once again into an unguided missile aimed at the heart of the American market system.

On the international front, things are even worse.  A variety of major jurisdictions make explicit reference to “fairness” in their competition law statutes and decisions.  Foreign officials with a strongly interventionist bent might well cite Ms. Hesse’s speech in justifying expansive and economically untethered “fairness-based” competition law prosecutions.  Niceties as to whether their initiatives do not fall within the strict contours of Ms. Hesse’s analysis of the competitive process might be readily ignored, given the inherent elasticity (to say the least) of the “fairness” concept.  What’s more, Ms. Hesse’s remarks seriously undermine arguments advanced by the United States and leading commentators in multilateral fora (such as the ICN and the OECD) that competition law enforcement should focus solely on consumer welfare, with other policies handled under different statutory schemes.

In sum, Ms. Hesse’s speech summons up not the comforting ghost of Christmas past, but rather the malevolent goblin of antitrust past (whether she meant to do so or not).  Although her remarks concededly contain many well-reasoned and uncontroversial comments about antitrust analysis, her totally unnecessary application of a gaudy, un-economic populist gloss to the antitrust enterprise is what stares the reader in the face.  One can hope that, as an experienced and accomplished antitrust practitioner and public servant, Ms. Hesse will come to realize this and respond by unequivocally disavowing and stripping away the rhetorical gloss in a future major address.  Whether she chooses to do so or not, however, antitrust agency leadership in the next Administration should loudly and repeatedly make it clear that populist notions and “fairness” have no role in modern competition law analysis, whose lodestar should be consumer welfare and efficiency.

The FCC’s blind, headlong drive to “unlock” the set-top box market is disconnected from both legal and market realities. Legally speaking, and as we’ve noted on this blog many times over the past few months (see here, here and here), the set-top box proposal is nothing short of an assault on contracts, property rights, and the basic freedom of consumers to shape their own video experience.

Although much of the impulse driving the Chairman to tilt at set-top box windmills involves a distrust that MVPDs could ever do anything procompetitive, Comcast’s recent decision (actually, long in the making) to include an app from Netflix — their alleged arch-rival — on the X1 platform highlights the FCC’s poor grasp of market realities as well. And it hardly seems that Comcast was dragged kicking and screaming to this point, as many of the features it includes have been long under development and include important customer-centered enhancements:

We built this experience on the core foundational elements of the X1 platform, taking advantage of key technical advances like universal search, natural language processing, IP stream processing and a cloud-based infrastructure.  We have expanded X1’s voice control to make watching Netflix content as simple as saying, “Continue watching Daredevil.”

Yet, on the topic of consumer video choice, Chairman Wheeler lives in two separate worlds. On the one hand, he recognizes that:

There’s never been a better time to watch television in America. We have more options than ever, and, with so much competition for eyeballs, studios and artists keep raising the bar for quality content.

But, on the other hand, he asserts that when it comes to set-top boxes, there is no such choice, and consumers have suffered accordingly.

Of course, this ignores the obvious fact that nearly all pay-TV content is already available from a large number of outlets, and that competition between devices and services that deliver this content is plentiful.

In fact, ten years ago — before Apple TV, Roku, Xfinity X1 and Hulu (among too many others to list) — Gigi Sohn, Chairman Wheeler’s chief legal counsel, argued before the House Energy and Commerce Committee that:

We are living in a digital gold age and consumers… are the beneficiaries.  Consumers have numerous choices for buying digital content and for buying devices on which to play that content. (emphasis added)

And, even on the FCC’s own terms, the multichannel video market is presumptively competitive nationwide with

direct broadcast satellite (DBS) providers’ market share of multi-channel video programming distributors (MVPDs) subscribers [rising] to 33.8%. “Telco” MVPDs increased their market share to 13% and their nationwide footprint grew by 5%. Broadband service providers such as Google Fiber also expanded their footprints. Meanwhile, cable operators’ market share fell to 52.8% of MVPD subscribers.

Online video distributor (OVD) services continue to grow in popularity with consumers. Netflix now has 47 million or more subscribers in the U.S., Amazon Prime has close to 60 million, and Hulu has close to 12 million. By contrast, cable MVPD subscriptions dropped to 53.7 million households in 2014.

The extent of competition has expanded dramatically over the years, and Comcast’s inclusion of Netflix in its ecosystem is only the latest indication of this market evolution.

And to further underscore the outdated notion of focusing on “boxes,” AT&T just announced that it would be offering a fully apps-based version of its Direct TV service. And what was one of the main drivers of AT&T being able to go in this direction? It was because the company realized the good economic sense of ditching boxes altogether:

The company will be able to give consumers a break [on price] because of the low cost of delivering the service. AT&T won’t have to send trucks to install cables or set-top boxes; customers just need to download an app. 

And lest you think that Comcast’s move was merely a cynical response meant to undermine the Commissioner (although, it is quite enjoyable on that score), the truth is that Comcast has no choice but to offer services like this on its platform — and it’s been making moves like this for quite some time (see here and here). Everyone knows, MVPDs included, that apps distributed on a range of video platforms are the future. If Comcast didn’t get on board the apps train, it would have been left behind at the station.

And there is other precedent for expecting just this convergence of video offerings on a platform. For instance, Amazon’s Fire TV gives consumers the Amazon video suite — available through the Prime Video subscription — but they also give you access to apps like Netflix, Hulu. (Of course Amazon is a so-called edge provider, so when it makes the exact same sort of moves that Comcast is now making, its easy for those who insist on old market definitions to miss the parallels.)

The point is, where Amazon and Comcast are going to make their money is in driving overall usage of their platform because, inevitably, no single service is going to have every piece of content a given user wants. Long term viability in the video market is necessarily going to be about offering consumers more choice, not less. And, in this world, the box that happens to be delivering the content is basically irrelevant; it’s the competition between platform providers that matters.

