The FTC’s Errors in 1-800 Contacts

Thom Lambert —  18 June 2019

In an amicus brief filed last Friday, a diverse group of antitrust scholars joined the Washington Legal Foundation in urging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to vacate the Federal Trade Commission’s misguided 1-800 Contacts decision. Reasoning that 1-800’s settlements of trademark disputes were “inherently suspect,” the FTC condemned the settlements under a cursory “quick look” analysis. In so doing, it improperly expanded the category of inherently suspect behavior and ignored an obvious procompetitive justification for the challenged settlements.  If allowed to stand, the Commission’s decision will impair intellectual property protections that foster innovation.

A number of 1-800’s rivals purchased online ad placements that would appear when customers searched for “1-800 Contacts.” 1-800 sued those rivals for trademark infringement, and the lawsuits settled. As part of each settlement, 1-800 and its rival agreed not to bid on each other’s trademarked terms in search-based keyword advertising. (For example, EZ Contacts could not bid on a placement tied to a search for 1-800 Contacts, and vice-versa). Each party also agreed to employ “negative keywords” to ensure that its ads would not appear in response to a consumer’s online search for the other party’s trademarks. (For example, in bidding on keywords, 1-800 would have to specify that its ad must not appear in response to a search for EZ Contacts, and vice-versa). Notably, the settlement agreements didn’t restrict the parties’ advertisements through other media such as TV, radio, print, or other forms of online advertising. Nor did they restrict paid search advertising in response to any search terms other than the parties’ trademarks.

The FTC concluded that these settlement agreements violated the antitrust laws as unreasonable restraints of trade. Although the agreements were not unreasonable per se, as naked price-fixing is, the Commission didn’t engage in the normally applicable rule of reason analysis to determine whether the settlements passed muster. Instead, the Commission condemned the settlements under the truncated analysis that applies when, in the words of the Supreme Court, “an observer with even a rudimentary understanding of economics could conclude that the arrangements in question would have an anticompetitive effect on customers and markets.” The Commission decided that no more than a quick look was required because the settlements “restrict the ability of lower cost online sellers to show their ads to consumers.”

That was a mistake. First, the restraints in 1-800’s settlements are far less extensive than other restraints that the Supreme Court has said may not be condemned under a cursory quick look analysis. In California Dental, for example, the Supreme Court reversed a Ninth Circuit decision that employed the quick look analysis to condemn a de facto ban on all price and “comfort” advertising by members of a dental association. In light of the possibility that the ban could reduce misleading ads, enhance customer trust, and thereby stimulate demand, the Court held that the restraint must be assessed under the more probing rule of reason. A narrow limit on the placement of search ads is far less restrictive than the all-out ban for which the California Dental Court prescribed full-on rule of reason review.

1-800’s settlements are also less likely to be anticompetitive than are other settlements that the Supreme Court has said must be evaluated under the rule of reason. The Court’s Actavis decision rejected quick look and mandated full rule of reason analysis for reverse payment settlements of pharmaceutical patent litigation. In a reverse payment settlement, the patent holder pays an alleged infringer to stay out of the market for some length of time. 1-800’s settlements, by contrast, did not exclude its rivals from the market, place any restrictions on the content of their advertising, or restrict the placement of their ads except on webpages responding to searches for 1-800’s own trademarks. If the restraints in California Dental and Actavis required rule of reason analysis, then those in 1-800’s settlements surely must as well.

In addition to disregarding Supreme Court precedents that limit when mere quick look is appropriate, the FTC gave short shrift to a key procompetitive benefit of the restrictions in 1-800’s settlements. 1-800 spent millions of dollars convincing people that they could save money by ordering prescribed contact lenses from a third party rather than buying them from prescribing optometrists. It essentially built the online contact lens market in which its rivals now compete. In the process, it created a strong trademark, which undoubtedly boosts its own sales. (Trademarks point buyers to a particular seller and enhance consumer confidence in the seller’s offering, since consumers know that branded sellers will not want to tarnish their brands with shoddy products or service.)

When a rival buys ad space tied to a search for 1-800 Contacts, that rival is taking a free ride on 1-800’s investments in its own brand and in the online contact lens market itself. A rival that has advertised less extensively than 1-800—primarily because 1-800 has taken the lead in convincing consumers to buy their contact lenses online—will incur lower marketing costs than 1-800 and may therefore be able to underprice it.  1-800 may thus find that it loses sales to rivals who are not more efficient than it is but have lower costs because they have relied on 1-800’s own efforts.

If market pioneers like 1-800 cannot stop this sort of free-riding, they will have less incentive to make the investments that create new markets and develop strong trade names. The restrictions in the 1-800 settlements were simply an effort to prevent inefficient free-riding while otherwise preserving the parties’ freedom to advertise. They were a narrowly tailored solution to a problem that hurt 1-800 and reduced incentives for future investments in market-developing activities that inure to the benefit of consumers.

Rule of reason analysis would have allowed the FTC to assess the full market effects of 1-800’s settlements. The Commission’s truncated assessment, which was inconsistent with Supreme Court decisions on when a quick look will suffice, condemned conduct that was likely procompetitive. The Second Circuit should vacate the FTC’s order.

The full amicus brief, primarily drafted by WLF’s Corbin Barthold and joined by Richard Epstein, Keith Hylton, Geoff Manne, Hal Singer, and me, is here.

Thom Lambert

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I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.