The Scalia Law School’s Global Antitrust Institute (GAI) has once again penned a trenchant law and economics-based critique of a foreign jurisdiction’s competition policy pronouncement. On April 28, the GAI posted a comment (GAI Comment) in response to a “Communication from the [European] Commission (EC) on Standard Essential Patents (SEPs) for a European Digitalised Economy” (EC Communication). The EC Communication centers on the regulation of SEPs, patents which cover standards that enable mobile wireless technologies (in particular, smartphones), in the context of the development and implementation of the 5th generation or “5G” broadband wireless standard.
The GAI Comment expresses two major concerns with the EC’s Communication.
- The Communication’s Ill-Considered Opposition to Competition in Standards Development
First, the Comment notes that the EC Communication appears to view variation in intellectual property rights (IPR) policies among standard-development organizations (SDOs) as a potential problem that may benefit from best practice recommendations. The GAI Comment strongly urges the EC to reconsider this approach. It argues that the EC instead should embrace the procompetitive benefits of variation among SDO policies, and avoid one-size fits all best practice recommendations that may interfere with or unduly influence choices regarding specific rules that best fit the needs of individual SDOs and their members.
- The Communication’s Failure to Address the Question of Market Imperfections
Second, the Comment points out that the EC Communication refers to the need for “better regulation,” without providing evidence of an identifiable market imperfection, which is a necessary but not sufficient basis for economic regulation. The Comment stresses that the smartphone market, which is both standard and patent intensive, has experienced exponential output growth, falling market concentration, and a decrease in wireless service prices relative to the overall consumer price index. These indicators, although not proof of causation, do suggest caution prior to potentially disrupting the carefully balanced fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) ecosystem that has emerged organically.
With respect to the three specific areas identified in the Communication (i.e., best practice recommendations on (1) “increased transparency on SEP exposure,” including “more precision and rigour into the essentiality declaration system in particular for critical standards”; (2) boundaries of FRAND and core valuation principles; and (3) enforcement in areas such as mutual obligations in licensing negotiations before recourse to injunctive relief, portfolio licensing, and the role of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms), the Comment recommends that the EC broaden the scope of its consultation to elicit specific evidence of identifiable market imperfections.
The GAI Comment also points out that, in some cases, specific concerns mentioned in the Consultation seem to be contradicted by the EC’s own published research. For example, with respect to the asserted problems arising from over-declaration of essential patents, the EC recently published research noting the lack of “any reliable evidence that licensing costs increase significantly if SEP owners over-declare,” and concluding “that, per se the negative impact of over-declaration is likely to be minimal.” Even assuming there is an identifiable market imperfection in this area, it is important to consider that determining essentiality is a resource and time-intensive exercise and there are likely significant transaction-cost savings from the use of blanket declarations, which also serve to avoid liability for patent-ambush (i.e., deceptive failure to disclose essential patents during the standard-setting process).
- Concluding Thoughts
The GAI Comment implicitly highlights a flaw inherent in the EC’s efforts to promote high tech innovation in Europe through its “Digital Agenda,” characterized as a pillar of the Europe “2020 Strategy” that sets objectives for the growth of the European Union by 2020. The EC’s strategy emphasizes government-centric “growth through regulatory oversight,” rather than reliance on untrammeled competition. This emphasis is at odds with the fact that detailed regulatory oversight has been associated with sluggish economic growth within the European Union. It also ignores the fact that some of the most dynamic, innovative industries in recent decades have been those enabled by the Internet, which until recently has largely avoided significant regulation. The EC may want to rethink its approach, if it truly wants to generate the innovation and economic gains long-promised to its consumers and producers.