The Global Antitrust Institute (GAI) at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School released today a set of comments on the joint U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) – Federal Trade Commission (FTC) August 12 Proposed Update to their 1995 Antitrust Guidelines for the Licensing of Intellectual Property (Proposed Update).  As has been the case with previous GAI filings (see here, for example), today’s GAI Comments are thoughtful and on the mark.

For those of you who are pressed for time, the latest GAI comments make these major recommendations (summary in italics):

Standard Essential Patents (SEPs):  The GAI Comments commended the DOJ and the FTC for preserving the principle that the antitrust framework is sufficient to address potential competition issues involving all IPRs—including both SEPs and non-SEPs.  In doing so, the DOJ and the FTC correctly rejected the invitation to adopt a special brand of antitrust analysis for SEPs in which effects-based analysis was replaced with unique presumptions and burdens of proof. 

o   The GAI Comments noted that, as FTC Chairman Edith Ramirez has explained, “the same key enforcement principles [found in the 1995 IP Guidelines] also guide our analysis when standard essential patents are involved.”

o   This is true because SEP holders, like other IP holders, do not necessarily possess market power in the antitrust sense, and conduct by SEP holders, including breach of a voluntary assurance to license its SEP on fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory (FRAND) terms, does not necessarily result in harm to the competitive process or to consumers. 

o   Again, as Chairwoman Ramirez has stated, “it is important to recognize that a contractual dispute over royalty terms, whether the rate or the base used, does not in itself raise antitrust concerns.”

Refusals to License:  The GAI Comments expressed concern that the statements regarding refusals to license in Sections 2.1 and 3 of the Proposed Update seem to depart from the general enforcement approach set forth in the 2007 DOJ-FTC IP Report in which those two agencies stated that “[a]ntitrust liability for mere unilateral, unconditional refusals to license patents will not play a meaningful part in the interface between patent rights and antitrust protections.”  The GAI recommended that the DOJ and the FTC incorporate this approach into the final version of their updated IP Guidelines.

“Unreasonable Conduct”:  The GAI Comments recommended that Section 2.2 of the Proposed Update be revised to replace the phrase “unreasonable conduct” with a clear statement that the agencies will only condemn licensing restraints when anticompetitive effects outweigh procompetitive benefits.

R&D Markets:  The GAI Comments urged the DOJ and the FTC to reconsider the inclusion (or, at the very least, substantially limit the use) of research and development (R&D) markets because: (1) the process of innovation is often highly speculative and decentralized, making it impossible to identify all market participants to be; (2) the optimal relationship between R&D and innovation is unknown; (3) the market structure most conducive to innovation is unknown; (4) the capacity to innovate is hard to monopolize given that the components of modern R&D—research scientists, engineers, software developers, laboratories, computer centers, etc.—are continuously available on the market; and (5) anticompetitive conduct can be challenged under the actual potential competition theory or at a later time.

While the GAI Comments are entirely on point, even if their recommendations are all adopted, much more needs to be done.  The Proposed Update, while relatively sound, should be viewed in the larger context of the Obama Administration’s unfortunate use of antitrust policy to weaken patent rights (see my article here, for example).  In addition to strengthening the revised Guidelines, as suggested by the GAI, the DOJ and the FTC should work with other component agencies of the next Administration – including the Patent Office and the White House – to signal enhanced respect for IP rights in general.  In short, a general turnaround in IP policy is called for, in order to spur American innovation, which has been all too lacking in recent years.

Section 5(a)(2) of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act authorizes the FTC to “prevent persons, partnerships, or corporations, except . . . common carriers subject to the Acts to regulate commerce . . . from using unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.”  On August 29, in FTC v. AT&T, the Ninth Circuit issued a decision that exempts non-common carrier data services from U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) jurisdiction, merely because they are offered by a company that has common carrier status.  This case involved an FTC allegation that AT&T had “throttled” data (slowed down Internet service) for “unlimited mobile data” customers without adequate consent or disclosures, in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act.  The FTC had claimed that although AT&T mobile wireless voice services were a common carrier service, the company’s mobile wireless data services were not, and, thus, were subject to FTC oversight.  Reversing a federal district court’s refusal to grant AT&T’s motion to dismiss, the Ninth Circuit concluded that “when Congress used the term ‘common carrier’ in the FTC Act, [there is no indication] it could only have meant ‘common carrier to the extent engaged in common carrier activity.’”  The Ninth Circuit therefore determined that “a literal reading of the words Congress selected simply does comport with [the FTC’s] activity-based approach.”  The FTC’s pending case against AT&T in the Northern District of California (which is within the Ninth Circuit) regarding alleged unfair and deceptive advertising of satellite services by AT&T subsidiary DIRECTTV (see here) could be affected by this decision.

The Ninth Circuit’s AT&T holding threatens to further extend the FCC’s jurisdictional reach at the expense of the FTC.  It comes on the heels of the divided D.C. Circuit’s benighted and ill-reasoned decision (see here) upholding the FCC’s “Open Internet Order,” including its decision to reclassify Internet broadband service as a common carrier service.  That decision subjects broadband service to heavy-handed and costly FCC “consumer protection” regulation, including in the area of privacy.  The FCC’s overly intrusive approach stands in marked contrast to the economic efficiency considerations (albeit not always perfectly applied) that underlie FTC consumer protection mode of analysis.  As I explained in a May 2015 Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum,  the FTC’s highly structured, analytic, fact-based methodology, combined with its vast experience in privacy and data security investigations, make it a far better candidate than the FCC to address competition and consumer protection problems in the area of broadband.

I argued in this space in March 2016 that, should the D.C. Circuit uphold the FCC’s Open Internet Order, Congress should carefully consider whether to strip the FCC of regulatory authority in this area (including, of course, privacy practices) and reassign it to the FTC.  The D.C. Circuit’s decision upholding that Order, combined with the Ninth Circuit’s latest ruling, makes the case for potential action by the next Congress even more urgent.

While it is at it, the next Congress should also weigh whether to repeal the FTC’s common carrier exemption, as well as all special exemptions for specified categories of institutions, such as banks, savings and loans, and federal credit unions (see here).  In so doing, Congress might also do away with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an unaccountable bureaucracy whose consumer protection regulatory responsibilities should cease (see my February 2016 Heritage Legal Memorandum here).

Finally, as Heritage Foundation scholars have urged, Congress should look into enacting additional regulatory reform legislation, such as requiring congressional approval of new major regulations issued by agencies (including financial services regulators) and subjecting “independent” agencies (including the FCC) to executive branch regulatory review.

That’s enough for now.  Stay tuned.

Today ICLE released a white paper entitled, A critical assessment of the latest charge of Google’s anticompetitive bias from Yelp and Tim Wu.

The paper is a comprehensive response to a study by Michael Luca, Timothy Wu, Sebastian Couvidat, Daniel Frank, & William Seltzer, entitled, Is Google degrading search? Consumer harm from Universal Search.

The Wu, et al. paper will be one of the main topics of discussion at today’s Capitol Forum and George Washington Institute of Public Policy event on Dominant Platforms Under the Microscope: Policy Approaches in the US and EU, at which I will be speaking — along with a host of luminaries including, inter alia, Josh Wright, Jonathan Kanter, Allen Grunes, Catherine Tucker, and Michael Luca — one of the authors of the Universal Search study.

Follow the link above to register — the event starts at noon today at the National Press Club.

Meanwhile, here’s a brief description of our paper:

Late last year, Tim Wu of Columbia Law School (and now the White House Office of Management and Budget), Michael Luca of Harvard Business School (and a consultant for Yelp), and a group of Yelp data scientists released a study claiming that Google has been purposefully degrading search results from its more-specialized competitors in the area of local search. The authors’ claim is that Google is leveraging its dominant position in general search to thwart competition from specialized search engines by favoring its own, less-popular, less-relevant results over those of its competitors:

To improve the popularity of its specialized search features, Google has used the power of its dominant general search engine. The primary means for doing so is what is called the “universal search” or the “OneBox.”

This is not a new claim, and researchers have been attempting (and failing) to prove Google’s “bias” for some time. Likewise, these critics have drawn consistent policy conclusions from their claims, asserting that antitrust violations lie at the heart of the perceived bias. But the studies are systematically marred by questionable methodology and bad economics.

This latest study by Tim Wu, along with a cadre of researchers employed by Yelp (one of Google’s competitors and one of its chief antitrust provocateurs), fares no better, employing slightly different but equally questionable methodology, bad economics, and a smattering of new, but weak, social science. (For a thorough criticism of the inherent weaknesses of Wu et al.’s basic social science methodology, see Miguel de la Mano, Stephen Lewis, and Andrew Leyden, Focus on the Evidence: A Brief Rebuttal of Wu, Luca, et al (2016), available here).

The basic thesis of the study is that Google purposefully degrades its local searches (e.g., for restaurants, hotels, services, etc.) to the detriment of its specialized search competitors, local businesses, consumers, and even Google’s bottom line — and that this is an actionable antitrust violation.

But in fact the study shows nothing of the kind. Instead, the study is marred by methodological problems that, in the first instance, make it impossible to draw any reliable conclusions. Nor does the study show that Google’s conduct creates any antitrust-relevant problems. Rather, the construction of the study and the analysis of its results reflect a superficial and inherently biased conception of consumer welfare that completely undermines the study’s purported legal and economic conclusions.

Read the whole thing here.

As Commissioner Wheeler moves forward with his revised set-top box proposal, and on the eve of tomorrow’s senate FCC oversight hearing, we would do well to reflect on some insightful testimony regarding another of the Commission’s rulemakings from ten years ago:

We are living in a digital gold age and consumers… are the beneficiaries. Consumers have numerous choices for buying digital content and for buying devices on which to play that content. They have never had so much flexibility and so much opportunity.  

* * *

As the content industry has ramped up on-line delivery of content, it has been testing a variety of protection measures that provide both security for the industry and flexibility for consumers.

So to answer the question, can content protection and technological innovation coexist?  It is a resounding yes. Look at the robust market for on-line content distribution facilitated by the technologies and networks consumers love.

* * *

[T]he Federal Communications Commission should not become the Federal Computer Commission or the Federal Copyright Commission, and the marketplace, not the Government, is the best arbiter of what technologies succeed or fail.

That’s not the self-interested testimony of a studio or cable executive — that was Gigi Sohn, current counsel to Chairman Wheeler, speaking on behalf of Public Knowledge in 2006 before the House Energy and Commerce Committee against the FCC’s “broadcast flag” rules. Those rules, supported by a broad spectrum of rightsholders, required consumer electronics devices to respect programming conditions preventing the unauthorized transmission over the internet of digital broadcast television content.

Ms. Sohn and Public Knowledge won that fight in court, convincing the DC Circuit that Congress hadn’t given the FCC authority to impose the rules in the first place, and she successfully urged Congress not to give the FCC the authority to reinstate them.

Yet today, she and the Chairman seem to have forgotten her crucial insights from ten years ago. If the marketplace for video content was sufficiently innovative and competitive then, how can it possibly not be so now, with audiences having orders of magnitude more choices, both online and off? And if the FCC lacked authority to adopt copyright-related rules then, how does the FCC suddenly have that authority now, in the absence of any intervening congressional action?

With Section 106 of the Copyright Act, Congress granted copyright holders the exclusive rights to engage in or license the reproduction, distribution, and public performance of their works. The courts are the “backstop,” not the FCC (as Chairman Wheeler would have it), and section 629 of the Communications Act doesn’t say otherwise. All section 629 does is direct the FCC to promote a competitive market for devices to access pay-TV services from pay-TV providers. As we noted last week, it very simply doesn’t allow the FCC to interfere with the license arrangements that fill those devices, and, short of explicit congressional direction, the Commission is simply not empowered to interfere with the framework set forth in the Copyright Act.

Chairman Wheeler’s latest proposal has improved on his initial plan by, for example, moving toward an applications-based approach and away from the mandatory disaggregation of content. But it would still arrogate to the FCC the authority to stand up a licensing body for the distribution of content over pay-TV applications; set rules on the terms such licenses must, may, and may not include; and even allow the FCC itself to create terms or the entire license. Such rules would necessarily implicate the extent to which rightsholders are able to control the distribution of their content.

The specifics of the regulations may be different from 2006, but the point is the same: What the FCC could not do in 2006, it cannot do today.

Mylan Pharmaceuticals recently reinvigorated the public outcry over pharmaceutical price increases when news surfaced that the company had raised the price of EpiPens by more than 500% over the past decade and, purportedly, had plans to increase the price even more. The Mylan controversy comes on the heels of several notorious pricing scandals last year. Recall Valeant Pharmaceuticals, that acquired cardiac drugs Isuprel and Nitropress and then quickly raised their prices by 525% and 212%, respectively. And of course, who can forget Martin Shkreli of Turing Pharmaceuticals, who increased the price of toxoplasmosis treatment Daraprim by 5,000% and then claimed he should have raised the price even higher.

However, one company, pharmaceutical giant Allergan, seems to be taking a different approach to pricing.   Last week, Allergan CEO Brent Saunders condemned the scandalous pricing increases that have raised suspicions of drug companies and placed the entire industry in the political hot seat. In an entry on the company’s blog, Saunders issued Allergan’s “social contract with patients” that made several drug pricing commitments to its customers.

Some of the most important commitments Allergan made to its customers include:

  • A promise to not increase prices more than once a year, and to limit price increases to singe-digit percentage increases.
  • A pledge to improve patient access to Allergan medications by enhancing patient assistance programs in 2017
  • A vow to cooperate with policy makers and payers (including government drug plans, private insurers, and pharmacy benefit managers) to facilitate better access to Allergan products by offering pricing discounts and paying rebates to lower drug costs.
  • An assurance that Allergan will no longer engage in the common industry tactic of dramatically increasing prices for branded drugs nearing patent expiry, without cost increases that justify the increase.
  • A commitment to provide annual updates on how pricing affects Allergan’s business.
  • A pledge to price Allergan products in a way that is commensurate with, or lower than, the value they create.

Saunders also makes several non-pricing pledges to maintain a continuous supply of its drugs, diligently monitor the safety of its products, and appropriately educate physicians about its medicines. He also makes the point that the recent pricing scandals have shifted attention away from the vibrant medical innovation ecosystem that develops new life-saving and life-enhancing drugs. Saunders contends that the focus on pricing by regulators and the public has incited suspicions about this innovation ecosystem: “This ecosystem can quickly fall apart if it is not continually nourished with the confidence that there will be a longer term opportunity for appropriate return on investment in the long R&D journey.”

Policy-makers and the public would be wise to focus on the importance of brand drug innovation. Brand drug companies are largely responsible for pharmaceutical innovation. Since 2000, brand companies have spent over half a trillion dollars on R&D, and they currently account for over 90 percent of the spending on the clinical trials necessary to bring new drugs to market. As a result of this spending, over 550 new drugs have been approved by the FDA since 2000, and another 7,000 are currently in development globally. And this innovation is directly tied to health advances. Empirical estimates of the benefits of pharmaceutical innovation indicate that each new drug brought to market saves 11,200 life-years each year.  Moreover, new drugs save money by reducing doctor visits, hospitalizations, and other medical procedures, ultimately for every $1 spent on new drugs, total medical spending decreases by more than $7.

But, as Saunders suggests, this innovation depends on drugmakers earning a sufficient return on their investment in R&D. The costs to bring a new drug to market with FDA approval are now estimated at over $2 billion, and only 1 in 10 drugs that begin clinical trials are ever approved by the FDA. Brand drug companies must price a drug not only to recoup the drug’s own costs, they must also consider the costs of all the product failures in their pricing decisions. However, they have a very limited window to recoup these costs before generic competition destroys brand profits: within three months of the first generic entry, generics have already captured over 70 percent of the brand drugs’ market. Drug companies must be able to price drugs at a level where they can earn profits sufficient to offset their R&D costs and the risk of failures. Failure to cover these costs will slow investment in R&D; drug companies will not spend millions and billions of dollars developing drugs if they cannot recoup the costs of that development.

Yet several recent proposals threaten to control prices in a way that could prevent drug companies from earning a sufficient return on their investment in R&D. Ultimately, we must remember that a social contract involves commitment from all members of a group; it should involve commitments from drug companies to price responsibly, and commitments from the public and policy makers to protect innovation. Hopefully, more drug companies will follow Allergan’s lead and renounce the exorbitant price increases we’ve seen in recent times. But in return, we should all remember that innovation and, in turn, health improvements, depend on drug companies’ profitability.

Imagine if you will… that a federal regulatory agency were to decide that the iPhone ecosystem was too constraining and too expensive; that consumers — who had otherwise voted for iPhones with their dollars — were being harmed by the fact that the platform was not “open” enough.

Such an agency might resolve (on the basis of a very generous reading of a statute), to force Apple to make its iOS software available to any hardware platform that wished to have it, in the process making all of the apps and user data accessible to the consumer via these new third parties, on terms set by the agency… for free.

Difficult as it may be to picture this ever happening, it is exactly the sort of Twilight Zone scenario that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is currently proposing with his new set-top box proposal.

Based on the limited information we have so far (a fact sheet and an op-ed), Chairman Wheeler’s new proposal does claw back some of the worst excesses of his initial draft (which we critiqued in our comments and reply comments to that proposal).

But it also appears to reinforce others — most notably the plan’s disregard for the right of content creators to control the distribution of their content. Wheeler continues to dismiss the complex business models, relationships, and licensing terms that have evolved over years of competition and innovation. Instead, he offers  a one-size-fits-all “solution” to a “problem” that market participants are already falling over themselves to provide.

Plus ça change…

To begin with, Chairman Wheeler’s new proposal is based on the same faulty premise: that consumers pay too much for set-top boxes, and that the FCC is somehow both prescient enough and Congressionally ordained to “fix” this problem. As we wrote in our initial comments, however,

[a]lthough the Commission asserts that set-top boxes are too expensive, the history of overall MVPD prices tells a remarkably different story. Since 1994, per-channel cable prices including set-top box fees have fallen by 2 percent, while overall consumer prices have increased by 54 percent. After adjusting for inflation, this represents an impressive overall price decrease.

And the fact is that no one buys set-top boxes in isolation; rather, the price consumers pay for cable service includes the ability to access that service. Whether the set-top box fee is broken out on subscribers’ bills or not, the total price consumers pay is unlikely to change as a result of the Commission’s intervention.

As we have previously noted, the MVPD set-top box market is an aftermarket; no one buys set-top boxes without first (or simultaneously) buying MVPD service. And as economist Ben Klein (among others) has shown, direct competition in the aftermarket need not be plentiful for the market to nevertheless be competitive:

Whether consumers are fully informed or uninformed, consumers will pay a competitive package price as long as sufficient competition exists among sellers in the [primary] market.

Engineering the set-top box aftermarket to bring more direct competition to bear may redistribute profits, but it’s unlikely to change what consumers pay.

Stripped of its questionable claims regarding consumer prices and placed in the proper context — in which consumers enjoy more ways to access more video content than ever before — Wheeler’s initial proposal ultimately rested on its promise to “pave the way for a competitive marketplace for alternate navigation devices, and… end the need for multiple remote controls.” Weak sauce, indeed.

He now adds a new promise: that “integrated search” will be seamlessly available for consumers across the new platforms. But just as universal remotes and channel-specific apps on platforms like Apple TV have already made his “multiple remotes” promise a hollow one, so, too, have competitive pressures already begun to deliver integrated search.

Meanwhile, such marginal benefits come with a host of substantial costs, as others have pointed out. Do we really need the FCC to grant itself more powers and create a substantial and coercive new regulatory regime to mandate what the market is already poised to provide?

From ignoring copyright to obliterating copyright

Chairman Wheeler’s first proposal engendered fervent criticism for the impossible position in which it placed MVPDs — of having to disregard, even outright violate, their contractual obligations to content creators.

Commendably, the new proposal acknowledges that contractual relationships between MVPDs and content providers should remain “intact.” Thus, the proposal purports to enable programmers and MVPDs to maintain “their channel position, advertising and contracts… in place.” MVPDs will retain “end-to-end” control of the display of content through their apps, and all contractually guaranteed content protection mechanisms will remain, because the “pay-TV’s software will manage the full suite of linear and on-demand programming licensed by the pay-TV provider.”

But, improved as it is, the new proposal continues to operate in an imagined world where the incredibly intricate and complex process by which content is created and distributed can be reduced to the simplest of terms, dictated by a regulator and applied uniformly across all content and all providers.

According to the fact sheet, the new proposal would “[p]rotect[] copyrights and… [h]onor[] the sanctity of contracts” through a “standard license”:

The proposed final rules require the development of a standard license governing the process for placing an app on a device or platform. A standard license will give device manufacturers the certainty required to bring innovative products to market… The license will not affect the underlying contracts between programmers and pay-TV providers. The FCC will serve as a backstop to ensure that nothing in the standard license will harm the marketplace for competitive devices.

But programming is distributed under a diverse range of contract terms. The only way a single, “standard license” could possibly honor these contracts is by forcing content providers to license all of their content under identical terms.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that the FCC has no authority whatever to do this, for such a scheme to work, the agency would necessarily have to strip content holders of their right to govern the terms on which their content is accessed. After all, if MVPDs are legally bound to redistribute content on fixed terms, they have no room to permit content creators to freely exercise their rights to specify terms like windowing, online distribution restrictions, geographic restrictions, and the like.

In other words, the proposal simply cannot deliver on its promise that “[t]he license will not affect the underlying contracts between programmers and pay-TV providers.”

But fear not: According to the Fact Sheet, “[p]rogrammers will have a seat at the table to ensure that content remains protected.” Such largesse! One would be forgiven for assuming that the programmers’ (single?) seat will surrounded by those of other participants — regulatory advocates, technology companies, and others — whose sole objective will be to minimize content companies’ ability to restrict the terms on which their content is accessed.

And we cannot ignore the ominous final portion of the Fact Sheet’s “Standard License” description: “The FCC will serve as a backstop to ensure that nothing in the standard license will harm the marketplace for competitive devices.” Such an arrogation of ultimate authority by the FCC doesn’t bode well for that programmer’s “seat at the table” amounting to much.

Unfortunately, we can only imagine the contours of the final proposal that will describe the many ways by which distribution licenses can “harm the marketplace for competitive devices.” But an educated guess would venture that there will be precious little room for content creators and MVPDs to replicate a large swath of the contract terms they currently employ. “Any content owner can have its content painted any color that it wants, so long as it is black.”

At least we can take solace in the fact that the FCC has no authority to do what Wheeler wants it to do

And, of course, this all presumes that the FCC will be able to plausibly muster the legal authority in the Communications Act to create what amounts to a de facto compulsory licensing scheme.

A single license imposed upon all MVPDs, along with the necessary restrictions this will place upon content creators, does just as much as an overt compulsory license to undermine content owners’ statutory property rights. For every license agreement that would be different than the standard agreement, the proposed standard license would amount to a compulsory imposition of terms that the rights holders and MVPDs would not otherwise have agreed to. And if this sounds tedious and confusing, just wait until the Commission starts designing its multistakeholder Standard Licensing Oversight Process (“SLOP”)….

Unfortunately for Chairman Wheeler (but fortunately for the rest of us), the FCC has neither the legal authority, nor the requisite expertise, to enact such a regime.

Last month, the Copyright Office was clear on this score in its letter to Congress commenting on the Chairman’s original proposal:  

[I]t is important to remember that only Congress, through the exercise of its power under the Copyright Clause, and not the FCC or any other agency, has the constitutional authority to create exceptions and limitations in copyright law. While Congress has enacted compulsory licensing schemes, they have done so in response to demonstrated market failures, and in a carefully circumscribed manner.

Assuming that Section 629 of the Communications Act — the provision that otherwise empowers the Commission to promote a competitive set-top box market — fails to empower the FCC to rewrite copyright law (which is assuredly the case), the Commission will be on shaky ground for the inevitable torrent of lawsuits that will follow the revised proposal.

In fact, this new proposal feels more like an emergency pivot by a panicked Chairman than an actual, well-grounded legal recommendation. While the new proposal improves upon the original, it retains at its core the same ill-informed, ill-advised and illegal assertion of authority that plagued its predecessor.

The Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) ignored sound law and economics principles in its August 4 decision announcing a new interpretation of seventy-five year-old music licensing consent decrees it had entered into separately with the two major American “performing rights organizations” (PROs)  —  the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (see ASCAP) and Broadcast Music, Inc. (see BMI).  It also acted in a matter at odds with international practice.  DOJ should promptly rescind its new interpretation and restore the welfare-enhancing licensing flexibility that ASCAP and BMI previously enjoyed.   If DOJ fails to do this, the court overseeing the decrees or Congress should be prepared to act.

Background

ASCAP and BMI contract with music copyright holders to act as intermediaries that provide “blanket” licenses to music users (e.g., television and radio stations, bars, and internet music distributors) for use of their full copyrighted musical repertoires, without the need for song-specific licensing negotiations.  This greatly reduces the transactions costs of arranging for the playing of musical works, benefiting music users, the listening public, and copyright owners (all of whom are assured of at least some compensation for their endeavors).  ASCAP and BMI are big businesses, with each PRO holding licenses to over ten million works and accounting for roughly 45 percent of the domestic music licensing market (ninety percent combined).  Because both ASCAP and BMI pool copyrighted songs that could otherwise compete with each other, and both grant users a single-price “blanket license” conveying the rights to play their full set of copyrighted works, the two organizations could be seen as restricting competition among copyrighted works and fixing the prices of copyrighted substitutes – raising serious questions under section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act, which condemns contracts that unreasonably restrain trade.  This led the DOJ to bring antitrust suits against ASCAP and BMI over eighty years ago, which were settled by separate judicially-filed consent decrees in 1941.  The decrees imposed a variety of limitations on the two PROs’ licensing practices, aimed at preventing ASCAP and BMI from exercising anticompetitive market power (such as the setting of excessive licensing rates).  The decrees were amended twice over the years, most recently in 2001, to take account of changing market conditions.  The U.S. Supreme Court noted the constraining effect of the decrees in BMI v. CBS (1979), in ruling that the BMI and ASCAP blanket licenses did not constitute per se illegal price fixing.  The Court held, rather, that the licenses should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis under the antitrust “rule of reason,” since the licenses inherently generated great efficiency benefits (“the immediate use of covered compositions, without the delay of prior individual negotiations”) that had to be weighed against potential anticompetitive harms.

The August 4, 2016 DOJ Consent Decree Interpretation

Fast forward to 2014, when DOJ undertook a new review of the ASCAP and BMI decrees, and requested the submission of public comments to aid it in its deliberations.  This review came to an official conclusion two year laters, on August 4, 2016, when DOJ decided not to amend the decrees – but announced a decree interpretation that limits ASCAP’s and BMI’s flexibility.  Specifically, DOJ stated that the decrees needed to be “more consistently applied.”  By this, the DOJ meant that BMI and ASCAP should only grant blanket licenses that cover all of the rights to 100 percent of the works in the PROs’ respective catalogs, not licenses that cover only partial interests in those works.  DOJ stated:

Only full-work licensing can yield the substantial procompetitive benefits associated with blanket licenses that distinguish ASCAP’s and BMI’s activities from other agreements among competitors that present serious issues under the antitrust laws.

The New DOJ Interpretation is bad as a Matter of Policy

DOJ’s August 4 interpretation rejects industry practice.  Under it, ASCAP and BMI will only be able to offer a license covering all of the copyright interests in a musical competition, even if the license covers a joint work.  For example, consider a band of five composer-musicians, each of whom has a fractional interest in the copyright covering the band’s new album which is a joint work.  Previously, each musician was able to offer a partial interest in the joint work to a performance rights organization, reflecting the relative shares of the total copyright interest covering the work. The organization could offer a partial license, and a user could aggregate different partial licenses in order to cover the whole joint work.

Now, however, under DOJ’s new interpretation, BMI and ASCAP will be prevented from offering partial licenses to that work to users. This may deny the band’s individual members the opportunity to deal profitably with BMI and ASCAP, thereby undermining their ability to receive fair compensation.  As the two PROs have noted, this approach “will cause unnecessary chaos in the marketplace and place unfair financial burdens and creative constraints on songwriters and composers.”  According to ASCAP President Paul Williams, “It is as if the DOJ saw songwriters struggling to stay afloat in a sea of outdated regulations and decided to hand us an anchor, in the form of 100 percent licensing, instead of a life preserver.”  Furthermore, the president and CEO of BMI, Mike O’Neill, stated:  “We believe the DOJ’s interpretation benefits no one – not BMI or ASCAP, not the music publishers, and not the music users – but we are most sensitive to the impact this could have on you, our songwriters and composers.”  These views are bolstered by a January 2016 U.S. Copyright Office report, which concluded that “an interpretation of the consent decrees that would require 100-percent licensing or removal of a work from the ASCAP or BMI repertoire would appear to be fraught with legal and logistical problems, and might well result in a sharp decrease in repertoire available through these [performance rights organizations’] blanket licenses.”  Regrettably, during the decree review period, DOJ ignored the expert opinion of the Copyright Office, as well as the public record comments of numerous publishers and artists (see here, for example) indicating that a 100 percent licensing requirement would depress returns to copyright owners and undermine the creative music industry.

Most fundamentally, DOJ’s new interpretation of the BMI and ASCAP consent decrees involves an abridgment of economic freedom.  It further limits the flexibility of copyright music holders and music users to contract with intermediaries to promote the efficient distribution of music performance rights, in a manner that benefits the listening public while allowing creative artists sufficient compensation for their efforts.  DOJ made no compelling showing that a new consent decree constraint is needed to promote competition (100 percent licensing only).  Far from promoting competition, DOJ’s new interpretation undermines it.  In short, DOJ micromanagement of copyright licensing by consent decree reinterpretation is a costly new regulatory initiative that reflects a lack of appreciation for intellectual property rights, which incentivize innovation.  In short, DOJ’s latest interpretation of the ASCAP and BMI decrees is terrible policy.

The New DOJ Interpretation is bad as a Matter of Law

DOJ’s new interpretation not only is bad policy, it is inconsistent with sound textual construction of the decrees themselves.  As counsel for BMI explained in an August 4 federal court filing (in the Southern District of New York, which oversees the decrees), the BMI decree (and therefore the analogous ASCAP decree as well) does not expressly require 100 percent licensing and does not unambiguously prohibit fractional licensing.  Accordingly, since a consent decree is an injunction, and any activity not expressly required or prohibited thereunder is permitted, fractional shares licensing should be authorized.  DOJ’s new interpretation ignores this principle.  It also is at odds with a report of the U.S. Copyright Office that concluded the BMI consent decree “must be understood to include partial interests in musical works.”  Furthermore, the new interpretation is belied by the fact that the PRO licensing market has developed and functioned efficiently for decades by pricing, colleting, and distributing fees for royalties on a fractional basis.  Courts view such evidence of trade practice and custom as relevant in determining the meaning of a consent decree.

 

The New DOJ Interpretation Runs Counter to International Norms

Finally, according to Gadi Oron, Director General of the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC), a Paris-based organization that regroups 239 rights societies from 123 countries, including ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC, adoption of the new interpretation would depart from international norms in the music licensing industry and have disruptive international effects:

It is clear that the DoJ’s decisions have been made without taking the interests of creators, neither American nor international, into account. It is also clear that they were made with total disregard for the international framework, where fractional licensing is practiced, even if it’s less of a factor because many countries only have one performance rights organization representing songwriters in their territory. International copyright laws grant songwriters exclusive rights, giving them the power to decide who will license their rights in each territory and it is these rights that underpin the landscape in which authors’ societies operate. The international system of collective management of rights, which is based on reciprocal representation agreements and founded on the freedom of choice of the rights holder, would be negatively affected by such level of government intervention, at a time when it needs support more than ever.

Conclusion

In sum, DOJ should take account of these concerns and retract its new interpretation of the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees, restoring the status quo ante.  If it fails to do so, a federal court should be prepared to act, and, if necessary, Congress should seriously consider appropriate corrective legislation.

It’s not quite so simple to spur innovation. Just ask the EU as it resorts to levying punitive retroactive taxes on productive American companies in order to ostensibly level the playing field (among other things) for struggling European startups. Thus it’s truly confusing when groups go on a wholesale offensive against patent rights — one of the cornerstones of American law that has contributed a great deal toward our unparalleled success as an innovative economy.

Take EFF, for instance. The advocacy organization has recently been peddling sample state legislation it calls the “Reclaim Invention Act,” which it claims is targeted at reining in so-called “patent trolls.” Leaving aside potential ulterior motives (like making it impossible to get software patents at all), I am left wondering what EFF actually hopes to achieve.

“Troll” is a scary sounding word, but what exactly is wrapped up in EFF’s definition? According to EFF’s proposed legislation, a “patent assertion entity” (the polite term for “patent troll”) is any entity that primarily derives its income through the licensing of patents – as opposed to actually producing the invention for public consumption. But this is just wrong. As Zorina Khan has noted, the basic premise upon which patent law was constructed in the U.S. was never predicated upon whether an invention would actually be produced:

The primary concern was access to the new information, and the ability of other inventors to benefit from the discovery either through licensing, inventing around the idea, or at expiration of the patent grant. The emphasis was certainly not on the production of goods; in fact, anyone who had previously commercialized an invention lost the right of exclusion vested in patents. The decision about how or whether the patent should be exploited remained completely within the discretion of the patentee, in the same way that the owner of physical property is allowed to determine its use or nonuse.

Patents are property. As with other forms of property, patent holders are free to transfer them to whomever they wish, and are free to license them as they see fit. The mere act of exercising property rights simply cannot be the basis for punitive treatment by the state. And, like it or not, licensing inventions or selling the property rights to an invention is very often how inventors are compensated for their work. Whether one likes the Patent Act in particular or not is irrelevant; as long as we have patents, these are fundamental economic and legal facts.

Further, the view implicit in EFF’s legislative proposal completely ignores the fact that the people or companies that may excel at inventing things (the province of scientists, for example) may not be so skilled at commercializing things (the province of entrepreneurs). Moreover, inventions can be enormously expensive to commercialize. In such cases, it could very well be the most economically efficient result to allow some third party with the requisite expertise or the means to build it, to purchase and manage the rights to the patent, and to allow them to arrange for production of the invention through licensing agreements. Intermediaries are nothing new in society, and, despite popular epithets about “middlemen,” they actually provide a necessary function with respect to mobilizing capital and enabling production.

Granted, some companies will exhibit actual “troll” behavior, but the question is not whether some actors are bad, but whether the whole system overall optimizes innovation and otherwise contributes to greater social welfare. Licensing patents in itself is a benign practice, so long as the companies that manage the patents are not abusive. And, of course, among the entities that engage in patent licensing, one would assume that universities would be the most unobjectionable of all parties.

Thus, it’s extremely disappointing that EFF would choose to single out universities as aiders and abettors of “trolls” — and in so doing recommend punitive treatment. And what EFF recommends is shockingly draconian. It doesn’t suggest that there should be heightened review in IPR proceedings, or that there should be fee shifting or other case-by-case sanctions doled out for unwise partnership decisions. No, according to the model legislation, universities would be outright cut off from government financial aid or other state funding, and any technology transfers would be void, unless they:

determine whether a patent is the most effective way to bring a new invention to a broad user base before filing for a patent that covers that invention[;] … prioritize technology transfer that develops its inventions and scales their potential user base[;] … endeavor to nurture startups that will create new jobs, products, and services[;] … endeavor to assign and license patents only to entities that require such licenses for active commercialization efforts or further research and development[;] … foster agreements and relationships that include the sharing of know-how and practical experience to maximize the value of the assignment or license of the corresponding patents; and … prioritize the public interest in all patent transactions.

Never mind the fact that recent cases like Alice Corp., Octane Fitness, and Highmark — as well as the new inter partes review process — seem to be putting effective downward pressure on frivolous suits (as well as, potentially, non-frivolous suits, for that matter); apparently EFF thinks that putting the screws to universities is what’s needed to finally overcome the (disputed) problems of excessive patent litigation.

Perhaps reflecting that even EFF itself knows that its model legislation is more of a publicity stunt than a serious proposal, most of what it recommends is either so ill-defined as to be useless (e.g., “prioritize public interest in all patent transactions?” What does that even mean?) or is completely mixed up.

For instance, the entire point of a university technology transfer office is that educational institutions and university researchers are not themselves in a position to adequately commercialize inventions. Questions of how large a user base a given invention can reach, or how best to scale products, grow markets, or create jobs are best left to entrepreneurs and business people. The very reason a technology transfer office would license or sell its patents to a third party is to discover these efficiencies.

And if a university engages in a transfer that, upon closer scrutiny, runs afoul of this rather fuzzy bit of legislation, any such transfers will be deemed void. Which means that universities will either have to expend enormous resources to find willing partners, or will spend millions on lawsuits and contract restitution damages. Enacting these feel-good  mandates into state law is at best useless, and most likely a tool for crusading plaintiff’s attorneys to use to harass universities.

Universities: Don’t you dare commercialize that invention!

As I noted above, it’s really surprising that groups like EFF are going after universities, as their educational mission and general devotion to improving social welfare should make them the darlings of social justice crusaders. However, as public institutions with budgets and tax statuses dependent on political will, universities are both unable to route around organizational challenges (like losing student aid or preferred tax status) and are probably unwilling to engage in wholesale PR defensive warfare for fear of offending a necessary political constituency. Thus, universities are very juicy targets — particularly when they engage in “dirty” commercial activities of any sort, no matter how attenuated.

And lest you think that universities wouldn’t actually be harassed (other than in the abstract by the likes of EFF) over patents, it turns out that it’s happening even now, even without EFF’s proposed law.

For the last five years Princeton University has been locked in a lawsuit with some residents of Princeton, New Jersey who have embarked upon a transparently self-interested play to divert university funds to their own pockets. Their weapon of choice? A challenge to Princeton’s tax-exempt status based on the fact that the school licenses and sells its patented inventions.

The plaintiffs’ core argument in Fields v. Princeton is that the University should be  a taxpaying entity because it occasionally generates patent licensing revenues from a small fraction of the research that its faculty conducts in University buildings.

The Princeton case is problematic for a variety of reasons, one of which deserves special attention because it runs squarely up against a laudable federal law that is intended to promote research, development, and patent commercialization.

In the early 1980s Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which made it possible for universities to retain ownership over discoveries made in campus labs. The aim of the law was to encourage essential basic research that had historically been underdeveloped. Previously, the rights to any such federally-funded discoveries automatically became the property of the federal government, which, not surprisingly, put a damper on universities’ incentives to innovate.

When universities collaborate with industry — a major aim of Bayh-Dole — innovation is encouraged, breakthroughs occur, and society as a whole is better off. About a quarter of the top drugs approved since 1981 came from university research, as did many life-changing products we now take for granted, like Google, web browsers, email, cochlear implants and major components of cell phones. Since the passage of the Act, a boom in commercialized patents has yielded billions of dollars of economic activity.

Under the Act innovators are also rewarded: Qualifying institutions like Princeton are required to share royalties with the researchers who make these crucial discoveries. The University has no choice in the matter; to refuse to share the revenues would constitute a violation of the terms of federal research funding. But the Fields suit ignores this reality an,d in much the same way as EFF’s proposed legislation, will force a stark choice upon Princeton University: engage with industry, increase social utility and face lawsuits, or keep your head down and your inventions to yourself.

A Hobson’s Choice

Thus, things like the Fields suit and EFF’s proposed legislation are worse than costly distractions for universities; they are major disincentives to the commercialization of university inventions. This may not be the intended consequence of these actions, but it is an entirely predictable one.

Faced with legislation that punishes them for being insufficiently entrepreneurial and suits that attack them for bothering to commercialize at all, universities will have to make a hobson’s choice: commercialize the small fraction of research that might yield licensing revenues and potentially face massive legal liability, or simply decide to forego commercialization (and much basic research) altogether.

The risk here, obviously, is that research institutions will choose the latter in order to guard against the significant organizational costs that could result from a change in their tax status or a thicket of lawsuits that emerge from voided technology transfers (let alone the risk of losing student aid money).

But this is not what we want as a society. We want the optimal level of invention, innovation, and commercialization. What anti-patent extremists and short-sighted state governments may obtain for us instead, however, is a status quo much like Europe where the legal and regulatory systems perpetually keep innovation on a low simmer.